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Formalism in American Contract Law: Classical and Contemporary

25 Pages Posted: 4 Apr 2006  

Mark L. Movsesian

St. John's University School of Law


This essay compares classical and contemporary formalism in American contract law. Using the work of Samuel Williston as an example, it argues that there are some unappreciated similarities between the two types of formalism, but also one major difference: compared to contemporary formalism, classical formalism was dramatically undertheorized. Given what they saw as their project, the classicists' lack of interest in theory is understandable. Unlike today's legal academics, classicists did not see themselves primarily as members of the university world. They thought of themselves primarily as lawyers and directed their scholarship primarily towards the profession. More than anything else, the difference between classical and contemporary formalism can be explained by the changing self-image of the American legal academy.

Keywords: Classical Legal Theory, Contracts, Formalism, Jurisprudence, Legal History, Williston

JEL Classification: K00, K10, K12, K19

Suggested Citation

Movsesian, Mark L., Formalism in American Contract Law: Classical and Contemporary. Hofstra Univ. Legal Studies Research Paper No. 06-8; Ius Gentium, Vol. 11, 2006 . Available at SSRN:

Mark L. Movsesian (Contact Author)

St. John's University School of Law ( email )

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