Monday, January 9, 2012

Ethan Allen & Habeas Corpus

In 1775, Brigadier General Richard Prescott captured American Ethan Allen, shackled him and sent him in England in shackles to face a possible trial for treason. Expecting authorities in England to execute the American, Prescott told Allen he would "grace a halter [i.e., a noose] at Tyburn, God damn you." By a remarkable coincidence, American forces in Canada shortly thereafter captured Prescott himself.

John Wilkes, the Duke of Richmond and a British opponent of the war, obtained a Writ of Habeas Corpus, a court order to force the government to try Allen or release him.  The British backed away from executing Allen for fear of retaliation (Congress put Prescott in chains to await the same fate as Allen).  To avoid releasing or trying Allen, the British hurried Allen back to America in a fleet that made a brief stop in Ireland.

In 1775 and 1776, the British had not yet devised a way to avoid Habeas Corpus rights and detain Americans indefinitely, without trial.  Francis D. Cogliano, American Maritime Prisoners in the Revolutionary War (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2001), 43-47.

The possibility of retaliation helped save Allen, but it did little to change the attitude of many British offers in America.  From June 1775 to Dec. 1783, thousands of American prisoners died in British custody in occupied cities in North America and prison ships just off shore.

Edwin G. Burrows, Forgotten Patriots: The Untold Story of American Prisoners During the Revolutionary War (New York: Basic Books, 2008), 38-41; Ralph M. Ketchum, Decisive Day: The Battle for Bunker Hill (New York: H. Holt, 1999 [1962]), 198; Charles Henry Metzger, S.J. [Society of Jesus], The Prisoner in the American Revolution (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1971), 288.  
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