All of my survey classes are right in the middle of the Civil War. We’ve been covering the standard territory, analyzing primary sources, and trying to understand the broader themes of the war. With a survey class time is limited so I tend to pick a few themes to explore in a bit more detail. This year I decided to spend time on Lincoln’s decision to suspend the writ of habeus corpus. Of course I did this as a way to make a connection with the current debate surrounding the president’s authorization of the NSA to spy on Americans without a court order. The classes read a short article on Lincoln and habeus corpus and answered a few questions plus a short article from Time which provided the basic background on the more recent controversy. I am amazed at how little my students know about current events so I thought it was a perfect opportunity to make some connections. I divided the board in half and began by addressing the broader issue of executive power, separation of powers, and national security. We started with Lincoln and discussed his reasons and the debate over his decision to suspend habeus corpus. The students were hooked from the beginning. They did a super job debating Lincoln’s arguments as well as well as the concerns of Chief Justice Taney and the Democrats in Congress. As the students debated I kept track of their main points on the board.
After about 25 minutes we moved to the question of executive authority in the NSA case. With some basic background of the NSA already in mind the class compared the present situation and the “war on terror” with the conditions present during the Civil War. They listened closely to one another and we ended up having a very engaged and informative debate about whether the president was justified in ignoring Congressional legislation. My goal was not to steer the students to any conclusion, but to at least give them a sense of what the debate is about and that the debate is part of a much broader question of checks and balances between the different branches of the federal government.