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.
This significant work by Witt, a professor at Yale Law School, adds to the history of the Civil War, and of America's major contribution, starting with the Revolution, to the idea that war's conduct can be regulated by law. That notion originated in December 1862, when Abraham Lincoln commissioned Francis Lieber to develop a code for the Union Army that summarized the customary rules for armies in combat as understood by all the armies of Europe. The code's 157 articles, short and pithy, define right conduct in specific situations and establish the reasoning and the principles underlying the rules. Its author, not a lawyer but a professor of history and political science, produced "a working document for the soldier and the layman." Witt (The Accidental Republic) establishes and supports a provocative case that the code reflects two competing, fundamental American ideals: humanitarianism and justice. Their interaction means America's laws regulating war have been developed in the context of a distinctively destructive American style of war making. They have been repeatedly adapted to fit "the felt imperatives of the moment." But, Witt suggests, war's laws are more than self-interested redefinitions. Their durability and the equally durable debates surrounding them offer reasonable expectations, though not utopian hopes.