Wolf Trap – Act I – Habeas Corpus – Scene 3 – Guardian of Personal Liberty

Wolf Trap – Act I – Habeas Corpus
Scene 3 – Guardian of Personal Liberty


Gary Hunt
Outpost of Freedom
May 26, 2015

Setting the Stage: Joseph Story called Habeas Corpus “the great bulwark of personal liberty.” He did so as he, as well as did other legal scholars and various Supreme Court decision, because the founders knew that overarching government might attempt to suppress the rights of the people that had been so recently won, at great cost to the people. The inclusion of the “sacred writ” in the Constitution was to assure that their posterity would always have a means of challenging the federal government, when it went beyond those limits set by the Constitution.

The Truth About Habeas Corpus, the “Sacred Writ”

Now, let’s visit the remedy the Founders provided us, in the Constitution. It is fair to say that the Constitution was written with an understanding of both human nature and the incessant obsession in some to seek power solely for the sake of wielding that power.

In Article I, which is the Legislative Branch, § 9, clause 2, it 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.

A privilege is a right that can be suspended.

So, exactly what does it mean? Let’s see what some early judicial scholars had to say.

In 1768, William Blackstone, in his Commentaries, provides insight into the necessity and requirements associated with this Writ of Right.

But the great and efficacious writ in all manner of illegal confinement, is that of habeas corpus ad subjiciendum; directed to the person detaining another, and commanding him to produce the body of the prisoner with the day and cause of his caption and detention…

[I]f a probable ground be shewn, that the party is imprisoned without just cause, and therefore hath a right to be delivered, the writ of habeas corpus is then a writ of right, which “may not be denied, but ought to be granted to every man that is committed, or detained in prison, or otherwise restrained, though it be by the command of the king, the privy council, or any other.”

In a former part of these commentaries we expatiated at large on the personal liberty of the subject. It was shewn to be a natural inherent right, which could not be surrendered or forfeited unless by the commission of some great and atrocious crime, nor ought to be abridged in any case without the special permission of law.

A remedy the more necessary, because the oppression does not always arise from the ill-nature, but sometimes from the mere inattention of government.

From the Constitutional Convention, we have Madison’s Records of the Federal Convention.

The privileges and benefits of the writ of habeas corpus shall be enjoyed in this government in the most expeditious and ample manner: and shall not be suspended by the Legislature, except upon the most urgent and pressing occasions, and for a limited time, not exceeding [blank] months.”

“Expeditious and ample” are easily understood, and, clearly, the intention of the inclusion of the “Sacred Writ” within the protection of the Constitution. Being the only “right” defined as a “privilege”, we need simply understand that it is the only enumerated right that is subject to legislative suspension, though only legislative.

William Rawle, in “A View of the Constitution of the United States” (1829), provides us insight into the perception of the Writ just forty years after the Ratification of the Constitution, and, clearly, as it was envisioned at the time.

Reasons will be given hereafter for considering many of the restrictions, contained in the amendments to the Constitution, as extending to the states as well as to the United States, but the nature of the writ of habeas corpus seems peculiarly to call for this construction. It is the great remedy of the citizen or subject against arbitrary or illegal imprisonment; it is the mode by which the judicial power speedily and effectually protects the personal liberty of every individual, and repels the injustice of unconstitutional laws or despotic governors. After erecting the distinct government which we are considering, and after declaring what should constitute the supreme law in every state in the Union, fearful minds might entertain jealousies of this great and all-controlling power, if some protection against its energies when misdirected, was not provided by itself.

If this provision had been omitted, the existing powers under the state governments, none of whom are without it, might be questioned, and a person imprisoned on a mandate of the president or other officer, under colour of lawful authority derived from the United States, might be denied relief.

The Honorable Justice Joseph Story, in “Commentaries on the Constitution“, will provide even more insight.

1333. In order to understand the meaning of the terms here used, it will be necessary to have recourse to the common law; for in no other way can we arrive at the true definition of the writ of habeas corpus. At the common law there are various writs, called writs of habeas corpus. But the particular one here spoken of is that great and celebrated writ, used in all cases of illegal confinement, known by the name of the writ of habeas corpus ad subjiciendum, directed to the person detaining another, and commanding him to produce the body of the prisoner, with the day and cause of his caption and detention… It is, therefore, justly esteemed the great bulwark of personal liberty; since it is the appropriate remedy to ascertain, whether any person is rightfully in confinement or not, and the cause of his confinement; and if no sufficient ground of detention appears, the party is entitled to his immediate discharge. This writ is most beneficially construed; and is applied to every case of illegal restraint, whatever it may be; for every restraint upon a man’s liberty is, in the eye of the law, an imprisonment, wherever may be the place, or whatever may be the manner, in which the restraint is effected.

Finally, we will visit Bouvier’s Law Dictionary (1856):

HABEAS CORPUS, remedies A writ of habeas corpus is an order in writing, signed by the judge who grants the same, and sealed with the seal of the court of which he is a judge, issued in the name of the sovereign power where it is granted, by such a court or a judge thereof, having lawful authority to issue the same, directed to any one having a person in his custody or under his restraint, commanding him to produce, such person at a certain time and place, and to state the reasons why he is held in custody, or under restraint.

7.  The Constitution of the United State Article 1, s. 9, n. 2, 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 and the same principle is contained in many of the state constitutions. In order still more to secure the citizen the benefit of this great writ, a heavy penalty is inflicted upon the judges who are bound to grant it, in case of refusal.

It is pro8.  per to consider, 1. When it is to be granted. 2. How it is to be served. 3. What return is to be made to it. 4. The bearing. 5. The effect of the judgment upon it.

9. – 1. The writ is to be granted whenever a person is in actual confinement, committed or detained as aforesaid, either for a criminal charge, or, …under any color or pretence whatsoever

10. – 2. The writ may be served by any free person, by leaving it with the person to whom it is directed, or left at the gaol or prison with any of the under officers, under keepers, or deputy of the said officers or keepers...

16.  The habeas corpus can be suspended only by authority of the legislature. The constitution of the United States provides, that the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended unless when, in cases of invasion and rebellion, the public safety may require it. Whether this writ ought to be suspended depends on political considerations, of which the legislature, is to decide

It is apparent that the inclusion of Article I, Section 3, clause 3, was included in the Constitution as a bar against overarching government, unconstitutional laws, and jurisdiction beyond that authorized by the Constitution.


  1. Tony says:

    so, why doesn’t, “…shall not be suspended unless when, in cases of invasion and rebellion, the public safety may require it.” excuse Lincoln, and the Union?

  2. Tony says:

    Exactly! so why do some people give Lincoln grief for this when the Constitution specifically allows it?

    • ghunt says:

      What led to problems was it was granted only to Lincoln. He delegated it to military officers. That led to a Supreme Court decision, Ex parte Merryman (1861) by Roger B. Taney, 17 F. Cas. 144; Case No. 9,487. The decision theoretically, released all of those who weren’t specifically denied by Lincoln. However, after a fe3 months, most were released. The judge explained that he had no way top force the President’s compliance.
      As to your question, I suppose they listen to someone who has listened to someone, and somewhere along the line, somebody just guessed.

  3. […] VI. Act I – Habeas Corpus – Scene 3 – Guardian of Liberty [5/26/15] […]

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