During its classical period, American contract law had three prominent characteristics: nearly unlimited freedom to choose the contents of a contract, a clear separation from the law of tort (the law of civil wrongs), and the power to make contracts without regard to the other party's ability to understand them. Combining incisive historical analysis with a keen sense of judicial politics, W. David Slawson shows how judges brought the classical period to an end about 1960 with a period of reform that continues to this day.
American contract law no longer possesses any of the prominent characteristics of its classical period. For instance, courts now refuse to enforce standard contracts according to their terms; they implement the consumer's reasonable expectations instead. Businesses can no longer count on making the contracts they want: laws for certain industries or for businesses generally set many business obligations regardless of what the contracts say. A person who knowingly breaches a contract and then tries to avoid liability is subject to heavy penalties.
As Slawson demonstrates, judges accomplished all these reforms, although with some help from scholars. Legislation contributed very little despite its presence in massive amounts and despite the efforts of modern institutions of law reform such as the Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws. Slawson argues persuasively that this comparison demonstrates the superiority of judge-made law to legislation for reforming private law of any kind.