Trustees of the Philadelphia Baptist Association v. Hart Executors

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Citation4 Wheat. 1,4 L.Ed. 499,17 U.S. 1
Decision Date02 February 1819

17 U.S. 1
4 Wheat. 1
4 L.Ed. 499
February 2, 1819

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IN the year 1790, Silas Hart, a citizen and resident of Virginia, made his last will in writing, which contains the following bequest: 'Item, what shall remain of my military certificates, at the time of my decease, both principal and interest, I give and bequeath to the Baptist Association that, for ordinary, meets at Philadelphia, annually, which I allow to be a perpetual fund for the education of youths of the Baptist denomination, who shall appear promising for the ministry, always giving a preference to the descendants of my father's family.'

In 1792, the legislature of Virginia passed an act, repealing all English statutes, including that of the 43 Eliz., c. 4. In the year 1795, the testator died. The Baptist Association which met annually at Philadelphia, had existed as a regularly organized body, for many years before the date of this will, and was composed of the clergy of several Baptist churches, of different states, and of an annual deputation of laymen from

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the same churches.

It was not incorporated, until the year 1797, when it received a charter from the legislature of Pennsylvania, incorporating it by the name of 'The Trustees of the Philadelphia Baptist Association.' The executors having refused to pay the legacy, this suit was instituted in the circuit court for the district of Virginia, by the corporation, and by those individuals who were members of the association at the death of the testator. On the trial of the cause, the judges of that court were divided in opinion, on the question, whether the plaintiffs were capable of taking under this well? Which point was, therefore, certified to this court.

The Attorney-General, for the plaintiffs, argued, that the peculiar law of charitable bequests did not originate in the statute of the 43 Eliz., which was repealed in Virginia, before the death of the testator. If lands had been conveyed in trust, previous to the statute, for such purposes as are expressed in this will, the devise would have been held good at law; and consequently, the court of chancery would have enforced the trust, in virtue of its general equity powers, independent of that statute. The statute does not profess to give any validity to devises or legacies of any description, not before valid; but only furnishes a new and more convenient mode for discovering and enforcing them; but the case before the court is such as requires the interposition only of the ordinary powers of a court of equity. Devises equally vague and indefinite, have been sustained in courts of common law, before the statute of Elizabeth,

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and would, a fortiori, have been supported in courts of equity. Porter's Case, 1 Co. 22 b; Plowd. 522. And the court of chancery, exercising the prerogative of the king as parens patrioe, has been constantly in the habit of establishing charitable bequests of this nature. 'In like manner,' says Lord Chancellor MACCLESFIELD, 'in the case of charity, the king, pro bono publico, has an original right to superintend the case thereof, so that, abstracted from the statute of Eliz., relating to charitable uses, and antecedent to it, as well as since, it has been every day's practice, to file informations in chancery, in the attorney-general's name, for the establishment of charities.' Eyre v. Countess of Shaftsbury, 2 P. Wms. 119. So also, Lord Keeper HENLEY says, 'and I take the uniform rule of this court, before, at, and after the statute of Elizabeth, to have been, that where the uses are charitable, and the person has in himself full power to convey, the court will aid a defective conveyance to such uses. Thus, though devises to corporations were void under the statute Hen. VIII., yet they were always considered as good in equity, if given to charitable uses.' Case of Christ's College, Cambridge, 1 W. Black. 91. The powers of the court of chancery over these subjects, are derived from, and exercised according to the civil law. 3 Bl. Com. 476; White v. White, 1 Bro. C. C. 15; Moggridge v. Thackwell, 7 Ves. 36. Lord THURLOW says, 'the cases have proceeded upon notions adopted from the Roman and civil law, which are very favorable to charities, that legacies given to public uses, not ascertained, shall be applied to some

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proper object.'

White v. White, 1 Bro. C. C. 15. By that law, bequests for charitable purposes, ad pios usos, are not void for uncertainty. Swinb. pt. 1, § 16; pt. 7, § 8. But even supposing all the powers of the English court of chancery over charities to have been originally derived from the statute of Elizabeth, still it does not follow, that the courts of the United States have not all the powers which the English courts of equity possessed, when this country was separated from the British empire. The chancery system originated in various sources; in the peculiar jurisprudence of the court, which may be denominated its common law; in statutes; and in the authority of the chancellor, as keeper of the king's conscience. It is difficult to find any chancery decisions wholly purified from the influence of statutory provisions. The grant of equity powers in the constitution, to the national judiciary, extends 'to all cases in equity.' It is not limited to those cases which arise under the ordinary jurisdiction of the court of chancery. This is not a question of local law, nor can the equity jurisdiction of the United States courts depend upon the enactment or repeal of local statutes. This court has already determined, that the remedies in the court of the United States, in equity, are to be, not according to the practice of state courts, but according to the principles of equity as known and practised in that country from which we derive a knowledge of those principles. Robinson v. Campbell, 3 Wheat. 212. In England, this bequest would, unquestionably, be sustained. The association, which was

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the object of the testator's bounty, though unincorporated at the time, was certainly as definite a body as the 'sixty pious ejected ministers,' in one case (Attorney-General v. Baxter, 1 Vern. 248; Attorney-General v. Hughes, 2 Ibid. 105), or, 'the charitable collections for poor dissenting ministers living in any county in England,' in another. Waller v. Childs, Amb. 524. Nor was it necessary that they should be incorporated, in order to take. A devise by an impropriator, directly 'to one who served the cure, and all who should serve it after him,' &c., has been carried into effect. Anon., 2 Vent. 349. So, if the devise be to a charitable use, though the object be not in esse, and though it depend on the will of the crown, whether it shall ever be called into existence, equity will establish it. Lady Downing's case, Ambl. 592; Aylet v. Dodd, 2 Atk. 238; Attorney-General v. Oglander, 3 Bro. C. C. 166; Attorney-General v. Bowyer, 3 Ves. jr. 725.

Leigh, contra, contended, that the association could not take the bequest, either in their individual or in their collective capacity. Not as individuals; because the persons composing the association were continually fluctuating, and were not designated, nor indeed known, at the time of the bequest. No personal benefit was intended to them. The testator's intent was, to constitute the association, in its collective capacity, trustee of the fund, for this charitable purpose; and whether the trust can be carried into effect or not, they cannot take individually

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to their own use. Morice v. Bishop of Durham, 9 Ves. 399; s. c. 10 Ibid. 522. Nor can they so take in their collective capacity, because not incorporated at the time: and the subsequent incorporation does not help their case. 8 Vin. Abr. tit. Devise H. pl. 1; Widmore v. Woodroffe, Ambl. 636. Therefore, this is to be regarded as a bequest to charitable uses, without the intervention of trustees to take the legal estate and fulfil the uses. According to the law of Virginia, which must govern in this case, such a trust cannot be carried into effect by any court in any mode. Had such a case occurred in England it is admitted, that the court of chancery would carry the trust into effect, by supplying legal and capable trustees, to take and hold the fund for the objects of the testator's charity; or, if those objects were not designated in the testator's will with sufficient certainty, would execute it, upon the doctrine of cy pres, for objects ejusdem generis, according to a scheme digested by the master. But the court of chancery in England exercises such powers solely in virtue of the statute of the 43 Eliz.

All ancient precedents of the exercise of such powers, to effect such charitable uses, are expressly stated to be founded on that statute. Attorney-General v. Rye, 2 Vern. 453; Rivett's case, Moor 890; Pigot v. Penrice, 2 Eq. Cas. Abr. 191, pl. 6; Attorney-General v. Hickman, Ibid. 193, pl. 14. As all the early decisions are founded on the statute, so the more modern cases are founded on the authority of the ancient; with this only extension of their principle, that although the statute merely provides that

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charitable donations shall be applied to such of the charitable uses therein expressed, for which they were appointed by the donors or founders, the court of chancery has gone a step farther, and held, upon the equity of the statute, that where objects of charity are in any way pointed out, however vaguely and indefinitely, the court will apply the fund to charitable uses of the same kind with those intended by the donor, according to a scheme digested by the master. Baylis v. Attorney-General, 2 Atk. 239; White v. White, 1 Bro. C. C. 12; Moggridge v. Thackwell, 3 Ibid. 517, S. C. 1 Ves. jr. 464; s. c. 7 Ibid. 36. All the elementary writers and compilers concur in deducing the jurisdiction of the English court of chancery over charitable bequests from the...

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