Charles Fried’s Contract as Promise stands as a model of principled legal argument. It took a single, integrating thought—that a promise lies at the heart of every contract—and then reconstructed broad swaths of doctrine as elaborations of that thought.
The book’s argument is all the more impressive because the promissory ideal in whose name it seeks to unify contract law is not straightforward. On the contrary, grounding contract in promise highlights two of contract law’s most distinctive yet least understood features: that the law establishes liability strictly, rather than based on fault; and that it creates forward-looking rather than the usual backward-looking entitlements, entitlements to be made better off rather than to secure the status quo ante. These features of promissory obligation have long been considered mysterious by a chain of thinkers whose pedigree goes back at least to David Hume and, in the law, to Lon Fuller and William Perdue.
Fried understood the unusualness of promissory obligation and hence the shaky foundation that emphasizing promise places beneath contract law. He thus began Contract as Promise by addressing the problem of establishing the ground of promise head on, in two separate ways. . . .