O. W. Holmes, The Common Law 234-236 (M. Howe ed. 1963) | Kessler, Gilmore & Kronman | November 01, 2012


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O. W. HOLMES, THE COMMON LAW 234-236 (M. Howe ed. 1963) [footnotes omitted]: "An assurance that it shall rain tomorrow, or that a third person shall paint a picture, may as well be a promise as one that the promisee shall receive from some source one hundred bales of cotton, or that the promisor will pay the promisee one hundred dollars. What is the difference in the cases? It is only in the degree of power possessed by the promisor over the event. He has none in the first case. He has equally little legal authority to make a man paint a picture, although he may have larger means of persuasion. He probably will be able to make sure that the promisee has the cotton. Being a rich man, he is certain to be able to pay the one hundred dollars, except in the event of some most improbable accident.

"But the law does not inquire, as a general thing, how far the accomplishment of an assurance touching the furture is within the power of the promisor. In the moral world it may be that the obligation of a promise is confined to what lies within each of the will of the promisor (except so far as the limit is unknown on one side, and misrepresented on the other). But unless some consideration of public policy intervenes, I take it that a man may bind himself at law that any future event shall happen. He can therefore promise it in a legal sense. It may be said that when a man covenants that it shall rain to-morrow, or that A shall paint a picture, he only says, in a short form, I will pay if it does not rain, or if A does not paint a picture. But that is not necessarily so. A promise could easily be framed which would be broken by the happening of fair weather, or by A not painting. A promise, then, is simply an accepted assurance that a certain event or state of things shall come to pass.

"But if this be true, it has more important bearings than simply to enlarge the definition of the word promise. It concerns the theory of contract. The consequences of a binding promise at common law are not affected by the degree of power which the promisor possesses over the promised event. If the promised event does not come to pass, the plaintiff's property is sold to satisfy the damages, within certain limits, which the promisee has suffered by the failure. The consequences are the same in kind whether the promise is that it shall rain, or that another man shall paint a picture, or that the promisor will deliver a bale of cotton.

"If the legal consequence is the same in all cases, it seems proper that all contracts should be considered from the same legal point of view. In the case of a binding promise that it shall rain tomorrow, the immediate legal effect of what the promisor does is, that he takes the risk of the event, within certain defined limits, as between himself and the promisee. He does no more when he promises to deliver a bale of cotton. . . . The only universal consequence of a legally binding promise is, that the law makes the promisor pay damages if the promised event does not come to pass. In every case it leaves him free from interference until the time for fulfilment has gone by, and therefore free to break his contract if he chooses."


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September 19, 2013

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