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WHAT IS AN ASSENT.
The most important application of the rule stated at the begin. ning of this chapter is the requirement that an acceptance of a proposition must be a simple and direct affirmative, in order to constitute a contract. For if the party receiving the proposition or offer accepts it on any condition, or with any change of its terms or provisions which is not altogether immaterial, it is no contract until the party making the offer consents to these modifications.
Therefore, if a party offers to buy certain goods at a certain price, and directs how the goods shall be sent to him, and the owner accepts the offer and sends the goods as directed, and they are lost on the way, it is the buyer's loss, because the goods were his by the sale, which was completed when the offer was accepted. But if the seller accepts the offer, and in his acceptance makes any material modification of its terms, and then sends the goods, and they are Jost, it is his loss now, because the contract of sale was not completed.
Nor will a voluntary compliance with the conditions and terms of a proposed contract always make it a contract obligatory on the other party, unless there have been an accession to, or an acceptance of, the proposition itself. In general, if A says to B, If you will do this, I will do that; and B instantly does what was proposed to him, - this doing so is an acceptance, and A is bound. But if the doing of the thing may be something else than an acceptance of the offer, or if the thing may be done for some other reason than to signify an acceptance or assent, there must be express acceptance also, or there is no bargain.
OFFERS MADE ON TIME,
It sometimes happens that one party makes another a certain offer, and gives him a certain time in which he may accept it. The law on this subject was once somewhat uncertain, but may now be considered as settled. It is this. If A makes an offer to B, which B at once accepts, there is a bargain. But it is not necessary that the acceptance should follow the offer instantaneously. B may take time to consider, and although A may expressly withdraw his offer at any time before acceptance, yet if he does not do so, B may accept within a reasonable time; and if this is done, A cannot say, “I have changed my mind." Whai is a reasonable time must depend upon the circumstances of each case. If A when he makes the offer says to B that he may have a certain time wherein to accept it, and is paid by B for thus giving him time, he cannot withdraw the offer; or if he withdraws it, for this breach of his contract, the other party, B, may have his action for damages. If A is not paid for giving the time, A may then withdraw the offer at once, or whenever he pleases, provided B has not previously accepted it. But if B has accepted the offer before the time which was given expired, and before the offer was withdrawn, then A is bound, although he gave the time voluntarily and without consideration. For his offer is to be regarded as a continuing offer during all the time given, unless it be withdrawn. A railroad company asked for the terms of certain land they thought they might wish to buy. The owner said, in a letter, they might have it at a certain price, if they took it within thirty days. After some twenty-five days the railroad company wrote accepting the offer. The owner says: No, I have altered my mind; the land is worth more; and I have a right to withdraw my offer, because you paid me nothing for the time of thirty days allowed you. But the court held that he was bound, because this was an offer continued through the thirty days, unless withdrawn. They said that the writing when made was without consideration, and did not therefore form a contract. It was then but an offer to contract; and the party making the offer most undoubtedly might have withdrawn it at any time before acceptance. But he could not withdraw the offer after it was accepted, for then the minds of the parties met, and the contract was complete, and no withdrawal could then be made.
A BARGAIN BY CORRESPONDENCE.
When a contract is made by correspondence, the question occurs, At what time, or by what act, is the contract completed? The law, as now settled in this country, may be stated thus: If A writes to B proposing to him a contract, this is a continued proposition or offer of A until it reaches B, and for such time afterwards as would give B a reasonable opportunity of accepting it. It may be withdrawn by A at any time before acceptance; but is not withdrawn in law until a notice of withdrawal reaches B. This is the important point. Thus, if A in Boston writes to B in New Orleans, offering him a certain price for one hundred bales of cotton; and the next day alters his mind, and writes to B, withdrawing his offer; if the first letter reaches B before the second reaches him, although after the second was written and mailed, B has a right to accept the offer before he gets the letter withdrawing it, and by his acceptance he binds A. But if B delays his acceptance until the second letter reaches him, the offer is then effectually withdrawn. It is a sufficient acceptance if B writes to A declaring his acceptance, and puts his letter into the post-office. It seems now quite clear that as soon as the letter leaves the post-office, or is beyond the reach of the writer, the acceptance is complete. That is, on the 5th of May, A in Boston writes to B in New Orleans, offering to buy certain goods there at a certain price. On the 8th of May, A writes that he has altered his mind, and cannot give so much, and mails the letter. On the 14th of May, B in New Orleans receives the first letter, and the next day, the 15th, answers it, saying that he accepts the offer, and mails his letter. On the 17th, he receives the second letter of A withdrawing the offer. Nevertheless the bargain is complete and the goods are sold. But if B had kept his letter of acceptance by him until he had received A's letter of withdrawal, he could not then have put his letter into the mail and bound A by his acceptance.
The party making the offer by letter is not bound to use the same means for withdrawing it, which he uses for making it; because any withdrawal, however made, terminates the offer, if only it reaches the other party before his acceptance. Thus, if A in the
. case just supposed, a week after he has sent his offer by letter, telegraphs a withdrawal to B, and this withdrawal reaches him before he accepts the offer, this withdrawal would be effectual. So if he sent his offer by letter to England, in a sailing ship, and a fortnight after sent a revocation in a steamer, or by telegraph, if this last arrives before the first arrived and was accepted, it would be an effectual revocation.
WHAT EVIDENCE MAY BE RECEIVED IN REFERENCE TO
A WRITTEN CONTRACT.
If an agreement upon which a party relies be oral only, it must be proved by evidence. But if the contract be reduced to writing, it proves itself; and now no evidence whatever is receivable for the purpose of varying the contract or affecting its obligations. The reasons are obvious. The law prefers written to oral evidence, from its greater precision and certainty, and because it is less open to fraud. And where parties have closed a negotiation and reduerd the result to writing, it is presumed that they have written all they intended to agree to, and, therefore, that what is omitted was finally rejected by them.
But some evidence may always be necessary, and therefore admissible; as evidence of the identity of the parties to the contract, or of the things which form its subject-matter. Quite often, neither the court nor the jury can know what person, or what thing, or what land, a contract relates to, unless the parties agree in stating this, or evidence shows it. The rule on this subject is, that while no evidence is receivable to contradict or vary a written contract, evidence may be received to explain its meaning, and show what the contract is in fact.
There are some obvious inferences from this rule. The first is, that as evidence is admissible only to explain the contract, if the contract needs no explanation, – that is, if it be by itself perfectly explicit and unambiguous, -evidence is inadmissible; because it is wholly unnecessary, and can be offered only to vary the meaning and force of the contract, and that is not permitted. Another, following from this, is, that if the evidence purports, under the name of explanation, to give to the contract a meaning which its words do not fairly bear, this is not permitted; because such evidence would in fact make a new contract.
A frequent use of oral evidence is to explain, by means of persons experienced in the particnlar subject of the contract, the mean. ing of technical or peculiar words and phrases; and such witnesses are called experts, and are very freely admitted.
It may be remarked, too, that a written receipt for money is not within the general rule as to written contracts, being always open not only to explanation, but even to contradiction, by extrinsic evidence. And this is true of the receipt part of any instrument. If a written instrument not only recites or acknowledges the receive ing of money or goods, but contains also a contract or grant, such instrument, as to the contract or grant, is no more to be affected by any evidence than if it contained no receipt; but as to the receipt itself, it may be varied or contradicted in the same manner as if the instrument contained nothing else. Thus, if a deed recites that it was made in “consideration of ten thousand dollars, the receipt whereof is hereby acknowledged,” the grantor may sue for the money, or any part of it, and prove that the amount was not paid; for this affects only the receipt part of the deed. But he cannot say that the grant of the land was void because he never had his money, nor that any agreement the deed contained was void for such a reason; because, if he proved that the money was not paid, and offered this evidence for the purpose of thus annulling his grant or agreement, he would be offering evidence to affect the other part of the deed; and that he caunot do.
A legal inference from a written promise can no more be rebutted by evidence than if it were written. Thus, if A, by his pote, promises to pay B a sum of money in sixty days, he cannot, when called upon, resist the claim by proving that B, when the note was made, agreed to wait ninety days; and if A promise in writing to pay money, and no time is set, this is by force of law a promise to pay on demand; and evidence is not receivable to show that a distant period was agreed upon.
Generally speaking, all written instruments are construed and interpreted by the law according to the simple, customary, and natural meaning of the words used.
It should be added, that when a contract is so obscure or uncertain that it must be set wholly aside, and regarded as no contract whatever, it can have no force or effect upon the rights or obligations of the parties, but all of these are the same as if they had not made the contract.
CUSTOM OR USAGE.
A custom or usage, which may be regarded as appropriate to a contract, has often great weight in reference to it. This it may have, first, as to the construction or meaning of its words; and next, as to the intention or understanding of the parties.
The ground and reason for this influence of a custom is this: If it exist so widely and uniformly among such persons as make the contract, and for so long a time, that every one of them must be considered as knowing it, and acting with reference to it, then it ought to have the same force as if both parties expressly adopted it; because each party has a right to think that the other acted
Sometimes this is carried very far., In one English case, a man had agreed to leave in a certain rabbit warren ten thousand rabbits ; and the other party was permitted to prove that, by the usage of that trade, a thousand meant one hundred dozen, or twelve hundred. In an American case, a man agreed to pay a carpenter twelve shillings a day for every man employed by him about a certain building; the carpenter was permitted to prove that, by the usage of that trade, “ a day” meant ten hours' work; and as his men had worked twelve and a half, he was permitted to charge fifteen shillings, or for one and one-fourth days' work, for every day so spent.