About J. Willard Hurst


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."

[Biography prepared by the Institute for Legal Studies, University of Wisconsin Law School.]


  • 1910, October 6. Born in Rockford, IL
  • 1932, Graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Williams College
  • 1935, Graduated top of his class at Harvard Law School
  • 1935-36, Research assistant for Felix Frankfurter at Harvard Law School
  • 1936-37, Law Clerk for Justice Louis D. Brandeis, United States Supreme Court
  • Fall 1937, Hired by Dean Lloyd Garrison to University of Wisconsin Law School Faculty
    • With Dean Garrison, developed the Law & Society course
    • Conceived of as “an introductory course to be offered in the first semester of law school to introduce students to methods of legal analysis and thinking, and methods of thinking about public policy dealt with in law.”*
    • UW Law School was very innovative with this course because very few other schools were offering such courses.
    • “Our intent had been to make this sort of an elementary course in jurisprudence, legal philosophy. And therefore we interwove with the specific Wisconsin stories extracts from treatises and law review articles on general problems of jurisprudence. . . . We were constantly weaving back and forth between a very particularized concrete case history of the actual growth of a body of public policy doctrine and a body of general jurisprudential writing. The hope being that both sides of that would take on more meaning for the students by being interwoven that way.”*
  • 1941, Married to Frances Hurst
  • 1942-46, Left UW for World War II
    • 1942-43, Board of Economic Warfare, General Counsel’s Office
    • 1943-46, Lieutenant in Naval Reserve
      • 1944, Helped prepared first modern treason case to come before the US Supreme Court
  • 1946, Returned to UW Law School as full professor
    • Spent half time teaching and half time researching
    • Devoted himself to developing the field of American legal economic history
    • “My center of focus has always been on relations of law to the development of the American economy.”*
  • 1950, Publication first book, The Growth of American Law & Law Makers
    • Book offered a general background on American legal history - the first of its kind
  • Early 50s, Began work on Law and Economic Growth: The Legal History of the Wisconsin Lumber Industry (not finished & published until 1964)
    • Continued the method of weaving specific WI economic example with the broad sociological & jurisprudential aspects
    • Of all this publications, this is the one with which he was most satisfied.*
  • 1956, Began period of lecturing at various universities with accompanying publications
  • 1956, Publication Law and the Conditions of Freedom in the Nineteenth Century (Northwestern lecture)
    • Surprisingly popular because many legal history programs were just beginning at law schools and a text was needed
  • 1960, Awarded one of first Vilas Research Professorships
  • 1960, Publication Law and Social Process in US History (University of Michigan - Cooley lectures)
  • 1964, Publication Law and Economic Growth: The Legal History of the Wisconsin Lumber Industry
  • 1964, Publication Justice Holmes on Legal History
  • 1964, Establishment of the Law and Society Association
  • 1970, Publication The Legitimacy of the Business Corporation in the Law of the United States, 1780-1970
  • 1971, Publication of groundbreaking article “Legal Elements in US History”
  • 1971, Publication The Law of Treason in the United States. Collected Essays
  • 1973, Publication A Legal History of Money in the United States, 1774-1970
  • 1977, Publication of Law and Social Order in the United States
  • 1978, Spring semester taught at the University of Florida, Holland Law Center (Gainesville, FL)
  • 1980, Publication The Functions of Courts in the United States, 1950-1980
  • 1982, Publication Dealing with Statutes
  • 1982, Publication of Law and Markets in US History: Different Modes of Bargaining among Interests
  • 1997, June 18 Died at age 86

* From "J. Willard Hurst: An Interview Conducted by Laura L. Smail." (Madison: University Archives Oral History Project, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1981). Series 8, Box 1, Folders 1 and 2.

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