Earlier, we looked at some of the general legal and historical issues with Revere: Revolution in Silver. Today, we’re looking at one particular legal problem: breach of the promise to marry. In the story, a young woman finds herself arranged to be married to a young man. The match was set up by their respective families, but the man is far more interested in the marriage than the woman. After a traumatic incident, the young woman refuses to go through with it. The young man is understandably upset, but his parents are aghast. They had been counting on the woman’s family business connections, which would have stayed with her after the marriage. The man remarks that, as she’s now broken her promise to marry, he can recover her business as damages.
I. Breach of Promise to Marry
The tort of breach of promise is, believe it or not, a real thing. It was at common law, and it still is today, though the scope and severity of the tort has been curtailed significantly. It’s disfavored in many states, and many legislatures and/or courts have limited the scope to actual damages, usually the cost of the wedding. And there’s a ton of ink spilled and widely varying results over the return of engagement rings should an engagement be broken off.
But at common law, not only was the tort a legal reality, but damages could be quite expansive. Actual damages, to be sure, but also reputational and even consequential damages. Patriarchal as it seems today, the tort was designed to protect young women. The classic example is of a young woman engaged to be married to a rich man, thus ensuring her financial security. If, after a period of engagement, the man breaks it off, not only has the woman lost that route to security, but the odds of her becoming engaged to someone else would have been severely lowered. Her reputation would be more or less ruined. This all seems fantastically sexist today, but that was the social reality of the time.
II. Breach of Promise in the Story
But the fact that the breach of promise tort existed does not mean that things would work out the way they are depicted in the story. Two things come to mind.
First, men weren’t generally allowed to bring breach of promise claims. Women were essentially given the right to change their minds at will. Again, as the tort was designed to protect them, the assumption was that if she was the one who called it off, she must have good and compelling reasons to do so, and she must be figuring in any cost of not going through with the marriage into her calculations. So if she wants out, she can get out. So because it was the woman who was breaking things off, no tort would lie.
Second, even if the tort weren’t dismissed out of hand, the man’s damages would have been pretty paltry. Part of this has to do with the way the tort was construed, i.e., because it wasn’t really his interests being protected, he probably wouldn’t have been permitted to recover much in the way of consequential or reputational damages. But that aside, this was never really a “You jilted me, so now I get all your stuff!” kind of tort.
But most of all, it’s not clear that there actually is a valid contract anymore. This is a little complicated, so hang on. First, an engagement contract, like any other, requires offer and acceptance, i.e., a meeting of the minds between the contracting parties. In this case, it’s made clear that said parties are actually the parents of the couple, specifically the fathers. This is archaic by today’s standards, but such things were fairly common in the eighteenth century. But the woman’s father is now dead (the aforementioned “traumatic incident”), and her mother had apparently died some time before. In cases of personal contracts, the death of a contracting party usually voids the contract. So because the woman never really gave her consent—as an “infant” she lacked capacity to do so and her father could speak for her—the only person with whom there could have been a meeting of the minds was the father. He’s now no longer there to insist upon the match, and she obviously wants no truck with it. So there’s a good argument to be made that the deal is now officially off.