University of Wisconsin–Madison

More on J. Willard Hurst

James Willard Hurst (1910-1997)

J. Willard Hurst was born October 6, 1910, in Rockford, Illinois. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Williams College in 1932 and attended Harvard Law School, where he graduated at the top of his class in 1935. He then worked as a research fellow for Felix Frankfurter at Harvard and clerked for Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis. He joined the faculty of the University of Wisconsin Law School in 1937, was active on the faculty for 44 years, and continued his research, writing and mentoring until his death in 1997.

Hurst is generally recognized as the father of modern American legal history. He taught that law can not be studied as a system apart from the society that created it, emphasized that the courts are only one – and not necessarily the most important -- of the many legal actors and institutions, and brought the American legal experience into the mainstream of economic and social history. He rejected the view that legal doctrine is a self-contained, timeless body of ideas and principles and the assumption that the history of law was the history of appellate courts' decisions. Rather, he argued that law is the product of social, economic, and cultural forces. He also argued that in American history, law has been a creative instrument in the hands not just of judges and lawyers but of a wide range of citizens. By emphasizing factors beyond legal doctrine and by altering the way people think about time, place, and change itself, Hurst enlivened and transformed an entire academic field.

Hurst published over three dozen books and scholarly articles and mentored young scholars who, in turn, have had their own distinguished careers in law and history. During his lifetime he received numerous prizes and honors, and his work remains at the core of legal history scholarship today. In 1975, the Law and Society Review devoted a double issue to essays honoring him; in 1980, the Law and Society Association established the James Willard Hurst Prize in Legal History; in 2000, the Law & History Review published a festschrift in his honor; and in 2001, the American Society for Legal History and the Institute for Legal Studies created the Hurst Summer Institute in Legal History to assist legal historians early in their careers.

Hurst's major works include Law and The Conditions of Freedom in The Nineteenth-century United States (1956), which is perhaps his best known work; Law and Economic Growth: The Legal History of the Wisconsin Lumber Industry 1835-1916 (1964), his massive study of the impact of law on the state's lumber industry; The Growth of American Law: The Law Makers (1950); Law and Social Process in U.S. History (1960); Law and Social Order in the United States (1977); Law and Markets in U.S. History: Different Modes of Bargaining among Interests (1983); and "Legal Elements in U.S. History"(1971), his pioneering methodological article.

While Hurst had many opportunities to leave Wisconsin, he spent his entire academic career there. In 1990, he remarked during an interview with The New York Times that he turned down a chair at Harvard and the deanship of Yale Law School because "I was having too good a time in Wisconsin."

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