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United States Supreme Court

31 U.S. 68

Smith  v.  Bell

THIS case came before the court on a certificate of division in opinion of the judges of the circuit court of the United States for the eastern district of Tennessee.

In the circuit court, John Smith T. instituted an action of trover against Robert Bell for the recovery of the value of certain negroes named and described in the declaration. The defendant pleaded not guilty, upon which plea issue was joined.

The facts of the case were agreed by the parties, and the plaintiff moved the court for judgment for two thousand six hundred and fifteen dollars and sixty-two and a half cents, the agreed value of the negroes; if the court should be of opinion that the plaintiff was entitled to recover.

Upon the case agreed the following questions arose, upon which the judges of the court were divided, and the division was certified to this court: whether by the will of Britain B. Goodwin, Elizabeth Goodwin had an absolute title to the personal estate of Britain B. Goodwin, or only a life estate: and also whether Jesse Goodwin, the son of Britain B. Goodwin, by said will, had a vested remainder that would come into possession on the death of said Elizabeth; or was said remainder void.

The facts of the case agreed were as follow:

That Britain B. Goodwin, a citizen of the state of Tennessee, and resident in the district of East Tennessee, did, on the 17th day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and ten, make and execute his last will and testament, in the words and figures following, to wit: 'In the name of God, amen. I, Britain B. Goodwin, of the state of Tennessee, and county of Roane, yeoman, being mindful of my mortality, do, this 17th day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and ten, and thirty-fifth year of independence of the United States of America, do make and publish this my last will and testament, in manner following: First, I desire to be decently buried in the place where I shall happen to die; also, I give and bequeath unto my son, Jesse Goodwin, my young sorrel gelding and one feather bed, to be delivered to him by my executrix after my decease; also, I give to my wife, Elizabeth Goodwin, all my personal estate whatsoever, and wheresover, and of what nature, kind, and quality soever, after payment of my debts, legacies, and funeral expenses; which personal estate, I give and bequeath unto my said wife, Elizabeth Goodwin, to and for her own use and benefit and disposal absolutely: the remainder of said estate, after her decease, to be for the use of the said Jesse Goodwin: and I do hereby constitute and appoint my said wife, Elizabeth Goodwin, sole executrix of this my last will and testament.

In witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and seal, the day and year above written.

BRITAIN B. his mark GOODWIN [L. S.].

The foregoing will is duly witnessed, proved, and recorded.

It is further agreed, that said Britain B. Goodwin departed this life in the month of October 1811; that his wife, the said Elizabeth Goodwin, named in the foregoing will, took into her possession all the personal estate of said Britain B. Goodwin, under the bequest in said will to her, and retained the same until the month of November in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and thirteen, when she intermarried with Robert Bell, the defendant in this suit; that she and Robert Bell kept the possession of said personal estate till the latter part of the year 1826, when the said Elizabeth Goodwin died. Said Robert Bell has kept the possession of said personal estate ever since, claiming the same as his own, under the bequest in said will to his said wife Elizabeth; among which are the following named negroes, to wit: Lucy, aged about forty-five; Jack, aged about twenty-six; Sophia, aged about twenty-four; Harry, aged about twenty-one; Alexander, aged about nineteen; and Ned, aged about thirteen; which said negroes are admitted to be of the value of two thousand three hundred and twenty-five dollars; which sum, with interest thereon from the 1st day of September 1827, at which time said negroes were demanded of defendant by plaintiff's agent; and it is agreed the said sum and interest would amount to two thousand six hundred and fifteen dollars sixty-two and a half cents, which last sum is sought by plaintiff to be recovered of defendant in this action of trover. It is further agreed, that said Jesse Goodwin, the person named in the will of Britain B. Goodwin, did, in due form, execute to John Smith T., the plaintiff, the following bill of sale, to wit: 'I have sold to John Smith T. all my right, title, interest, and claim to the estate of my father, Britain B. Goodwin; and I do hereby authorize the said John Smith T. to bring whatever suit or suits may be necessary to recover all of the property I am or may be entitled to from the said estate; to act in all cases as he, the said John, may think proper, and to convert the property he may recover to his own proper use, and give any receipts or acquittances in my name which may be necessary, hereby vesting the before named John Smith T. with all the power I could use in my own proper person, were I personally present; for value received.

Witness my hand and seal this 31st day of March 1815.


Said bill of sale has been duly proved and registered, in pursuance of the statute of the state of Tennessee in such cases made and provided.

The case was argued by Mr Key for the plaintiff, with whom also was Mr Grundy; no counsel appeared for the defendant.

It was contended for the plaintiff, that in this, as in all cases of wills, such a construction is to be given as will carry into effect all the intentions of the testator; such as will give meaning and force to all the words of the will. A construction which will make some of the words senseless, and some of the provisions nugatory, ought to be rejected.

Here the difficulty arises from the words 'to and for her own use and benefit, and disposal absolutely.' They are thought to be added to show the extent of the wife's interest, and to describe her right to the property; and that, thus giving her an absolute and entire interest in the things, there is nothing left; no 'remainder' for the son; and that the succeeding bequest to him is therefore void.

If these words were out of the will, the case would be a clear one for the son; as in 12 Wheat. 568, where an absolute bequest of slaves is qualified by a subsequent limitation over.

Do these words, then, necessarily purport to define the extent of the wife's interest? If any other meaning can be given to them, this should not be, because they would thus be made tautological and senseless. The term 'give' used before, implies all this. It is making the testator say over again what he had already said in this word, and would make some of the words of the will useless; and to assign this meaning to them, annuls the provision immediately succeeding in favour of the son.

It has been a frequent practice to adopt this mode of reasoning in the construction of wills; and to give another meaning to the words used by a testator, by the mere force of a succeeding provision in the instrument. This was done in the case cited from 12 Wheat. 568: so also in case of a fee-simple limited to a fee-tail, the word 'heirs' has been construed to mean children. 2 Ves. 501; 1 Bro. C. R. 489; 8 Ves. 22. This mode of construction has been employed in order to use all the words of a will. The previous words are to be restrained and qualified by those used subsequently; and the subsequent words are to be more regarded, if they are in conflict with the previous language of the instrument. Chief Justice Parsons in Dawes v. Swann, 4 Mass. 208. May not, then, another meaning be given them? If susceptible of such, they ought to have it.


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).