To understand what drew John Witt to study law and history, we need look no further than the title of his forthcoming book. The Accidental Republic: Amputee Workingmen and Destitute Widows in the Remaking of American Law (Harvard University Press, 2003) examines the development of American tort law at the turn of the 20th century. It was awarded the 2002 Thomas J. Wilson Prize for the best first book accepted by the press.
"Accident law intensely concerns the lives of ordinary people," Prof. Witt comments. "Through the study of legal history and such areas as accident law, we are broadening the view of who counts in assessing how laws are made. Laws are not made only by judges. Social movements like the workers' rights and civil rights movements have had a profound effect in shaping law."
Prof. Witt joined the Law School faculty in 2001, after receiving a J.D. (1999) and Ph.D. in history (2000) at Yale. He teaches courses in American legal history and a seminar in which students undertake original research suitable for publication, making use of primary source materials through such resources as New York City's municipal archives.
"When students look at legal history, there's a tendency to write a grand narrative that leads to our current condition, without looking at the paths that were not taken, for better or worse," he says. "Studying the history of law destabilizes our certainty about the present." This, Prof. Witt believes, is essential for rewriting the canon of law school study and challenging students to think about how the law may be shaped in the future.
His aims are supported by collaboration between faculty in the Law School and the University's history department and what he sees as an exciting climate for legal history at Columbia.
"My next project could be a study of the legal consciousness of a slave woman in the 18th century American South or the rise of statistical ways of thinking in the late 19th century or a biographical study of a great 20th century law expert," he says. "All of these topics come under the umbrella of American legal history. That's what makes the field so exciting."