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What is martial law? Few there are who understand the full significance of this term. At this time, a correct understanding of its meaning is unusually important.

Martial law is defined by Bouvier, as “a code established for the government of the army and navy of the United States,” whose principal rules are to be found in the articles of war, prescribed by act of Congress. But Chancellor Kent says, this definition applies only to military law, while martial law is quite a distinct thing, and is founded on paramount necessity, and produced by a military chief.

Martial law is generally and vaguely held to be, a suspension of all ordinary civil rights and process — and, as such, approximates closely to a military despotism.

It is an arbitrary law, originating in emergencies. In times of extreme peril to the State, either from without or from within, the public welfare demands extraordinary measures. And martial law being proclaimed, signifies that the operation of the ordinary legal delays of justice are suspended by the military power, which has for the time become supreme.

It suspends the operation of the writ of habeas corpus; enables persons charged with treason to be summarily tried by court-martial, instead of grand jury; justifies searches and seizures of private property, and the taking possession of public high-ways and other means of communication. Involving the highest exercise of sovereignty, it is of course, capable of great abuse; and it is only to be justified in emergencies of the most imperative and perilous nature such as now appear to exist in Baltimore and Washington.

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