Yale Law School’s John Fabian Witt on the Malleability of Public Values

Convening Yale

Public values—those shared social assumptions about issues like race and gender equality—are not a set of fixed principles reaching back to the founding of the United States, argues John Fabian Witt YC ’94, LAW ’99, PhD ’00, the Allen H. Duffy Class of 1960 Professor of Law at Yale Law School. Rather, says Witt, public values are shaped and reshaped over time, often thanks to the influence of the work of institutions.

Witt discussed the creation of public values in American life on April 21 as part of Yale SOM’s Convening Yale series. The series brings scholars from across the university to Edward P. Evans Hall to share their research and expertise with students. Witt’s presentation, “The American Fund: A Story of Money and Politics in America,” was based on his forthcoming book, which explores the Garland Fund, a 1920s foundation that financed a variety of left-wing and progressive organizations; its grant to the NAACP helped launch the legal campaign that culminated in Brown v. the Board of Education.

Witt said that the history of institutions like the Garland Fund provides a useful lens through which to understand the transformation of American public values. “The law ends up encoding public values—the values that we share in some complicated way, the values we talk about, the values we disagree about in our public life—into institutions,” he said. As an institution, “the Garland Fund is an occasion for a set of hugely important social conversations… The experiments they finance are the output of these conversations and are shaping them as they move forward. The ideas that are flowing across those tables are, I think, the ideas that are reshaping the basic public values of American constitutionalism.”

During his research, Witt said, he has concluded that the United States’ openness to ideas makes it a unique breeding ground for the transformation of public values through progressive reforms undertaken by institutions.

“There’s something about a system that’s open to civil society engagement that makes it more nimble, flexible, and dynamic,” he said.

About the Event

Please join us on Thursday, April 21 for Convening Yale with John Witt YC '94 LAW '99 PhD' 00, Allen H.  Duffy Class of 1960 Professor of Law. Professor Witt will be discussing the history of the American Fund for Public Service, a 1920s foundation which gave away a Wall Street fortune to liberal causes. The story of the Fund is a story of the distinctive power of private foundations as a tool for disruption and change in American politics — and also of their dangers.  

John Fabian Witt is Allen H. Duffy Class of 1960 Professor of Law at Yale Law School. His most recent book Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History was awarded the 2013 Bancroft Prize, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, was selected for the American Bar Association's Silver Gavel Award, and was a New York Times Notable Book for 2012. Professor Witt is currently writing the story of the men and women behind the Garland Fund: the 1920s foundation that quietly financed the efforts that culminated in Brown v. Board of Education. He is finishing a casebook, Torts: Cases, Principles, and Institutions, forthcoming with CALI, and co-editing a scholarly edition of a lost nineteenth-century manuscript on martial law, tentatively titled To Save the Country: A Lost Manuscript of the Civil War Constitution (with Will Smiley).

Previous writing includes Patriots and Cosmopolitans: Hidden Histories of American Law (Harvard University Press, 2007), and the prizewinning book, The Accidental Republic: Crippled Workingmen, Destitute Widows, and the Remaking of American Law (Harvard University Press, 2004), as well as articles in the American Historical Review, the Columbia Law Review, the Harvard Law Review, the Yale Law Journal, and other scholarly journals. He has written for the New York Times, Slate, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post. In 2010 he was awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship for his project on the laws of war in American history. Professor Witt is a graduate of Yale Law School and Yale College and he holds a Ph.D. in history from Yale. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He served as law clerk to Judge Pierre N. Leval on the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

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