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Lincoln's Code: The Laws of War in American History Hardcover – September 4, 2012

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Editorial Reviews


Pulitzer Prize Finalist
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“[A] magnificent new book . . . thrilling . . . . This monumental book, resting on colossal archival research and packed with memorable stories and arguments, is a major contribution.” (Gary J. Bass New York Times Book Review)

“[Lincoln’s Code] will please Civil War buffs, legal and military historians, and international lawyers alike. Witt’s research on letters, drafts, and other documents written by Lieber and the other major figures is impressive, and he presents it lucidly, fairly, and comprehensively, enabling the reader to draw his own conclusions.” (Eric Posner Slate)

"[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)

“Exhaustive, authoritative, written with drama and flair, Lincoln’s Code is a remarkable work about remarkable men. Witt examines the attitudes and actions that characterized military conduct prior to the Civil War, and then traces the impact of the Lieber Code on world affairs in the century and more that followed, all demonstrating what a genuinely unique and revolutionary act it was for Lincoln, his war leaders, and Lieber, to rise above their temporal conflict by attempting to make some sense out of chaos, and some humanity from inhumanity.” (William C. Davis History Book of the Month Club)

“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

Lincoln’s Code is a rich, subtle, and honest book that uncovers the deep impact of the laws of war in American history. It is chock full of truly novel insights. I learned a ton from it and will continue to learn a ton on rereading. It is a great book, one that will last forever."

—Jack Goldsmith, Harvard University, author of Power and Constraint: The Accountable Presidency After 9/11

“As bitter disputes still fester about how far Americans should submit to international legal rules, John Fabian Witt offers a dispassionate historical perspective and an insightful truth. From the beginning, Witt shows, America has proclaimed moral rules and deployed military force, no more paradoxically in combination than during our Civil War, in which Francis Lieber first codified the law of war for the world. Witt's book is deeply researched and beautifully written: an indispensable masterpiece for anyone who cares about how America's past bears on our present and future.”

—Samuel Moyn, Columbia University, author of The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History

“In this splendid and readable narrative, John Fabian Witt shows how Americans from the Founding Fathers to Abraham Lincoln argued, and sometimes agonized, over the elusive and indistinct boundary between the legitimate application of military force on behalf of the nation and crimes against humanity. Here is an original and important synthesis that helps illuminate our nation’s moral and political underpinnings, and establishes a context for modern considerations of the laws of war.”

—Craig L. Symonds, author of Lincoln and His Admirals and winner of the Lincoln Prize

“If there was ever a time for this book, it is now. As the war on terror continues unabated and controversy continues over the use of military commissions, detention, interrogation, due process and civil liberties, this extraordinary and well written account about the laws of war in America is a primer and road map for our citizens and those who are, or should be, trying to comprehend and prepare the legal and military processes for all present and future.”

—Frank J. Williams, Chief Justice (ret.), Supreme Court of R.I. and founding Chair, The Lincoln Forum

About the Author

John Fabian Witt is the Allen H. Duffy Class of 1960 Professor of Law at Yale Law School, a professor of history at Yale University, and a 2010 Guggenheim Foundation fellow. His writing has appeared in publications such as The New York Times, Slate, and the Harvard Law Review. He is the author of two previous books on the history of American law: Patriots and Cosmopolitans and The Accidental Republic.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press; First Edition first Printing edition (September 4, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1416569839
  • ISBN-13: 978-1416569831
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.6 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #427,580 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

27 of 28 people found the following review helpful By gt surber on 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 By Todd Bartholomew VINE VOICE on November 18, 2012
Format: Hardcover
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 By William Terry on March 25, 2013
Format: Hardcover
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 By JimR on December 27, 2012
Format: Hardcover
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 By Gderf on May 15, 2013
Format: Hardcover
'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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