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Professor Witt’s Lincoln’s Code Released as Country Celebrates 150th Anniversary of Emancipation Proclamation

READ THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW of Lincoln's Code

WATCH THE VIDEO of Professor Witt’s inaugural lecture on “Lincoln’s Code: The Puzzling History of the Laws of War.”

The war on terror has provoked a raging controversy over the appropriate conduct of war and treatment of combatants. These debates, however, are not unique to the 9/11 generation. They were agonized over by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln every bit as much as by Barack Obama and George W. Bush, and were central to our country’s founding and evolution. American debates, in turn, led the way for the rest of the world.

In Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History (Free Press, September 4, 2012), Yale Law professor John Fabian Witt ’99 charts the alternately troubled and triumphant course of the development of the laws of war in America, from the Founding to the cataclysm of the Civil War and on to the dawn of the modern era.

Lincoln’s Code, the publication of which coincides with the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, is based on extensive original archival research. Professor Witt is the first historian to tell the surprising story of how slavery and the Emancipation Proclamation helped shape the modern laws of armed conflict, and how a code of 157 rules issued by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War became the basis for the rules established in the Geneva Conventions and for today’s internationally accepted laws of war.

Professor Witt writes that “No nation in the history of the world has made the law governing the conduct of armies in war more central to its founding self-image than the United States.” The idea of civilized war was a cornerstone of the Founding Fathers’ claims against British rule. And yet, in the face of battle, our country’s most respected leaders have again and again determined that grave circumstances justified terrible conduct. Lincoln’s code was commissioned by Lincoln’s war advisors at just the moment in which Lincoln had decided that only increasingly destructive tactics would turn the tide of the war, tactics that ultimately culminated in both Emancipation and Sherman’s march to the sea. In his book, Professor Witt brings to life the drama of wars from the Revolution up to World War I, as well as the anguish of soldiers and statesmen as they grappled with such vexing questions as whether prisoners of war can be executed; whether guerrilla forces must be treated with the same constraints as enemy soldiers; and whether torture is ever justified. Read more about the book here.

John Fabian Witt is the Allen H. Duffy Class of 1960 Professor of Law at Yale Law School, a member of the Yale history department, and a Guggenheim Fellow. He previously taught at Columbia University and Harvard Law School. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Slate, the Harvard Law Review, and The Yale Law Journal, among other publications. Professor Witt is the author of two previous books: Patriots and Cosmopolitans: Hidden Histories of American Law (Harvard University Press, 2007), and The Accidental Republic: Crippled Workingmen, Destitute Widows, and the Remaking of American Law (Harvard University Press, 2004), which was awarded book prizes by the Harvard Press Board of Syndics, the American Society for Legal History, and the Law and Society Association.