KING V. HAMILTON, 29 U. S. 311 (1830)

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U.S. Supreme Court

King v. Hamilton, 29 U.S. 4 Pet. 311 311 (1830)

King v. Hamilton

29 U.S. (4 Pet.) 311


The complainants, in the Circuit Court of Ohio, filed a bill to enforce the performance of a contract. The bill states that there is a surplus of several hundred acres, and by actual measurement it is found to be 876 acres, the patent having been granted for 1,533 1/3 beyond the quantity mentioned in the contract.

It is a fact of general notoriety that the surveys and patents for lands within the Virginia Military District contain a greater quantity of land than is specified in the grants. Parties, when entering into a contract for the purchase of a tract of land in that district and referring to the patent for a description, of course expect that the quantity would exceed the specified number of acres. But so large an excess as in the present case can hardly be presumed to have been within the expectation of either party. And admitting that a strict legal interpretation of a contract would entitle the purchaser to the surplus, whatever it might be, it by no means follows that a court of chancery will in all cases lend its aid to enforce a specific performance of such a contract.

The powers of a court of chancery to enforce a specific execution of contracts are very valuable and important. For in many cases where the remedy at law for damages is not lost, complete justice cannot be done without a specific execution. And it has been almost as much a matter of course for a court of equity to decree a specific execution of a contract for the purchase of lands, where in its nature and circumstances it is unobjectionable, as it is to give damages at law, where an action will lie for a breach of the contract. But this power is to be exercised under the sound discretion of the court, with an eye to the substantial justice of the case.

When a party comes into a court of chancery seeking equity, he is bound to do justice and not ask the court to become the instrument of iniquity. When a contract is hard and destitute of all equity, the court will leave parties to their remedy at law, and if that has been lost by negligence, they must abide by it.

It is a settled rule in a bill for specific performance of a contract to allow a defendant to show that it is unreasonable or unconscientious or founded in mistake or other circumstances leading satisfactorily to the conclusion that the granting of the prayer of the bill would be inequitable and unjust. Gross negligence on the part of the complainant has great weight in cases of this kind. A party, to entitle himself to the aid of a court of chancery for a specific execution of a contract, should show himself ready and desirous to perform his part.

If this large surplus of 876 in a patent for 1,533 1/3 acres should be taken as included in the original purchase, it might well be considered a case of gross inadequacy of price. chanrobles.com-red

Page 29 U. S. 312

When there was so great a surplus of land in the patent beyond that which it called for nominally as that it could hardly be presumed to have been within the view of either of the parties to the contract of sale, the Court decreed a conveyance of the surplus, the vendee to pay for the same at the average rate per acre, with interest, which the consideration money mentioned in the contract bore to the quantity of land named in the same.

In the Circuit Court for the District of Ohio, James Hamilton, James Stricker and Frances, his wife, late Frances Hamilton, heirs at law of Alexander Hamilton and others, grantees of Alexander Hamilton, filed a bill for a specific performance of a contract entered into between Elisha King, the father of John W. King, one of the appellants, and Alexander Hamilton, on 8 February, 1815, for the sale of certain lands in the State of Ohio within the Virginia Military District between the little Miami and the Scioto River.

The contract was in the following terms:

"I this day sell to Alexander Hamilton all my lands lying on the Miami River, in the State of Ohio, 1,533 1/3, as by patent in my name; also 333 1/3, taken off the lands patented in the name of Sackville King, of 1,000 acres. This land of 333 1/3 acres, taken from S. King's, is to be done adjoining to the entry of E. King's of 1,533 1/3 acres. He, the said Hamilton, is bound to pay to Elisha King, for this land, 946 16s. of current money of Virginia, in three annual payments, beginning December 25, 1805; then to pay 315 12s. Also, in the years of 1806 and 1807, on each Christ's day, or before, to make the full payments, as is above. The manner and agreement made by us is in payment as tenders: the said Hamilton takes to this country horses, to be sold at twelve months' credit, taking bond and good security, which bonds is lawful tenders from year to year; and, on these tenders being made, the said King is bound to give to the said Hamilton good titles to the said lands. We do bind ourselves, our heirs, executors, administrators firmly by these presents,

Page 29 U. S. 313

in the penalty of 2,000, in this our bargain. Given under our hands and seals."

When this contract was made, Elisha King had a patent for his entry, No. 1548. Sackville King's entry, No 1549, was held by him without any title to it, and afterwards, in 1812, Sackville King's whole entry was conveyed by him to another, who now holds the same. Alexander Hamilton entered on No. 1548 immediately after his purchase, supposed to be 1,533 1/3 acres, and, with others holding under him, made valuable improvements on it, and still holds possession of the same.

The bill states that Hamilton continued to make payments until 22 June, 1809, at which time, he having paid one-half of the purchase money of the tract estimated at 1,533 1/3 acres, King made a conveyance to him of 766 2/3 acres, supposed to be a conveyance of one-half of the same. The bill charges that there was a large surplus of several hundred acres, and that this sale was in gross, and insists on a conveyance of the whole of the lands in No. 1548. The patent to Elisha King for No. 1548 bears date 10 March, 1804, and is for "a certain tract of land containing 1,533 1/3 acres," as by survey bearing date 13 April, 1792, and sets forth the metes and bounds according to this survey.

The bill claims and allowance for the loss of 333 1/3 acres of Sackville King's entry, and proceeds to state and charge sundry payments since the conveyance of 22 June, 1809, the last of which was made on 26 March, 1818. It then admits that there was due at the time of filing the bill, on the tract of 1,533 1/3 acres (deducting the consideration money expressed in the conveyance for 766 2/3 acres, the ratable value of the other tract of 333 1/3 acres which was lost, and all the subsequent payments,) the sum of $1,700 chanrobles.com-red

Page 29 U. S. 314

dollars yet to be paid by Hamilton to King on the contract for the 1,533 1/3 acre tract, which sum they say they were always ready to pay since the death of Alexander Hamilton if they could have procured a fair settlement, and also that they are informed and believe that Alexander Hamilton, when the could have a settlement and receive a title, was always ready in his lifetime to make payments. The bill then goes on to state a number of improvements made on that part of the land not conveyed by King to Hamilton, which improvements are stated to have been made by Hamilton and the other appellees claiming by purchase under him.

The bill then prays an injunction to a judgment in ejectment, recovered at June term, 1824, for that part of the tract of 1,533 1/3 acres, not conveyed. It asks a decree for a conveyance on payment of the balance, and for general relief.

The answer denies that the sale was in gross, and also that the complainants were at any time ready to perform the agreement by the payment of the purchase money for the tract which was agreed to be sold, and alleges that the payment of the same was evaded and delayed, although frequent promises of performance were made. To this answer there was a general replication.

At January term, 1826, an agreement was entered into by the parties (which being entered of record, takes the place of an interlocutory decree) in order to settle so much of the controversy; that there was then due to King, on the purchase money and interest, 1,896.88, after deducting $566.66 on account of the land sold, included in Sackville King's patent, which, with interest from that time, was all that was to be paid King, if the court decreed that the contract covered the surplus above 1,533 1/3 acres in the entry 1548. The times for paying that sum were agreed, and also that on the payment, deeds should be executed by respondents covering the whole land if the chanrobles.com-red

Page 29 U. S. 315

contract was decreed to be in gross and the injunction be made perpetual against the proceedings in ejectment, &c. This agreement reserved for future decision the single question whether the contract of sale was a sale in gross, or by the acre, as to the land in the entry 1548, and concludes as follows:

"To avoid all dispute, it is the express understanding of the parties that the whole question concerning the said surplus land is reserved for future decision, and all claims for damages respecting failure in the title for the tract of 333 1/3 acres of land in the bill mentioned are waived."

At July term, 1826, the court decreed that the sale by Elisha King to Alexander Hamilton was a sale of the whole of the land in No. 1548, and that the defendant, John W. King, should within two months convey to the complainants, in fee simple, with covenants of special warranty, the lands not already conveyed by E. King to Alexander Hamilton; that the complainants, within two months, should pay the balance agreed, with interest; and that each party should pay their own costs at or before the next term. As to the other defendants, the bill was dismissed generally.

From this decree John W. King appealed to this Court. chanrobles.com-red

Page 29 U. S. 320


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