CONSTRAINT. In the civil and Scottish law, by this term is understood
what, in the common law, is known by the name of duress.
2. It is a general rule, that when one is compelled into a contract, there is
no effectual consent, thougb, ostensibly, there is the form of it. In such case
the contract will be declared void.
3. The constraint requisite thus to annul a contract, must be a vis aut me us
qui cadet in constantem virum, such as would shake a man of firmness and
resolution. 3 Ersk. 1, 16; and 4, 1, 26; 1 Bell's Conn. B. 3, part 1, o. 1, s.
1, art. 1, page 295.
CONSTRUCTION, practice. It is defined by Mr. Powell to be "the drawing
in inference by the act of reason, as to the intent of an instrument, from given
circumstances, upon principles deduced from men's general motives, conduct and
action." This definition may, perbaps, not be sufficiently complete, inasmuch as
the term instrument generally implies something reduced into writing, whereas
construction, is equally necessary to ascertain the meaning of engagements
merely verbal. In other respects it appears to be perfectly accurate. The
Treatise of Equity, defines interpretation to be the collection of the meaning
out of signs the most probable. 1 Powell on Con . 370.
2. There are two kinds of constructions; the first, is literal or strict;
this is uniformly the construction given to penal statutes. 1 Bl. Com. 88; 6
Watt's & Serg. 276; 3 Taunt. 377. 2d. The other is liberal, and applied,
usually, to remedial laws, in order to enforce them according to their
3. In the supreme court of the United States, the rule which has been
uniformly observed " in construing statutes, is to adopt the construction made
by the courts of the country by whose legislature the statute was enacted. This
rule may be susceptible of some modification when applied to British statutes
which are adopted in any of these states. By adopting them, they become our own,
as entirely as if they had been enacted by the legislature of the state.
4. The received construction, in England, at the time they are admitted to
operate in this couutry - indeed, to the time of our separation from the British
empire - may very properly be considered as accompanying the statutes
themselves, and forming an integral part of them. But, however we may respect
the subsequent decisions (and certainly they are entitled to great respect,) we
do not admit their absolute authority. If the English courts vary their
construction of a statute, which is common to the two countries, we do not hold
ourselves bound to fluctuate with them. 5 Pet. R. 280.
5. The great object which the law has in all cases, in contemplation, as
furnishing the leading principle of the rules to be observed in the construction
of contracts, is, that justice is to be done between the parties, by enforcing
the performance of their agreement, according to the sense in which it was
mutually understood and relied upon at the time of making it.
6. When the contract is in writing, the difficulty lies only in the
construction of the words; when it is to be made out by parol testimony, that
difficulty is augmented by the possible mistakes of the witnesses as to the
words used by the parties; but still, when the evidence is received, it must be
assumed as correct, when a construction is to be put upon it. The following are
the principal rules to be observed in the construction of contracts. When. the
words used are of precise and unambiguous meaning, leading to no absurdity, that
meaning is to be taken as conveying the intention of the parties. But should
there be manifest absurdity in the application of such meaning, to the
particular occasion, this will let in construction to discover the true
intention of the parties: for example; 1st. When words are manifestly
inconsistent with the declared purpose and object of the contract, they will be
rejected; as if, in a contract of sale, the price of the thing sold should be
acknowledged as received, while the obligation of the seller was not to deliver
the commodity. 2 Atk. R. 32. 2d. When words are omitted so as to defeat the
effect of the contract, they will be supplied by the obvious sense and inference
from the context; as, if the contract stated that the seller, for the
consideration of one hundred dollars, sold a horse, and the buyer promised to
pay him for the said horse one hundred, the word dollars would be supplied. 1
3d. When the words, taken in one sense, go to defeat the contract, while they
are susceptible of another construction which will give effect to the design of
the parties, and not destroy it, the latter will be preferred. Cowp. 714.
8. - 2. The plain, ordinary, and popular sense of the words, is to be
preferred to the more unusual, etymological, and recondite meaning or even to
the literal, and strictly grammatical construction of the words, where these
last would lead to any inefficacy or inconsistency.
9. - 3. When a peculiar meaning has been stamped upon the words by the usage
of a particular trade or place in which the contract occurs, such technical or
peculiar meaning will prevail. 4 East, R. 135. It is as if the parties in
framing their contract had made use of a foreign language, which the court is
not bound to understand, but which on evidence of its import, must be applied. 7
Taunt. R. 272; 1 Stark. R. 504. But the expression so made technical and
appropriate, and the usage by which it has become so, must be so clear that the
court cannot entertain a doubt upon the subject. 2 Bos. & P. 164; 3 Stark.
Ev. 1036: 6 T. R. 320. Technical words are to be taken according to their
approved and known use in the trade in which the contract is entered into, or to
wbich it relates, unless they have manifestly been understood in another sense
by the parties. Vide 16 Serg. & R. 126.
10. - 4. The place where a contract has been made, is a most material
consideration in its construction. Generally its validity is to be decided by
the law of the place where it is made; if valid there, it is considered valid
every where. 2 Mass. R. 88; 1 Pet. R. 317 Story, Confl. of Laws, 2; 4 Cowen's R.
410, note; 2 Kent, p. 39, 457, in the notes 3 Conn. R. 253 , 472; 4 Conn. R.
517. Its construction is to be according to the laws of the place where it is
made for example, where a note was given in China, payable eighteen months after
date, without any stipulation as to the amount of interest, the court allowed
the Chinese interest of one per centum per month from the expiration of the
eighteen mouths. 1 Wash. C. C. R. 253 see 12. Mass. R. 4, and the article
Interest for noney.
11. - 5. Previous conversations, and all that passes in the course of
correspondence or negotiation leading to the contract, are entirely superseded
by the written agreement. The parties having agreed to reduce the terms of their
contract to writing, the document is constituted as the only true and final
exposition of their admissions and intentions; and nothing which does not appear
in the written agreement will be considered as a part of the contract. 5 Co. R.
26; 2 B. & C. 634; 4 Taunt. R. 779. But this rule admits of some exceptions;
as, where a declaration is made before a deed is executed, showing the design
with which it was to be executed, in cases of frauds; 1 S. & R. 464; 10 S.
& R. 292; and trusts, though no trust was declared in the writing. 1 Dall.
R. 426; 7 S. & R. 114.
12. - 6. All contracts made in general terms, in the ordinary course of
trade, are presumed to incorporate the usage and custom of the trade to which
they relate. The parties are presumed to know such usages, and not to intend to
exclude them. But when there is a special stipulation in opposition to, or
inconsistent with the custom, that will of course prevail. Holt's R. 95.
13. - 7 . When there is an ambiguity which impedes the execution of the
contract, it is first, if possible, to be resolved, on a view of the whole
contract or instrument, aided by the admitted views of the parties, and, if
indispensable, parol evidence may be admitted to clear it, consistently with the
words. 1 Dall. R. 426; 4 Dall. R. 34 0; 8 S. & R. 609.
14. - 8. When the words cannot be reconciled with any practicable or
consistent interpretation, they are to be considered as not made use of "
perinde sunt ac si scripts non essent."
15. It is the duty of the court to give a construction to all written
instruments; 3 Binn. R. 337; 7 S. & R. 372; 15 S. & R. 100 4 S. & R.
279 8 S. & R. 381; 1 Watts. R. 425; 10 Mass. R. 384; 3 Cranch, R. 180 3
Rand. R. 586 to written evidence 2 Watts, R. 347 and to foreign laws, 1 Penna.
R. 388. For general rules respecting the construction of contracts, see 2 Bl.
Com. 379; 1 Bouv. Inst. n. 658, 669; 2 Com. on Cont. 23 to 28 3 Chit. Com. Law,
106 to 118 Poth. Oblig. P. 1, c. 1, art. 7; 2 Evans' Poth. Ob. 35; Long on
Sales, 106; 1 Fonb. Eq. 145, n. b Id. 440, n. 1; Whart. Dig. Contract, F; 1
Powell on Contr. 370 Shepp. Touchst. c. 5 Louis. Code, art. 1940 to 1957; Corn.
Dig. Merchant, (E 2,) n. j.; 8 Com. Dig. tit. Contract, iv.; Lilly's Reg. 794;
18 Vin. Abr. 272, tit. Reference to Words; 16 Vin. Abr. 199, tit. Parols; Hall's
Dig. 33, 339; 1 Ves. Jun. 210, n.; Vattel, B. 2, c. 17; Chit. Contr. 19 to 22; 4
Kent. Com. 419; Story's Const. 397-456; Ayl. Pa d. B. 1, t. 4; Rutherf. Inst. B.
2, c. 7, 4-11; 20 Pick. 150; 1 Bell's Com. 5th ed. 431; and the articles,
Communings; Evidence; Interpretation; Parol; Pourparler. As to the construction
of wills, see 1 Supp. to Ves. Jr. 21, 39, 56, 63, 228, 260, 273, 275, 364, 399;
1 United States Law Journ. 583; 2 Fonb. Eq. 309; Com. Dig. Estates by Devise. N
1; 6 Cruise's Dig. 171 Whart. Dig. Wills, D. As to the construction, of Laws,
see Louis. Code, art. 13 to 21; Bac. Ab. Statutes, J; 1 Bouv. Inst. n. 86-90; 3
Bin. 858; 4 Bin . 169, 172; 2 S. & R. 195; 2 Bin. 347 Rob. Digest, Brit.
Stat. 370; 7 Term. Rep. 8 2 Inst. 11, 136; 3 Bin. 284-5; 3 S. & R. 129; 1
Peere Wms. 207; 3 Burr. Rep. 1755-6; 3 Yeates, 108; 11 Co. 56, b; 1 Jones 26; 3
Yeates, 113 117, 118, 120; Dwarris on Statutes.
16. The following words and phrases have received judicial construction in
the cases referred to. The references may be useful to the student
and convenient to the practitioner.