Through a series of eleven well-researched essays, Mark Weston Janis’s America and the Law of Nations 1776-1939 explores the origins of America’s complex relationship with international law. Janis, William F. Starr Professor of Law at the University of Connecticut School of Law and author of three law school books and over 50 articles on international law, focuses on select key individuals and events that shaped America’s early approach to the discipline. This collection of essays is the successor text to Janis’s book, The American Tradition of International Law: Great Expectations 1789-1914. Readers familiar with Janis’s first text may find America and the Law of Nations 1776-1939 slightly repetitive, as his second book offers many of the same discussions and arguments, but in a broader, more in-depth manner.
Both the historical coverage and Janis’s thorough research make America and the Law of Nations 1776-1939 an appropriate purchase for any academic law library. Indeed, the text’s true value rests in its breadth and depth of coverage. Logically, Janis begins with a discussion on the concepts of the law of nations and international law. Where did the concepts originate? What do they really mean? Janis ultimately concludes the concepts, much like America’s early approach to the discipline, are anything but simple. In fact, the concepts are no less ambiguous today than they were when William Blackstone and Jeremy Bentham introduced them.
The remainder of Janis’s book focuses on the historical characters and events that influenced America’s perception of international law from its founding until the onset of World War II. Janis discusses how America’s founders, Jefferson and Madison, relied on the law of nations to legitimize America’s independence and sovereignty when drafting the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. Janis also discusses the role and contributions of “skeptics and believers” such as Kent, Wheaton, Dodge, Worcester, Ladd, Burritt, Root, and Scott. Janis then addresses the importance of the Alabama arbitration, decisions such as Dred Scott v. Sandford and Missouri v. Holland, and the creation of the League of Nations, World Court, International Law Association, and American Society of International Law. Janis concludes his work by examining Woodrow Wilson’s changing views of international law and how the end of World War I ushered in a new era of isolationism in America.
Despite its breadth and depth, the book does have a few notable weaknesses. Specifically, the text as a whole and the structure within the chapters are somewhat clunky. While Janis succeeds in compiling over 150 years of scholarship and historical events into a mere 232 pages, he fails to transform eleven distinct essays into one cohesive story. The reader is left with a vast amount of information, but little explanation to connect the essays together. Janis’s work might have benefited from introductory and concluding chapters, as well as a more evident overarching thesis. Moreover, individual chapters might have been more reader-friendly if Janis had relied less heavily on block quotations.
Shortcomings aside, Janis’s book is a welcome addition to the canon of international law scholarship. Janis’s latest text is not the first book to address America’s early relationship with international law, but it is one of the few to place the key people, institutions, and events into historical context. Libraries and researchers alike will find the footnotes alone make Janis’s America and the Law of Nations 1776-1939 worth adding to their collections.
Review by Donna J. Bowman, research and faculty services librarian at the SMU Dedman School of Law Underwood Law Library in Dallas.