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United States Supreme Court

22 U.S. 445

John Mason  v.  John Muncaster

APPEAL from the Circuit Court for the District of Columbia.

This was a bill brought by the appellant, Mason, to rescind a purchase made by him, jointly with W. Jones, of a part of the glebe land which was sold under the decree of this Court, in the case of Terrett v. Taylor, reported in the 9th vol. of Mr. Cranch's Reports, p. 43. After a confirmation by the Court below, of the report of the sale made by the commissioners for this purpose, and after various intermediate negotiations, the appellant gave his promissory notes to John Muncaster, one of the respondents, and George Deneale, since deceased, who were at the time Church-Wardens of the Episcopal Church of Alexandria, in payment of part of the purchase money; and judgment having been obtained against the appellant, upon these notes, in the Circuit Court for the District of Columbia, the appellant also sought by his bill a perpetual injunction of this judgment. The grounds of the prayer of the bill were, that the title of the property was substantially defective, and could not be made good by the Vestry, and other persons, who were parties to the bill in the former suit; that the same bill contained a material misrepresentation of the facts respecting the title, of which the appellant was, at the time of the purchase, wholly ignorant, and of which he had but recently acquired full knowledge. [a]

Upon the final hearing in the Court below, the bill was dismissed, and the cause was brought by appeal to this Court.

The cause was argued by the Attorney-General and Mr. Key for the appellant, and by Mr. Swann and Mr. Lee for the respondents. Feb. 5th.

On the part of the appellant it was contended, (1.) That the respondents had no title, legal or equitable. It was admitted to be the rule of equity, that where a vendor comes in for a specific execution, he is bound to show a title free from all doubt; but where the vendee is the plaintiff, and comes in to rescind the sale, he must show the title to be bad. The onus probandi was, therefore, on the appellant, and the counsel argued at large, to show that the conveyance from Daniel Jennings and wife to the Church-Wardens, in 1770, was insufficient to pass his title in fee for the benefit of the parish. The exposition of this deed, in the former case of Terrett v. Taylor, [b] merely establishes, that inasmuch as the Church-Wardens were not a body corporate capable of holding lands, this deed did not operate by way of grant to convey the title: that its only legal operation results from the covenant of warranty, which creates an estoppel in favour of the church and its privies; i. e. that the legal title still remains in Jennings and his heirs, but that they are estopped by the warranty from the assertion of that title against the church and its privies. Now suppose that the respondents are the regular successors of the Vestry and Church-Wardens of Fairfax, still they have no title to the land; all that they hold is an estoppel against Jennings and those claiming under him. What title have they which they could assert against a disseizor, or one claiming under a title foreign to that of Jennings? A mere estoppel against a particular grantor and and his heirs, constitutes neither a legal nor an equitable title to lands. This Court declares that the deed conveys no title, but merely an estoppel by force of the clause of warranty. But, even admitting that this estoppel is a title, it belongs to all the episcopal members of the parish of Fairfax, whose rights are precisely the same as if no part of the parish had ever been separated from Virginia. It is quite clear, that the former decision of the Court proceeded on the ground of the plaintiffs in that suit being considered as the regular successors of the original cestui que trusts; and that, if it had appeared otherwise, and that there was another church in the parish, or other parishioners who were not represented by them, the decree would have been different. [c] To connect themselves with this deed, therefore, the parties are bound to show that they are the successors. If they are not, the connexion between them is broken, and they have no title under it. The parish of Fairfax forms about one half of the county, which is equally divided into the parishes of Fairfax and Truro; the former comprehending the northern half, the latter the southern. This parish had but one Vestry, but it was the Vestry of the whole parish, elected by the whole body of the parishioners, charged with the common interests of the whole parish, and of both the churches equally. The funds with which the glebe was bought were levied from the whole parish, and consequently belonged to the whole parish; and in the case of a vacancy of the parsonage, this Court say, the parish was entitled to the profits of the glebe. It therefore follows, that previous to the separation of a part of this parish from the State of Virginia, its interests were one and identical throughout. No part of the parishioners could, by themselves, do any act affecting the interests of the whole, without giving the whole a voice in the measure, either by themselves or their representative agents. It is laid down, that although the Church of England, in its aggregate description, is not deemed a corporation, yet the Church of England, of a particular parish, is a corporation for certain purposes, although incapable of asserting its rights and powers, except through its parson regularly inducted. [d] And in the judgment of this Court in the former case, it is strongly intimated, that the corporate character conferred on the Vestries in 1784, could be taken away at pleasure, without any fault in the corporation. [e] If then the parish of Fairfax was a corporation, its name becomes a part of its identity, and those who call themselves successors, must have the same name. If it was a corporation, all the corporators have equal rights, and no part of them could exercise the rights which belong to the whole. But, suppose it not to have been a corporation, it was a definite body; it had a unity and identity which separated it from all others. It had a technical identity. [f] It consisted of all the Episcopal members within the territorial limits. It was represented by a Vestry chosen by the voice of the whole of that parish, in which election no other parish could interfere. Those who claimed to be their successors, must, before the separation of the District of Columbia from the State of Virginia, have shown these qualifications; and it is determined that the separation has produced no change in the unity and identity of the parish, so far as the rights of property are concerned [g] The Vestry and Church-Wardens of the Episcopal Church of Alexandria, cannot be the regular successors of the Vestry and Church-Wardens of the parish of Fairfax, because they have a distinct name, which it would have been needless to assume, unless from a consciousness of a distinct origin and nature. In fact, they have a different origin, different powers, and different duties. In the period which intervened from 1796 to 1803, there was no incumbent. What then were the rights of the parties? This Court has answered, that 'the fee remained in abeyance, and the profits of the parsonage were to be taken by the parish for their own use.' [h] What parish? Most certainly the parish of Fairfax, to which it belonged. The Vestries chosen in 1804, and subsequently, cannot be deemed the Vestries of the parish of Fairfax, but must be considered as the Vestries of the Episcopal Church of Alexandria, because, in the parish books, the entries constantly style them the Vestry of the Protestant Episcopal Church at, or in, or of, Alexandria, and not the Vestry of the parish of Fairfax. The congregation of Christ's Church actually separated themselves, in 1803, from the parish of Fairfax, and formed a distinct Episcopal Church; and the elections were made by subscribers and contributors to the Episcopal Church in Alexandria, and not by the parishioners at large of the parish of Fairfax.

2. This defect in the title being thus made out, it follows that the appellant has a right to require that the contract should be rescinded, unless there be some special objection to preclude him. As to the sale being under a decree, the English practice on this subject relates to objections arising on the abstract which is presented to the purchaser. But defects subsequently discovered, may be objected, and if it appears that the vendor can make no title, the bill will be entertained.

As to notice, there is no proof of actual notice; and the circumstances are not sufficient to infer constructive notice. Nor has the objection to the title been varied by taking possession. The doctrine is, that if the vendee has knowledge of the defects before he takes possession, it is considered as a waiver of the objection, and it will be found that all the cases turn upon this distinction.

On the part of the respondents, it was insisted, 1. That the appellant had full notice, either actual or constructive, at the time of the sale, of all the facts and circumstances of which he now seeks to avail himself, in order to rescind the sale. The proceedings in the former case were alone sufficient to charge him with notice.

2. This being a judicial sale, under a decree, the party was bound to have applied to the Court below, either before confirmation of the sale, or afterwards, to rescind the sale, and cannot now maintain an independent bill for that purpose, the effect of which would be, collaterally, to set aside the sale, as it stands confirmed by the report. [i]

3. The contract has been executed on the part of the appellant, by taking possession of the land, and it is now too late for him to make any objection to the sufficiency of the title. [j]

4. But a careful examination would show that there was not any defect in the title. The former decision of this Court had put at rest the question as to the sufficiency of the deed from Jennings, to pass his title to the Church-Wardens, for the benefit of the parish. It was there determined that the conveyance could not operate by way of grant, but might operate by way of estoppel, to confirm to the church, and those claiming under it, the perpetual estate in the land. [k]

The present Vestry of the Episcopal Church at Alexandria, called Christ's Church, are the legal successors of the Vestry of the parish of Fairfax. From the year 1765 until 1801, the town of Alexandria was a part of the county of Fairfax, and the parish of Fairfax. After the year 1792, the Vestry met exclusively in Alexandria; the congregation at the Falls Church, by degrees became extinct; and the Vestry of the parish, with the church at Alexandria, has been constantly kept up, whilst the congregation that used to assemble at the Falls Church has ceased to exist. The consequence is, that the glebe land belongs to the Alexandria congregation, as much as if the two congregations had agreed to meet in the church at Alexandria, and had disposed of the other. There never was, and there never could be, two Vestries in the parish, that is, one for each church. Since the year 1776, there have been no compulsory means used for the support of the church, and it has rested on the voluntary contributions of the parishioners; yet every thing that has been done in respect to the property of the church, shows conclusively the regular succession of this Church and Vestry, as the Church and Vestry of the parish of Fairfax. The Vestry has been elected by the members and contributors to the church, but the right of voting did not belong to the parishioners generally, it was confined to those members and contributors. At the same time, no inhabitant of the parish has been denied the privilege of becoming a contributor, with its consequent right of voting. All parties who had any title to the property, were before the Court in the former case, in which the sale was decreed. [l] It was unnecessary to make the whole body of parishionars parties to that suit. They have not individually any right or title to the property. It is the property of the parish, and the Vestry are the legal agents and representatives of the parishioners, with authority to administer and dispose of it. Feb. 20th.

Mr. Justice STORY delivered the opinion of the Court.


^a  The essential parts of the pleadings and evidence will be found fully stated in the opinion of the Court.

^b  9 Cranch, 52, 53.

^c  9 Cranch, 52, 53.

^d  Town of Pawlet v. Clark, 9 Cranch, 292. 325.

^e  Terrett v. Taylor, 9 Cranch, 51, 52.

^f  2 Henn. Stat. at large, 218.

^g  Terrett v. Taylor, 9 Cranch, 53.

^h  Terrett v. Taylor, 9 Cranch, 47. Westoh v. Hunt, 2 Mass. Rep. 502. See also, 1 Tuck. Bl. Com. Part 2. App. 113.

^i  1 Fonbl. Eq. 371. Note 6. 1 Atk. 489. 3 Ves. jr. 333. 3 P. Wms. 220. 306. 1 Rev. Code, 80. s. 34.

^j  1 Ves. jr. 221. 226 3 P. Wms. 191. 4 Dess. Ch. Rep. 134. 12 Ves. 25.

^k  Terrett v. Taylor, 9 Cranch, 53.

^l  3 Ves.jr. 505.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).