Habeas Corpus and the American Revolution
Modern debates concerning the protections afforded by the Suspension Clause of the U.S. Constitution have taken place within the Supreme Court’s chosen methodological approach in this context, which openly calls for careful attention to the historical backdrop against which the Clause was drafted. This approach is hardly surprising given that long ago Chief Justice John Marshall declared that when the Founding generation constitutionalized “this great writ,” they invoked “[t]he term … in the [C]onstitution, as one which was well understood.” No matter how well the Founding generation understood the content, reach, and application of the “privilege of the writ of habeas corpus,” however, significant portions of the relevant historical backdrop to the ratification of the Suspension Clause remain lost to the annals of history. In particular, the details surrounding one of the most consequential periods in the history leading up to the adoption of the Suspension Clause—namely, the treatment and legal classification of the American colonists by the British during the American Revolutionary War—remain largely unexplored in legal scholarship.
Professor Tyler seeks to recover and tell this story here by drawing upon a wealth of sources, including archival documents, parliamentary debates, contemporary press accounts, colonial papers, diaries and private papers of key participants, and significant decisions and rulings of the British courts. As these materials reveal, determinations regarding the reach and application of the English Habeas Corpus Act of 1679, rather than solely the common law writ of habeas corpus, were of tremendous consequence during this important period in Anglo-American legal history. Where the Act was in force and where prisoners could claim its protections, the legal framework demanded that such persons be charged criminally and tried in due course or otherwise be discharged. Significantly, the privilege associated with the English Act did not speak merely to process; it further imposed significant substantive constraints on what causes would be deemed legal justification for detention in the first instance. The important role that the Act played in the Revolutionary War legal framework, moreover, suggests that modern jurisprudence has underappreciated the Act’s enormous influence upon the development of habeas law in the Anglo-American tradition.
Finally, the history recovered here demonstrates more generally that during the Revolutionary War, suspension, geography, and allegiance each played significant roles in determining the availability of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus to those who would claim its protections.