David Davis in United States History
In my home town of Bloomington, Illinois there is a tourist attraction that is a part of history.It is the mansion and former home of David Davis, a friend of Abraham Lincoln, a SupremeCourt Justice and one time Senator from Illinois. His popular legacy is that he encouragedLincoln to run for president and was then appointed by Lincoln to the Supreme Court. Buthis lesser know accomplishments include his contributions as a justice in a couple of landmark cases. In one of those cases, he actually helped reverse some of Lincoln’s policies.
Limiting the President’s Power
That case is
Ex Parte Milligan
which was decided in 1866. During the Civil War, PresidentLincoln authorized the military to form commissions to try Confederate sympathizers. One of those cases involved known sympathizer Lambdin Milligan. Milligan’s involvement with pro-Confederacy groups led to charges that he had incited rebellion in the north. He wasconvicted by a military commission and sentenced to death.Milligan’s case was appealed and was argued before the Supreme Court on which JusticeDavis sat. The defense disputed the jurisdiction of the commission because civilian courtswere still in operation despite the war. Lincoln had already fought with the Supreme Courtover habeas corpus and this was again an issue. In the year after Lincoln’s death, JusticeDavis wrote the opinion which said the president did not have power to suspend habeascorpus. The Court also held that the president may not establish trial by military commission,even in times of rebellion, in the absence of congressional approval. The Court reiterated thatthe Constitution remained the law of the land in time of war as well as in peacetime.
Another case of interest on which involved Justice Davis concerns the issuance of Greenbacks, the fiat currency introduced by Lincoln to fund the Civil War. Although Davisdissented in the opinion, the ruling did not directly uphold nor contradict the authority of Congress is establishing Greenbacks as currency. It only ruled on their use as legal tender,thereby making them payment for all debts, even those owed before their issuance.The case involved a woman, Mrs. Hepburn, who owed a debt of $11,250 in coin beforeGreenbacks were created. She paid back $12,720 in Greenbacks to cover interest. But thatwas rejected by her creditor, Mr. Griswold, because it took two Greenbacks to equal one golddollar. The court ruled that Congress did not have the authority to make any notes legaltender.In
Hepburn v. Griswold
, the court delved deeply into the constitutional limits imposed onCongress. Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase writing for the majority reiterated the basicconcepts as follows (emphasis added):For there can be no law inconsistent with [constitutional] law. No enactment not in pursuance of the authority conferred by it can create obligations or confer rights. For such is the express declaration of the Constitution itself in these words: