cover image Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History

Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History

John Fabian Witt. Free Press, $32 (512p) ISBN 978-1-4165-6983-1

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. Agent: Andrew Wylie. (Sept.)