ERROR TO THE CIRCUIT COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FIFTH CIRCUIT.
MR. JUSTICE GRAY, after stating the case, delivered the opinion of the court.
The statute of frauds of the State of Texas, reenacting, in this particular, the English statute of 29 Car. II, c. 3, § 4, (1677) provides that no action shall be brought "upon any agreement which is not to be performed within the space of one year from the making thereof," unless the "agreement upon which such action shall be brought, or some memorandum or note thereof, shall be in writing and signed by the party to be charged therewith, or by some person by him thereunto lawfully authorized." Texas Stat. January 18, 1840; 1 Paschal's Digest, (4th ed.) art. 3875; Rev. Stat. of 1879, art. 2464; Bason v. Hughart, 2 Texas, 476, 480.
This case has been so fully and ably argued, and the construction of this clause of the statute of frauds has so seldom
come before this court, that it will be useful, before considering the particular contract now in question, to refer to some of the principal decisions upon the subject in the courts of England, and of the several States.
In the earliest reported case in England upon this clause of the statute, regard seems to have been had to the time of actual performance, in deciding that an oral agreement that if the plaintiff would procure a marriage between the defendant and a certain lady, the defendant would pay him fifty guineas, was not within the statute; Lord Holt saying: "Though the promise depends upon a contingent, the which may not happen in a long time, yet if the contingent happen within a year, the action shall be maintainable, and is not within the statute." Francam v. Foster, (1692) Skinner, 326; S.C. Holt, 25.
A year later, another case before Lord Holt presented the question whether the words "agreement not to be performed within one year" should be construed as meaning every agreement which need not be performed within the year, or as meaning only an agreement which could not be performed within the year, and thus, according as the one or the other construction should be adopted, including or excluding an agreement which might or might not be performed within the year, without regard to the time of actual performance. The latter was decided to be the true construction.
That was an action upon an oral agreement, by which the defendant promised, for one guinea paid, to pay the plaintiff so many at the day of his marriage; and the marriage did not happen within the year. The case was considered by all the judges. Lord Holt "was of opinion that it ought to have been in writing, because the design of the statute was, not to trust to the memory of witnesses for a longer time than one year." But the great majority of the judges were of opinion that the statute included those agreements only that were impossible to be performed within the year, and that the case was not within the statute, because the marriage might have happened within a year after the agreement; and laid down this rule: "Where the agreement is to be performed upon a
contingent, and it does not appear within the agreement, that it is to be performed after the year, then a note in writing is not necessary, for the contingent might happen within the year; but where it appears by the whole tenor of the agreement, that it is to be performed after the year, there a note is necessary." Peter v. Compton, (1693) Skinner, 353; S.C. Holt, 326; S.C. cited by Lord Holt in Smith v. Westall, 1 Ld. Raym. 316, 317; Anon., Comyns, 46, 50; Comberbach, 463.
Accordingly, about the same time, all the judges held that a promise to pay so much money upon the return of a certain ship, which ship happened not to return within two years after the promise made, was not within the statute, "for that by possibility the ship might have returned within a year; and although by accident it happened not to return so soon, yet, they said, that clause of the statute extends only to such promises where, by the express appointment of the party, the thing is not to be performed within a year." Anon., 1 Salk. 280.
Again, in a case in the King's Bench in 1762, an agreement to leave money by will was held not to be within the statute, although uncertain as to the time of performance. Lord Mansfield said that the law was settled by the earlier cases. Mr. Justice Denison said: "The statute of frauds plainly means an agreement not to be performed within the space of a year, and expressly and specifically so agreed. A contingency is not within it; nor any case that depends upon contingency. It does not extend to cases where the thing only may be performed within the year; and the act cannot be extended further than the words of it." And Mr. Justice Wilmot said that the rule laid down in 1 Salk. 280, above quoted, was the true rule. Fenton v. Emblers, 3 Burrow, 1278; S.C. 1 W. Bl. 353.
It thus appears to have been the settled construction of this clause of the statute in England, before the Declaration of Independence, that an oral agreement which, according to the intention of the parties, as shown by the terms of the contract, might be fully performed within a year from the time it was made, was not within the statute, although the time of
its performance was uncertain, and might probably extend, and be expected by the parties to extend, and did in fact extend, beyond the year.
The several States of the Union, in reenacting this provision of the statute of frauds in its original words, must be taken to have adopted the known and settled construction which it had received by judicial decisions in England. Tucker v. Oxley, 5 Cranch, 34, 42; Pennock v. Dialogue, 2 Pet. 1, 18; Macdonald v. Hovey, 110 U.S. 619, 628. And the rule established in England by those decisions has ever since been generally recognized in England and America, although it may in a few instances have been warped or misapplied.
The decision in Boydell v. Drummond, (1809) 11 East, 142, which has been sometimes supposed to have modified the rule, was really in exact accordance with it. In that case, the declaration alleged that the Boydells had proposed to publish by subscription a series of large prints from some of the scenes of Shakespeare's plays, in eighteen numbers containing four plates each, at the price of three guineas a number, payable as each was issued, and one number, at least, to be annually published after the delivery of the first; and that the defendant became a subscriber for one set of prints, and accepted and paid for two numbers, but refused to accept or pay for the rest. The first prospectus issued by the publishers stated certain conditions, in substance as set out in the declaration, and others showing the magnitude of the undertaking, and that its completion would unavoidably take a considerable time. A second prospectus stated that one number at least should be published annually, and the proprietors were confident that they should be enabled to produce two numbers within the course of every year. The book in which the defendant subscribed his name had only, for its title, "Shakespeare subscribers, their signatures," without any reference to either prospectus. The contract was held to be within the statute of frauds, as one not to be performed within a year, because, as was demonstrated in concurring opinions of Lord Ellenborough and Justices Grose, Le Blanc and Bayley, the
contract, according to the understanding and contemplation of the parties, as manifested by the terms of the contract, was not to be fully performed (by the completion of the whole work) within the year; and consequently, a full completion within the year, even if physically possible, would not have been according to the terms or the intent of the contract, and could not have entitled the publishers to demand immediate payment of the whole subscription.
In Wells v. Horton, (1826) 4 Bing. 40; S.C. 12 J. B. Moore, 177, it was held to be settled by the earlier authorities that an agreement by which a debtor, in consideration of his creditor's agreeing to forbear to sue him during his lifetime, promised that his executor should pay the amount of the debt, was not within the statute; and Chief Justice Best said: "The present case is clearly distinguishable from Boydell v. ...