This paper synthesizes and refocuses a wide range of histories of nineteenth-century contract law. It shows how despite significant controversies among historians, a widely shared consensus has it that nineteenth-century contract law embodied an elaborate version of individualism; that the alternatives to its individualism were status and collectivism – but they functioned as external critiques until well into the twentieth century if not ever since, and so left contract’s conceptual link with individualism intact; and that the individualism grounded in contract law was in keeping with the individualism of its age.
The consensus effectively entrenches a questionable historical artifact: the idea of a single meaning of contract at the decisive era for modern contract law’s development. This idea’s persistence bears implications for present thought as it negotiates visions of contract, and as it explores law’s constitutive effects on social consciousness.
Rosenberg, Anat, Classical Contract Law, Past and Present (September 15, 2011).