From John Fabian Witt, author of Patriots and Cosmopolitans: Hidden Histories of American Law, in today's Washington Post:
We all know that the Declaration of Independence announced the United States' freedom from the British Empire. We all remember that it declared certain truths to be self-evident. But what you probably haven't heard is that the declaration also advanced an idea about war. The idea was that war ought to be governed by law.
In late June 1776, as the first detachments of what was to become a sizable British force were landing 90 miles away in New York, Thomas Jefferson and the Continental Congress in Philadelphia drew up charges denouncing King George III to the world. The accusations were to serve as the core of the declaration. The climactic final charges, for which the rest were prologue, indicted the king for war crimes.
Britain's navy, wrote Jefferson and the Congress, had "plundered our Seas," while its armies had "ravaged our Coasts, burnt our Towns, and destroyed the Lives of our People." Jefferson accused the British of employing legions of foreign mercenaries to commit acts of death and desolation "scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous Ages," acts unworthy of civilized nations. He charged British forces with taking Americans hostage and compelling them to bear arms against their own country. He and the Congress concluded their litany of war crimes by condemning the king's two most fiendish offenses against the laws of war: inciting slave insurrections and encouraging attacks by "merciless Indian Savages, whose known Rule of Warfare, is an undistinguished Destruction, of all Ages, Sexes and Conditions."...
The declaration was the beginning of a remarkable but now little-remembered American tradition in the laws of war.
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