Field v. Harrison

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Field v. Harrison, Wythe 273 (1794),[1] rev'd, Harrison v. Field, 2 Va. (2 Wash.) 136 (1795),[2] involved two people who had jointly agreed to repay a debt. One of the joint debtors died before the other. The decision discussed whether the dead debtor's representatives could still be held liable for the debt. Wythe offers another extensive discussion of British case law's irrelevance as precedent in the United States, as well as a summary of the reason for equity's existence.

The case is frequently quoted for Wythe's thoughts on judicial impartiality: "[C]ompassion ought not to influence a judge, in whom, acting officially, apathy is less a vice than sympathy."[3]


James Field loaned £3000 to William Claiborne. David Minge agreed to sign a bond as a surety (a co-signer equally liable for repaying the loan) for Claiborne on the promise to repay Field £1500 plus interest.

Minge died before Claiborne, and Claiborne declared bankruptcy.

James Field died, and the executrix of his estate, Margaret Field, sued Minge's estate to recover the loan amount. Margaret Field's suit was rejected by the common-law court because Minge's and Claiborne's bond created joint liability. Joint liability created a right of survivorship, which meant that the entire liability fell upon the living borrower listed on the bond (Claiborne) after the other borrower (Minge) died. Margaret Field then filed a bill with the High Court of Chancery against Christiana Harrison (the executrix of Minge's estate) to recover the money.

Harrison demurred (a pleading agreeing that everything Field said in her complaint was true, but did not state a valid claim). Harrison said that Minge's liability for the loan disappeared with his death, that Field's bill "contained no equity", and that Field might still have a valid action in a court of law against Claiborne.

Field v. Harrison was reported as a supplemental pamphlet in 1796,[4] printed by Thomas Nicolson of Richmond, Virginia, who had published Wythe's Reports in 1795.[5]

The Court's Decision

The High Court of Chancery ordered Minge's estate to pay the £1500 plus interest to Field. The Chancery Court rejected Harrison's claim that Minge's estate was no longer liable due to Minge's death, and also rejected the idea that Field's bill had "no equity". Wythe deemed the fact that Field might still be able to sue Claiborne in a court of law irrelevant. Even if the common law ended Minge's liability on the bond with his death, a chancery court could give Field a remedy, because death does not discharge a co-debtor's duty under equity.

Harrison appealed the Chancery Court's decision to the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.[6] Margaret Field claimed that James Field did not learn until after Minge's death that the bond was for joint liability instead of joint and several liability, as James Field thought it was (in which case, Minge's liability would have passed down to Minge's estate and heirs). In addition, James Field was not present when Minge and Claiborne executed the bond.[7] Harrison replied that Claiborne was in good financial condition when he took the loan from James Field, and that as far as Harrison knew, Claiborne did not use Minge's credit to get the loan. In addition, Harrison also asserted that neither fraud nor error was involved in making Minge and Claiborne jointly liable instead of jointly and severally liable.

The Supreme Court reversed the Chancery Court. Minge did not borrow or use any of the money that Field loaned to Claiborne, and there did not appear to be any fraud or error made when making the bond for joint liability instead of joint and several. Therefore, equity should not extend Minge's liability any further than the common law would, and Minge's liability for the bond ended with his death.

Wythe's Discussion

Wythe believed that the Chancery Court's decision "will be thought. . .by most other men, to be consonant with purest principles of justice."[8] He took as self-evident the idea that a person who co-signs a loan as a guarantor is just as duty-bound to repay the lender as the person who borrowed the money, and that if the guarantor is unable to perform that duty, then the guarantor's heirs are equally bound to that duty if the guarantor's estate has enough funds. Wythe said that the common law dictates that the only thing that would eliminate a person's obligation under a contract is the performance of their duty under the contract or the consent of the person the duty was owed to. In this case, Wythe defined the "common law" as "the law common to all men. . .the law of nature and reason", which he distinguished from the law created by "the disciples of those who can be eloquent encomiasts of the most barbarous parts of what, by some of them, is alleged to have been the antient common law of England."[9]

Wythe iterated the rationale for courts of equity. Equity is there to fix defects that unavoidably appear in the exercise of the common law. Equity anticipates and provides remedies that the common law did not consider. Equity enhances insufficient legal remedies, and restrains excessive ones. Equity is also there to provide remedies that would be available to people through the common law if not for legal procedures and circumstances beyond the parties' control. Equity is a complement to the common law, not an obstacle.

Wythe offered the example of a person, F, who loans money to another person, C. C seals and delivers a writing confirming his obligation to repay F the money, but F loses the writing. From the viewpoint of "[m]en, who delight in quaintness of phrase, and suppose themselves to discover it in pith of argument."[10] F has lost the right to repayment by losing the evidence of that obligation.

Wythe criticized the common-law principle that if the cause of action to recover title in property had to be temporarily suspended due to procedural issues, then that cause of action was permanently extinguished, unrevivable even in equity. Wythe cited the cases of Fryer v. Gildridge[11] from Hobart's Reports and Wankford v. Wankford[12] from Salkeld's Reports for this idea. In Fryer, the lender died and made the wife of one of the borrowers executrix of the lender's estate, which the court said suspended the lender's right to go after the borrower's money. In Wankford, the borrower himself became the executor of the lender's estate. In both cases, the courts held that the act of making the borrower or his wife executor of the lender's estate suspended the lender's right to file suit, and that once that right is suspended, the action is permanently extinct.[13]

In Cage v. Acton,[14] (from Lord Raymond's Reports, English Chief Justice Holt said that chancery courts should provide no relief in a case where the common law cancels a debt because the lender married the borrower.[15] Wythe remarked that enough English courts of equity had approved Holt's doctrine that "some" might consider it binding case law that would speak against Wythe's verdict in Fields v. Harrison. Wythe also noted, however, that in a later stage of Cage and Acton's battle found in Vernon's Reports, the chancellor felt otherwise, and held that equity would grant relief in that situation.[16] In addition, Wythe said that one reason for Holt's doctrine was to keep chancery and common-law decisions uniform with the English ecclesiastical courts. At any rate, Wythe saw no need to hold to precedent if it flew in the face of "natural justice."[17]

Wythe offered another illustration of what could result from following the law as the Virginia Supreme Court described it in this case - this time, F lends money to C and M. C and M sign a bond promising to repay F, and the courts interpret the wording of the bond to mean that C and M's liability to F is joint, rather than joint and several. If M dies before C does, F cannot sue both M's estate and C. On top of that, F cannot sue M's estate, because the joint obligation passed entirely to C on M's death. In a situation such as this, Wythe would have allowed a court of equity to require M's estate to repay F the money owed, giving F relief that the common law could not. Wythe seemed to have trouble with the need for a distinction between joint and joint and several liability, deeming it "originally perhaps a reverie of some dull drowsy dreaming judge, which his successors, too lazy to examine it, have suffered time to mature into an authority."[18] Since M would have been liable for the full amount had C died, and vice-versa, then surely the joint liability was meant to be joint and several.[19]

In a footnote, Wythe fashions his own explanation for why the common law created a right of survivorship for joint liability.[20] When one of multiple borrowers dies, the common law allows a lender to sue the surviving borrowers for the entire amount, supposedly for the borrower's benefit. Common law does not allow someone to join a "proper" party (i.e., a person being sued as themself) and a "representative" party (e.g., the executor of someone's estate or someone acting as a guardian for a child) in the same case. So, Field could not include Minge's estate and Claiborne in the same lawsuit. Therefore, the law allows a lender to sue the surviving borrower, and then allows the surviving borrower to sue the deceased borrower's estate for compensation. Wythe expressed hope that he would be as happy with his improvised explanation as Holt was with his explanation in as reported in Peere Williams's Reports for the distinction between joint tenancies and tenancies in common.[21]

First page of the opinion Harrison v. Field, in Reports of Cases Argued and Determined in the Court of Appeals of Virginia, by Bushrod Washington. Richmond: T. Nicolson, 1799.

Something puzzled Wythe, though: if the common law wanted to be sure that lenders had a remedy, why did judges create the law so that a borrower's death got rid of their obligation under joint liability, even if the other borrower was bankrupt?[22] Wythe said that lawyers' and judges' unfamiliarity with the common law they profess to interpret has been a longstanding problem. Wythe quotes an excerpt from John Taylor's Elements of the Civil Law in which a lawyer from historical times decries his contemporaries' obliviousness towards their profession's principles, taking whatever case they can find to pay the bills without regard for the ethical implications.[23] In the preface to his case reports, Justice Fortescue-Aland catches even Edward Coke, the high priest of the common law and England's Sulpicius,[24] in an error about the common law's origins.[25]

Wythe offered a pair of further examples to illustrate the odd position the Supreme Court had taken:

  • In the first example, a single borrower owes money to two joint lenders. One of the lenders dies, and the other one vanishes with the bond that proved the debt existed. Would a court of equity say that the borrower's debt is cleared?
  • In the second example, the borrowers Claiborne and Minge die at the same time with no way to prove who died first (e.g., in a shipwreck). Would a court in equity free Minge's estate from the debt?

Wythe took particular issue with the idea that the important factor for the Supreme Court was whether Minge had used any of the money James Field loaned to Claiborne. He dissected the first sentence of the Supreme Court's decision, mainly to reiterate that he disagreed with the Supreme Court's idea that Minge's liability on the loan ended with Minge's death. Wythe compares Claiborne's and Minge's relation to that of the debtor and surety in the case of Pendleton v. Lomax.[26] Just as Pendleton the surety was able to recover from his co-surety Lomax, so should Minge have been able to recover from Claiborne.

But Minge was not a surety for James Field; legally speaking, Minge was a debtor from Field's point of view - as much of a debtor as Claiborne. So why should Minge's estate be able to escape the debt by Minge's death when Claiborne's death would not have terminated his liability under the Supreme Court's logic? Wythe supposed that the Supreme Court was acting out of the desire for protecting an "innocent surety". Such charity, though, should be left to the person owed the debt, not to the court. By granting relief to Minge's estate, the Supreme Court could very well be taking food out of the mouths of Field's children. Whether a person agrees in a contract to perform a duty beneficial to another person or a duty detrimental to themselves is irrelevant as far as law and equity are concerned. Courts should not prioritize one person over another based on the type of act they performed. Minge signed on to an obligation, and Field's rights to recovery should not be diminished just because of the type of action Minge agreed to.

The parties arguing before the Chancery Court cited case law precedent in favor of their positions, so Wythe seized the chance to repeat his views on the limited usefulness of cases as evidence of the law. Given a choice, Wythe preferred lawyers to refer to those cases while providing their own interpretation of what the cases meant, as opposed to straight quotations from the cases. He found it both "easier" and "more influential" when lawyers gave their own interpretation on the precedent's meaning.[27] Overall, though, Wythe did not care much for the idea that something was true just because Aristotle said it was. Judges seem more concerned as to whether their decisions accord with each other as opposed to whether they jibe with common sense. Giving case law the aura of infallibility can become dangerous precedent: Wythe gave an example from Lord Raymond's Reports of the House of Lords summoning King's Bench Chief Justice Holt and threatening to put him in the Tower of London because one of his judges issued a decision inconsistent with House of Lords case law.[28] Although he wished it would happen, Wythe saw little chance of Americans breaking from their "superstitious veneration" for case law precedent.[29]

Harrison's attorney cited the chancery case of Ratcliffe v. Graves[30] to support his case. In Ratcliffe, the Heathers were sureties for Elizabeth Ratcliffe, the executrix of her husband Walter's estate. The plaintiff was Walter's son, who was a minor when Walter died. Elizabeth was loaning out the money and earning interest from Walter's estate while the plaintiff was a minor, and the plaintiff sued for the interest. The plaintiff claimed that the Heathers fraudulently did not set aside enough resources to properly back the bond the law required for Elizabeth to administer the estate. The plaintiff asked the court to make the Heathers pay the amount of damages not covered by the bond, but the chancellor rejected the plaintiff's request, saying he would not require the Heathers to pay any more than the common law required.

Wythe was unimpressed by this case's precedential value because the chancellor in Ratcliffe did not give any reason for his decision; what's more, the chancellor in Ratcliffe did not seem to put much thought in the decision, since he made the statement at the beginning of the hearing.[31] From Wythe's perspective, the case of Underwood v. Staney[32] was just as valid as Ratcliffe. In Underwood, the plaintiff was a lender who sued the dead borrower's estate and the borrower's surety for repayment. The executor of the borrower's estate said he had no money to repay, so the lender sued the surety. The chancellor in Underwood held that equity required the surety to repay the borrower; while the surety did not directly benefit from the loan, the lender had parted with his money, and the lender's loss was just as valid consideration as the surety's gain. The chancellor in Underwood offered no explanation for his decision, but neither did the chancellor in Ratcliffe - so why would one case be considered more worthy than the other? At least Underwood held to basic principles of justice.

Wythe noted that several cases would allow a lender to get repaid on a loan if they lost the note that verified the debt's existence, but not if the borrower died before the surety. Wythe found this odd; if anything, he felt the reverse should apply, because a lender has no control over the borrower's death, but might be responsible for losing a piece of paper. One reason Wythe could think of for the distinction was that with the lost note, a court of equity was simply filling in the lost evidence on a pre-existing debt, while in the case of the dead borrower, the court of equity might be creating a new duty to repay that the common law did not require. This brought Wythe back to the question of whether a lender's right to repayment was destroyed, or a borrower's obligation simply nullfied, by the common law's lack of a remedy for the lender if the borrower died before the surety.

A borrower's obligation to the lender can be discharged either by the borrower's act (i.e., repaying the loan under the agreed-upon terms) or by the lender's act (e.g., if the lender forgives the borrower's debt). A legal maxim states that "an act of the law shall never work a wrong."[33] Francis Bacon stated in his Maxims of the Law that when points of law conflict with each other, courts should uphold the ideal which the law considers worthier, but that this rule should give way to other rules that are more humane or equitable.[34] Bacon's ninth maxim states that if the law deprives someone of a remedy through no fault of their own, then the law should put that person in a better place than they were before, not a worse situation.[35] Wythe could not imagine a legal mind such as Bacon discharging Minge's duty to pay, leaving Field with no remedy for the lost loan.

Wythe saved a healthy dose of scorn for the part of the Supreme Court's decision that stated that no fraud or mistake seemed to occur when creating the bond for Claiborne's loan. Wythe said this line was so unnecessary that it almost seemed like satire. But it gave Wythe pause for thought: would it not have been fraud for Claiborne and Minge to have promised repayment to Field, but intending that Field would only be repaid while both parties were living or if Claiborne died before Minge? Even if Claiborne's and Minge's fraud was not intentional, Field should not be punished for signing a contract he did not mean to create - the Roman civil law according to Justinian's Digest would agree.[36] A court of equity should therefore be able to grant relief to correct this mistake. If equity cannot grant relief only because the legal obligation was extinguished, then what is the purpose of equity?

Wythe concluded his discussion by asking what would have happened if James Field were a foreign resident and the parties sealed the promise in that foreign country. Would the Supreme Court have ruled differently? If so, why the difference? If not, how can foreign citizens trust the American courts?

Works Cited or Referenced by Wythe

Henry Hobart's The Reports of that Reverend and Learned Judge, the Right Honourable Sr. Henry Hobart Knight and Baronet, Lord Chief Justice if His Majesties Court of Common Pleas;…

Hobarts reports p. [10] I Salkelds reports p. 306) is such a case, even the court of equity ought not to interpose [37]

Justinian's Digest

Quotation in Wythe's opinion:

[B]y the roman civil law, non videntur, qui errant, consentire. Dig. lib. L tit. XVII. Reg. CXVI §2. Translation: He, who errs, seems not to consent. Wythe uses this maxim to demonstrate why a party who entered a contract because of the fraud of the other party ought not to be bound by that contract.[38]

For this quotation, Wythe most likely used his copy of the Corpus Juris Civilis which includes the Digest of Justinian.

Plutarch's Parallel Lives (Cato the Elder)

Quotation in Wythe's opinion:

...reporting his own adjudications too, which may be as unentertaining and unedifying as the senile garrulity of Cato in a language not his vernacular tongue. notwithstanding that work has been slighted, the author’s cacoethes blasphemandi in that way is so inveterate that it be pronounced insanabile. this opusculum may be slighted in the same manner; yet his cacoethes edendi will break forth, when such occasions as this present fit subjects for his lucubrations. Translation: cacoethes blaspehemandi- “flaw of blaspheming”; insanabile- “incurable”; opusculum- “trifle”; cacoethes edendi- “flaw of eating”.[39]

Quintilian's The Institutes of Oratory

Quotation in Wythe's opinion:

Taylors elements of the civil law, p. 399. an error from a cause not altogether dissimilar, justice Fortescue, in the preface to his reports, hath detected in Coke himself, the English Sulpitius, the juris antisies of the common lawyers. Translation: Wythe wrote juris antisies but the text he was quoting from reads “juris antistes” meaning “master/authority/high priest of the law.” He uses the phrase to praise Coke as one of the most important authorities on the law.[40]

Thomas Vernon's Cases Argued and Adjudged in the High Court of Chancery

Citation in Wythe's Opinion

Ratcliffe versus Graves et alios, in Vernon's reports 1 vol. p.196 [41]

Francis Bacon's The Works of Francis Bacon, Baron of Verulam, Viscount St. Albans, Lord High Chancellor of England. ...

Quotation in Wythe's opinion:

A point worthy to be observed generally in the rules of the law is, that, when they encounter and cross one another, in any case, it be understood which the law holdeth worthier, and to be preferred; and it is in this particular very notable to consider that this being a rule of some strictness and rigor doth not, as it were, its office but in absence of other rules which are more of equity and humanity." [42]

See also


  1. George Wythe, Decisions of Cases in Virginia by the High Court of Chancery with Remarks upon Decrees by the Court of Appeals, Reversing Some of Those Decisions, 2nd ed., ed. B.B. Minor (Richmond: J.W. Randolph, 1852), 273.
  2. Bushrod Washington, Reports of Cases Argued and Determined in the Court of Appeals of Virginia, (Richmond: T. Nicolson, 1799), 2:136.
  3. Wythe 282.
  4. George Wythe, A Report of the Case between Field and Harrison, Determined by the High Court of Chancery, in Which the Decree was Reversed by the Court of Appeals, (Richmond, VA: Thomas Nicolson, 1796).
  5. Charles Evans, American Bibliography, vol. 11 (1942), 122.
  6. Harrison v. Field, 2 Va. (2 Wash.) 136 (1795).
  7. This information was included in the Supreme Court's decision, so it is unclear whether Field made these arguments before Wythe.
  8. Wythe, Decisions of Cases, 274.
  9. Ibid., 274, fn. a.
  10. Wythe does not name anyone specifically, but it seems likely this was a shot at Edmund Pendleton.
  11. Fryer v. Gildrige, (1613?) 80 Eng. Rep. 160-61, (C.P.); Hobart 10.
  12. Wankford v. Wankford, (1699) 91 Eng. Rep. 265 (K.B.); 1 Salk. 299.
  13. The judge in Fryer though, seemed to find this an iffy basis for the ruling. The executrix of the lender's estate later also became the executrix of the estate of another of the borrowers, and that estate had sufficient funds to pay the lender; the judge in Fryer called this the "surer" reason for his verdict. Fryer v. Gildrige, (1613?) 80 Eng. Rep. at 161; Hobart 10.
  14. Cage v. Acton, (1700) 91 Eng. Rep. 1244; 1 Ld. Raym. 515 (11 Will. III).
  15. Id. at 1249. Interestingly, C.J. Holt was outvoted in this case; the other two judges held that the borrower and lender's marriage did not cancel the debt.
  16. Acton v. Peirce, (1704) 23 Eng. Rep. 908; 2 Vern. 480.
  17. Wythe, Decisions of Cases 277, fn. b.
  18. Ibid., fn. c.
  19. Wythe did not seem to think much of judges inferring a right of survivorship when reading a contract. He also found little rhyme or reason behind courts' distinction between tenancy in common and joint tenancy. See Farley v. Shippen, Wythe 254 (Va. 1794).
  20. Wythe, Decisions of Cases, 278, fn. d.
  21. Fisher v. Wigg, (1700) 24 Eng. Rep. 275, 278; 1 P. Will. 18, 21. Holt believed that courts preferred joint tenancies because they did not like seeing estates broken up into fractions, with the side effect of duplicating services.
  22. Wythe appears to cite to Towers v. Moor, (1689) 23 Eng. Rep. 673; 2 Vern. 99, for this idea. While Towers does involve joint liability and a dead borrower, it does not seem to say whether the surviving borrower was bankrupt.
  23. John Taylor, Elements of the Civil Law (London: Charles Bathurst, 3d ed. 1769) 399.
  24. Here, Wythe is referring to Servius Sulpicius Rufus, a highly-regarded Roman legal scholar. Specifically, Wythe cites Quintilian's description in Book XI, Chapter 1 of the Institutione Oratoria of Sulpicius as a juris antistes (roughly, a "bishop of law"). In this excerpt from the Institutione Oratoria, Qunitilian describes how Cicero, Sulpicius's teacher, was able to advocate for Murena's election as consul over Sulpicius while preserving Sulpicius's pride as much as possible. An interesting choice of excerpts by Wythe, since he is using it to illustrate how Justice Fortescue was pointing out an error by the "modern Sulpicius", Lord Edward Coke, as gently as possible.
  25. John Fortescue-Aland, Reports of Select Cases in All the Courts of Westminster-Hall ([London] In the Savoy: Printed for H. Lintot, 1748) xi.
  26. Pendleton v. Lomax, Wythe 4 (Va. 1790). Wythe takes this opportunity to bemoan the poor sales of Wythe's Reports (Field v. Harrison was originally published as a supplementary pamphlet); Wythe guessed that he had sold only 20 copies of the book. Wythe compared his situation to Plutarch's description of Cato the Elder's latter years. Cato had frequently expressed contempt for Greek language and culture and actively fought what he perceived to be the "Hellenization" of Roman culture. When he turned around 80 years old, though, he began to try learning the language. Cato's contemporaries thought that Cato's late-in-life "rage" for trying to learn the language he had long despised was a punishment upon him. In much the same way, Wythe suggested (perhaps with a slightly droll tone) that his mania for printing all his decisions was a punishment for his frequent derision of Westmonasterian decisions. Wythe, Decisions of Cases, 281, fn. e.
  27. Wythe, Decisions of Cases, 283-84.
  28. R. v. Knollys, (1694) 91 Eng. Rep. 904, 909; 1 Ld. Raym. 10, 18 (6 Will. & Mar.). In the end, the Lords' "endeavours vanished in smoak."
  29. Wythe, Decisions of Cases, 284, fn. f.
  30. Ratcliffe v. Graves, (1683) 23 Eng. Rep. 409; 1 Vern. 196.
  31. There was more to the case; the plaintiff also sued Elizabeth for the interest she had earned on the money from Walter's estate.
  32. Underwood v. Staney, (1666) 22 Eng. Rep. 703; 1 Chan. Cas. 77.
  33. Bryan A. Garner, ed., "Actus legis nemini facit injuriam," in Black's Law Dictionary (St. Paul, MN: Thomson Reuters, 10th ed. 2014) 1898. Wythe does not give the source for this maxim, but it seems to be a well-established one.
  34. Francis Bacon, "Regula III. Verba fortius accipiuntur contra proferentem (A man's deeds and words shall be taken strongest against himself)" in The Works of Francis Bacon (London: Printed for A. Miller, against St. Clement's Church, in the Strand, 1740) 22-27.
  35. Francis Bacon, "Regula IX. Quod remedio destituitur ipsa re valet si culpa absit" in The Works of Francis Bacon (London: Printed for A. Miller, against St. Clement's Church, in the Strand, 1740) 27-28.
  36. Non videntur qui errant consentire ("Those who make mistakes are not considered to consent"). DIG. (Ulpianus 11 ad ed.).
  37. Wythe 277.
  38. Wythe, Decisions of Cases, 289.
  39. Ibid., 281.
  40. Ibid., 279.
  41. Wythe 284.
  42. Wythe 287.