This chapter continues our inquiry into whether the parties created a valid contract. In The Agreement , we saw that the first requisite of a valid contract is an agreement: offer and acceptance. In this chapter, we assume that agreement has been reached and concentrate on one of its crucial aspects: the existence of consideration. Which of the following, if any, is a contract?
- Betty offers to give a book to Lou. Lou accepts.
- Betty offers Lou the book in exchange for Lou’s promise to pay twenty-five dollars. Lou accepts.
- Betty offers to give Lou the book if Lou promises to pick it up at Betty’s house. Lou agrees.
In American law, only the second situation is a binding contract, because only that contract contains consideration, a set of mutual promises in which each party agrees to give up something to the benefit of the other. This chapter will explore the meaning and rationale of that statement.
The question of what constitutes a binding contract has been answered differently throughout history and in other cultures. For example, under Roman law, a contract without consideration was binding if certain formal requirements were met. And in the Anglo-American tradition, the presence of a seal—the wax impression affixed to a document—was once sufficient to make a contract binding without any other consideration. The seal is no longer a substitute for consideration, although in some states it creates a presumption of consideration; in forty-nine states, the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) has abolished the seal on contracts for the sale of goods. (Louisiana has not adopted UCC Article 2.)
Whatever its original historical purposes, and however apparently arcane, the doctrine of consideration serves some still-useful purposes. It provides objective evidence for asserting that a contract exists; it distinguishes between enforceable and unenforceable bargains; and it is a check against rash, unconsidered action, against thoughtless promise making. 1