Front Page Titles (by Subject) 61.: JOHN WILLIAM SALMOND, THE HISTORY OF CONTRACT 1 - Select Essays in Anglo-American Legal History, vol. 3
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61.: JOHN WILLIAM SALMOND, THE HISTORY OF CONTRACT 1 - Committee of the Association of American Law Schools, Select Essays in Anglo-American Legal History, vol. 3 
Select Essays in Anglo-American Legal History, by various authors, compiled and edited by a committee of the Association of American Law Schools, in three volumes (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1909). Vol. 3.
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THE HISTORY OF CONTRACT1
THE modern law of contract consists of a general theory, forming the bond of union between numerous, and otherwise unconnected, classes of contracts. This general theory is posterior in date to, and different in origin and history from, the particular contracts which it comprehends. Buying and borrowing, pledging and suretyship, cannot wait for the development of a refined system of law, and these processes must have been regulated by definite principles long before they were embraced in a comprehensive generalization. A complete history of contract must therefore consist of two parts. With the first of these, consisting in an enquiry into the origin and mode of development of the different species of contracts, we have not here to do. Our attention will be confined to the rise of the general principles that have given system and unity to the mass of detail.
The general theory of contract is almost entirely of domestic origin. In Bracton and Fleta indeed we find an attempt to employ the general principles of the Roman Law as a setting for English contracts,3 but the chief significance of this attempt lies in its failure. Perhaps in no other part of the law have Roman principles been so prominently introduced, only to be so completely rejected. The English law was thus left to fashion a theory of contract for itself. The manner in which it did so is an excellent illustration of the operation of modes of procedure in determining the development and form of the substantive law, for the history of the law of contract is almost entirely comprised in that of three forms of action. These are Debt, Covenant, and Assumpsit.
The first of these can be traced back to the beginnings of the law, but the earliest fact respecting it which need here be noticed is its division into the two actions of debt and detinue. Save for obscure hints in Bracton and Fleta,1 there seems to be no reference to this division in the early legal writers, though it appears as well established in the Year Books of Edward I.2 It was based, not, as is often said,3 on the distinction between money and chattels, but apparently on that between obligation and property. Detinue was an action for the recovery of money or chattels of which the plaintiff had the ownership; debt for the recovery of money or chattels over which the plaintiff’s right was merely in personam.4 This division had important effects upon the law of contract, for it is evident that all bailments would be relegated to the action of detinue. Now this action played no part in the development of the theory of contract, and bailments consequently remained outside that theory until the rise of the action of assumpsit restored them to their rightful position as a class of contracts. Furthermore this removal of bailments rendered possible, as will be seen later, an important generalization within the action of debt. It is evident that debt, as the general remedy for all obligations that gave rise to liquidated claims, must have had a scope in some respects wider and in some narrower than the sphere of contract. Since, however, the cases in which it was the remedy for causes of action not contractual were comparatively unimportant, they may be here neglected.
In every action of debt two elements were originally necessary, a justa causa debendi and a legal proof.1 There were within historical times two principal modes of proof, the carta or written acknowledgment, and the secta or train of witnesses. It is to this fact that we owe the distinction between specialty debts and debts on simple contract. With respect to the causae debendi the most important fact to be noticed is that among them the early law did not include a promise or agreement. The idea of the obligatory nature of a mere executory agreement seems to have been unknown, and part performance was a condition precedent to the existence of an obligation.2 Indeed it is doubtful whether an agreement was in any distinct manner recognised as an element of debt, or whether any conscious distinction was drawn between obligations ex contractu and any other form of obligation.3 It was an accident of procedure that first introduced into the law the principle of enforcing mere promises. A written acknowledgment of a debt, or written promise to pay it, was obviously the best evidence that could be obtained, and by a transition very natural to early law it passed from the position of good evidence to that of conclusive proof. This appears from Bracton: ‘Per scripturam vero obligatur quis, ut si quis scripserit alicui se debere, sive pecunia numerata sit sive non, obligatur ex scriptura, nec habebit exceptionem pecuniae non numeratae contra scripturam, quia scripsit se debere.’4 The obvious effect of this rule of evidence upon the substantive law was that a written promise to pay ceased to be a mere proof of an already existing debt, and became a causa debendi itself. Thus was introduced into the English law a formal contract, and it would seem that to this same application of estoppel early law is largely indebted for this class of contract. Thus in the law of Rome the contract literis and the release by acceptilatio are undoubted instances of the process,1 though to extend the same explanation to the stipulation might be overbold.
In debts proved by good suit, on the other hand, it remained necessary to allege an independent causa debendi. ‘En dette sur contract le plaintiff monstra in son count pur quel cause le defendant devient son dettour. Autrement in dette sur obligation, car l’obligation est contract in luy meme.’2 What then were these causae? To give a complete list of them is impracticable, but they were such transactions as sale, barter, loan (mutuum), and hiring of services. The common feature of them all was something given or done on one side in return for something to be given or done on the other. A generalization of the causae debendi was therefore possible, and this resulted in the well-known doctrine of quid pro quo. It was laid down that debt on a simple contract did not lie unless the defendant had received something in recompense for the obligation sought to be enforced against him.3 The cause that led to this explicit statement of what had been implicit from the earliest times was probably the disturbing influence of the idea that simple contract debts were really based upon promises, and the consequent necessity of defining the limits within which a promise was obligatory. In the early theory of contract quid pro quo, as yet ungeneralized, was the principal; the promise, if recognised at all, merely the accessory. With the progress of legal theory, however, this relation became reversed, and quid pro quo assumed the aspect of a limitation upon the binding effect of promises.
The exact date of this generalization is uncertain. What seems the earliest mention of the term occurs in 39 Ed. III,4 where however it is unconnected with contract. In 9 Hen. V1 debt was brought by a plaintiff who had released a judgment debtor on the promise of the defendant to become debtor in his stead. It was held that this was not sufficient matter in law to charge the defendant. This is a good example of the kind of case that must have led to the formulation of the doctrine of quid pro quo, but the report makes no use of that expression. In 7 Hen. VI we find an objection made to the absence of quid pro quo, though not in an action of debt,2 and thirty years later the rule is treated as perfectly familiar.3 In 16 Ed. IV4 it is remarked that ‘parols sans reason’ have no binding force. The principle in question has been somewhat hastily identified with the modern principle of consideration, but as we shall see it is very doubtful whether there is between them any historical connection whatever.
The second form of action to be considered is that of Covenant. By the time of Edward I this was fully established as a general contractual remedy by which damages could be obtained for the breach of any agreement under seal. It seems probable that this action passed into the law of contract from the law of real property, the earliest conventiones being leases of land for life or years.5 However this may be, its history as a general contractual remedy can be traced with considerable clearness in the early writers. Glanvil tells us that privatae conventiones were not enforceable.6 This assertion seems sometimes to be interpreted as meaning merely that contracts were invalid unless reduced to writing;7 but Glanvil himself defines privatae conventiones as agreements made anywhere save in the King’s Court. If not there made, no executory contract was enforceable whether reduced to writing or not. By the time of Bracton we find an advance in legal theory, for covenants are now enforced in the King’s Court not of right but occasionally de gratia. ‘Non solet aliquando necessitas imponi curiae domini regis de hujusmodi conventionibus privatis discutere. Sed tamen si quis a conventione recedat, succurritur alteri parti per actionem de conventione.’1 Finally in Fleta the foregoing passage is transcribed with an omission of all reference to the remedy being of grace rather than of right.2 Unlike debt and, as will be seen, unlike assumpsit, covenant was from the first recognised as a remedy for breach of promise. Unlike these actions therefore its origin imposed no limitation on its scope, and it threatened to become co-extensive with agreements. A limitation stringent enough however was imposed by the law of evidence. In 20 Ed. I3 a plaintiff offered good suit to prove his covenant, and it was decided that a writing was the only admissible proof of an agreement. This rule determined the whole future history of the law of contract, for it obtained recognition at a time when a writing meant a writing under seal, and covenant was thus restricted to a class of agreements that became narrower every day.
The limitations thus sought to be imposed on the law of contract proved too strait to be borne. A form of action never fashioned for that end was soon pressed into the service for which debt and covenant had proved inadequate, and this in process of time developed into the third and most important contractual remedy. Of the origin and nature of Trespass on the Case it is needless here to speak, but a subject deserving some consideration is the process by which it became a remedy for breach of contract. It was intended as a provision for those cases of damage to person or property that did not fall within the original scope of trespass. Now inasmuch as breach of contract is a fruitful source of damage to person and property, it is evident that in many instances trespass on the case must have been in reality a contractual remedy. Very frequently therefore an undertaking or assumpsit formed part of the circumstances of the case, and appeared in the count.1 This aspect of trespass on the case was early perceived, and the objection used at first to be brought that in such cases covenant was the appropriate and exclusive remedy. This, however, was overruled. Thus in 48 Ed. III, in an action against a surgeon for negligence, it is said: ‘This action of covenant is of necessity maintainable without specialty, because for every little thing a man cannot have a clerk to make a deed.’2 In a similar case in 11 Rich. II3 the contract was made in London, and the negligent performance of it occurred in Middlesex. A dispute arising as to the venue, it was decided that issue might be joined either on the assumpsit or on the ‘contrary medicines,’ and that the venue would be determined accordingly. This shows a distinct appreciation of the double character of the action, trespass from one point of view, covenant from another.
Now happened an event closely analogous to what we have already noticed in the history of debt. In trespass on the case, as in debt, a promise was not originally the cause of liability, but merely an accessory; in both actions the promise came subsequently to be regarded as the principal; and in both a consequent necessity arose of limiting the new principle by a generalized statement of the old. In debt this resulted, as has been seen, in the doctrine of quid pro-quo. In assumpsit it resulted first of all in the rule that the action lay for a breach of promise by malfeasance only, as distinguished from a breach by nonfeasance.4 This rule was evidently a recognition that the action, though from one point of view contractual, was in reality delictual. If it resulted from a mere omission, damage to the plaintiff’s person or property was not regarded as a cause of action; for, generally speaking, it is only through a contractual obligation that a man becomes liable for passively permitting another’s loss.
For a century the ‘merveillous ley’ that resulted from this distinction was subjected to a vigorous attack,1 until at last in 20 Hen. VII the efforts of the assailants proved victorious. In this year it was decided, in defiance of all precedent, that an action on the case lay for a nonfeasance. ‘If I covenant for money to build a house by such a day, and do it not, an action on the case lies for the nonfeasance.’2 This piece of judicial legislation obtained immediate recognition,3 and from this time the law of contract may be regarded as established in what is practically its modern form.
It might be supposed that after this extension assumpsit would become coextensive with parol agreements. Not so however. There is no more curious feature in the history of the English law of contract than the manner in which limitations were invariably imposed upon the scope of contractual remedies and the obligatory nature of agreements. The limitation now imposed upon assumpsit was the necessary result of the fact that it was an action ex delicto perverted into a contractual remedy. A purely delictual action is based upon detriment suffered by the plaintiff, and that detriment is the measure of damages. A purely contractual action, on the other hand, is based on breach of promise, whether accompanied by detriment or not, and the measure of damages is the benefit that would have resulted to the plaintiff from performance. The employment of an action ex delicto as a remedy for breach of contract naturally resulted in a union of these two principles; the real, though not the ostensible, cause of action continued to be injury to the plaintiff, but the amount of this injury was immaterial, for the measure of damages was, as in a true contractual action, the benefit that would have resulted from performance.4 This injury which, though an essential element, was neither the measure of damages nor the ostensible cause of action, operated as a limitation upon the action of assumpsit, and in a slightly modified form is still to be seen in the modern requirement of Consideration. It is true that valuable consideration is generally regarded as being of two kinds, only one of which consists in damage to the plaintiff. But even that form of consideration which consists in a benefit to the defendant ought logically and historically to be regarded as an injury to the plaintiff from whom it moves. And such is now the prevalent opinion. ‘Detriment to the promisee is a universal test of the sufficiency of consideration’ in assumpsit: Langdell, Summary, § 64.
The rule that assumpsit would not lie unless the plaintiff had suffered damage required and received distinct recognition on the extension of the action to nonfeasance. It was held that a breach of contract by nonfeasance, as a failure to build a house, was no ground of action unless loss had been incurred, as by prepayment of the price. In 21 Hen. VII, Chief Justice Frowike says, ‘I shall have a good action on my case by cause of the payment of the money, and without payment of the money in this case there is no remedy; and yet if he builds the house and does it badly, an action on my case lies. . . . And so it seems to me that in the case at bar the payment of the money is the cause of the action on the case.’1
It has been already said that this requirement of injury to the plaintiff, which existed in assumpsit as a relic of the original delictual character of the action, is represented with some modifications by the modern rule as to consideration. The cause and the significance of these modifications constitute the obscurest problem in the history of contract. The theory to be here advanced is that there is no historical connection between consideration and the original limitation of assumpsit, but that the former was an independent development in another part of the law, which by its strong analogy to the aforesaid limitation was enabled to introduce itself into assumpsit and to supplant the earlier principle. This process must have taken place between the end of the reign of Henry VII, when assumpsit was extended to nonfeasance, and the beginning of the reign of Elizabeth, in whose tenth year the later principle appears in an unmistakeable form.1 There can be little doubt that the idea of consideration received its first applications from the Court of Chancery, where it formed an essential part of the equitable doctrine of uses. It is needless here to enter into the details of the varied and extensive use made of this principle by equity; it is sufficient to mention the necessity for good consideration in covenants to stand seised to uses, in conveyances without declaration of uses, and in the alienation of land subject to uses. The application of consideration to the law of uses has been brought into special prominence, partly by the importance of this branch of equitable jurisdiction, and partly by the operation of the Statute of Uses; but there is no sufficient reason for supposing that this was the only equitable application of the principle. There are some grounds for believing that consideration was originally in equity, as subsequently in law, a principle of contract. That there was an equitable jurisdiction in contract is undoubted. In 8 Ed. IV2 the right to determine suits pro fidei laesione was distinctly claimed and exercised by the Chancellor. Fairfax, a judge of this reign, jealous of the growing jurisdiction, urged that the action on the case ought to be extended so as to obviate the necessity of an appeal to Chancery.1 From the Diversité de courtes2 we learn that ‘a man can have remedy in the Chancery for covenants made without specialty, if the party has sufficient proof of the covenants, since he is without remedy at the common law.’ It was doubtless in order to check the growth of this jurisdiction that the judges extended the remedy of assumpsit, as already mentioned. Fineux, one of the authors of this change, remarks that since the party can have assumpsit for a nonfeasance, ‘there will be no necessity for a subpœna.’3 On the extension of the common law action, Chancery to a large extent abandoned its jurisdiction over contracts, though a relic of it is still to be seen in the remedy of specific performance.4
There is little or no direct evidence that consideration was applied by equity to contracts, for few examples of this branch of equitable jurisdiction are to be found. It appears from the early bills in Chancery that the term consideration, with its synonym cause, was in use in contracts as early as the reign of Edward IV;5 but to what extent these words had a technical meaning, or bore reference to a definite legal principle, it is impossible to tell. In the absence of direct evidence we must fall back upon inference. Even within the law of uses we find consideration applied to contracts, for covenants to stand seised to uses (which might be by parol6 ) were limited by this requirement. That this was an isolated application of the principle to a single class of contracts seems a much less probable supposition than that it was merely a particular instance of a rule requiring a consideration in all contracts whatever. Furthermore the principle in question is applied by equity to contracts at the present day. As has been said, specific performance is a relic of the general equitable jurisdiction in contract. Now the application of this remedy is still limited by the requirement of consideration, a requirement more imperative than in the common law, inasmuch as it disregards the distinction between specialty and parol agreements. For the application of this principle to contracts therefore, either equity must be indebted to the law, or the law to equity. Can the former supposition be maintained, when we know that to equity is due the origin of the principle, and its varied applications throughout the law of uses, trusts, and even in particular instances contract itself?
In treating of the history of this subject it is essential to bear in mind that consideration was not what is now known as valuable consideration. It was a much wider idea, and may be defined as any motive or inducement which could be regarded as rational and sufficient. It included four principal species: first, valuable consideration; second, natural affection; third, legal obligation; and fourth, moral obligation. This wide idea was destined to undergo a process of atrophy, the result of which has been that at the present day it is practically reduced to valuable consideration, though various relics of the original doctrine are still to be met with scattered through the law. The proofs of the original form of the idea, and of its more or less complete application in this form to assumpsit, are in the main the same, and may be given together:—
At the time when its legal use originated, the word was popularly used in the wide sense above indicated. Thus in Doctor and Student:1 ‘The said statute was well and lawfully made, and upon a good reasonable consideration.’ In all probability the legal and popular uses were at first identical. Secondly, that natural affection originally formed part of the idea in question needs no proof, for even at the present day it receives nominal recognition under the title of good consideration.2 What is perhaps the first mention of consideration in the Year Books is in 20 Hen. VII, where it is said of a grant: ‘it was made on good consideration, for the elder brother is bound by the law of nature to aid and comfort his younger brother.’1 The relationship of good to valuable consideration can be satisfactorily explained only on the theory that they were originally species of a generic notion, which could not have been narrower than that above indicated. Thirdly, that consideration originally included legal obligation seems the only possible explanation of such actions as indebitatus assumpsit2 and insimul computassent.3 If the idea in question had been as narrow when these actions originated as it is now, there must have been an absurdity in alleging a debt as a consideration for a promise to pay it. Fourthly, that in certain cases moral obligation was regarded as a good consideration, may be gathered from anomalies that exist even at the present day. These and other exceptions to strict theory are commonly explained as relaxations that have been gradually permitted in the rule respecting consideration.4 But it is extremely difficult to see how such exceptions could ever have been allowed entrance into the law. A far more satisfactory explanation is that these anomalies are the relics of a wider rule that included both the modern rule and the modern exceptions to it. Such an exception is to be seen in the doctrine that a past consideration is sufficient to sustain a promise if moved by a precedent request. The first statement of this rule is reported in 10 Elizabeth. Assumpsit was brought on a promise to indemnify the plaintiff, who had previously become bail for the defendant’s servant. ‘By opinion of the court it does not lie in this matter, because there is no consideration wherefore the defendant should be charged for the debt of his servant, . . . . for the master did never make request to the plaintiff to do so much for his servant, but he did it of his own head.’5 The rule is evidently based on the idea that there is no moral obligation to recompense a benefit, and therefore no consideration for a promise to do so, unless the benefit is conferred at the request of the person benefited.1
Of the method in which this principle obtained entrance into the action of assumpsit, there seems to be little or no evidence; but if we take into account the facts that it was probably applied to contracts by equity, that the development of assumpsit was determined by the desire to absorb the equitable jurisdiction in contract, that since the Statute of Uses consideration had spread widely through the common law, and that a strong resemblance existed between consideration and the common law limitation of assumpsit, it can scarcely be a matter of surprise that the latter was finally supplanted by the former.
Had the idea of consideration proved more stable, and made successful resistance to the process by which it has been reduced to its modern limits,2 its introduction into assumpsit would have caused a profound modification of the law of contract. As it is, however, it may be said that even had this equitable principle never been borrowed by the common law, the law of contract would have been, except in one point, practically identical with what it now is. The exception lies in this, that whereas the original limitation of assumpsit consisted simply in detriment to the promisee, consideration consists in such detriment regarded as an inducement to the promise. The difference is important, for its effect was to render assumpsit inapplicable, save by reasoning approaching closely to the fictitious, to the very cases to which trespass on the case was first applied. Coggs v. Bernard is a typical example of this. Damage directly resulting from the breach of contract, as the loss of the brandy in this celebrated case, cannot of course be regarded as an inducement to the promise; and therefore, although it would have fallen within the common law limitation of assumpsit, it is no consideration.
Assuming then that the law derived consideration from equity, the question remains: Whence did equity derive the principle? It is sometimes answered: From the civil law. If this means that it resulted from an adoption or adaptation of the Roman distinction between contractus and nudum pactum, the opinion is untenable. The causæ civiles which turned pacts into contracts were incapable of generalization, and even by omitting the formal contracts we obtain only the inadequate idea of valuable consideration. The civil law supplies however another application of the term causa, which is more to the point. Money paid or property delivered sine causa could be reclaimed; and a promise made sine causa was invalid.1 This rule applied to contracts, whether formal or not. Causa was not of course restricted to valuable consideration, for this was never essential to a stipulation, but it included any adequate motive or sufficient reason. The rule rendered invalid promises made either under a mistake (sine causa ab initio) or for a valuable consideration which failed (causa data causa non secuta). Now the Canon Law expressly renounced the moribund distinction between contractus and pactum,2 and this example was followed very generally throughout Europe.3 This breakdown of the old theory would naturally call into prominence the requirement of causa, as being the only remaining limitation upon the binding efficacy of agreements; and that this was actually the case sufficiently appears from the following extract from Molina, a jurist of the sixteenth century. ‘Observant etiam Felinus . . . et doctores communiter, ut jure canonico ex pacto nudo actio concedatur, qua paciscens cogatur implere pactum, necessariam esse causae expressionem: alioquin reus non cogetur solvere, nisi actor causam sufficienter probet. . . . Quo loco observa, sufficientem causam ut solvere cogatur esse titulum donationis.’1 Molina proceeds to give examples of the rule, to identify it with the rule of the civil law already mentioned, and to call attention to the mistake made by some writers in confounding causa in this sense with the causa that was originally necessary as a vestimentum pacti. This same rule that a cause is necessary to sustain a promise is still recognised in its original form by the French law.2 An enunciation of the same principle, very significant with regard to the English law, is to be found in Doctor and Student. The Student knows nothing of consideration, but expounds the law of contract exactly as it was understood during the reign of Henry VIII. But the Doctor of Divinity speaks as follows: ‘And of other promises made to a man upon a certain consideration, if the promise be not against the law, as if A. promise to give B. 20l. because he hath made him such a house, or hath lent him such a thing, or such other like, I think him bound to keep his promise. But if his promise be so naked that there is no manner of consideration why it should be made, then I think him not bound to perform it, for it is to suppose that there was some error in the making of the promise. . . . And in all such promises it must be understood that he that made the promise intended to be bound by it, for else commonly after the doctors he is not bound, unless he were bound to it before his promise: as if a man promise to give his father a gowne that hath need of it to keep him from cold. And also such promises, if they shall bind, they must be honest, lawful, and possible, and else they are not to be holden in conscience though there be a cause. And if the promise be good and with a cause, though no worldly profit shall grow thereby to him that maketh the promise, but only a spiritual profit, as in the case before rehearsed of a promise made to an University, to a Citie, to the Church, or such other, and with a cause as to the honour of God, there is most commonly holden that an action upon these promises lieth in the Law Cannon.’1
That the principle so expounded by the doctor of divinity is identical with that which we have already found to exist in the Canon Law, there can be no doubt. Is it not almost equally obvious that it is also identical with the equitable principle of consideration? In name the two principles are the same, and in nature they are practically indistinguishable, save that consideration is not met with in equity until after the commencement of that process of contraction which finally reduced it to its modern limits. May we not conclude then that when the Chancellors, who till the reign of Henry VIII were almost invariably ecclesiastics, sought a basis on which to found their equitable jurisdiction in contract, they adopted a principle lying ready to their hands in a system of law with which they were familiar?
The theory that consideration is a modification of the Roman principle of causa, adopted by equity, and transferred thence into the common law, finds some support from Mr. Pollock in his work on Contracts,2 but is rejected by Mr. Justice Holmes,3 who attempts to prove the principle in question to be entirely an internal development of the English law of contract. The central point of Mr. Holmes’s theory is that the modern rule of consideration is merely a modification of the ancient requirement of quid pro quo in the action of debt. But to this view the objections seem almost insurmountable. It is based on a mistaken view of the original contents of the idea of consideration. Between this idea, as first understood, and quid pro quo, there is a gap too wide to be bridged by any theory of development. Furthermore, quid pro quo was a principle confined to the action of debt, while consideration (as a theory of the law of contract) was found only in assumpsit. Thirdly, this latter principle was well known in the law of property some time before it appears in contracts; it seems scarcely probable therefore that it was derived from the action of debt. Again, it is alleged that the modification by which quid pro quo became consideration was the recognition of detriment to the promisee as well as benefit to the promisor. But in debt this extension was again and again attempted without success,1 and it is not probable that it could have succeeded in assumpsit. Lastly, the two ideas in question lived on independently in their own spheres, and the clearest distinction was always drawn between them. Thus in 27 Hen. VIII it is said: ‘I understand that one cannot have a writ of debt except when there is a contract; for the defendant has not quid pro quo, but the action is founded solely on the assumption, which sounds merely in covenant.’2 Again in 27 & 28 Eliz.: ‘In assumpsit it is not necessary that they contract at the same instant, but it suffices if there be inducement enough to the promise, and although it is precedent it is not material; otherwise in debt it is requisite that the benefit come to the party, otherwise for want of a quid pro quo debt does not lie.’3 Again, as late as 4 Charles I: ‘There is no contract between them nor hath he any quid pro quo, but he ought to have had an assumpsit.’4 Could two principles have been kept so distinct, if one had been merely a modification of the other permitted by the laxity of the law?
To the later history of contract a mere allusion must suffice. Its chief feature was the temporary though prolonged disappearance of debt in favour of assumpsit in the case of simple contracts. For the purpose of avoiding the defendant’s wager of law, early attempts were made to bring assumpsit where debt was the appropriate remedy. After a struggle between the Court of King’s Bench and the Court of Exchequer Chamber,5 it was finally decided in Slade’s Case6 that an action on the case would lie although debt was available. The only subsequent change that need be mentioned is the final recognition of a single limiting principle throughout the law of contracts by the merger of quid pro quo in valuable consideration.
[1 ]This Essay was first published in the Law Quarterly Review, 1887, Vol. III, pp. 166-179.
[2 ]Parliamentary Counsel to the New Zealand Government, and head of the Law Drafting Office, since 1907.
[3 ]Bracton, 99, 100; Fleta, ii. 56.
[1 ]Bracton, 102 b; Fleta, ii. 60.
[2 ]Y. B. 20 & 21 Ed. I. 189.
[3 ]Holmes, Common Law, 252.
[4 ]Debt for chattels:—Y. B. 20 & 21 Ed. I. 139; Y. B. 3 Ed. II. 57; Y. B. 12 Ed. II. 354. Detinue for money:—Y. B. 6 Ed. II. 192; cf. Y. B. 33-35 Ed. I. 454.
[1 ]Glanvil, x. 3; x. 12.
[2 ]Güterbock, Bracton (by Coxe), 138-139.
[3 ]Holmes, Common Law, 264. ‘But the old debts were not conceived of as raised by a promise. They were a “duty” springing from the plaintiff’s (? defendant’s) receipt of property, a fact which could be seen and sworn to.’
[4 ]Bracton, 100 b.
[1 ]Hunter, Roman Law, 355 (1st ed.); Inst. Just. 3, 29, 1; Gaius, 3, 173. See Mr. Moyle’s Excursus VIII. in his edition of the Institutes.
[2 ]Bellewe, 8 Rich. II. 111 (ed. 1869).
[3 ]There existed one exception to this rule, namely suretyship. The anomalous nature of this contract was soon perceived, and a sealed writing became necessary for its validity. Holmes, Common Law, 264.
[4 ]Y. B. 39 Ed. III. 18.
[1 ]Y. B. 9 Hen. V. 14.
[2 ]Y. B. 7 Hen. VI. 1. This is an action of deceit on the case, but there is no doubt whatever that quid pro quo originated in debt, and an examination of the case will show that the objection in question is merely a verbal one.
[3 ]Y. B. 37 Hen. VI. 8.
[4 ]Y. B. 16 Ed. IV. 9.
[5 ]Digby’s History of the Law of Real Property, 49 and 144.
[6 ]Glanvil, x. 8. ‘Super hoc notandum est quod Curia domini regis hujusmodi privatas conventiones de rebus dandis vel accipiendis in vadium, vel alias hujusmodi, extra Curiam sive etiam in aliis Curiis quam in Curia domini regis factas, tueri non solet nec warrantizare; et ideo si non fuerint servatae Curia domini regis se inde non intromittet.’
[7 ]Güterbock, 138-139.
[1 ]Bracton, 34. See also 100.
[2 ]Fleta, iii. 14, 3.
[3 ]20 & 21 Ed. I. 222.
[1 ]22 Ass. 94; Y. B. 43 Ed. III. 33.
[2 ]48 Ed. III. 6.
[3 ]Bellewe, 5 and 332 (ed. 1869).
[4 ]Y. B. 2 Hen. IV. 3.
[1 ]Y. B. 11 Hen. IV. 33; Y. B. 3 Hen. VI. 36; Y. B. 14 Hen. VI. 18; Y. B. 20 Hen. VI. 34; Y. B. 21 Hen. VI. 55.
[2 ]Y. B. 20 Hen. VII. 9.
[3 ]Y. B. 21 Hen. VII. 41.
[4 ]For example: Defendant spoils cloth sent to him by plaintiff to be made into a coat. In a purely delictual remedy the damage done to the cloth is the ground of action, and the value of the cloth the measure of damages. If such a remedy is perverted into a contractual one, the ostensible ground of action is the failure to make a coat, and the measure of damages is the value of the coat; while the damage to the cloth remains as a limitation upon the scope of the action as a contractual remedy.
[1 ]Keilwey, 78. See also F. N. B., Covenant. Of course this rule has no connection with the requirement of quid pro quo, which was rigorously confined to the action of debt. In Y. B. 3 Hen. VI. 36, is reported an anomalous case, in which to assumpsit for a nonfeasance it was objected that no recompense had been assigned for the feasance. That no such requirement then existed is certain; for assumpsit did not lie for a nonfeasance in any case, and it lay for a malfeasance irrespective of reward. See Pollock, Princ. of Contr., 676.
[1 ]Dyer, 272 a.
[2 ]Y. B. 8 Ed. IV. 4.
[1 ]Y. B. 21 Ed. IV. 23.
[3 ]Y. B. 21 Hen. VII. 41.
[4 ]1 Spence, Equit. Jur. 645; Bro. Ab., Action sur le case, 72.
[5 ]1 Proceed. in Ch., Introd. 70 and 88, fol. ed.
[6 ]Spence, Equit. Jur. 478, note.
[1 ]1. 2, c. 55.
[2 ]This was originally the generic name, including valuable consideration as a species.
[1 ]Y. B. 20 Hen. VII. 11.
[2 ]Bro. Ab., Action sur le case, 5 and 105; 4 Leonard, 2; 2 Bendloes, 84. But see a different view in Langdell, § 90.
[3 ]Moore, 708.
[4 ]Pollock, Contracts, 171.
[5 ]Dyer, 272 a.
[1 ]For the same idea in the case of legal obligation, see Y. B. 29 Ed. III. 25.
[2 ]For instances see Bro. Ab., Feffements al uses, 54; Sharrington v. Strotton, Plowden, 301; 2 Leonard, 30; 1 Croke, 126; Dyer, 272 a, note; Moore, 643. Whether the equitable principle of consideration was at any period applied in its full extent to assumpsit may be doubted. That it was necessary in 30 Eliz to decide that affection was no consideration to found an assumpsit, shows at once that the common law principle had been lost sight of, and that the equitable principle had been only partially substituted.
[1 ]‘Est et haec species condictionis, si quis sine causa promiserit vel si solverit quis indebitum . . . Sed et si ob causam promisit, causa tamen secuta non est, dicendum est condictionem locum habere.’ Digest, 12, 7, 1.
[2 ]Decr. Greg. i. 35, 1. Pacta quantumcunque nuda servanda sunt.
[3 ]Stair’s Inst. i. 10, 7.
[1 ]Molina, De Justitia, Disput. 257.
[2 ]Code Civ. 1131.
[1 ]Doctor and Student, ii. 24.
[2 ]Princ. of Contr., Appendix, Note F.
[3 ]The Common Law, 247-288; Early English Equity, Law Quart. Rev., No. 2, vol. i. p. 162 (Essay No. 41, Vol. I of this Collection).
[1 ]Y. B. 37 Hen. VI. 8; Y. B. 20 Ed. IV. 3; 1 Croke, 880 (anomalous); 3 Croke, 193.
[2 ]Y. B. 27 Hen. VIII. 24.
[3 ]Dyer, 272 a, note.
[4 ]3 Croke, 193.
[5 ]2 Bendloes, 104; Moore, 433, 694, 703.
[6 ]4 Co. Rep. 91.