POSSESSION-Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
Why is possession protected by the law, when the possessor is not an owner?
What are the rights of ownership?
Whether an easement is capable of possession?
POSSESSION is a conception which is only less important than contract. But the interest attaching to the theory of possession does not stop with its practical importance in the body of English law.
The theory has fallen into the hands of the philosophers, and with them has become a corner-stone of more than one elaborate structure. It will be a service to sound thinking to show that a far more civilized system than the Roman is framed upon a plan which is irreconcilable with the a priori doctrines of Kant and Hegel. Those doctrines are worked out in careful correspondence with German views of Roman law. And most of the speculative jurists of Germany, from Savigny to Ihering, have been at once professors of Roman law, and profoundly influenced if not controlled by some form of Kantian or post-Kantian philosophy. Thus everything has combined to give a special bent to German speculation, which deprives it of its claim to universal authority.
Why is possession protected by the law, when the possessor is not also an owner? That is the general problem which has much exercised the German mind. Kant, it is well known, was deeply influenced in his opinions upon ethics and law by the speculations of Rousseau. Kant, Rousseau, and the Massachusetts Bill of Rights agree that all men are born free and equal, and one or the other branch of that declaration has afforded the answer to the question why possession should be protected from that day to this. Kant and Hegel start from freedom. The freedom of the will, Kant said, is the essence of man. It is an end in itself; it is that which needs no further explanation, which is absolutely to be respected, and which it is the very end and object of all government to realize and affirm.
Possession is to be protected because a man by taking possession of an object has brought it within the sphere of his will. He has extended his personality into or over that object. As Hegel would have said, possession is the objective realization of free will. And by Kant’s postulate, the will of any individual thus manifested is entitled to absolute respect from every other individual, and can only be overcome or set aside by the universal will, that is, by the state, acting through its organs, the courts.
Savigny did not follow Kant on this point. He said that every act of violence is unlawful, and seemed to consider protection of possession a branch of protection to the person. But to this it was answered that possession was protected against disturbance by fraud as well as by force, and his view is discredited. Those who have been contented with humble grounds of expediency seem to have been few in number, and have recanted or are out of favor.
The majority have followed in the direction pointed out by Kant. Bruns, an admirable writer, expresses a characteristic yearning of the German mind, when he demands an internal juristic necessity drawn from the nature of possession itself, and therefore rejects empirical reasons. He finds the necessity he seeks in the freedom of the human will, which the whole legal system does but recognize and carry out. Constraint of it is a wrong, which must be righted without regard to conformity of the will to law, and so on in a Kantian vein. So Gans, a favorite disciple of Hegel, “The will is of itself a substantial thing to be protected, and this individual will has only to yield to the higher common will.” So Puchta, a great master, “The will which wills itself, that is, the recognition of its own personality, is to be protected.”
The chief variation from this view is that of Windscheid, a writer now in vogue. He prefers the other branch of the declaration in the Bill of Rights. He thinks that the protection to possession stands on the same grounds as protection against injuria, that every one is the equal of every other in the state, and that no one shall raise himself over the other. Ihering, to be sure, a man of genius, took an independent start, and said that possession is ownership on the defensive; and that, in favor of the owner, he who is exercising ownership in fact (i. e. the possessor) is freed from the necessity of proving title against one who is in an unlawful position. But to this it was well answered by Bruns, in his later work, that it assumes the title of disseisors to be generally worse than that of disseisees, which cannot be taken for granted, and which probably is not true in fact.
It follows from the Kantian doctrine, that a man in possession is to be confirmed and maintained in it until he is put out by an action brought for the purpose. Perhaps another fact besides those which have been mentioned has influenced this reasoning, and that is the accurate division between possessory and petitory actions or defences in Continental procedure. When a defendant in a possessory action is not allowed to set up title in himself, a theorist readily finds a mystical importance in possession.
But when does a man become entitled to this absolute protection? On the principle of Kant, it is not enough that he has the custody of a thing. A protection based on the sacredness of man’s personality requires that the object should have been brought within the sphere of that personality, that the free will should have unrestrainedly set itself into that object. There must be then an intent to appropriate it, that is, to make it part of one’s self, or one’s own.
Here the prevailing view of the Roman law comes in to fortify principle with precedent. We are told that, of the many who might have the actual charge or custody of a thing, the Roman law recognized as possessor only the owner, or one holding as owner and on his way to become one by lapse of time. In later days it made a few exceptions on practical grounds. But beyond the pledgee and the sequester (a receiver appointed by the court) these exceptions are unimportant and disputed. Some of the Roman jurists state in terms that depositaries and borrowers have not possession of the things intrusted to them. Whether the German interpretation of the sources goes too far or not, it must be taken account of in the examination of German theories.
Philosophy by denying possession to bailees in general cunningly adjusted itself to the Roman law, and thus put itself in a position to claim the authority of that law for the theory of which the mode of dealing with bailees was merely a corollary. Hence I say that it is important to show that a far more developed, more rational, and mightier body of law than the Roman, gives no sanction to either premise or conclusion as held by Kant and his successors.
In the first place, the English law has always had the good sense to allow title to be set up in defence to a possessory action. In the assize of novel disseisin, which which was a true possessory action, the defendant could always rely on his title. Even when possession is taken or kept in a way which is punished by the criminal law, as in case of forcible entry and detainer, proof of title allows the defendant to retain it, and in many cases has been held an answer to an action of trespass. So in trespass for taking goods the defendant may set up title in himself. There might seem to be a trace of the distinction in the general rule, that the title cannot be tried in trespass quare clausum. But this is an exception commonly put on the ground that the judgment cannot change the property, as trespass for chattels or trover can. The rule that you cannot go into title in a possessory action presupposes great difficulty in the proof, the probatio diabolica of the Canon law, delays in the process, and importance of possession ad interim,—all of which mark a stage of society which has long been passed. In ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, it is about as easy and cheap to prove at least a prima facie title as it is to prove possession.
In the next place, and this was the importance of the last Lecture to this subject, the common law has always given the possessory remedies to all bailees without exception. The right to these remedies extends not only to pledgees, lessees, and those having a lien, who exclude their bailor, but to simple bailees, as they have been called, who have no interest in the chattels, no right of detention as against the owner, and neither give nor receive a reward.
Modern German statutes have followed in the same path so far as to give the possessory remedies to tenants and some others. Bruns says, as the spirit of the Kantian theory required him to say, that this is a sacrifice of principle to convenience. But I cannot see what is left of a principle which avows itself inconsistent with convenience and the actual course of legislation. The first call of a theory of law is that it should fit the facts. It must explain the observed course of legislation. And as it is pretty certain that men will make laws which seem to them convenient without troubling themselves very much what principles are encountered by their legislation, a principle which defies convenience is likely to wait some time before it finds itself permanently realized.
It remains, then, to seek for some ground for the protection of possession outside the Bill of Rights or the Declaration of Independence, which shall be consistent with the larger scope given to the conception in modern law.
The courts have said but little on the subject. It was laid down in one case that it was an extension of the protection which the law throws around the person, and on that ground held that trespass quare clausum did not pass to an assignee in bankruptcy. So it has been said, that to deny a bankrupt trover against strangers for goods coming to his possession after his bankruptcy would be “an invitation to all the world to scramble for the possession of them”; and reference was made to “grounds of policy and convenience.” I may also refer to the cases of capture, some of which will be cited again. In the Greenland whale-fishery, by the English custom, if the first striker lost his hold on the fish, and it was then killed by another, the first had no claim; but he had the whole if he kept fast to the whale until it was struck by the other, although it then broke from the first harpoon. By the custom in the Gallipagos, on the other hand, the first striker had half the whale, although control of the line was lost. Each of these customs has been sustained and acted on by the English courts, and Judge Lowell has decided in accordance with still a third, which gives the whale to the vessel whose iron first remains in it, provided claim be made before cutting in. The ground as put by Lord Mansfield is simply that, were it not for such customs, there must be a sort of warfare perpetually subsisting between the adventurers. If courts adopt different rules on similar facts, according to the point at which men will fight in the several cases, it tends, so far as it goes, to shake an a priori theory of the matter.
Those who see in the history of law the formal expression of the development of society will be apt to think that the proximate ground of law must be empirical, even when that ground is the fact that a certain ideal or theory of government is generally entertained. Law, being a practical thing, must found itself on actual forces. It is quite enough, therefore, for the law, that man, by an instinct which he shares with the domestic dog, and of which the seal gives a most striking example, will not allow himself to be dispossessed, either by force or fraud, of what he holds, without trying to get it back again. Philosophy may find a hundred reasons to justify the instinct, but it would be totally immaterial if it should condemn it and bid us surrender without a murmur. As long as the instinct remains, it will be more comfortable for the law to satisfy it in an orderly manner, than to leave people to themselves. If it should do otherwise, it would become a matter for pedagogues, wholly devoid of reality.
I think we are now in a position to begin the analysis of possession. It will be instructive to say a word in the first place upon a preliminary question which has been debated with much zeal in Germany. Is possession a fact or a right? This question must be taken to mean, by possession and right, what the law means by those words, and not something else which philosophers or moralists may mean by them; for as lawyers we have nothing to do with either, except in a legal sense. If this had always been borne steadily in mind, the question would hardly have been asked.
A legal right is nothing but a permission to exercise certain natural powers, and upon certain conditions to obtain protection, restitution, or compensation by the aid of the public force. Just so far as the aid of the public force is given a man, he has a legal right, and this right is the same whether his claim is founded in righteousness or iniquity. Just so far as possession is protected, it is as much a source of legal rights as ownership is when it secures the same protection.
Every right is a consequence attached by the law to one or more facts which the law defines, and wherever the law gives any one special rights not shared by the body of the people, it does so on the ground that certain special facts, not true of the rest of the world, are true of him. When a group of facts thus singled out by the law exists in the case of a given person, he is said to be entitled to the corresponding rights; meaning, thereby, that the law helps him to constrain his neighbors, or some of them, in a way in which it would not, if all the facts in question were not true of him. Hence, any word which denotes such a group of facts connotes the rights attached to it by way of legal consequences, and any word which denotes the rights attached to a group of facts connotes the group of facts in like manner.
The word “possession” denotes such a group of facts. Hence, when we say of a man that he has possession, we affirm directly that all the facts of a certain group are true of him, and we convey indirectly or by implication that the law will give him the advantage of the situation. Contract, or property, or any other substantive notion of the law, may be analyzed in the same way, and should be treated in the same order. The only difference is, that, while possession denotes the facts and connotes the consequence, property always, and contract with more uncertainty and oscillation, denote the consequence and connote the facts. When we say that a man owns a thing, we affirm directly that he has the benefit of the consequences attached to a certain group of facts, and, by implication, that the facts are true of him. The important thing to grasp is, that each of these legal compounds, possession, property, and contract, is to be analyzed into fact and right, antecedent and consequent, in like manner as every other. It is wholly immaterial that one element is accented by one word, and the other by the other two. We are not studying etymology, but law. There are always two things to be asked: first, what are the facts which make up the group in question; and then, what are the consequences attached by the law to that group. The former generally offers the only difficulties.
Hence, it is almost tautologous to say that the protection which the law attaches by way of consequence to possession, is as truly a right in a legal sense as those consequences which are attached to adverse holding for the period of prescription, or to a promise for value or under seal. If the statement is aided by dramatic reinforcement, I may add that possessory rights pass by descent or devise, as well as by conveyance, and that they are taxed as property in some of the States.
We are now ready to analyze possession as understood by the common law. In order to discover the facts which constitute it, it will be found best to study them at the moment when possession is first gained. For then they must all be present in the same way that both consideration and promise must be present at the moment of making a contract. But when we turn to the continuance of possessory rights, or, as is commonly said, the continuance of possession, it will be agreed by all schools that less than all the facts required to call those rights into being need continue presently true in order to keep them alive.
To gain possession, then, a man must stand in a certain physical relation to the object and to the rest of the world, and must have a certain intent. These relations and this intent are the facts of which we are in search.
The physical relation to others is simply a relation of manifested power coextensive with the intent, and will need to have but little said about it when the nature of the intent is settled. When I come to the latter, I shall not attempt a similar analysis to that which has been pursued with regard to intent as an element of liability. For the principles developed as to intent in that connection have no relation to the present subject, and any such analysis so far as it did not fail would be little more than a discussion of evidence. The intent inquired into here must be overtly manifested, perhaps, but all theories of the grounds on which possession is protected would seem to agree in leading to the requirement that it should be actual, subject, of course, to the necessary limits of legal investigation.
But, besides our power and intent as towards our fellow-men, there must be a certain degree of power over the object. If there were only one other man in the world, and he was safe under lock and key in jail, the person having the key would not possess the swallows that flew over the prison. This element is illustrated by cases of capture, although no doubt the point at which the line is drawn is affected by consideration of the degree of power obtained as against other people, as well as by that which has been gained over the object. The Roman and the common law agree that, in general, fresh pursuit of wild animals does not give the pursuer the rights of possession. Until escape has been made impossible by some means, another may step in and kill or catch and carry off the game if he can. Thus it has been held that an action does not lie against a person for killing and taking a fox which had been pursued by another, and was then actually in the view of the person who had originally found, started, and chased it. The Court of Queen’s Bench even went so far as to decide, notwithstanding a verdict the other way, that when fish were nearly surrounded by a seine, with an opening of seven fathoms between the ends, at which point boats were stationed to frighten them from escaping, they were not reduced to possession as against a stranger who rowed in through the opening and helped himself. But the difference between the power over the object which is sufficient for possession, and that which is not, is clearly one of degree only, and the line may be drawn at different places at different times on grounds just referred to. Thus we are told that the legislature of New York enacted, in , that any one who started and pursued deer in certain counties of that State should be deemed in possession of the game so long as he continued in fresh pursuit of it, and to that extent modified the New York decisions just cited. So, while Justinian decided that a wild beast so badly wounded that it might easily be taken must be actually taken before it belongs to the captors, Judge Lowell, with equal reason, has upheld the contrary custom of the American whalemen in the Arctic Ocean, mentioned above, which gives a whale to the vessel whose iron first remains in it, provided claim be made before cutting in.
We may pass from the physical relation to the object with these few examples, because it cannot often come into consideration except in the case of living and wild things. And so we come to the intent, which is the really troublesome matter. It is just here that we find the German jurists unsatisfactory, for reasons which I have already explained. The best known theories have been framed as theories of the German interpretation of the Roman law, under the influence of some form of Kantian or post-Kantian philosophy. The type of Roman possession, according to German opinion, was that of an owner, or of one on his way to become owner. Following this out, it was said by Savigny, the only writer on the subject with whom English readers are generally acquainted, that the animus domini, or intent to deal with the thing as owner, is in general necessary to turn a mere physical detention into juridical possession. We need not stop to inquire whether this modern form or the Greek characters (animus dominantis, animus dominandi) of Theophilus and the Greek sources is more exact; for either excludes, as the civilians and canonists do, and as the German theories must, most bailees and termors from the list of possessors.
The effect of this exclusion as interpreted by the Kantian philosophy of law, has been to lead the German lawyers to consider the intent necessary to possession as primarily self-regarding. Their philosophy teaches them that a man’s physical power over an object is protected because he has the will to make it his, and it has thus become a part of his very self, the external manifestation of his freedom. The will of the possessor being thus conceived as self-regarding, the intent with which he must hold is pretty clear: he must hold for his own benefit. Furthermore, the self-regarding intent must go to the height of an intent to appropriate; for otherwise, it seems to be implied, the object would not truly be brought under the personality of the possessor.
The grounds for rejecting the criteria of the Roman law have been shown above. Let us begin afresh. Legal duties are logically antecedent to legal rights. What may be their relation to moral rights if there are any, and whether moral rights are not in like manner logically the offspring of moral duties, are questions which do not concern us here. These are for the philosopher, who approaches the law from without as part of a larger series of human manifestations. The business of the jurist is to make known the content of the law; that is, to work upon it from within, or logically, arranging and distributing it, in order, from its stemmum genus to its infima species, so far as practicable. Legal duties then come before legal rights. To put it more broadly, and avoid the word duty, which is open to objection, the direct working of the law is to limit freedom of action or choice on the part of a greater or less number of persons in certain specified ways; while the power of removing or enforcing this limitation which is generally confided to certain other private persons, or, in other words, a right corresponding to the burden, is not a necessary or universal correlative. Again, a large part of the advantages enjoyed by one who has a right are not created by the law. The law does not enable me to use or abuse this book which lies before me. That is a physical power which I have without the aid of the law. What the law does is simply to prevent other men to a greater or less extent from interfering with my use or abuse. And this analysis and example apply to the case of possession, as well as to ownership.
Such being the direct working of the law in the case of possession, one would think that the animus or intent most nearly parallel to its movement would be the intent of which we are in search. If what the law does is to exclude others from interfering with the object, it would seem that the intent which the law should require is an intent to exclude others. I believe that such an intent is all that the common law deems needful, and that on principle no more should be required.
It may be asked whether this is not simply the animus domini looked at from the other side. If it were, it would nevertheless be better to look at the front of the shield than at the reverse. But it is not the same if we give to the animus domini the meaning which the Germans give it, and which denies possession to bailees in general. The intent to appropriate or deal with a thing as owner can hardly exist without an intent to exclude others, and something more; but the latter may very well be where there is no intent to hold as owner. A tenant for years intends to exclude all persons, including the owner, until the end of his term; yet he has not the animus domini in the sense explained. Still less has a bailee with a lien, who does not even mean to use, but only to detain the thing for payment. But, further, the common law protects a bailee against strangers, when it would not protect him against the owner, as in the case of a deposit or other bailment terminable at pleasure; and we may therefore say that the intent even to exclude need not be so extensive as would be implied in the animus domini. If a bailee intends to exclude strangers to the title, it is enough for possession under our law, although he is perfectly ready to give the thing up to its owner at any moment; while it is of the essence of the German view that the intent must not be relative, but an absolute, self-regarding intent to take the benefit of the thing. Again, if the motives or wishes, and even the intentions, most present to the mind of a possessor, were all self-regarding, it would not follow that the intent toward others was not the important thing in the analysis of the law. But, as we have seen, a depositary is a true possessor under the common-law theory, although his intent is not self-regarding, and he holds solely for the benefit of the owner.
There is a class of cases besides those of bailees and tenants, which will probably, although not necessarily, be decided one way or the other, as we adopt the test of an intent to exclude, or of the animus domini. Bridges v. Hawkesworth will serve as a starting-point. There, a pocket-book was dropped on the floor of a shop by a customer, and picked up by another customer before the shopkeeper knew of it. Common-law judges and civilians would agree that the finder got possession first, and so could keep it as against the shopkeeper. For the shopkeeper, not knowing of the thing, could not have the intent to appropriate it, and, having invited the public to his shop, he could not have the intent to exclude them from it. But suppose the pocket-book had been dropped in a private room, how should the case be decided? There can be no animus domini unless the thing is known of; but an intent to exclude others from it may be contained in the larger intent to exclude others from the place where it is, without any knowledge of the object’s existence.
In McAvoy v. Medina, a pocket-book had been left upon a barber’s table, and it was held that the barber had a better right than the finder. The opinion is rather obscure. It takes a distinction between things voluntarily placed on a table and things dropped on the floor, and may possibly go on the ground that, when the owner leaves a thing in that way, there is an implied request to the shopkeeper to guard it, which will give him a better right than one who actually finds it before him. This is rather strained, however, and the court perhaps thought that the barber had possession as soon as the customer left the shop. A little later, in a suit for a reward offered to the finder of a pocket-book, brought by one who discovered it where the owner had left it, on a desk for the use of customers in a bank outside the teller’s counter, the same court said that this was not the finding of a lost article, and that “the occupants of the banking house, and not the plaintiff, were the proper depositaries of an article so left.” This language might seem to imply that the plaintiff was not the person who got possession first after the defendant, and that, although the floor of a shop may be likened to a street, the public are to be deemed excluded from the shop’s desks, counters, and tables except for the specific use permitted. Perhaps, however, the case only decides that the pocket-book was not lost within the condition of the offer.
I should not have thought it safe to draw any conclusion from wreck cases in England, which are mixed up with questions of prescription and other rights. But the precise point seems to have been adjudicated here. For it has been held that, if a stick of timber comes ashore on a man’s land, he thereby acquires a “right of possession” as against an actual finder who enters for the purpose of removing it. A right of possession is said to be enough for trespass; but the court seems to have meant possession by the phrase, inasmuch as Chief Justice Shaw states the question to be which of the parties had “the preferable claim, by mere naked possession, without other title,” and as there does not seem to have been any right of possession in the case unless there was actual possession.
In a criminal case, the property in iron taken from the bottom of a canal by a stranger was held well laid in the canal company, although it does not appear that the company knew of it, or had any lien upon it.
The only intent concerning the thing discoverable in such instances is the general intent which the occupant of land has to exclude the public from the land, and thus, as a consequence, to exclude them from what is upon it.
The Roman lawyers would probably have decided all these cases differently, although they cannot be supposed to have worked out the refined theories which have been built upon their remains.
I may here return to the case of goods in a chest delivered under lock and key, or in a bale, and the like. It is a rule of the criminal law, that, if a bailee of such a chest or bale wrongfully sells the entire chest or bale, he does not commit larceny, but if he breaks bulk he does, because in the former case he does not, and in the latter he does, commit a trespass. The reason sometimes offered is, that, by breaking bulk, the bailee determines the bailment, and that the goods at once revest in the possession of the bailor. This is, perhaps, an unnecessary, as well as inadequate fiction. The rule comes from the Year Books, and the theory of the Year Books was, that, although the chest was delivered to the bailee, the goods inside of it were not, and this theory was applied to civil as well as criminal cases. The bailor has the power and intent to exclude the bailee from the goods, and therefore may be said to be in possession of them as against the bailee.
On the other hand, a case in Rhode Island is against the view here taken. A man bought a safe, and then, wishing to sell it again, sent it to the defendant, and gave him leave to keep his books in it until sold. The defendant found some bank-notes stuck in a crevice of the safe, which coming to the plaintiff’s ears he demanded the safe and the money. The defendant sent back the safe, but refused to give up the money, and the court sustained him in his refusal. I venture to think this decision wrong. Nor would my opinion be changed by assuming, what the report does not make perfectly clear, that the defendant received the safe as bailee, and not as servant or agent, and that his permission to use the safe was general. The argument of the court goes on the plaintiff’s not being a finder. The question is whether he need be. It is hard to believe that, if the defendant had stolen the bills from the safe while it was in the owner’s hands, the property could not have been laid in the safe-owner, or that the latter could not have maintained trover for them if converted under those circumstances. Sir James Stephen seems to have drawn a similar conclusion from Cartwright v. Green and Merry v. Green; but I believe that no warrant for it can be found in the cases, and still less for the reason suggested.
It will be understood, however, that Durfee v. Jones is perfectly consistent with the view here maintained of the general nature of the necessary intent, and that it only touches the subordinate question, whether the intent to exclude must be directed to the specific thing, or may be even unconsciously included in a larger intent, as I am inclined to believe.
Thus far, nothing has been said with regard to the custody of servants. It is a well-known doctrine of the criminal law, that a servant who criminally converts property of his master intrusted to him and in his custody as servant, is guilty of theft, because he is deemed to have taken the property from his master’s possession. This is equivalent to saying that a servant, having the custody of his master’s property as servant, has not possession of that property, and it is so stated in the Year Books.
The anomalous distinction according to which, if the servant receives the thing from another person for his master, the servant has the possession, and so cannot commit theft, is made more rational by the old cases. For the distinction taken in them is, that, while the servant is in the house or with his master, the latter retains possession, but if he delivers his horse to his servant to ride to market, or gives him a bag to carry to London, then the thing is out of the master’s possession and in the servant’s. In this more intelligible form, the rule would not now prevail. But one half of it, that a guest at a tavern has not possession of the plate with which he is served, is no doubt still law, for guests in general are likened to servants in their legal position.
There are few English decisions, outside the criminal on the question whether a servant has possession. But the Year Books do not suggest any difference between civil and criminal cases, and there is an almost tradition of courts and approved writers that he has not, in any case. A master has maintained trespass against a servant for converting cloth which he was employed to sell, and the American cases go the full length of the old doctrine. It has often been remarked that a servant must be distinguished from a bailee.
But it may be asked how the denial of possession to servants can be made to agree with the test proposed, and it will be said with truth that the servant has as much the intent to exclude the world at large as a borrower. The law of servants is unquestionably at variance with that test; and there can be no doubt that those who have built their theories upon the Roman law have been led by this fact, coupled with the Roman doctrine as to bailees in general, to seek the formula of reconciliation where they have. But, in truth, the exception with regard to servants stands on purely historical grounds. A servant is denied possession, not from any peculiarity of intent with regard to the things in his custody, either towards his master or other people, by which he is distinguished from a depositary, but simply as one of the incidents of his status. It is familiar that the status of a servant maintains many marks of the time when he was a slave. The liability of the master for his torts is one instance. The present is another. A slave’s possession was his owner’s possession on the practical ground of the owner’s power over him, and from the fact that the slave had no standing before the law. The notion that his personality was merged in that of his family head survived the era of emancipation.
I have shown in the first Lecture that agency arose out of the earlier relation in the Roman law, through the extension pro hac vice to a freeman of conceptions derived from that source. The same is true, I think, of our own law, the later development of which seems to have been largely under Roman influence. As late as Blackstone, agents appear under the general head of servants, and the first precedents cited for the peculiar law of agents were cases of master and servant. Blackstone’s language is worth quoting: “There is yet a fourth species of servants, if they may be so called, being rather in a superior, a ministerial capacity; such as stewards, factors, and bailiffs: whom, however, the law considers as servants pro tempore, with regard to such of their acts as affect their master’s or employer’s property.”
It is very true that in modern times many of the effects of either relation—master and servant or principal and agent—may be accounted for as the result of acts done by the master himself. If a man tells another to make a contract in his name, or commands him to commit a tort, no special conception is needed to explain why he is held; although even in such cases, where the intermediate party was a freeman, the conclusion was not reached until the law had become somewhat mature. But, if the title Agency deserves to stand in the law at all, it must be because some peculiar consequences are attached to the fact of the relation. If the mere power to bind a principal to an authorized contract were all, we might as well have a chapter on ink and paper as on agents. But it is not all. Even in the domain of contract, we find the striking doctrine that an undisclosed principal has the rights as well as the obligations of a known contractor,—that he can be sued, and, more remarkable, can sue on his agent’s contract. The first precedent cited for the proposition that a promise to an agent may be laid as a promise to the principal, is a case of master and servant.
As my present object is only to show the meaning of the doctrine of identification in its bearing upon the theory of possession, it would be out of place to consider at any length how far that doctrine must be invoked to explain the liability of principals for their agents’ torts, or whether a more reasonable rule governs other cases than that applied where the actor has a tolerably defined status as a servant. I allow myself a few words, because I shall not be able to return to the subject.
If the liability of a master for the torts of his servant had hitherto been recognized by the courts as the decaying remnant of an obsolete institution, it would not be surprising to find it confined to the cases settled by ancient precedent. But such has not been the fact. It has been extended to new relations by analogy, It exists where the principal does not stand in the relation of paterfamilias to the actual wrong-doer. A man may be held for another where the relation was of such a transitory nature as to exclude the conception of status, as for the negligence of another person’s servant momentarily acting for the defendant, or of a neighbor helping him as a volunteer; and, so far as known, no principal has ever escaped on the ground of the dignity of his agent’s employment. The courts habitually speak as if the same rules applied to brokers and other agents, as to servants properly so called. Indeed, it has been laid down in terms, that the liability of employers is not confined to the case of servants, although the usual cases are, of course, those of menial servants, and the like, who could not pay a large verdict.
On the other hand, if the peculiar doctrines of agency are anomalous, and form, as I believe, the vanishing point of the servile status, it may well happen that common sense will refuse to carry them out to their furthest applications. Such conflicts between tradition and the instinct of justice we may see upon the question of identifying a principal who knows the truth with an agent who makes a false representation, in order to make out a fraud, as in Cornfoot v. Fowke, or upon that as to the liability of a principal for the frauds of his agent discussed in many English cases. But, so long as the fiction which makes the root of a master’s liability is left alive, it is as hopeless to reconcile the differences by logic as to square the circle.
In an article in the American Law Review I referred to an expression of Godefroi with regard to agents; eadem est persona domini et procuratoris. This notion of a fictitious unity of person has been pronounced a darkening of counsel in a recent useful work. But it receives the sanction of Sir Henry Maine, and I believe that it must stand as expressing an important aspect of the law, if, as I have tried to show, there is no adequate and complete explanation of the modern law, except by the survival in practice of rules which lost their true meaning when the objects of them ceased to be slaves. There is no trouble in understanding what is meant by saying that a slave has no legal standing, but is absorbed in the family which his master represents before the law. The meaning seems equally clear when we say that a free servant, in his relations as such, is in many respects likened by the law to a slave (not, of course, to his own detriment as a freeman). The next step is simply that others not servants in a general sense may be treated as if servants in a particular connection. This is the progress of ideas as shown us by history; and this is what is meant by saying that the characteristic feature which justifies agency as a title of the law is the absorption pro hac vice of the agent’s legal individuality in that of his principal.
If this were carried out logically, it would follow that an agent constituted to hold possession in his principal’s name would not be regarded as having the legal possession, or as entitled to trespass. But, after what has been said, no opinion can be expressed whether the law would go so far, unless it is shown by precedent. The nature of the case will be observed. It is that of an agent constituted for the very point and purpose of possession. A bailee may be an agent for some other purpose. A free servant may be made a bailee. But the bailee holds in his own as we say, following the Roman idiom, and the servant or agent holding as such does not.
It would hardly be worth while, if space allowed, to search the books on this subject, because of the great confusion of language to be found in them. It has been said, for instance, in this connection, that a carrier is a servant; while nothing can be clearer than that, while goods are in custody, they are in his possession. So where goods remain in the custody of a vendor, appropriation to the contract and acceptance have been confounded with delivery. Our law has adopted the Roman doctrine, that there may be a delivery, that is, a change of possession, by a change in the character in which the vendor holds, but has not always imitated the caution of the civilians with regard to what amounts to such a change. Bailees are constantly spoken of as if they were agents to possess,—a confusion made easier by the fact that they generally are agents for other purposes. Those cases which attribute possession to a transferee of goods in the hands of a middleman, without distinguishing whether the middleman holds in his own name or the buyer’s, are generally right in the result, no doubt, but have added to the confusion of thought upon the subject.
German writers are a little apt to value a theory of possession somewhat in proportion to the breadth of the distinction which it draws between juridical possession and actual detention; but, from the point of view taken here, it will be seen that the grounds for denying possession and the possessory remedies to servants and agents holding as such—if, indeed, the latter have not those remedies—are merely historical, and that the general theory can only take account of the denial as an anomaly. It will also be perceived that the ground on which servants and depositaries have been often likened to each other, namely, that they both hold for the benefit of another and not for themselves, is wholly without influence on our law, which has always treated depositaries as having possession; and is not the true explanation of the Roman doctrine, which did not decide either case upon that ground, and which decided each for reasons different from those on which it decided the other.
It will now be easy to deal with the question of power as to third persons. This is naturally a power coextensive with the intent. But we must bear in mind that the law deals only or mainly with manifested facts; and hence, when we speak of a power to exclude others, we mean no more than a power which so appears in its manifestation. A ruffian may be within equal reach and sight when a child picks up a pocket-book; but if he does nothing, the child has manifested the needful power as well as if it had been backed by a hundred policemen. Thus narrowed, it might be suggested that the manifestation of is only important as a manifestation of intent. But the two things are distinct, and the former becomes decisive when there are two contemporaneous and conflicting intents. Thus, where two parties, neither having title, claimed a crop of corn adversely to each other, and cultivated it alternately, and the plaintiff gathered and threw it in small piles in the same field, where it lay for a week, and then each party simultaneously began to carry it away, it was held the plaintiff had not gained possession. But the first interference of the defendant had been after the gathering into piles, the plaintiff would probably have recovered. So where trustees possessed of a schoolroom put in a schoolmaster, and he was afterwards dismissed, but the next day (June ) re-entered by force; on the fourth of July he was required by notice to depart, and was not ejected until the eleventh; it was considered that the schoolmaster never got possession as against the trustees.
We are led, in this connection, to the subject of the continuance of the rights acquired by gaining possession. To gain possession, it has been seen, there must be certain physical relations, as explained, and a certain intent. It remains to be inquired, how far these facts must continue to be presently true of a person in order that he may keep the rights which follow from their presence. The prevailing view is that of Savigny. He thinks that there must be always the same animus as at the moment of acquisition, and a constant power to reproduce at will the original physical relations to the object. Every one agrees that it is not necessary to have always a present power over the thing, otherwise one could only possess what was under his hand. But it is a question whether we cannot dispense with even more. The facts which constitute possession are in their nature capable of continuing presently true for a lifetime. Hence there has arisen an ambiguity of language which has led to much confusion of thought. We use the word “possession,” indifferently, to signify the presence of all the facts needful to gain it, and also the condition of him who, although some of them no longer exist, is still protected as if they did. Consequently it has been only too easy to treat the cessation of the facts as the loss of the right, as some German writers very nearly do.
But it no more follows, from the single circumstance that certain facts must concur in order to create the rights incident to possession, that they must continue in order to keep those rights alive, than it does, from the necessity of a consideration and a promise to create a right ex contractu, that the consideration and promise must continue moving between the parties until the moment of performance. When certain facts have once been made manifest which confer a right, there is no general ground on which the law need hold the right at an end except the manifestation of some fact inconsistent with its continuance, the reasons for conferring the particular right have great weight in determining what facts shall be to be so. Cessation of the original physical relations to the object might be treated as such a fact; but it never has been, unless in times of more ungoverned violence than the present. On the same principle, it is only a question of tradition or policy whether a cessation of the power to reproduce the original physical relations shall affect the continuance of the rights. It does not stand on the same ground as a new possession adversely taken by another. We have adopted the Roman law as to animals ferae naturae, but the general tendency of our law is to favor appropriation. It abhors the absence of proprietary or possessory rights as a kind of vacuum. Accordingly, it has been expressly decided, where a man found logs afloat and moored them, but they again broke loose and floated away, and were found by another, that the first finder retained the rights which sprung from his having taken possession, and that he could maintain trover against the second finder, who refused to give them up.
Suppose that a finder of a purse of gold has left it in his country-house, which is lonely and slightly barred, and he is a hundred miles away, in prison. The only person within twenty miles is a thoroughly equipped burglar at his front door, who has seen the purse through a window, and who intends forthwith to enter and take it. The finder’s power to reproduce his former physical relation to the gold is rather limited, yet I believe that no one would say that his possession was at an end until the burglar, by an overt act, had manifested his power and intent to exclude others from the purse. The reason for this is the same which has been put with regard to the power to exclude at the moment of gaining possession. The law deals, for the most part, with overt acts and facts which can be known by the senses. So long as the burglar has not taken the purse, he has not manifested his intent; and until he breaks through the barrier which measures the present possessor’s power of excluding him, he has not manifested his power. It may be observed further, that, according to the tests adopted in this Lecture, the owner of the house has a present possession in the strictest sense, because, although he has not the power which Savigny says is necessary, he has the present intent and power to exclude others.
It is conceivable that the common law should go so far as to deal with possession in the same way as a title, and should hold that, when it has once been acquired, rights are acquired which continue to prevail against all the world but one, until something has happened sufficient to divest ownership.
The possession of rights, as it is called, has been a fighting-ground for centuries on the Continent. It is not uncommon for German writers to go so far as to maintain that there may be a true possession of obligations; this seeming to accord with a general view that possession and right are in theory coextensive terms; that the mastery of the will over an external object in general (be that object a thing or another will), when in accord with the general will, and consequently lawful, is called right, when merely de facto is possession. Bearing in mind what was said on the question whether possession was a fact or right, it will be seen that such an antithesis between possession and right cannot be admitted as a legal distinction. The facts constituting possession generate rights as truly as do the facts which constitute ownership, although the rights a mere possessor are less extensive than those of an owner.
Conversely, rights spring from certain facts supposed to be true of the person entitled to such rights. Where these facts are of such a nature that they can be made successively true of different persons, as in the case of the occupation of land, the corresponding rights may be successively enjoyed. But when the facts are past and gone, such as the giving of a consideration and the receiving of a promise, there can be no claim to the resulting rights set up by any one except the party of whom the facts were originally true—in the case supposed, the original contractee,—because no one but the original contractee can fill the situation from which they spring.
It will probably be granted by English readers, that one of the essential constituent facts consists in a certain relation to a material object. But this object may be a slave, as well as a horse; and conceptions originated in this way may be extended by a survival to free services. It is noticeable that even Bruns, in the application of his theory, does not seem to go beyond cases of status and those where, in common language, land is bound for the services in question, as it is for rent. Free services being so far treated like servile, even by our law, that the master has a right of property in them against all the world, it is only a question of degree where the line shall be drawn. It would be possible to hold that, as one might be in possession of a slave without title, so one might have all the rights of an owner in free services rendered without contract. Perhaps there is something of that sort to be seen when a parent recovers for the seduction of a daughter over twenty-one, although there is no actual contract of service. So, throughout the whole course of the canon law and in the early law of England, rents were regarded as so far a part of the realty as to be capable of possession and disseisin, and they could be recovered like land by all assize.
But the most important case of the so-called possession of rights in our law, as in the Roman, occurs with regard to easements. An easement is capable of possession in a certain sense. A man may use land in a certain way, with the intent to exclude all others from using it in any way inconsistent with his own use, but no further. If this be true possession, however, it is a limited possession of land, not of a right, as others have shown. But where an easement has been actually created, whether by deed or prescription, although it is undoubtedly true that any possessor of the dominant estate would be protected in its enjoyment, it has not been so protected in the past on the ground that the easement was in itself an object of possession, but by the survival of precedents explained in a later Lecture. Hence, to test the existence of a mere possession of this sort which the law will protect, we will take the case of a way used de facto for four years, but in which no easement has yet been acquired, and ask whether the possessor of the quasi dominant tenement would be protected in his use as against third persons. It is conceivable that he should be, but I believe that he would not.
The chief objection to the doctrine seems to be, that there is almost a contradiction between the assertions that one man has a general power and intent to exclude the world from dealing with the land, and that another has the power to use it in a particular way, and to exclude the from interfering with that. The reconciliation of the two needs somewhat artificial reasoning. However, it should be borne in mind that the question in every case is not what was the actual power of the parties concerned, but what was their manifested power. If the latter stood thus balanced, the law might recognize a kind of split possession. But if it does not recognize it until a right is acquired, then the protection of a disseisor in the use of an easement must still be explained by a reference to the facts mentioned in the Lecture referred to.
The consequences attached to possession are substantially those attached to ownership, subject to the question the continuance of possessory rights which I have touched upon above. Even a wrongful possessor of a chattel may have full damages for its conversion by a stranger to the title, or a return of the specific thing.
It has been supposed, to be sure, that a “special property” was necessary in order to maintain replevin or trover. But modern cases establish that possession is sufficient, and an examination of the sources of our law proves that special property did not mean anything more. It has been shown that the procedure for the recovery of chattels lost against one’s will, described by Bracton, like its predecessor on the Continent, was based upon possession. Yet Bracton, in the very passage in which he expressly makes that statement, uses a phrase which, but for the explanation, would seem to import ownership,—”Poterit rem suam petere.” The writs of later days used the same language, and when it was objected, as it frequently was, to a suit by a bailee for a taking of bona et catalla sua, that it should have been for bona in custodia sua existentia, it was always answered that those in the Chancery would not frame a writ in that form.
The substance of the matter was, that goods in a man’s possession were his (sua), within the meaning of the writ. But it was very natural to attempt a formal reconciliation between that formal word and the fact by saying that, although the plaintiff had not the general property in the chattels, yet he had a property as against strangers, or a special property. This took place, and, curiously enough, two of the earliest instances in which I have found the latter phrase used are cases of a depositary, and a borrower. Brooke says that a wrongful taker “has title against all but the true owner.” In this sense the special property was better described as a “possessory property,” as it was, in deciding that, in an indictment for larceny, the property could be laid in the bailee who suffered the trespass.
I have explained the inversion by which a bailee’s right of action against third persons was supposed to stand on his responsibility over, although in truth it was the foundation of that responsibility, and arose simply from his possession. The step was short, from saying that bailees could sue because they were answerable over, to saying that they had the property as against strangers, or a special property, because they were answerable over, and that they could sue because they had a special property and were answerable over. And thus the notion that special property meant something more than possession, and was a requisite to maintaining an action, got into the law.
The error was made easier by a different use of the phrase in a different connection. A bailee was in general liable for goods stolen from his custody, whether he had a lien or not. But the law was otherwise as to a pledgee, if he had kept the pledge with his own goods, and the two were stolen together. This distinction was accounted for, at least in Lord Coke’s time, by saying that the pledge was, in a sense, the pledgee’s own, that he had a special property in it, and thus that the ordinary relation of bailment did not exist, or that the undertaking was only to keep as his own goods. The same expression was used in discussing the pledgee’s right to assign the pledge, In this sense the term applied only to pledges, but its significance in a particular connection was easily carried over into the others in which it was used, with the result that the special property which was requisite to maintain the possessory actions was supposed to mean a qualified interest in the goods.
With regard to the legal consequences of possession, it only remains to mention that the rules which have been laid down with regard to chattels also prevail with regard to land. For although the plaintiff in ejectment must recover on the strength of his own title as against a defendant in possession, it is now settled that prior possession is enough if the defendant stands on his possession alone Possession is of course sufficient for trespass. And although the early remedy by assize was restricted to those who had a technical seisin, this was for reasons which do not affect the general theory.
Before closing I must say a word concerning ownership and kindred conceptions. Following the order of analysis which has been pursued with regard to possession, the first question must be, What are the facts to which the rights called ownership are attached as a legal consequence? The most familiar mode of gaining ownership is by conveyance from the previous owner. But that presupposes ownership already existing, and the problem is to discover what calls it into being.
One fact which has this effect is first possession. The captor of wild animals, or the taker of fish from the ocean, has not merely possession, but a title good against all the world. But the most common mode of getting an original and independent title is by certain proceedings, in court or out of it, adverse to all the world. At one extreme of these is the proceeding in rem of the admiralty, which conclusively disposes of the property in its power, and, when it sells or condemns it, does not deal with this or that man’s title, but gives a new title paramount to all previous interests, whatsoever they may be. The other and more familiar case is prescription, where a public adverse holding for a certain time has a similar effect. A title by prescription is not a presumed conveyance from this or owner alone, it extinguishes all previous and inconsistent claims. The two coalesce in the ancient fine with proclamations where the combined effect of the judgment and the lapse of a year and a day was to bar claims.
So rights analogous to those of ownership may be given by the legislature to persons of whom some other set of facts is true. For instance, a patentee, or one to whom the government has issued a certain instrument, and who in fact has made a patentable invention.
But what are the rights of ownership? They are substantially the same as those incident to possession. Within the limits prescribed by policy, the owner is allowed to exercise his natural powers over the subject-matter uninterfered with, and is more or less protected in excluding other people from such interference. The owner is allowed to exclude all, and is accountable to no one. The possessor is allowed to exclude all but one, and is accountable to no one but him. The great body of questions which have made the subject of property so large and important are questions of conveyancing, not necessarily or generally dependent on ownership as distinguished from possession. They are questions of the effect of not having an independent and original title, but of coming in under a title already in existence, or of the modes in which an original title can be cut up among those who come in under it. These questions will be dealt with and explained where they belong, in the Lectures on Successions.
Source: THE COMMON LAW -By Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (1841 – 1935)
Oliver was an American jurist.