Williston, Samuel

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Samuel Williston was a noted law professor and the primary authority on contract law in the United States during the early twentieth century. A professor of law at Harvard Law School from 1890 to 1938, his works The Law Governing Sales of Goods at Common Law and Under the Uniform Sales Act (1909) and The Law on Contracts (1920) are recognized as leading treatises.

Williston was born on September 24, 1861, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He earned a bachelors degree from Harvard University in 1882 and then worked for three years to earn the money needed to attend Harvard Law School. In 1888, Williston graduated from law school and established successful law practices in Boston and Cambridge.

In 1890, Williston accepted a professorship at Harvard Law School. As an assistant professor, Williston turned down many promising career opportunities, including offers of deanships at three other law schools and a position as reporter to the Massachusetts Supreme Court, which might have led to a judicial appointment on the state's highest court.

During his career at Harvard, Williston aligned himself with legal formalism, which in the early twentieth century dominated legal thought in the United States. Legal formalism views the law as a body of scientific rules from which legal decisions may be readily deduced. Existing rules are elevated into the category of self-evident truths. In practice, this meant that the law was unconcerned with social and economic forces.

The desire for form and structure permeates Williston's writings. According to Williston, the law must be stated as simply as possible, and it must be certain. If the law is simple and certain, he argued, parties can use it to resolve their disputes without litigation, as a sign of a sound legal system. Therefore, Williston believed, the ideal course for the law was the construction of broad, general rules.

Williston was able to apply his legal philosophy to the American Law Institute's Restatement of Contracts. The purpose of the Restatement was to set forth the basic principles of contract law by means of a coherent series of "black letter" principles, drafted with precision, that were consistent with the best traditions of the common law, rooted in precedent, yet flexible enough to accommodate growth and development in the law. Williston explained each principle with commentary and concrete examples of its application.

"The modern law rightly construes both acts and words as having the meaning which a reasonable person present would put upon them in view of the surrounding circumstances."
—Samuel Williston

further readings

Boyer, Allen D. 1994. "Samuel Williston's Struggle with Depression." Buffalo Law Review 42 (winter).

Williston, Samuel. 1940. Life and Law: An Autobiography. Boston: Little, Brown. Republished by Gaunt (Holmes Beach, Fla.), 1998.