Samuel Williston

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For the paleontologist, see Samuel Wendell Williston.
Samuel Williston
Born (1861-09-24)September 24, 1861
Died February 18, 1963(1963-02-18) (aged 101)
Nationality United States
Fields Legal studies
Institutions Harvard Law School
Notable students Felix Frankfurter

Samuel Williston (September 24, 1861 – February 18, 1963) was an American lawyer and law professor.

Early in Williston's career, from 1888 to 1889 he worked as the private secretary to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Horace Gray. In the summer of 1889, he helped to collate laws from various U.S. states in order to help formulate the state constitutions of North Dakota and South Dakota.

From 1895 to 1938, Williston was a law professor at Harvard Law School, and in 1910, he briefly served as acting dean. Amongst his most important contributions at this time were the drafting of four laws aimed at providing national commerce with a legally uniform architecture. The Uniform Laws of Sales (1906), Warehouse Receipts (1906), Bills of Lading (1909), and Stock Transfers (1909) would in fact serve as precedents for the construction of the Uniform Commercial Code some decades later.

He became a consultant for the Boston law firm Hale & Dorr from 1938 to 1956, during which time he was engaged in some Supreme Court cases such as Kneeland v. AT&T and Chase National Bank v. Sayles. Williston unsuccessfully argued for the defense in the case of Boston & Maine Railroad v. Hooker before the U.S. Supreme Court on December 10 and 11, 1913.

Williston wrote five volumes of his legal treatise, "The Law of Contracts", which was first published during the span of 1920 to 1922. The treatise was widely acclaimed as the foremost authority on the topic and was later enlarged in 1938. As Michael Looney noted in the Boston College Law Review (of the 3rd edition): "In the forty years since the original edition appeared, it has gained a pre-eminent place in that field. Quoted or cited by the courts of the United States, Great Britain, and its Dominions as well, it has become the standard authority."[1]

In 1932, Williston served as reporter for the First Restatement of Contracts, a highly influential publication in the legal community. This treatise continues to exist to this day, currently edited by Richard A. Lord, professor at Campbell University Norman Adrian Wiggins School of Law.

In 1929, Williston was honored with the very first American Bar Association Medal for "conspicuous service to American jurisprudence."[2]

In a 1963 Harvard Law Review essay, Justice Felix Frankfurter lauded Williston as being the “greatest artist in teaching.”[3]

Williston is the namesake of the Williston Negotiation Competition at Harvard Law School.

He, his work and his insistence on contractual formalism are often compared and contrasted to those of Yale Law School professor Arthur Linton Corbin, developer of the philosophy of law known as legal realism. Corbin was the writer of Corbin on Contracts and his influence is more evident in the Uniform Commercial Code and the Restatement (Second) of Contracts.[4]


  1. ^ Looney, Michael Leo (1960). "Williston: Treatise on the Law of Contracts, Third Edition, Vols. I and 2". Boston College Law Review. Newton, Massachusetts: Boston College Law School. 2: 191. Retrieved August 7, 2014. 
  2. ^ Samuel Williston: Dean of America's Legal Profession
  3. ^ Frankfurter, Felix (1963). "Samuel Williston: An Inadequate Tribute to a Beloved Teacher". Harvard Law Review. 76: 1321. 
  4. ^ Linzer, Peter (2002). "The Comfort of Certainty: Plain Meaning and the Parole Evidence Rule". Fordham Law Review. 71: 799. Retrieved August 5, 2014. 

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