From: Essays on the Principles of Morality, and on the Private and Political Rights and Obligations of Mankind (1834).
Author: Jonathan Dymond
Published: Harper & Brothers 1834 Philadelphia


  A PROMISE is a contract, differing from such contracts as a lawyer would draw up, in the circumstance that ordinarily it is not written. The motive for signing a contract is to give assurance or security to the receiver that its terms will be fulfilled. The same motive is the inducement to a promise. The general obligation of promises needs little illustration, because it is not disputed. Men are not left without the consciousness that what they promise they ought to perform; and thus thousands, who can give no philosophical account of the matter, know, with certain assurance, that if they violate their engagements they violate the law of God.

  Some philosophers deduce the obligation of promises from the expediency of fulfilling them. Doubtless fulfilment is expedient; but there is a shorter and a safer road to truth. To promise and not to perform is to deceive; and deceit is, peculiarly and especially condemned by Christianity. A lie has been defined to be “a breach of promise;” and since the Scriptures condemn lying, they condemn breaches of promise.

  Persons sometimes deceive others by making a promise in a sense different from that in which they know it will be understood. They hope this species .of deceit is less criminal than breaking their word, and wish to gain the advantage of deceiving without its guilt. They dislike the shame, but perform the act. A son has abandoned his father’s house, and the father promises that if he returns he shall be received with open arms. The son returns: the father “opens his arms” to receive him, and then proceeds to treat him with rigour. This father falsifies his promise as truly as if he had specifically engaged to treat him with kindness. The sense in which a promise binds a person is the sense in which he knows it is accepted by the other party.

  It is very possible to promise without speaking. Those who purchase at auctions frequently advance on the price by a sign or a nod. An auctioneer, in selling an estate says, “Nine hundred and ninety pounds are offered.” He who makes the customary sign to indicate an advance of ten pounds promises to give a thousand. A person who brings up his children or others in the known and encouraged expectation that he will provide for them promises to provide for them. A ship-master promises .to deliver a pipe of wine at the accustomed port, although he may have made no written and no verbal engagement respecting it.

  Parole, such as is taken of military men, is of imperative obligation. The prisoner who escapes by breach of parole ought to be regarded as the perpetrator of an aggravated crime: aggravated, since his word was accepted, as he knows, because peculiar reliance was placed upon it, and since he adds to the ordinary guilt of breach of promise that of casting suspicion and entailing suffering upon other men. If breach of parole were general, parole would not be taken. It is one of the anomalies which are presented by the adherents to the law of honour, that they do not reject from their society the man who impeaches their respectability and his own, while they reject the man who really impeaches neither the one nor the other. To say, I am a man of honour, and therefore you may rely upon my word, and then, as soon as it is accepted, to violate that word, is no ordinary deceit. An upright man never broke parole.

  Promises are not binding if performance is unlawful. Sometimes men promise to commit a wicked act—even to assassination; but a man is not required to commit murder because he has promised to commit it. Thus, in the Christian Scriptures, the son who had said, “I will not” work in the vineyard, arid “afterward repented and went,” is spoken of with approbation: his promise was not binding, because fulfilment would have been wrong. Cranmer, whose religious firmness was overcome in the prospect of the stake, recanted; that is, he promised to abandon the Protestant faith. Neither was his promise binding. To have regarded it would have been a crime. The offence both of Cranmer and of the son in the parable consisted, not in violating their promises, but in making them.

  Some scrupulous persons appear to attach a needless obligation to expressions which they employ in the form of promises. You ask a lady if she will join a party in a walk; she declines, but presently recollecting some inducement to go, she is in doubt whether her refusal does not oblige her to stay at home. Such a person should recollect that her refusal does not partake of the character of a promise: there is no other party to it; she comes under no engagement to another. She only expresses her present intention, which intention she is at liberty to alter.

  Many promises are conditional though the conditions are not expressed. A man says to some friends, I will dine with you at two o’clock; but as he is preparing to go, his child meets with an accident which requires his attention. This man does not violate a promise by absenting himself because such promises are in fact made and accepted with the tacit understanding that they are subject to such conditions. No one would expect, when his friend engaged to dine with him, that he intended to bind himself to come, though he left a child unassisted with a fractured arm.

  Accordingly, when a person means to exclude such condition he says, “I will certainly do so and so, if I am living and able.”

  Yet even to seem to disregard an engagement is an evil. To an ingenuous and Christian mind there is always something painful in not performing it. Of this evil the principal source is gratuitously brought upon us by the habit of using unconditional terms for conditional engagements. That which is only intention should be expressed as intention. It is better, and more becoming the condition of humanity, to say, I intend to do a thing, than, I will do a thing. The recollection of our dependency upon uncontrollable circumstances should be present with us even in little affairs. “Go to now, ye that say, to-day or to-morrow we will go into such a city and buy and sell, and get gain: whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow.—Ye ought to say, if the Lord will, we shall live, and do this or that.” Not indeed that the sacred name of God is to be introduced to express the conditions of our little engagements; but the principle should never be forgotten, that we know not what shall be on the morrow.

  Respecting the often discussed question whether extorted promises are binding, there has been, I suspect, a general want of advertence to one important point. What is an extorted promise? If by an extorted promise is meant a promise that is made involuntarily, without the concurrence of the will; if it is the effect of any ungovernable impulse, and made without the consciousness of the party,—then it is not a promise. This may happen. Fear or agitation may be so great that a person really does not know what he says or does; and in such a case a man’s promises do not bind him any more than the promises of a man in a fit of insanity. But if by an “extorted” promise it is only meant that very powerful inducements were held out to making it, inducements however which did not take away the power of choice,—then these promises are in strictness voluntary, and, like all other voluntary engagements, they ought to be fulfilled. But perhaps fulfilment is itself unlawful. Then you may not fulfil it. The offence consists in making such engagements. It will, be said, a robber threatened to take my life unless I would promise to reveal the place where my neighbour’s money was deposited. Ought I not to make the promise in order to save my life? No. Here, in reality, is the origin of the difficulties and the doubts. To rob your neighbour is criminal; to enable another man to rob him is criminal too. Instead therefore of discussing the obligation of “extorted” promises, we should consider whether such promises may lawfully be made. The prospect of saving life is one of the utmost inducements to make them; and yet, among those things which we are to hold subservient to our Christian fidelity is our “own life also.” If, however, giving way to the weakness of nature, a person makes the promise, he should regulate his performance by the ordinary principles. Fulfil the promise, unless fulfilment be wrong: and if, in estimating the propriety of fulfilling it, any difficulty arises, it must be charged, not to the imperfection of moral principles, but to the entanglement in which we involve ourselves by having begun to deviate from rectitude. If we had not unlawfully made the promise, we should have had no difficulty in ascertaining our subsequent duty. The traveller who does not desert the proper road easily finds his way; be who once loses sight of it has many difficulties in returning.

  The history of that good man John Fletcher (La Flechère) affords an example to our purpose. Fletcher had a brother, De Gons, and a nephew, a profligate youth. This youth came one day to his uncle De Gons, and holding up a pistol, declared he would instantly shoot him if he did not give him an order for five hundred crowns. De Gons in terror gave it; and—the nephew then, under the same threat, required him solemnly to promise that he would not prosecute him; and De Gons made the promise accordingly. This is what is called an extorted promise, and an extorted gift. How, in similar circumstances, did Fletcher act? This youth afterward went to him, told him of the “present” which De Gons had made, and showed him the order. Fletcher suspected some fraud, and thinking it right to prevent its success, he put the order in his pocket. It was at the risk of his life. The young man instantly presented his pistol, declaring that he would fire if he did not deliver it up. Fletcher did not submit to the extortion: he told him that his life was secure under the protection of God, refused to deliver up the order, and severely remonstrated with his nephew on his profligacy. The young man was restrained and softened; and before he left his uncle, gave him many assurances that he would amend his life. De Gons might have been perplexed with doubts as to the obligation of his “extorted” promise: Fletcher could have no doubts to solve.

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