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United States Supreme Court

76 U.S. 766

Butler  v.  Maples

At the trial it was, of course, incumbent upon the plaintiff to prove not only the contract of sale, but also that Shepherd, with whom the contract had been made, had authority to act for and bind the defendants. Accordingly evidence was submitted to show that the cotton was purchased by Shepherd when professing to act as an agent for the defendants. There was hardly any controversy about this fact, and no questions are now raised respecting the competency or sufficiency of the proof, or the manner in which it was submitted to the jury. But the authority of Shepherd to make the contract for the defendants and bind them to its performance was stoutly denied, and it is now strenuously insisted that the court erred in the instructions given to the jury respecting the evidence of his agency. The defendants insist the court erred in charging that the written agreement between him and Bridge & Co. constituted him their general agent. We do not find that the court did thus instruct the jury, though it must be admitted the charge may have been thus understood. The jury was instructed that if Shepherd held himself out as the general agent of Bridge & Co., the defendants were bound by the contract he made with the plaintiff for the cotton, though in making the contract he transgressed the instructions he had received, and secret limitations of his authority, which instructions and limitations were not revealed to the plaintiff. It is true, as has been noticed, there was other evidence of a general agency beyond that which the agreement furnished, but as it was parol evidence, its force and effect were for the jury, and hence the court could not rightly have charged that the defendants were bound by the contract unless the agreement did itself constitute Shepherd a general agent. But did it not? The distinction between a general and a special agency is in most cases a plain one. The purpose of the latter is a single transaction, or a transaction with designated persons. It does not leave to the agent any discretion as to the persons with whom he may contract for the principal, if he be empowered to make more than one contract. Authority to buy for a principal a single article of merchandise by one contract, or to buy several articles from a person named, is a special agency, but authority to make purchases from any persons with whom the agent may choose to deal, or to make an indefinite number of purchases, is a general agency. And it is not the less a general agency because it does not extend over the whole business of the principal. A man may have many general agents-one to buy cotton, another to buy wheat, and another to buy horses. So he may have a general agent to buy cotton in one neighborhood, and another general agent to buy cotton in another neighborhood. The distinction between the two kinds of agencies is that the one is created by power given to do acts of a class, and the other by power given to do individual acts only. Whether, therefore, an agency is general or special is wholly independent of the question whether the power to act within the scope of the authority given is unrestricted, or whether it is restrained by instructions or conditions imposed by the principal relative to the mode of its exercise. Looking to the agreement between Bridge & Co. and Shepherd, it cannot be doubted that it created a general agency. It was a delegation of authority to buy cotton in Desha County and its vicinity, to buy generally, from whomsoever the agent, not his principals, might determine. It had in view not merely a single transaction, or a number of specified transactions, which were in the mind of the principals when the agent was appointed, but a class of purchases, a department of business. It is true that it contained guards and restrictions which were intended as regulations between the parties, but they were secret instructions rather than limitations. They were not intended to be communicated to the parties with whom the agent should deal, and they never were communicated. It was, therefore, not error to instruct the jury as the court did, that the agency was a general one, and that the defendants were bound by the contract, if Shepherd held himself out as authorized to buy cotton, and if the plaintiff had no knowledge of the instructions respecting the mode in which the agent was required to act.

It may be remarked here that the reasons urged by the plaintiffs in error in support of their denial of liability for the engagements made by Shepherd are that he agreed to pay forty cents per pound for the plaintiff's cotton; that he bought the cotton where it lay instead of requiring delivery on board a steamboat, or within the protection of a gunboat; and that he did not obtain a permit from the government to make the purchase. The argument is that in the first two particulars he transcended his powers, and that his authority to buy at all was conditioned upon his obtaining a permit from the government. All this, however, is immaterial, if it was within the scope of his authority that he acted. The mode of buying, the price agreed to be paid, and the antecedent qualifications required of him, were matters between him and his principals. They are not matters in regard to which one dealing with him was bound to inquire. But even as between Bridge & Co. and Shepherd a purchase at forty cents per pound was not beyond his authority. He was authorized to buy 'on the best possible terms, not paying an average of more than thirty cents per pound.' This contemplated his agreeing to pay in some cases above thirty cents. The average was regulated, but no maximum was fixed. Nor is there anything in the agreement the forbade his purchasing cotton deliverable at once where it lay, though not on a boat or in the protection of a gunboat. He was authorized to purchase deliverable at such times and places of shipment as might be agreed upon; that is, deliverable when and where it might be stipulated between him and the seller. True, he was to pay as little as possible until the cotton was delivered on a boat, or within the protection of a gunboat; and when thus delivered the property in the goods was to vest in the principals, excepting his share of the profits, but he was not prohibited from paying the whole price, or agreeing to pay the whole price, if insisted on by the vendor. The stipulation respecting the vesting of ownership was nothing more than a definition of right between him and his principals, as is manifested by the exception. Nor was Shepherd bound to procure a permit in his own name. He might have been had it been necessary, but if under the permit granted by Bridge & Co. he could purchase as their agent, it was all the agreement required.

It is further objected to the charge given to the jury respecting general and special agency, that it was not applicable to the proof in the case, and was therefore irrelevant and calculated to mislead the jury, and because, as stating abstract questions of law, the instruction was erroneous. If, in truth, it was irrelevant, it was not on that account necessarily erroneous and calculated to mislead the jury. We are not shown, nor do we perceive, how the jury could have been misled by it. They were instructed that, in cases of special agency, one who deals with the agent must inquire into the extent of his authority, but that a principal is bound by all that his general agent has done within the scope of the business in which he was employed, and this, though the agent may have violated special or secret instructions given him, but not disclosed to the party with whom the agent deals. Surely this was correct, and it was applicable to the evidence in the case. It has been intimated during the argument that the court should have added that no such liability can exist to one dealing with an agent with notice that the particular act of the agent was without authority from the principal. To this several answers may be made. The exception to the general rule, which it is said the court should have recognized, is implied in what the court did say. Again, there was no request for any such instruction; and still again, the evidence in the case did not demand it. There was no pretence that the plaintiff had any notice of secret instructions given to Shepherd, or of any limitations upon his authority. Nor was there anything that imposed upon him the duty of making inquiry for secret instructions or for restrictions. There were no circumstances that should have awakened suspicion. The plaintiff was not apprised that the authority was in writing. The argument is very far-fetched that infers a duty to inquire whether the agent had private instruction from the fact that the contract was made in a region that had been in a state of insurrection.

It is next insisted that the court erred in instructing the jury that in granting the permit to Bridge & Co. to buy cotton, the special agent of the treasury, who was authorized to grant permits, exercised judicial functions, and decided conclusively that the district of country to which the permit extended was within the lines of Federal military occupation. This is not, however, quite an accurate statement of what the court did charge. The judge said, in effect, that the treasury agent, in granting the permit, exercised judicial functions, and that granting it was a decision by him that the region designated in it was within the lines of military occupation, but he did not say it was a conclusive decision. He did charge, as a matter of law, that 'upon the proof in the case as to the condition of the country, and upon the permit granted to Bridge & Co., Desha County, Arkansas, was, at the date of the contract, in November, 1863, within the lines of the National forces operating from the north, and that the plaintiff and Shepherd had a right to make the contract for the sale and purchase of the cotton.' The instruction was not based upon the grant of the permit alone. There was uncontradicted evidence in the case that, before the permit was granted, the part of the State in which Desha County is situated had been evacuated by the Confederate forces, who had retreated toward the Red River, and into Texas; that there were no such forces within from one hundred and fifty to two hundred miles from Red Fork, in Desha County, and that the military occupation of the National forces extended over the region. It was also proved that the citizens generally had taken the oath of allegiance, or obtained protection papers. Coupling these facts, about which there was no dispute, with the other fact that the treasury agent had granted a permit to Bridge & Co. to buy cotton there, the judge was not in error when he gave the instruction to which exception is now taken. It may be that the grant of the permit was not technically a judicial act, but it was an exercise of the treasury agent's judgment, and a deduction from the facts known by him, that the region over which the permit extended was within the military lines. It is to be presumed that he acted rightly, and as he could not lawfully grant the permit in the absence of such military occupation, his grant of it raised a presumption that the occupation existed. It established at least a prim a facie case. In United States v. Weed, #fn-s-s [1] this court said, 'The fact that the proper officers issued these permits for certain parishes, must be taken as evidence that they were properly issued until the contrary is established.' But a prim a facie case, with nothing to rebut it, is a case made out. If, then, what amounts to military occupation, the facts being ascertained, is necessarily a question of law, as must be conceded; and if there was nothing to rebut the presumption of fact arising from the grant of the permit, and no contradiction or impeachment of the direct testimony, the court was justified in declaring, as matter of law, that Desha County was within the lines of military occupation from the north, and that the contract was not illegal.

The next objection to the charge may be disposed of in a word. Indeed, it has not been seriously urged here. That the defendants cannot set up a new contract, obtained by one of them from the plaintiff for a sale of part of the cotton, as a discharge from the contract made for them by Shepherd, if the new contract was obtained by their own misrepresentations, or by their denial of Shepherd's agency, is too plain to need discussion. And yet, that they may, must be maintained by them in order to convict the court below of error in the instructions given respecting the new contract.

A single exception remains to be considered. It is to the admission of the testimony of Carleton. He was introduced to prove that he, as special treasury agent, had issued a permit to Bridge & Co., and to prove its contents, notice having been given to the defendants to produce the permit itself, and they having failed to do so. It is objected, first, that his official books should have been produced, and that it was incompetent to prove the permit in any other way. The permit itself would have been the best evidence; but it was not produced on call, and therefore secondary evidence was admissible. There are no degrees of such evidence, and the official books of the treasury agent, had there been any in existence, would have been at best but secondary proof, of no higher order than was the testimony of a witness. There was, also, no proof that any such books had been kept, and consequently nothing to show that there was any better evidence than that which was offered. Another objection was made against its subject-matter. It was, that the permit, of which the proof was offered, was to Bridge & Co., and not to Shepherd. We do not perceive any merit in this objection. We have already said that, in the agreement between him and his principals, Shepherd did not undertake to procure a permit unless it should be necessary to buy cotton and get it to Memphis, and we do not perceive why a permit to Bridge & Co. did not enable them to buy through an agent, and render any permit to their agent unnecessary. For these reasons, the objections urged against the admission of the testimony of Carleton cannot be sustained.



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