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Lincoln's Code: The Laws of War in American History [Kindle Edition]

John Fabian Witt
4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Pulitzer Prize Finalist
Bancroft Prize Winner
ABA Silver Gavel Award Winner
A New York Times Notable Book of the Year

In the closing days of 1862, just three weeks before Emancipation, the administration of Abraham Lincoln commissioned a code setting forth the laws of war for US armies. It announced standards of conduct in wartime—concerning torture, prisoners of war, civilians, spies, and slaves—that shaped the course of the Civil War. By the twentieth century, Lincoln’s code would be incorporated into the Geneva Conventions and form the basis of a new international law of war.

In this deeply original book, John Fabian Witt tells the fascinating history of the laws of war and its eminent cast of characters—Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, and Lincoln—as they crafted the articles that would change the course of world history. Witt’s engrossing exploration of the dilemmas at the heart of the laws of war is a prehistory of our own era. Lincoln’s Code reveals that the heated controversies of twenty-first-century warfare have roots going back to the beginnings of American history. It is a compelling story of ideals under pressure and a landmark contribution to our understanding of the American experience.

Editorial Reviews


“Magnificent . . . Lincoln’s Code is both a celebratory chronicle of American lawmaking and a gruesome record of American wartime cruelty. . . . This monumental book, resting on colossal archival research and packed with memorable stories and arguments, is a major contribution to making sense of ours.” (Gary J. Bass The New York Times Book Review)

"[W]ell-written and fascinating . . . . The value of Witt’s account is that it shows how the answer to [where we draw lines] has changed over the centuries—and how, whether in the Civil War or the War on Terror, our political leaders have struggled to reconcile the sometimes competing demands of humanitarianism and justice." (Max Boot Commentary Magazine)

“[A] sweeping history of American engagement with the idea that the brutality of war should be constrained by humanitarian rules.” (Jennifer Schuessler The New York Times)

"[A] significant work. . . . Witt establishes and supports a provocative case that the [law of war] reflects two competing, fundamental American ideals: humanitarianism and justice." (Publishers Weekly)

"Artfully mixing law, history, and sharp analysis, [Witt] examines the persistent struggle to reconcile justice and humanitarianism in America’s conduct of war... Truly remarkable, composed with all the precision and insight you expect from a law professor, marked by all the elegance and sparkling readability you don’t." (Kirkus (starred review))

“A gripping narrative of the struggle to maintain the aspiration to honor, decency and common humanity amidst the brutal imperatives of war—from our war for independence, through the Civil War to the suppression of the insurrection in the Philippines. At the center John Witt places the first code for the conduct of war, promulgated by Lincoln during the darkest days of the Civil War: harsh, relentless, realistic, yet placing firm limits forbidding torture, the abuse of prisoners, treachery and purposeful harm to civilians. This book is an important addition to the ever-growing monument to our greatest and most complex national leader.” (Charles Fried, author, with Gregory Fried, of Because It Is Wrong: Torture, Privacy and Presidential Power in the Age of Terror)

About the Author

John Fabian Witt is the Allen H. Duffy Class of 1960 Professor of Law at Yale Law School, a professor in the Yale history department, and a Guggenheim Foundation fellow. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Slate, the Harvard Law Review, and the Yale Law Journal, among other publications. Witt is the author of The Accidental Republic, which was awarded book prizes by the Harvard Press Board of Syndics, the American Society for Legal History, and the Law and Society Association.

Product Details

  • File Size: 27414 KB
  • Print Length: 513 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 1416576177
  • Publisher: Free Press (September 4, 2012)
  • Sold by: Simon and Schuster Digital Sales Inc
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B005HF4DZG
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  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #507,972 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

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27 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A clearly written historical legal text October 2, 2012
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is a well and clearly written, detailed discussion of the development of the Laws of War from the viewpoint of the USA as developed over the years of our Revolutionary War to President's Lincoln's General Orders Number 100, 1862, on the conduct of War during our Civil War. The horrors of war are presented in a nuanced fashion to show the reasons for the developments, but not in such detail as to be gory or dwelled upon. Many references and contrasts are made to current Geneva Conventions, thus enabling the reader to position the work in modern as well as historical terms. There are several excellent condensations of Congressional arguments, such as the attempt by Henry Clay and others to censure Andrew Jackson's execution of two British Citizen's in North Florida, 2 years before Jackson was elected President. The comparisons of our Native American Laws of War with those of Europe, and the response of the USA working to develop it's own Laws of War are the clearest I have ever read. This book is actually a legal text and includes much detailed history of the development of a complex topic. A fair knowledge of American History is prerequisite to reading this book as many items in our history are referenced as if generally known and understood beyond a high school level of understanding. This would be an excellent addition to any Civil War buff's library or as additional reading at the college or law school, or military academy level.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars So relevant to today! November 18, 2012
Most people glancing at this title will think it primarily as a study of Lincoln's conduct and prosecution of the Civil War and indeed that isn't necessarily incorrect. What Witt instead presents is how Lincoln's conduct during the war created a legal basis for what was to would later become the Geneva Convention treaties for how to conduct war. Civil Wars by their very nature tend to be more vicious and Lincoln sought to create rules of engagement and conduct that would minimize the potential for harm to civilians, prisoners of war, and conduct on the battlefield, in the process reshaping how wars were fought. The principles Lincoln created began to be used by other combatants in succeeding wars and in the process led to the creation of the Geneva Convention treaty in 1864 and further treaties signed in 1906, 1929, and 1949. Lincoln was part of a broader movement of reformers such as Clara Barton and Henry Dunant who sought more humane treatment of the sick and wounded, but it was largely what Lincoln created that would be drawn upon in later years. We primarily think of Lincoln's steadfast leadership during the war and his ultimate sacrifice to the cause of preserving the Union, but rarely think of his actions resonate through to today in very real terms.

Much of what Lincoln created would also often come to be abused by succeeding Presidents, as with the Wilson era Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918, to FDR's internment of Japanese - Americans under Executive Order 9066 and the Supreme Court's rulings in Korematsu v. United States (1944) and Ex Parte Endo (1944), to George W. Bush's use of Guantanamo, black sites overseas and so much more.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Well written history March 25, 2013
I was curious about the history of an executive order by Lincoln during a war that featured much barbarity and wanton destruction. Witt uses the bulk of the book discussing Lincoln's order but starts with a good survey of law, prior to Lincoln, in an area that has no judges.

Good legal writing is about raising the correct issues. Witt has uncovered an era in american history, pre-civil war, and a topic, law of war, that is neglected and obscure. However, the cases dealing with property in wartime, maritime law, and civilian and military personel, was well known in Lincoln's era and heavily influenced Lincoln, who spent decades of his life reading and practicing law.

His writing style is clear and intelligent and most of all objective; he does not provide all the answers. Lincoln would not have wanted to be remembered by the hagiographic treatments that continue to this day, but by the product of his work, the pieces of paper that he, as a legal mind of depth, put a lot of effort into.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Pioneering work December 27, 2012
By JimR
This is American legal history at its best, tons of intormation, but more importantly a careful weighing of the various views possible re the laws of war, their purpose, their efficacy, and their overall importance to America and the world. Excellent.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Laws of war, emancipation and beyond May 15, 2013
By Gderf
'Lincoln's Code' by John Fabian Witt is largely about Francis Leiber and his rules of war that found expression in Lincoln's General Orders No.100. It was developed at the same time as the EP with interesting implications that I don't fully understand. It served later as a blueprint for the Hague and Geneva conferences. Witt is careful to point out that GO No. 100 made no difference in the conduct of the CW. The most interesting controversy discussed, without conclusion, is on the morality of freeing slaves or inciting insurrection. Both the EP and Leiber's rules renounce support for a slave insurrection. Is that why it didn't happen?

Sherman's depredations are analyzed with relation to rules of war. His conclusion, later ratified by Moltke, was that hard total war was beneficial to all if it shortened the war. I suppose that was the theory followed by Truman in deciding on the A-bomb. In its day the most important issue was confiscation and destruction of property, including slaves. Today the code still guides on issues of torture and genocide.

There's interesting legal considerations in the trials of the Booth conspirators and Vallandingham and Milligan and earlier in the prize cases. The book goes on to the role of Alfred Thayer Mahon in developing rules of naval power and later modern developments. An interesting preliminary was Lord Dunwoodie's proclamation freeing slaves of rebels in the Revolutionary War. It seems that Lincoln wasn't the first with a war measure EP. (I discount Fremont and Hunter.) Jackson's excesses against Creeks, Seminoles and purported British spies are covered along with Clay's censure.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the code is that war involves all citizens of the enemy nations, not limited to the military.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Great book
Published 5 months ago by Victoria A Willette
5.0 out of 5 stars Easy to read and highly educational
I found this book to be easy to read and high educational. I am a new student of the Civil War and this book provided insights into the laws of war and their use in the... Read more
Published 5 months ago by Ev_Flyfish
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
got it as a gift for someone
Published 6 months ago by Kathleen F. Parisi
5.0 out of 5 stars Great History!
John Fabian Witt's book Lincoln's Code: The Laws of War in American History was recently honored with a well-deserved Bancroft prize. Read more
Published 6 months ago by Christopher Kelly
5.0 out of 5 stars A History of the Rules of Warfare
The laws of war govern the conduct of nations at war. They are generally agreed terms that are internationally recognized as to how warfare is to be conducted, and what actions... Read more
Published 7 months ago by James D. Miller
4.0 out of 5 stars Code of conduct for the war
Great book on a little studied subject. The book talks about troops conduct during war and the genesis of code of war. Read more
Published 10 months ago by sherifmd
5.0 out of 5 stars Great historical book!
Insightful about historical facts that are important even today! A reading for all interested in the civil war and its different influences.
Published 13 months ago by Esperanza Suarez
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating read about how the "laws" and "ethics" of war arose.
Completely surprised me about how the origins of behavior in war arose. I am only part way into the book, but have very much enjoyed what I have read so far. Read more
Published 14 months ago by Mark M.
5.0 out of 5 stars A gift for my Mother
This was a gift for my Mother and she enjoyed the book immensely. She would recommend this book to a friend.
Published 17 months ago by Sarah Carlson
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent summary
Fascinating history of the subject. Well-written and well worth reading to understand the development of the law of war. Highly recommended.
Published 23 months ago by M. J. Newhouse
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More About the Author

John Fabian Witt is Allen H. Duffy Class of 1960 Professor of Law at Yale Law School. He writes in the history of American law and in torts, including Lincoln's Code: The Laws of War in American History (Free Press, September 2012), Patriots and Cosmopolitans: Hidden Histories of American Law (Harvard University Press, 2007), and the prizewinning book, The Accidental Republic: Crippled Workingmen, Destitute Widows, and the Remaking of American Law (Harvard University Press, 2004), as well as articles in the American Historical Review, the Columbia Law Review, the Harvard Law Review, the Yale Law Journal, and other scholarly journals. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Slate, and The Washington Post and he has been a guest on NPR's All Things Considered. In 2010 he was awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship for his project on the laws of war in American history. Professor Witt is a graduate of Yale Law School and Yale College and he holds a Ph.D. in history from Yale. Before returning to Yale, he was the George Welwood Murray Professor of Legal History at Columbia University. He served as law clerk to Judge Pierre N. Leval on the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

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