American Contagions: Epidemics and the Law from Smallpox to COVID-19 (Paperback)

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A concise history of how American law has shaped—and been shaped by—the experience of contagion, "taking us from the smallpox outbreaks of the colonies to COVID-19. . . . The conclusion [Witt] arrives at is devastating." (Jennifer Szalai, New York Times)

"One wishes that, six months ago, every member of Congress and the Trump administration had been forced to read and reckon with the history Witt neatly summarizes. But now in the aftermath of a close, bitterly fought election, let’s hope that this book will help America chart its way forward."—Jill Filipovic, Washington Post

From yellow fever to smallpox to polio to AIDS to COVID-19, epidemics have prompted Americans to make choices and answer questions about their basic values and their laws. In five concise chapters, historian John Fabian Witt traces the legal history of epidemics, showing how infectious disease has both shaped, and been shaped by, the law. Arguing that throughout American history legal approaches to public health have been liberal for some communities and authoritarian for others, Witt shows us how history’s answers to the major questions brought up by previous epidemics help shape our answers today: What is the relationship between individual liberty and the common good? What is the role of the federal government, and what is the role of the states? Will long-standing traditions of government and law give way to the social imperatives of an epidemic? Will we let the inequities of our mixed tradition continue?

About the Author


John Fabian Witt is the Duffy Class of 1960 Professor of Law and History at Yale, where he serves as Head of Davenport College. He is author of the Bancroft Prize–winning Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History.


Product Details
ISBN: 9780300261516
ISBN-10: 0300261519
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication Date: October 26th, 2021
Pages: 184
Language: English