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December 1, 1869


APPEAL from the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia. This was a suit in equity for the specific performance of a contract for the sale of certain real property situated in the city of Washington, in the District of Columbia, and adjoining the hotel owned by the complainant, Willard, and known as Willard's Hotel. The facts out of which the case arose were as follows: In April, 1854, the defendant leased to the complainant the property in question, which was generally known in Washington as 'The Mansion House,' for the period of ten years from the 1st of May following, at the yearly rent of twelve hundred dollars. The lease contained a covenant that the lessee should have the right or option of purchasing the premises, with the buildings and improvements thereon, at any time before the expiration of the lease, for the sum of twenty-two thousand and five hundred dollars, payable as follows: two thousand dollars in cash, and two thousand dollars, together with the interest on all the deferred instalments, each year thereafter until the whole was paid; the deferred payments to be secured by a deed of trust on the property, and the vendor to execute to the purchaser a war ranty deed of the premises, subject to a yearly ground-rent of three hundred and ninety dollars. At the time of this lease gold and silver, or bank bills convertible on demand into it, were the ordinary money of the country, and the standard of values. In 1861 the rebellion broke out, lasting till 1865. In the interval, owing to the influx of people, property in the metropolis used for hotels greatly increased in value, and as was alleged by Tayloe, who produced what he deemed a record to show the fact, the complainant, Willard, assigned an undivided half of the property which had been leased to him as abovementioned to a brother of his. In December, 1861, the banks throughout the country suspended payments in specie, and in 1862 and 1863, the Federal Government issued some hundred millions of notes, to be used as money, and which Congress declared should be a tender in the payment of debts. Coin soon ceased to circulate generally, and people used, in a great degree, the notes of the government to pay what they owned. On the 15th of April, 1864, two weeks before the expiration of the period allowed the complainant for his election to purchase the property having greatly increased in value since 1854, the year in which the lease was made–the complainant addressed a letter to the defendant, inclusing a check, payable to his order, on the Bank of America, in New York, for two thousand dollars, as the amount due on the 1st of May following on the purchase of the property, with a blank receipt for the money, and requesting the defendant to sign and return the receipt, and stating that if it were agreeable to the defendant he woul have the deed of the property, and the trust deed to be executed by himself, prepared between that date and the 1st of May. To this letter the defendant, on the same day, replied that he had no time then to look into the business, and returned the check, expressing a wish to see the compliant for explanations before closing the matter. On the following morning the complainant called on the defendant and informed him that he had two thousand dollars to make the first payment for the property, and offered the money to him. The money thus offered consisted of notes of the United States, made by act of Congress a legal tender for debts. These the defendant refused to accept, stating that he understood the purchase-money was to be paid in gold, and that gold he would accept, but not the notes, and give the receipt desired. It was admitted that these notes were at the time greatly depreciated in the market below their nominal value.*fn1 On repeated occasions subsequently the complainant sent the same amount–two thousand dollars–in these United States notes to the defendant in payment of the cash instalment on the purchase, and as often were they refused by him. On one of these occasions a draft of the deed of conveyance to be executed by the defendant, and a draft of the trust deed to be executed by the complainant, were sent for examination, with the money. This last was prepared for execution by the complainant alone, and contained a provision that he might, if he should elect to do so, pay off the deferred payments at earlier dates than those mentioned in the lease. These deeds were returned by the defendant, accompanied with a letter expressing dissatisfaction at the manner in which he was induced to sign the lease with the clause for the sale of the premises, but stating that as he had signed it he 'should have carried the matter out' if the complainant had proffered the amount which he knew he had offered for the property, meaning by this statement, as the court understood it, if he had proffered the amount stipulated in gold. No objection was made to the form of either of the deeds. Soon afterwards the defendant left the city of Washington, with the intention of being absent until after the 1st of May. On the 29th of April the complainant, finding that the defendant had left the city, and perceiving that the purchase was not about to be completed within the period prescribed by the covenant in the lease, and apprehensive that unless legal proceedings were taken by him to enforce its execution his rights thereunder might be lost, instituted the present suit. In the bill he set forth the covenant giving him the right or option to purchase the premises; his election to purchase; the notice to the defendant; the repeated efforts made by him to obtain a deed of the property; his offer to pay the amount required as the first instalment of the purchase-money in United States notes, and to execute the trust deed stipulated to secure the deferred payments, and the refusal of the defendant to receive the United States notes and to execute to him a deed of the premises. It also set forth the departure of the defendant from the city of Washington, and his intended absence beyond the 1st of May following, and alleged that the appeal was made to the equitable interposition of the court, lest on the return of the defendant he might refuse to allow the complainant to complete the purchase, and urge as a reason that the time within which it was to be made had passed. The bill concluded with a prayer that the court decree a specific performance of the agreement by the defendant, and the execution of a deed of the premises to the complainant; the latter offering to perform the agreement on his part according to its true intent and meaning. The bill also stated some facts, which it is unnecessary to detail, tending to show that the acquisition of the property in question was of especial importance to the complainant. The answer set up that the complainant, even on his own showing, had no case; that there was no proper tender; that even if the complainant once had a right to file a bill in his sole right–the way in which the present bill was filed–he had lost right by the transfer of the half to his brother; that the complainant had not demanded an execution even of the contract which he himself set forth, but by the drafts of the trust deed sent to Tayloe, and which was the trust deed of which he contemplated the execution, he proposed to pay, at his own option, the whole purchase-money before the expiration of the ten years, and thus would interfere with the duration of that security and investment in the identical property leased, which had been originally contemplated and provided for; thus subjecting the defendant to risk and expense in making a new investment. The answer concluded with an allegation, that 'by the great national acts and events which had occurred when the complainant filed his bill, and which were still influencing all values and interests in the country, such a state of things bad arisen and now existed, as according to equity and good conscience ought to prevent a decree for specific performance in this case, upon a demand made on the last day of a term of ten years, even if in strict law (which was denied) the complainant was entitled to make such demand.' Both Taylor and Willard were examined as witnesses. The former testified, that when the lease was executed he objected to a stipulation for a sale of the premises, and that Willard said it should go for nothing. Willard swore that he had said no such thing. The court below dismissed the bill, and Willard took the present appeal.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Mr. Justice Field, after stating the facts of the case, delivered the opinion of the court, as follows:

Messrs. Curtis, Poland, and Howe, for the appellant, contended, that when Willard, within the prescribed time, notified to the respondent his election to purchase, the contract became complete.

That where a contract for the conveyance of lands was in its nature and circumstances unobjectionable, it was as much a matter or course for a court of equity to decree its specific performance, as it was for a court of law to give damages for its breach.

That the money payable by Willard to Taylor became a debt, as soon as Willard had signified to Tayloe his option to make the purchase, and that being a 'debt,' it was capable of being discharged in notes of the United States made a legal tender for debts by the act of Congress; the counsel here going into a learned argument to show that Congress had power under the Constitution to make its notes a valid tender for payment of private debts.

Messrs. Cox and McPherson, contra, and in support of the decree below, argued–

That in point of fact the purpose of the arrangement between Tayloe and Willard, was but to give to Willard, well known as a hotel-keeper in Washington, a control, during ten years, of property adjoining his hotel, in order to prevent competition with it; and that this was presumable from the lease itself, and was made certain by the testimony of Tayloe, who swears that on his objecting to the clause giving the right to purchase, Willard agreed that it should 'go for nothing.'

That the specific performance of contracts was a matter to be regulated pre-eminently by the suggestions of good conscience; that the rebellion, which between 1861 and 1865 brought countless numbers of strangers to Washington, had made a great and unexpected augmentation in the value of property used for hotels; that this might be ground even for rescinding a contract; or if not so, that certainly it was ground for requiring a complainant asking performance to show a most exact compliance with his obligations.

That in this case there was no proper tender: that the statutes under which the notes were tendered by Willard to Tayloe if indeed they were meant to operate on then existing contracts were unconstitutional; moreover, that they were not so meant to operate, and of course that this contract was without their scope. Independently of which, that payment of the amount to be paid by Willard to entitle himself to a conveyance, was not the payment of a debt, but the performance of a condition.

That the deed of trust tendered by Willard contemplated an execution by himself alone; whereas it ought to have been by himself and his brother, to whom he had conveyed a half of his interest in the property, and moreover that it changed the dates at which the deferred payments should be made.

To this it was replied, that even if the tender in notes was bad, still, since Congress had declared them a good tender, and this court had never yet decided the reverse of such a position, that Willard did nothing wrong in tendering them; especially since he subjected himself to the court's direction, and was ready to tender coin if this court thought that he was bound to do so.

That the contract having been fair when made, each party took the risk of changes in value; and that here when made it was highly advantageous to Tayloe.

That the defence, that the covenant was obtained by some parol assurance that it would not be enforced was not set up in the answer, and was inconsistent with admitted facts, and in all violation of a leading rule of evidence.

That the fact, that the draft of a trust deed sent by Willard to Tayloe did not conform to the contract, could, under the circumstances, have no legal bearing on the case.

That the omission of the name of Willard's brother was unimportant, since only parties to the contract are proper parties to a bill; and a sub-purchaser of an undivided ...

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