Johnson v. Caulkins, 1799

1 Johns. Cas. 116 (1799)

Breach of Promise to Marry

In Troy, New York, on July 9, 1797, Miss Johnson and Mr. Caulkins agreed to marry. Shortly afterward, Mr. Caulkins left Troy to travel to the West Indies. On April 4, 1798, Miss Johnson gave birth to a child. Mr. Caulkins, upon his return to Troy in June of that year, acknowledged paternity. In July, Mr. Caulkins reaffirmed his promise to marry Miss Johnson, stating that he would do so upon his return from a trip to New London. When the marriage did not take place, Miss Johnson sued Mr. Caulkins for breach of promise to marry.

At trial, the court admitted evidence of Miss Johnson’s conduct and reputation prior to August 1798 but excluded testimony that John Woodworth, counsel for Mr. Caulkins, sought to offer to prove Miss Johnson’s licentious conduct with other men subsequent to July 1798. The verdict was in favor of Miss Johnson, and she was awarded damages of $1,000.

Mr. Caulkins then applied to the Supreme Court of Judicature for a new trial on the ground that he ought to have been permitted to prove acts of licentiousness by Miss Johnson without being restricted to the period prior to July 1798. Justice Egbert Benson wrote the Court’s opinion, in which Justices Jacob Radcliff, James Kent, and Morgan Lewis concurred. The Court ordered a new trial, holding that Mr. Caulkins ought to have been permitted to show plaintiff’s general character “as to sobriety and virtue,” without any time limitation because an action for breach of promise to marry is, in part, based upon loss of reputation, and her reputation must depend upon her general conduct after, as well as before, the breach. Chief Justice John Lansing dissented, stating that his impression was that Mr. Caulkins had abandoned Miss Johnson as evidenced by his absenting himself contrary to his agreement, and he ought not to be permitted to avail himself of subsequent circumstances that arose as a result of his own bad conduct.

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