cover image Lincoln and the Court

Lincoln and the Court

Brian McGinty, . . Harvard Univ., $27.95 (375pp) ISBN 978-0-674-02655-1

McGinty (The Oatman Massacre: A Tale of Desert Captivity and Survival) offers a lucid review of the major Civil War Supreme Court cases. The Civil War, as McGinty explains, was a struggle over constitutional interpretation: did Lincoln have the constitutional authority to do whatever he thought necessary to compel seceding states back to the Union? He thought so, but Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney sometimes stood in his way. The first major clash was over Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus, which Taney declared unconstitutional in the 1861 Merryman case. In 1862 came another battle, the Prize cases, regarding the constitutionality of Lincoln’s declaring a blockade of Confederate ports. The Court also heard cases about whether a Union citizen could criticize a president during wartime and whether the Treasury Department could regulate trade between a Union state and the Confederacy. McGinty says that the Court “could have struck down the president’s major war measures” but “chose not to do so.” The author covers some of the same territory as James Simon’s 2006 Lincoln and Chief Justice Taney, and at times one wishes for more rigorous, subtle analysis of the meaning of the Court’s role in the Civil War. Still, McGinty’s engaging account, which treats a topic with obvious parallels to the present, will delight history buffs. 16 b&w illus. (Feb.)