Weird History
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Every Time The United States Government Has Imposed Martial Law

Updated April 14, 2020 17.0k views12 items

The federal government has the power to take over local government and impose military control. But World War II was the last time the federal government declared martial law in US history. After the Pearl Harbor airstrike on Hawaii, the federal government imposed martial law on the US territory for three years.

In addition to the federal government, state governors can declare martial law. In several states, governors used martial law to target labor strikes, calling in the military to stop vicious clashes between miners and mine owners. In one strange case, a territorial governor declared martial law against the federal government; in another case, during the civil rights movement, a Southern governor imposed martial law to target so-called "outside agitators" who were actually peaceful activists. 

Although the president can declare martial law, other branches of government have placed limits on those powers. In response to Abraham Lincoln declaring martial law during the Civil War, the Supreme Court warned, “Civil liberty and this kind of martial law cannot endure together." In the wake of a crisis, citizens may wonder what to do if martial law is declared. Based on history, it's unlikely that martial law will return anytime soon - the last time a US official imposed martial law was 1966.

  • Photo: Edward Percy Moran / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Andrew Jackson Imposed It On New Orleans In The War Of 1812

    When It Lasted: December 16, 1814, to March 1815

    Who Imposed It: General Andrew Jackson

    Why Impose It: Jackson arrived in New Orleans to defend the city from a British incursion.

    On his arrival, Jackson declared martial law for the first time in US history. "Those who are not for us are against us, and will be dealt with accordingly," Jackson declared. 

    How It Ended: The British signed a peace treaty only one week after Jackson's declaration, but martial law continued for months because news of the peace treaty didn't reach Jackson until early March 1815.

    In January, Jackson led the US to victory in the Battle of New Orleans but still refused to lift martial law.

    When a state senator and a judge complained, Jackson detained the senator and banished the judge from New Orleans. Only days later, news of the peace treaty finally reached the general, who revoked the martial law order and paid a fine imposed by the judge.

  • Photo: C. C. A. Christensen / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Joseph Smith And The Nauvoo Militia Imposed It During The Illinois Mormon War

    When It Lasted: June 18, 1844, to June 27, 1844

    Who Imposed It: Joseph Smith

    Why Impose It: In Nauvoo, IL, Smith was the mayor, the commander of the militia, the justice of the peace, and the president of the Mormon Church. He also declared himself a prophet.

    When former Mormons published a newspaper critical of Smith, he shut down the press, triggering a riot. In response, Smith declared martial law. 

    Legend claims that Smith said, “I call upon God and angels to witness that I have unsheathed my sword with a firm and unalterable determination that this people shall have their legal rights.” 

    How It Ended: After imposing martial law, Smith mobilized the Nauvoo Militia. Illinois Governor Thomas Ford stepped in, and eventually Smith was apprehended and charged with treason for imposing martial law.

    On June 27, an angry group stormed the jail and slayed Smith, effectively ending his declaration of martial law.

  • Photo: Charles Roscoe Savage / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Brigham Young Imposed It During The Utah War

    When It Lasted: September 15, 1857, to June 12, 1858

    Who Imposed It: Governor Brigham Young

    Why Impose It: Strained relations between the federal government and the Utah territory led Utah's governor, Young, to declare martial law in his territory - to protect it from a federal army.

    In fact, the entire conflict, known as the Utah War, was more of a misunderstanding than anything. President James Buchanan sent a force west to flex US power. The Mormons, fearing an assault, mobilized their militia and imposed martial law.

    How It Ended: The tense standoff lasted over a year, until Buchanan backed down. Although many in the federal government believed the Mormons had rebelled against the country, Buchanan sent a pardon to Young in June 1858.

    Young accepted. "I have no character to protect, no pride to gratify, no vanity to please," Young declared. "If a man comes from the moon and says he will pardon me for kicking him in the moon yesterday, I don’t care about it. I’ll accept of his pardon. It don’t affect me one way or the other."

  • Photo: Milhollen and Mugridge / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Abraham Lincoln Attempted To Suspend Habeas Corpus During The US Civil War

    When It Lasted: April 27, 1861, to April 9, 1865

    Who Imposed It: Abraham Lincoln

    Why Impose It: Just 10 days after Virginia seceded from the Union, President Lincoln ordered General Winfield Scott to suspend habeas corpus in the name of public safety. 

    Yet, the next month, Chief Justice Roger Taney ruled that only Congress could suspend habeas corpus, not the president. Lincoln ignored the ruling and continued to impose martial law during the Civil War. 

    How It Ended: By 1863, Congress passed a law suspending habeas corpus. Throughout the conflict, Lincoln only imposed martial law on "rebels and insurgents," not the general population. Under his order, disloyal individuals could be tried by military courts instead of civilian courts. The order ended with the Civil War's resolution.

    In 1866, the Supreme Court ruled in Ex parte Milligan that Lincoln's order was unlawful. The court warned, “Civil liberty and this kind of martial law cannot endure together; the antagonism is irreconcilable; and, in the conflict, one or the other must perish.”