Guest Essayist: Eric C. Sands


Essay Read by Constituting America Founder, Actress Janine Turner


It has been around since the Middle Ages. It’s been called the second Magna Carta by some, and the “great writ” by others. What we are referring to is habeas corpus, a Latin phrase meaning “you should have the body.” Put most simply, habeas corpus allows a person who has been detained the chance to challenge that detention in court. This prevents the government from holding an individual indefinitely without bringing charges against them. In the American system of justice, habeas corpus applies both at the federal and state level.

While some scholars locate the origin of habeas corpus in Roman law, a less disputed claim is that habeas corpus originated in Article 39 of the Magna Carta. Article 39 held that “no Freeman shall be taken, or imprisoned…but by lawful Judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the Land.” It is true that this does not necessarily speak directly to habeas corpus as it is understood today, but it seems to have something like habeas corpus in mind. From this starting point, though, habeas corpus evolved in the English courts and sheriffs could be served with the writ.  A court could then issue an order to release a prisoner if it was found he or she was being held without cause.

The modern understanding of habeas corpus arose out of conflicts between Parliament and the king in the 17th Century. The Petition of Right in 1628 charged that the king’s jailers were ignoring the writs and were illegally detaining English subjects. In 1679, Parliament passed the Habeas Corpus Act, which applied to sheriffs and jailers who were causing delays in releasing prisoners. The Act imposed strict deadlines for responding to the writ and imposed heavy fines if sheriffs or jailers did not act promptly. By this point habeas corpus had come into its own in Britain, but it still needed to make its way to the new world.

When the United States Constitution was written, the writ of habeas corpus was the only English common law writ given specific reference in the document. Article I, Section 9 of the document provides that “the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it.”  This became known as the Suspension Clause and it both recognized the existence of the writ of habeas corpus and stipulated the conditions under which it could be withheld. Two years later, in the Judiciary Act of 1789, Congress provided that both justices of the U.S. Supreme Court and judges of the federal district courts “have the power to grant writs of habeas corpus for the purpose of inquiry into the cause of commitment.” Importantly, though, this law only applied to people in custody by the federal government or being tried in federal courts. Federal judges thus did not have the power to extend the writ to prisoners in the states.

During the Civil War, the Suspension Clause was put into effect by President Abraham Lincoln at the beginning of the war to deal with saboteurs and traitors operating in the state of Maryland. Under the suspension of the writ, John Merryman was arrested by military authorities, and was detained at Fort McHenry outside of Baltimore. Merryman’s lawyer petitioned Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney for a writ of habeas corpus. The issue in Ex parte Merryman was whether Lincoln, as president, could constitutionally suspend the writ in a case of rebellion. That the country was in a state of rebellion no one had any doubt. But the Constitution located the Suspension Clause in Article I, which dealt with the powers of Congress. This seemed to make it a legislative power and, therefore, one the president could not exercise alone. Lincoln believed the suspension of the writ could be undertaken by either the president or Congress, especially if Congress was not in session when an emergency began.

Taney disagreed with Lincoln and held that Lincoln had violated the Suspension Clause by suspending the writ. Yet, Taney seemed to recognize the limited scope of his power and, therefore, did not order Merryman’s release. Instead, he filed his opinion with the U.S. Circuit Court of Maryland and ordered that a copy of the opinion by delivered to the president. Taney concluded that “it will then remain for that high officer…to determine what measures he will take to cause the civil process of the United States to be respected, and enforced.” In the end, the Merryman decision became a moot point as Congress retroactively approved the suspension and passed sweeping legislation that authorized Lincoln to suspend the writ for the duration of the war. Moreover, the case left unanswered the question of who has the actual power to suspend the writ since Taney did not write in his capacity as Chief Justice and, therefore, the case did not become Supreme Court precedent.

During Reconstruction, in tandem with the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, Congress passed the Habeas Corpus Act of 1867. This Act provided “That the several courts of the United States, and the several justices and judges of such courts, shall have power to grant writs of habeas corpus in all cases where any person may be restrained of his or her liberty in violation of the Constitution, or of any treaty or law of the United States.” What this meant, significantly, is that federal judges could now issue writs to state prisoners in state cases for violations of their constitutional rights. While this expanded protections for those charged with crimes throughout the United States, it also created a great deal of tension between the states and the national government and raised issues of federalism. Clearly, therefore, the issues related to habeas corpus have not all been resolved, yet it remains without question one of our most important civil liberties.

Eric C. Sands is Associate Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at Berry College. He has written a book on Abraham Lincoln and edited a second volume on political parties. His teaching and research interests focus on constitutional law, American political thought, the founding, the Civil War and Reconstruction, and political parties.

Guest Essayist: Eric C. Sands
Supreme Court of the United States, photo by Joe Ravi.

Essay Read by Constituting America Founder, Actress Janine Turner



The United States Constitution does not say much about the Judiciary, listing it third among the articles dealing with the main institutions of government. For some, this implies that the Judiciary was intended to be last in order of importance and the most insignificant of the institutions overall. While the three branches were intended to be equal in terms of legitimacy and functionality, they were not equal in terms of power.  The Legislature wielded the awesome power of the purse and directed the affairs of government. The Executive held the only slightly less impressive power of the sword and executed the will of the Legislature. But what of the Judiciary? What power does it hold and what was its role in constitutional government intended to be?

One might be forgiven for thinking that Article III was something of an afterthought. There is a sense to the Article of being incomplete and not fully thought out. It begins by saying that the judicial power shall be given to a Supreme Court of the United States, but then leaves a lot unsaid. The Article never defines what the judicial power is or how it is used. It never explains the nature of the judicial power or how the Judiciary might go about using it. Its existence in the Article is a mystery. The Article then goes on to tell us only a little about the Court. Its size will be determined by Congress. Judges will be appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Yet no qualifications are listed to be a Supreme Court Justice. There is no age requirement, no experience requirement. In fact, a person does not even have to possess a law degree.

The Article continues saying that the judges will hold their tenures for life on terms of good behavior, a provision justified to insulate judges from the whims of public opinion that is much more likely to sway the other branches of government. Following this, there is the Cases and Controversies Clause outlining what kinds of cases the Supreme Court can hear. This includes, controversially, cases under the equity power which is not clearly defined by the Constitution. A distinction between original and appellate jurisdiction comes next, followed by some clauses dealing with jury trials and trial for treason. And that is it. Compared to what preceded it in Article I and Article II, this is not much.

The lack of content in Article III, according to one of the Founders, was by design. It was a reflection on the nature of the institution and the more subservient role it played in American constitutional government. In Federalist 78, Alexander Hamilton gave a defense of the Judiciary and argued that the Court possessed neither force nor will, but merely judgment. This made the Court the “least dangerous” branch of government and the least threatening to the Constitution. According to Hamilton, “it proves incontestably that the judiciary is beyond comparison the weakest of the three departments of power; that it can never attack with success either of the other two; and that all possible care is requisite to enable it to defend itself against their attacks.” This further adds to why the judges need lifetime tenures and such radical independence – it is the only way to ensure justice without the interference of the political branches of government or public opinion.

So, we see the task of the Supreme Court as interpreting the laws passed by Congress, exercising its judgment over what those laws mean and how they should be applied. But is this all? Not according to Hamilton and other Federalists. The Court also had a more fundamental duty to protect the Constitution. It preformed this function through the power of judicial review. Judicial review is the power of the Court to determine that government actions conflict with the Constitution and are, therefore, null and void. It was first used in a Supreme Court case, Marbury v. Madison, but was held to be a part of the Court’s power by many Federalists at the founding. Anti-federalists, such as Brutus, denied that the Court possessed this power and claimed that if it had been intended to give the Court such an extraordinary power, the Founders would have written it into the Constitution. The president cannot not even completely override a bill passed by Congress, so it would be incredible if this unelected body of judges could do what the president could not. If the Framers had intended judicial review, they would have enumerated it.

Federalists countered by saying that the power of judicial review was enumerated when Article III said that the judicial power shall be vested in a Supreme Court. What else could the judicial power be but the power of judicial review? Though it was not stated explicitly in the Article, it was clearly implied in its language. But there was an even stronger argument for judicial review. If the Court lacked this power, how would it play a role in the separation of powers and checks and balances? The Court would effectively be relegated to playing the role of an advisory body, making suggestions to the other branches about constitutionality but not having the power to compel anyone to listen. This would effectively destroy the purpose of an independent judiciary and render the Court not just weak but impotent. Thus, judicial review must be part of the design of constitutional government and a vital part of the principal of the judicial branch.

Eric C. Sands is Associate Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at Berry College. He has written a book on Abraham Lincoln and edited a second volume on political parties.

Guest Essayist: Eric C. Sands
The United States Constitution and Declaration of Independence on an American Flag background

Essay Read by Constituting America Founder, Actress Janine Turner



In a republic, it is common to refer to government action needing to be supported by the consent of the people. But what do we mean by the “people?” Certainly, this cannot mean the consent of every person in a political community since no such universal consent would ever be possible. Instead, a republican form of government relies on the consent of the majority in undertaking action and carrying out public policy.  This does not mean that the will of the majority is always right or just or that the majority cannot be tyrannical in how it exercises its will. There is no question that majorities can be as despotic as kings if given the ability to rule unchecked. The majority will, however, properly organized, limited, and directed within a constitutional framework will generally prove the most legitimate basis for good government.

No one makes this argument more effectively than James Madison, the architect of the large republic that can operate over a broad territory with a big population. This model, presented in Federalist 10, became the basis for the American idea of republicanism. In doing so, Madison argued that majority rule was not perfect, but it was better than any of the available alternatives. Majority rule is what allowed republican government to exist and what further allowed rule by the people. In short, the principle of majority rule is the basis of popular sovereignty and is tempered and moderated through the institutions of constitutional government. To be sure, not everyone agreed with Madison’s defense of majority rule. Some, like Thomas Jefferson, complained that rule by the majority left the rights of the minority insecure and presented the minority with few options in protecting their rights and liberties. A perfect example of this was the Alien and Sedition Acts passed in 1798, which restricted immigration and speech in the United States.

Jefferson was called on to help prepare a protest against the acts, which he did in the famous Kentucky Resolutions. In the Resolutions, Jefferson argued for a narrow reading of the Constitution and embraced a states’ rights interpretation of the constitutional system. His major concern, though, was how the minority could protect itself from the majority within the constitutional system. His solution was to embrace the doctrine of state nullification. As Jefferson explained, “where powers are assumed which have not been delegated, a nullification of the act is the rightful remedy; that every State has a natural right in cases not within the compact, to nullify of their own authority all assumptions of power by others within their limits.” Clearly, this was quite a radical doctrine and had important implications for the young republic. A number of prominent statesmen spoke out against Jefferson’s idea and predicted that nullification would become the death knell of the nation. In that they were not far wrong. Madison, for his part, helped prepare an alternative set of resolutions for Virginia, but was much less radical and said nothing about a power of nullification to protect the minority. The Alien and Sedition Acts showed that the majority’s will could sometimes be in error, but it was still the best way of organizing the voice of the people.

The challenge of nullification to the principle of majority rule came up again in 1832 when South Carolina nullified two tariff bills that it claimed were unconstitutional. Under the heavy influence of John Calhoun, South Carolina’s Nullification Proclamation announced that the acts “are unauthorized by the constitution of the United States, and violate the true meaning and intent thereof and are null, void, and no law, nor binding upon this State, its officers or citizens.” According to Calhoun and South Carolina, every state had the right to judge for itself the constitutionality of the laws of the country and to negate those laws if a state believed them to be unconstitutional. This was the only way of protecting the minority against the overreach of the majority and to make sure that minority rights and interests are taken into account.

But the nullifiers’ claims did not stop there. Backing up their doctrine of nullification was an appeal to secession. The Proclamation warned the national government that any attempt to change South Carolina’s nullification by force would leave the state with no choice but to leave the Union. An act of aggression against the state would be

“inconsistent with the longer continuance of South Carolina in the Union; and that the people of this State will henceforth hold themselves absolved from all further obligation to maintain or preserve their political connection with the people of the other States; and will forthwith proceed to organize a separate government, and do all other acts and things which sovereign and independent States may of right do.”

Eventually, South Carolina backed down on nullification, but the fact it had been raised again speaks to what a powerful challenge it was to the principle of majority rule. It is for this reason that Madison as an elder statesman prepared a response to Calhoun and a defense of majority rule. In 1833, Madison wrote in a letter that articulated his strong position on majority rule and how the extended republic makes majority rule possible and safe. As Madison wrote,

“Those who framed and ratified the Constitution believed that as power was less likely to be abused by majorities in representative governments than in democracies…and less likely in the larger than in the smaller communities, under a representative government, inferred also, that by dividing the powers of Government and thereby enlarging the practicable sphere of Government, unjust majorities would be formed with still more difficulty.” 

To men like Calhoun, and Jefferson, who would attack majority rule, Madison put the matter plain. Without majority rule, republican government was simply not possible. This made it clear that “while the Constitution is in force, the power created by it [in a popular majority] must be the legitimate power, and obeyed as the only alternative to the dissolution of all government.” Thus, it is, according to Madison, that majority rule under constitutional government is not to be preferred because it is perfect, but because it is the least imperfect.

Eric C. Sands is Associate Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at Berry College. He has written a book on Abraham Lincoln and edited a second volume on political parties. His teaching and research interests focus on constitutional law, American political thought, the founding, the Civil War and Reconstruction, and political parties.

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Guest Essayist: Eric Sands

The Civil War was the greatest trauma to affect the United States in its history. The horrors of that conflict and the issues it brought to light continue to haunt the nation today and scholars continue trying to make sense of the turmoil that gripped the nation. One of the residual problems left over from that era is the doctrine of secession, or the ability of a state to rescind its membership in the Union and leave by itself or with other states. This, of course, is what eleven states tried to do in 1861 precipitating the bloody, awful war that followed. But is there a “right” of secession in the United States Constitution? How would a right of secession square with prevailing ideas of the Union? What response can be given to states claiming a right to secede from the Union? These and other questions required serious consideration in the 1860s and were answered most clearly by Abraham Lincoln.

The argument for secession begins with a claim that the states are the constitutive elements of the American political system. The states “made” the Union and thus never relinquished their essential sovereignty when the Constitution was formed. Under this view, the states were the parties to the original social contract that gave rise to the Union and thus are the entities that most legitimately judge whether the terms of that contract have been honored. When Southerners began to perceive that the terms of the contract were being violated over the slavery issue in the 1850s, a movement grew for the Southern states to withdraw their consent to be governed and to “peacefully” leave the Union to form their own political organization. In total, eleven states joined this movement and created the essential breach that inaugurated the Civil War.

President Lincoln was thrust into the role of defender of the Union and had to meet the secessionist argument head on. In his First Inaugural Address, Lincoln criticizes the secessionists for putting too much emphasis on the Constitution in articulating their understanding of the Union. According to Lincoln, the Union did not originate with the Constitution. Instead, “the Union is much older than the Constitution. It was formed in fact, by the Articles of Association in 1774. It was matured and continued by the Declaration of Independence in 1776. It was further matured and the faith of all the then thirteen states expressly plighted and engaged that it should be perpetual, by the Articles of Confederation in 1778.” Finally, the quest for “a more perfect” Union was embodied in the Constitution in 1787.

The Union, therefore, according to Lincoln, was perpetual. “Perpetuity is implied, if not expressed, in the fundamental law of all national governments. It is safe to assert that no government proper, ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination. Continue to execute all the express provisions of our national Constitution, and the Union will endure forever.” The essence of secession is thus suicide, and it is inconceivable that the Founders would have incorporated such a concept into the constitutional system. No association of states could hold together if some of them were free to leave whenever the mood struck them. Moreover, secession would not leave the Union “more perfect;” it would leave the Union less perfect, which is not consistent with the intentions of the Constitution set out in the preamble. Accordingly, it cannot be said that the Founders endorsed something like secession in the constitutional system.

Even more, secession ignores the Declaration of Independence and the first words of the Constitution. The Declaration, when speaking of the need to separate from Great Britain, does not talk about colonies or states doing the separating. The language of the Declaration is that “one people” must separate. Clearly, then, the act of separating is not a function of state sovereignty but an act of popular sovereignty, a Union of people that has been forged in shared struggle and oppression and now seeks to liberate itself from tyranny. Likewise, the first words of the Constitution are not “we the states” but “we the people.” It is the people forming a new government out of their sovereignty, not the sovereignty of the states. The states, of course, are to be partners in this new government and significant roles are delineated to them in the constitutional system. But power is ultimately held by the people, the Union is made up of the people. The people may thus dissolve the Union if they ever chose to do so, but the states may not.

Lincoln reinforces these points in his Message to Congress in Special Session. He calls secession “sugar-coated rebellion” and denies any revolutionary character to it. Instead, it is a “sophism” deriving its “currency from the assumption that there is some omnipotent and sacred supremacy pertaining to a State – to each State of our Federal Union. Our States have neither more nor less power than that reserved to them in the Union by the Constitution, no one of them ever having been a State out of the Union.” The original thirteen became a Union before completing their separation from Great Britain. And the others came into the union from a condition of dependence. Thus, the reverence given to “states” is based on mist and shadows and does not match this history of the American regime. In short, the states only possess those powers granted to them by the Constitution, and this does not include the power of secession.

Eric C. Sands is Associate Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at Berry College.  He has written a book on Abraham Lincoln and edited a second volume on political parties.  His teaching and research interests focus on constitutional law, American political thought, the founding, the Civil War and Reconstruction, and political parties. 


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Guest Essayist: Eric Sands
United States Constitution showing the first page with Article I, with the Bill of Rights and American Flag

The Constitutional Convention has been referred to as the “Miracle in Philadelphia” and there is a great deal of justice to that label. The delegates to the convention faced long odds in reaching compromise on a new form of government. But in many respects, writing the United States Constitution was only half the battle; the delegates then had to get it ratified. This proved to be a difficult task and required the assistance of some of the leading minds in the country to convince the American people to accept the new document.

These proponents of ratification were known as Federalists and included men such as Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Jay (collectively known as “Publius”), James Wilson, George Washington, Gouverneur Morris, John Marshall, and Benjamin Franklin. These men were nationalist in their orientation and believed that a stronger national government was a necessary corrective for the defects in the Articles of Confederation. Opposing these Federalists were the Anti-federalists who argued against ratification, or at least counseled serious modifications to the Constitution’s design. Among the most prominent Anti-federalist writers were Patrick Henry, Melancton Smith, and authors writing under pseudonyms such as Cato, Brutus, Centinel, and Federal Farmer. These men advocated for a confederal form of government where most of the power would be held in the hands of the states.

The Anti-federalist arguments generally fell into two categories. The first was pursuing structural changes in the Constitution itself to limit the power of the national government. During the public debates, Anti-federalists raised numerous objections to the Constitution and pointed out that the power being ceded to the national government was a danger, not just to the states, but to the people. The Anti-federalists, for example, argued that too much power was being given to the president and that he could become a monarch. This was especially true given his infinite re-eligibility. The Anti-federalists complained that the Constitution blended powers too much and needed to adhere to a much stricter principle of separation of powers. They feared that the Supreme Court would become an all-power government tribunal and proposed presidential commissions that could overturn bad judicial decisions. Congress’ power was seen as too extensive and needed to be scaled back. Limits needed to be put in place governing Congress’ control over the state militias and federal elections, and there was an overarching fear about how much power Congress might subsume under the necessary and proper clause. Finally, the Anti-federalists harbored deep suspicions that a republican form of government could work over a territory and with a population as large as the United States. Conventional wisdom of the day held that republics could only be successful in a small territory with a small and relatively homogenous population. A republic on the scale of the United States had no historical precedent and the Anti-federalists believed it could not work.

As enlightened as some of the Anti-federalist objections to the Constitution were, structural changes were not in the cards. All the Anti-federalist amendments introduced at the ratifying conventions were defeated. A large part of this defeat was owing to the efforts of the Federalists to get their defenses of the Constitution into print and the larger number of newspapers that supported ratification. However, the Anti-federalists had a second category of arguments that proved far more successful. These arguments revolved around the lack of a bill of rights in the Constitution. The lack of a bill of rights seemed to them to be particularly egregious given how much power was being given to the national government. Thus, in numerous essays, the Anti-federalists complained about a need for specific protections like freedom of speech, press, religion, assembly, petition, and possession of arms. Most of these rights were guaranteed to the people at the state level, so it made little sense that the people’s rights should be less secure at the national level.

Federalists initially countered these arguments in a couple of ways. In Federalist 84, for example, Hamilton argued that the Constitution should be allowed a trial period before alterations were made. There may be several things the American people want to change five or ten years down the road, so make the changes then when a judgment can be made about whether they are necessary. Second, the structure and design of the Constitution already protected rights through separation of powers, checks and balances, enumerated powers, and republicanism. Any attempt to infringe on personal rights would never be able to survive this gauntlet of obstructions. Finally, a bill of rights could endanger rights because it would only include certain specified rights, leaving others unprotected. It would also imply that rights come from government and that it alone chooses which rights to recognize.

Despite this defense of not including a bill of rights in the Constitution, the American people remained unpersuaded, and the Constitution stood a real chance of not being ratified because of this defect. Eventually, however, the Federalists gave in, and several of their most prominent members made promises that a bill of rights would be on the agenda of the First Congress. With this promise in place, ratification moved forward, and eleven states initially joined the Union (Rhode Island and North Carolina did not ratify until later).

The first national elections were a disaster for the Anti-federalists with them winning only a few seats in the House and the Senate. The landslide victory for the Federalists had cooled Federalist opinion about the need for amendments. Some speculated that the promise made to the people could be safely ignored, while others argued that some vague, superficial amendments would likely suffice. James Madison, however, stood up for a bill of rights. Having made a personal campaign pledge to produce a bill of rights to his constituents, Madison made repeated efforts to get the bill on the legislative agenda. When that did not work, he presented a formal proposal of amendments he thought should be introduced into the Constitution. Still, Federalists were not enthusiastic about his proposal and likely would have never allowed the bill to move forward had Madison’s not received Washington’s endorsement, which Washington articulated in his inaugural address. Once the federal revenue system was completed, the Federalists finally got around to Madison’s amendments.

Anti-federalists, though few and far between, used the opportunity to start making their own proposed amendments to change the structure of the Constitution. But they were voted down every time, with antagonism between the two sides becoming so heated that congressmen challenged each other to duels. In the end, Madison’s patience and his willingness to compromise helped move the amendments along. Congress did not adopt all the amendments, and the language of others was altered, but that was the price Madison had to pay to see the amendments submitted to the states. On December 15, 1791, enough states ratified the Bill of Rights to formally make the ten amendments part of the Constitution.

Eric C. Sands is Associate Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at Berry College. He has written a book on Abraham Lincoln and edited a second volume on political parties. His teaching and research interests focus on constitutional law, American political thought, the founding, the Civil War and Reconstruction, and political parties. 


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