King v. Hamilton
29 U.S. 311

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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.

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,

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