ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Jeremy Telman
Oklahoma City University
School of Law

Wednesday, November 1, 2023

John Quincy Adams and Contracts Cases in SCOTUS

John Quincy Adams YoungSid DeLong shared news that John Qunicy Adams's handwritten notes from his first oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court have gone on sale for $75,000.  The picture at right shows him about eight years before the oral argument.

Why is the price so high for a lawyer's scribbling?  No doubt because they provide insights into the state of contracts doctrine in the Early Republic.  The case, Head & Amory v. Providence Insurance Co., dates from 1804 and was argued before the Court of Chief Justice John Marshall.  

The case was about a merchant vessel that was seized as a prize of war in 1800 during the Napoleonic Wars.  The owners of the ship tried to recover from their insurer, but the insurer claimed that the policy had been canceled.  There was no signed writing evidencing the cancellation.  Rather the evidence of cancellation came in the form of correspondence between the parties.  While the trial jury was led astray by expert testimony suggesting a completed agreement, Justice Marshall found that the exchange of letters constituted only preliminary negotiations that could not bind the parties. Moreover, John Quincy Adams successfully persuaded the Court that a corporation could not be bound by an agreement absent seal or signature.  

John Quincy Adams gave his handwritten notes for the case to William Cranch, who was both Abigail Adams's nephew and John Quincy's classmate at Harvard.  Mr. Cranch served as the reporter for the Court until 1815.

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