Willard Hurst, Technological Change, and the Transformation of American Public Law

The University of Wisconsin’s James Willard Hurst was arguably the most significant legal historian in the United States. Hurst not only launched the so-called “new” legal history as an alternative to traditional constitutional narrative, but he also founded the interdisciplinary field of “law and society” more generally. And Hurst is most famous for some of his more general observations about the relationship between economic development and the growth of American law. As Lawrence Friedman put it, “[O]n the general question of the relationship between law and the economy, the pioneer work of J. Willard Hurst is still a fundamental starting point. . . .” Much of that work concerned the nineteenth century and law’s role in what Hurst talked about as “the release of creative energy.”