Governor’s Message on the Suspension of Writ of Habeas Corpus to the General Assembly of North Carolina Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After the Congress of the Confederate States of America passed an act to suspend the writ of habeas corpus, a formal decree stipulating that a person cannot be imprisoned without being brought before a judge or a court, North Carolina governor Zebulon B. Vance delivered a speech expressing his disapproval of this action to his state’s general assembly. In his speech, Vance speaks to his constituency about the problem with interfering with civil liberties, even during times of war. His speech also reveals his Southern perspective on previous actions taken by Northerners, including the original suspension of the writ of the habeas corpus and conscription of troops, and how they would influence the people of the Confederacy. By outlining the history of civil freedom and citing details from each segment of the new law, Vance enumerates the problems with the Southern suspension of habeas corpus and the negative impact it will have on the people and societies of the South.

Summary Overview

After the Congress of the Confederate States of America passed an act to suspend the writ of habeas corpus, a formal decree stipulating that a person cannot be imprisoned without being brought before a judge or a court, North Carolina governor Zebulon B. Vance delivered a speech expressing his disapproval of this action to his state’s general assembly. In his speech, Vance speaks to his constituency about the problem with interfering with civil liberties, even during times of war. His speech also reveals his Southern perspective on previous actions taken by Northerners, including the original suspension of the writ of the habeas corpus and conscription of troops, and how they would influence the people of the Confederacy. By outlining the history of civil freedom and citing details from each segment of the new law, Vance enumerates the problems with the Southern suspension of habeas corpus and the negative impact it will have on the people and societies of the South.

Defining Moment

North Carolina seceded from the United States on May 20, 1861, and was decidedly pro-South by the time Vance was elected governor the following year. By 1864, the Confederacy had approved its own constitution and elected a president and no longer recognized the authority of the president or Congress of the United States. The Union, on the other hand, refused to recognize the authority of the Confederate government, increasing the already-tremendous tension between the warring sides.

The tone and content of Vance’s speech reflect this atmosphere, but Vance himself did not always support the actions of the Confederate government. Originally of a more moderate opinion concerning the separation of the North and South, Vance became more pro-South over time, as his constituency demanded such action and legislation. By the outbreak of the Civil War, Vance was dedicated to the Southern cause, but he remained a moderate. His indignation and incredulity at the actions of the Confederate Congress and President Jefferson Davis permeate his speech, even as he acknowledges that those actions were taken, to some degree, in response to Northern actions.

Vance’s speech demonstrates the extent to which the South resented the regulations of the North and sought to free itself from the federal government of the United States. The South wanted the individual states to have more independence, while the North largely favored a stronger federal government. However, in suspending the writ of habeas corpus, an action also taken in the North, the Confederate government showed that during times of trouble, it was willing to suspend civil liberties and give itself powers similar to those of the Union government. This was unacceptable to Vance, who speaks out against these actions in this speech.

Author Biography

Zebulon Baird Vance was born in North Carolina on May 13, 1830, to David Vance and Mira Margaret Baird. His father died when he was fourteen, and Vance relied primarily on his mother for support and schooling. After a mostly informal education, in 1851, Vance enrolled in the University of North Carolina, where he studied law. The following year, he opened his own legal office in the town of Asheville and began his political career with his election to the position of solicitor of Buncombe County. Vance was elected to the state legislature in 1854 and to the US Congress in 1858. During the beginning of the Civil War, Vance moved away from political office, and in 1861 he joined the Confederate States Army as a captain, soon advancing to the rank of colonel. The following year, he returned to political life and was elected governor of North Carolina.

Vance initially opposed secession, but he ultimately agreed to it and made no attempt to work toward reunification. During the war, he became a firm believer in and defender of states’ rights, civil laws, and proper judicial practices. He opposed the suspension of habeas corpus by US president Abraham Lincoln, and he objected strongly when the Confederate government under Davis took the same action. Vance ultimately witnessed the effects of the suspension of habeas corpus firsthand in 1865, when he was arrested and held for nearly two months without ever being officially charged with a crime.

After the end of the Civil War, Vance served several terms in the Senate and also returned to the governorship of North Carolina. Focusing his efforts on helping to heal the nation, he used his position as a powerful, moderate Southerner to bring the two sides together in an attempt to move beyond the problems of the past toward a united future. Vance died on April 14, 1894, and was survived by three sons and his second wife, Florence Steele Martin.

Document Analysis

In this speech, Vance addresses his constituents, in the form of the general assembly of North Carolina, and lays out information concerning the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus and what it will mean for Southern men and women. By calling on historical precedents concerning personal freedoms and fears of oppression by the government, Vance uses emotional appeals and his own analysis to inform and influence the people of North Carolina about this new statute. In order to understand Vance’s response to the suspension act, one must first understand what the suspension of habeas corpus entailed and how it affected Southerners and their rights. Spurred by the Union’s adoption of a similar law, the Confederate Congress passed legislation that denied the writ of habeas corpus to dissenters. Believing that this action was not in keeping with the ideals of the South, Vance addresses specific issues he has with the law in order to enlighten his constituency about these problems and explain his opposition to the government’s decision.

Suspension of the Writ of Habeas Corpus in the Civil War

The act suspending the writ of habeas corpus in the Confederacy was passed on March 10, 1864, just two months before Vance’s speech. Although the law did not officially pass until 1864, arrests without trials had taken place as early as 1862, with the Confederate government holding people deemed to be dissenters or detrimental to the Southern cause without trying them for crimes. In the North, the writ of habeas corpus was officially suspended on March 3, 1863, granting the government the power to arrest anyone deemed to pose a threat to public safety. This action was widely criticized in the South, the new government of which generally opposed such federal interference. However, when the Confederate government likewise suspended habeas corpus, this action, which allowed for the detention of any Southerner who supported the North, was not so diligently opposed. This is likely because the suspension of habeas corpus in the North was detrimental to Confederate sympathizers, while the suspension of the writ in the South aided the Confederate cause.

In the texts of the Northern and Southern acts to suspend the writ of habeas corpus, several differences are apparent. The Northern act is much more concerned with regulating how and why a person can be detained and ensuring that the judicial system would not become entirely obsolete during the war. After the declaration of the intention to suspend habeas corpus, the act includes six provisions that lay out elements of protection for detainees and the officers who arrest them. In the Southern act, the provisions and main statement of intent are quite different, although they achieve the same end. This act lists the instances in which it is acceptable for the writ of habeas corpus to be set aside and explains that Congress is the only body of government that has the power to do so. The act specifies that the suspension is being put into motion because the Confederacy is under “invasion” by the United States and that this action is being taken “to provide more effectually for the public safety” (Moore 227). The act then lays out the thirteen actions that will result in arrest and detainment without the benefit of habeas corpus: treason, conspiracy, assisting the enemy, inciting “servile insurrection,” desertion, espionage, corresponding with the enemy, trading with the enemy, attempting to liberate prisoners of war, attempting to aid the enemy, advising anyone to abandon the Confederacy, attempting to burn or destroy a bridge or property to aid the enemy, and attempting to “impair the military power of the government.”

The differences between these otherwise similar acts indicate that Southern lawmakers were more concerned with laying out the specific offenses for which a person could be taken into custody, while their Northern counterparts were more concerned with the preservation of the governmental system during the nation’s time of crisis. Even though the two governments handled the suspension of habeas corpus in very different ways, they both enacted laws that effectively punished dissenters. Vance was strongly opposed to the Southern incarnation of the law, which he viewed as threatening the civil rights and liberties of citizens.

Analysis of Vance’s Message

Vance begins this excerpt from his speech by explaining that when the Confederate states seceded from the Union, the people of the South faced changes that altered their lives considerably, such as the introduction of a new currency and a significant increase in taxes in order to fund the new government and military. Vance says that these changes are minor in comparison to the changes introduced by the act suspending the writ of habeas corpus. Civil liberty had been a cornerstone of American government, both in the North and the South, and Vance was not willing to stand aside and say nothing as that freedom was affected. He explains in some detail that while suspending habeas corpus is constitutional and occasionally necessary for the good of the many, there is no true and solid reason for its current suspension.

By the end of the first paragraph, Vance has laid out the explicit reasoning behind his speech. He agrees that the suspension of the writ is constitutional and lawful and that the manner in which it was ratified, through the Confederate Congress, was appropriate, as it did not give too much power to the office of the president. But he also states that while this action may have been legal, he does not agree with it and feels that as a citizen, it is his duty to “make known to [the] government [the state’s] complaints and to insist upon a redress of [its] grievances.” In this spirit, he spends the body of his speech outlining the reasons he disagrees with the suspension act while using quotations from the act itself to inform his constituents of the word of the law.

Before explaining his argument, Vance informs his audience of how the act came into being. First, Davis had to ask Congress to put it on its docket and show that there was sufficient cause for it to be debated and voted on. Then, the Confederate Congress had to create and approve a bill that would suspend habeas corpus and specify when, where, and why a person could be arrested and detained without proper judiciary procedure. The preamble to the act clearly states that the only people who can order the arrest of a prospective detainee are the president, the secretary of war, and the general officer of the military. Since only three individuals were responsible for ordering the arrests, it seems likely that such arrests were relatively rare and highly regulated, which would be to the benefit of the populace as a whole.

Vance next outlines the most significant problems with this law, citing examples from the text of the act itself in support of his argument. He begins by discussing the thirteen listed crimes for which a person could be arrested without “the benefit of the writ” and the other stipulations of the act. Beginning with the possibly of being arrested for attempting to evade serving in the military and continuing on to the duties of and allowances for the president and his officers, Vance quotes documentation at length without adding his own opinions to the narrative. However, by understanding the sections that he highlights, one can see where his speech is heading and why he chose to begin in this manner. The sections he cites were, in his opinion, most likely to be affected illegally by the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, for if too many allowances were made for arresting officers, then the suspension of the writ would move from legal and constitutional to illegal and unconstitutional. The idea that citizens could be pressed into military service even if they were not required to serve and stripped of their “right to refuse to render it, when wrongfully claimed” was likewise deeply troubling to Vance.

Vance reminds his constituency what habeas corpus actually is and the effects that the suspension of the writ could have. He explains that according to the writ of habeas corpus, if someone is detained, there must be a proper reason for his or her detention. If there is a legally acceptable reason, then there is no problem remanding that individual to jail or setting bail; however, if there is no reason, then the individual must be released and allowed to regain his or her “civil freedom.” Furthermore, the writ of habeas corpus applies only once someone has been arrested, and even the suspension of habeas corpus cannot affect how or when someone is placed under arrest. He continues his argument by further stating that a law suspending the writ of habeas corpus cannot, in fact, affect the laws or procedures governing arrests. The Confederate Congress, Vance argues, has no authority to suspend any civil liberties except the single one guaranteed under the writ of habeas corpus.

In Vance’s opinion, the Confederate Congress overstepped its authority by making decrees concerning warrants for the arrest of suspected lawbreakers. He explains that Congress has no right to impede or alter any part of due process except for the writ of habeas corpus, which comes into effect only after an arrest has been made. Even with the writ of habeas corpus suspended, a citizen can only be detained without a trial after he or she has been arrested, and the arrest itself must be carried out in accordance with constitutionally mandated procedures. Vance notes that the act is therefore problematic, as it attempts to suspend not only the writ of habeas corpus but also the safeguards that protect people from being falsely imprisoned and arrested under a “general warrant.” Vance seems to have been particularly concerned that the inherent protections of the judiciary system were being overridden during this chaotic time.

The remainder of this excerpt from Vance’s speech deals with the power of Congress and his final objection to the suspension act. He expresses his fear that if Congress has the power to suspend this one liberty, then it could also do away with the other liberties he and the Confederate people held dear. Vance wanted his audience to take pride in the fact that only the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Confederacy had officially made habeas corpus a part of their legal systems, and he argues that Congress should not try to suspend or alter parts of the law over which it has no authority, such as warrant procedure, because that would make anything else that followed null and void.

Vance feared that the law, as it was written, was too open to interpretation and therefore too easily abused. When “the language is susceptible [to] interpretation,” he argues, the liberties of citizens are put at risk. Also, Vance notes that the president made the original push to have the law drawn up and approved and was given a measure of control over it, which suggests that Davis believed the language of the law to be susceptible to his interpretation in particular. Vance could not see any reason for a fully formed judiciary system to be disregarded, even during wartime. He clearly believed that liberty and a just system were more important than the possibility of thwarting some conspiracy or minor rebellion against the South.

In concluding his speech, Vance appeals to his constituency, and the Confederate government, by calling on historical precedent. He notes that whenever the English monarchy suspended habeas corpus, which had been part of the nation’s government since the seventeenth century, the suspension was always for the purpose of quelling any opposition to the monarchy, not for the betterment of the people. Vance took his stand in an attempt to ensure that this suspension did not have a similar result.

Essential Themes

Vance’s speech highlights a time in American history that is well documented but fragmented and complex. By analyzing the speech and understanding Vance’s opposition to the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, one can develop a deeper understanding of the importance of civil liberties in the South during the Civil War and the threat to them from the Confederacy’s own government. The excerpts from the suspension act quoted by Vance show the flavor of the law and how it worked for and against the Confederate president and the citizens of the Confederate States of America.

The short-term effects of this speech were not as significant as Vance must have wished. His speech did not overturn the adoption of this new law; nor did it eliminate the threats that civil liberties faced during the Civil War. In the short term, however, the speech did help Vance’s constituents understand the severity of the law that had just passed and what it could mean for them, especially if it was loosely interpreted or implemented without the welfare of the nation’s citizens in mind.

The long-term effects of Vance’s speech are more subtle but just as important as the short-term results, if not more. His speech demonstrates that a citizen of a country that values freedom of speech can and should use that speech to protect his or her fellow citizens by speaking out against potentially harmful legislation. Although the widespread suspension of the writ of habeas corpus came to an end following the conclusion of the Civil War, the protection of civil liberties remained a major concern. Following Vance’s example, the people of the United States, in both the North and the South, have continued to speak out to ensure that their liberties remain intact, even in times of trouble.

Bibliography
  • Cross, Jerry L. “Zebulon Baird Vance.” NCPedia. State Lib. of North Carolina, 2007. Web. 11 Apr. 2013.
  • Harper, Douglas. “Habeas Corpus in the Civil War.” Etymonline. Harper, n.d. Web. 11 Apr. 2013.
  • Moore, Frank, ed. The Rebellion Record. Vol. 10. New York: Putnam, 1867. Google Book s. Web. 11 Apr. 2013.
  • Powell, William S. “Zebulon Baird Vance, 13 May 1830–14 Apr. 1894.” Documenting the American South. U of North Carolina, 2004. Web. 11 Apr. 2013.
  • “Vance, Zebulon Baird (1830–1894).” Biographical Dictionary of the United States Congress. US Congress, n.d. Web. 11 Apr. 13.
Additional Reading
  • Michie, Thomas Johnson, ed. Virginia Reports. Charlottesville: Michie, 1900. Print.
  • Neely, Mark E. Lincoln and the Triumph of the Nation: Constitutional Conflict in the American Civil War. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2011. Print.
  • Rehnquist, William H. All the Laws but One: Civil Liberties in Wartime. New York: Random, 2000. Print.
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