The Taney Arrest Warrant is a recent conjectural controversy in Abraham Lincoln scholarship. The standard version of the story avers that in late May or early June 1861 President Lincoln secretly ordered an arrest warrant for Roger B. Taney, the circuit-riding Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, but abandoned the proposal. The arrest order is said to have been in response to Taney's Circuit Judge ruling in Ex parte Merryman, which found Lincoln's suspension of the writ of habeas corpus to be unconstitutional.

The main details of the story come from a single document written in the 1880s.

History and evidence[edit | edit source]

The arrest warrant story is a recent "rediscovery" in Lincoln lore, though early references to it appear in documents contemporaneous to the Merryman case. The primary source document is a single manuscript written in the 1880s by Ward Hill Lamon, Lincoln's friend, bodyguard, and United States Marshal for the District of Columbia during his administration. According to the manuscript, which is a brief history of Ex Parte Merryman by Lamon:

After due consideration the administration determined upon the arrest of the Chief Justice. A warrant or order was issued for his arrest. Then arose the question of service. Who should make the arrest and where should the imprisonment be? This was done by the President with instructions to use his own discretion about making the arrest unless he should receive further orders from him.

The warrant was never served, according to Lamon, for reasons that are not given. The manuscript dates from the 1880s and resides in the collection of Lamon papers at the Huntington Library.

During the Merryman case, Justice Taney is also known to have communicated knowledge of an unnamed "consultation" for his arrest to George William Brown, the mayor of Baltimore, who was present in his courtroom at the time of the verdict. Brown revealed the conversation in a later book -

"Mr. Brown, I am an old man, a very old man, but perhaps I was preserved for this occasion." I replied, "Sir, I thank God that you were." He then told me that he knew his own imprisonment had been a matter of consultation, but the danger had passed, and he warned me from information he had received, that my time would come.

Another period memoir by former Taney colleague and Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Robbins Curtis refers to a "great crime" that was almost committed against Taney by Lincoln. The Taney's own memoir, completed from his unfinished autobiography by Samuel Tyler in 1872, refers to the Chief Justice's fears of arrest. According to Tyler, as Taney "left the house of his son-in-law, Mr. Campbell" en route to his courtroom "remarked that it was likely he should be imprisoned in Fort McHenry before night, but that he was going to Court to do his duty."

After being virtually unknown for more than a century, Lamon's story reemerged during the early 1970s in A More Perfect Union by Harold Hyman. Some recent writers have accepted the story as credible including Jeffrey Rogers Hummel in Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men. For a time in the 1980s and 1990s, it was believed that a second corroborating document by Francis Lieber referred to the warrant. This was the result of a mistaken numerical citation in an earlier work. The error was discovered by John Rodehamel, a manuscripts librarian at the Huntington Library. Once informed of this error, Jeffrey Hummel described Lamon's unsupported account as "not credible."

Controversy[edit | edit source]

One criticism is that Lamon is an unreliable source, remembered for lending his name to a ghost-written 1872 biography of Lincoln by Chauncey Black. The biography was received unfavorably by Robert Todd Lincoln, the president's son, and was denounced for a lack of discretion. On the other hand, the habeas corpus manuscript was written in the mid 1880s around the time Lamon was working on his second book, Recollections of Abraham Lincoln, incomplete when he died (Lamon's daughter edited the completed portions of it for posthumous publication). This second book is highly regarded among Lincoln scholars and is the main source for many well-known Lincoln anecdotes and quotes. Another criticism is that no copy of the warrant or other documentation has been found to support Lamon's story. Some critics have also questioned the likelihood of placing such an important task in Lamon's hands, though Lincoln often sent Lamon on important political tasks including a famous 1865 mission to Virginia that resulted in his absence as a bodyguard on the night of Lincoln's assassination.

Doubts about Lamon's credibility are not confined to the alleged Taney warrant. In his book Days of Defiance: Sumter, Secession, and the Coming of the Civil War, Maury Klein states that "Lamon's own account in his Recollections, [pp.] 69-79, is so inflated in his own favor and contradictory to Hurlbut's contemporary account to Lincoln as to be virtually useless as a source for his mission." (p. 462, ch. 19 n. 12).

Lamon's stature as a close Lincoln confidant was acknowledged by many well known Lincoln contemporaries. Alexander McClure wrote that Lamon completed "the circle of the men who were closest to Lincoln" and included him among the "so few who had any knowledge of the inner working of Mr. Lincoln's administration." John P. Usher, Lincoln's Secretary of the Interior, told Lamon "I do not call to mind any one who was so much with him (Lincoln) as yourself." Illinois Senator and Lincoln confidant Lyman Trumbull even wrote of Lamon's 1872 book that it was "the only true history of Lincoln's early life that I have ever read."

During Lincoln's administration several prominent political adversaries were arrested, including Congressman Clement Vallandigham, a leading Copperhead, and at least one other federal judge - William Matthew Merrick of the United States Circuit Court for the District of Columbia - was placed under house arrest for defying the suspension. Several northern newspapers also publicly called for Taney's arrest after the Merryman ruling.

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