Marylander Reverdy Johnson defended Mary Surratt in the Lincoln assassination conspiracy trial, argued that his client and others charged were civilians, and that the military commission Judge Advocate John A. Bingham convened had no jurisdiction – but to no avail. Major Bingham was a Pennsylvanian and Radical Republican appointed by Lincoln. In contrast to Bingham, Alexander H. Stephens and Jefferson Davis were the ablest constitutional scholars in the country.
Bernhard Thuersam, www.circa1865.org
The Life and Soul of the United States Government
“Read Judge Advocate Bingham’s argument before the Military Commission in Washington in reply to Hon. Reverdy Johnson. It is rhetorical sophistry, specious and plausible to the careless and uninformed reader; but it is utterly fallacious. It affects me in nothing so much as in the sadness it produces when I view it as but an additional evidence that Power, in its incipient and dangerous strides in trampling on the liberties of a country, is never wanting in able and brilliant advocates and defenders.
[Bingham’s] main ground, [is] that the Constitution . . . is intended and made for peace only and not for war, is fundamentally wrong. The Constitution was made for war as well as peace. To the various questions put by the Judge Advocate: Whether in war, men are not slain, prisoners captured, property taken, all without due process of law; the answer is, that they are not; no more than a man who, in peace, puts himself in defiance of the law officers, and is shot down by the sheriff or his posse: that is due process of law in such case. So in war.
In the cases of rebellion and insurrection, the only military forces known to the Constitution are such as are called out in the nature and character of the posse comitatus. For their government, when so called out, laws are made, as well as for the government of such permanent force as may be kept on hand. What a soldier rightfully does in taking life in battle he does according to law prescribed, and orders given in accordance with that law.
No soldiers, even in war, can be rightfully quartered on any man’s premises except in accordance with law previously described. This is an express provision of the Constitution. The idea that the Constitutional guarantees are all suspended in war and that during war martial law takes the place of the Constitution is monstrous.
The Judge Advocate’s remark about the natural principles of self-defence, and that the nation, as a man, may resort to any means to save its life, is rhetoric and not argument; its sentiment is ruinous to liberty. The life and soul of the United States Government is the Constitution and the principles with all the rights therein guaranteed. Whoever strikes at them, or at one of the least of them, strikes a deadly blow at the life of the Republic.
Nothing can be more absurd than that the life of a man can be preserved by an extinction or suspension of all the vital functions of his organism; and yet this is no more absurd than is the argument of those who speak of warding off a blow at the life of the nation, by a suspension or violation of the guarantees of the Constitution.”
(Recollections of Alexander H. Stephens, His Diary, Myrta Lockett Avary, LSU Press, 1998 (Original 1910), pp. 291-293)