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Lincoln's Code

Lincoln's Code

The Laws of War in American History

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.
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  • Free Press | 
  • 512 pages | 
  • ISBN 9781416576174 | 
  • July 2013
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Video

The Great Forgotten Character of the Civil War

Author John Witt chronicles the forgotten Civil War character Francis Lieber and his codifying of the laws of war.

Read an Excerpt

Lincoln’s Code Chapter 1 The Rights of Humanity


The authorized maxims and practices of war are the satire of human nature.

—Alexander Hamilton, 1780

IN 1754, a rash young officer in the Virginia militia became for a short while the world’s most notorious violator of the laws and usages of war. The officer, a twenty-two-year-old... see more

About the Author

John Fabian Witt
Photograph by Christopher Capozziello

John Fabian Witt

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.

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