American Contagions: Epidemics and the Law from Smallpox to Covid-19

American Contagions: Epidemics and the Law from Smallpox to Covid-19

Yale University Press

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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?

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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.


Pub Date: 2020
Format: Hardback
Pages: 184
Size: 5.00 x 8.00 inches


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