New exhibit shows Lincoln’s struggle with civil liberties, constitutional rights

Although Abraham Lincoln is often well-revered for his fight for civil liberties, a new exhibit at the SIU School of Law shows he may have taken away some Americans’ rights.

A national traveling exhibit titled “Lincoln: The Constitution and Civil War” focuses on how America’s 16th president dealt with civil liberties and constitutional rights during the Civil War.

The National Constitution Center and the American Library Association Public Programs Office organized the exhibit with a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Lesar Law building will display the exhibit during normal building hours until Nov. 28.

This demonstration supplements an event series scheduled this month focused on consitutional rights, said Douglas Lind, director of SIU’s Law Library.

“We are very honored and excited to have the exhibit here,” said Cynthia Fountaine, dean of the School of Law.

Alicia Ruiz, director of the School of Law for communications and public outreach, said the university’s law school has had programming in the past about Lincoln and his law process during his presidency. She said the focus on the constitutional rights would benefit law students.

“We hope to introduce people who do not know much about the topic of the Civil War from the perspective of the constitutional issues,” Ruiz said.

Lind said many of the Civil War’s civil rights issues are relevant today.

He said the exhibit has three main aspects: the states’ right of succession, the slavery issue and the security of civil liberties.

One civil liberty that affected people during the Civil War and still today is habeas corpus, which orders a person in custody to be brought before a court so the prisoner can be released if the case lacks real cause or evidence. Lind said habeas corpus is the right which requires officers to specify why they arrest a suspect. Lind said the executive branch has the option to suspend habeas corpus if it is in the government’s best interest.

He said habeas corpus was suspended for some time during Lincoln’s presidency. He said because it was suspended, the union was able to stay together during the Civil War because there were many civilian Confederate sympathizers arrested.

“People were often arrested for speaking out against the president, so arrests sometimes were based off political ideology,” Lind said.

Steven Macias, an assistant professor of law, said another example of how civil liberties affect people was when Japanese Americans were detained and deprived of their civil rights in the U.S. because of a disloyalty fear after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. He said the U.S. could have learned lessons from the Civil War era and applied it to issues that surround civil liberties during World War II.

“Having a historical perspective can help someone appreciate what is going on today with the war on terror and Guantanamo Bay,” Macias said.

Despite the 9/11 terrorist attack, he said, Muslims were not detained and habeas corpus was not suspended.

“On a ground level look at civil liberties, there are some lessons that can be learned today,” Lind said.

Macias said Lincoln’s interpretation of the Constitution was questionable, and that aspect of his presidency is often overlooked in Civil War studies and research.

The main question the exhibit proposes is whether faithfulness to the Constitution is more important than addressing problems as they arise, Macias said.

“During a very short period, all the three branches of government had to address constitutional issues and determine the founding father’s intent,” Lind said. “The decisions made during Lincoln’s presidency form a foundation for future discussions of constitutional issues arising wartime.”

Fountaine said the exhibit’s goal is to expose Lincoln’s impact on southern Illinois and encourage SIU students and the community to learn about constitutional law. She said she hopes students will take advantage of this opportunity to gain knowledge.

“Any student interested in history, political science or Lincoln would be interested in this exhibit, which displays information in a new way,” Ruiz said.

Other events related to the exhibit can be found on the School of Law website.

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