A matter of consideration

One Dollar cash in hand paid

On the 22nd day of March, 1910, Frank Allen of Tippah County, Mississippi, put up collateral consisting of an eight-year-old mouse colored mule named John, two red-horned cows named Cherry and Bertie and one calf, and his “entire crop of every description to be raised … during year 1910, in Tippah County.” It was to secure the payment of $122.43 on “account made for supplies furnished by M.L. Finger & Son to the amount of One hundred dollars.”1

Tippah.deedOn the 26th of March 1910, W. O. Barnes put up collateral consisting of one yoke of white oxen about three years old named Sam and Toprey together with one top buggy, to secure the payment of $120.00 to C. L. Jamisson.2

On the 23rd of April 1910, J. A. Adams put up collateral consisting of one seven-year-old black horse mule named Bill, one three-year-old red horse mule named Bin, and two bales of cotton to weight 500 pounds each, to secure the payment of $200 to R. B. Aldridge.3

Every one of these transactions was recorded as a chattel deed in Tippah County — a concept The Legal Genealogist has talked about before here4 — and every single chattel deed including these contained the exact same preprinted language: “That in consideration of the sum of One Dollar cash in hand paid” to the person putting up the collateral, the items were to secure the loan.

It’s the same sort of language you see in deeds all the time: “in consideration of the sum of One Dollar cash in hand paid.”

Why that language? What’s it doing there?

The fact is, in order to be valid, binding and enforceable in court, every contract like these has to have what the law calls consideration. By definition, it is “some benefit to the party by whom the promise is made, or to a third person at his instance; or some detriment sustained at the instance of the party promising, by the party in whose favor the promise is made.”5

In other words, each side to the deal has to be getting something he wasn’t otherwise entitled to and giving up something he didn’t have to give up.6

In a land deal, the seller gives up his land and gets the money paid by the buyer, while the buyer gives up his money and gets the land from the seller. In these chattel deeds, the lender was giving up money or goods or supplies in return for a promise to be paid money or to have specific items only in the case that the money wasn’t paid. The borrower was giving a promise to pay money or give up the specific items pledged, and getting the money or goods or supplies.

The key is that there has to be consideration on both sides. “A consideration of some sort or other, is so absolutely necessary to the forming a good contract, that … an agreement to do or to pay any thing on one side, without any compensation to the other, is totally void in law, and a man cannot be compelled to perform it.”7

The specification of one dollar was a legal fiction that didn’t have anything to do with the actual value of the deal. It was the American version of the common-law peppercorn concept. As explained by the New Jersey Supreme Court, “the consideration … in any form of simple contract, need not be … of intrinsic value; ‘a rose, a hawk or a peppercorn’ will suffice, provided it is what is asked for by the promisor and is not illegal.”8

And that terminology was so common that it was the consideration recited in the 1802 1802 Treaty of Fort Confederation with the Choctaw under which the boundary of tribal lands was redrawn:

The said line, when thus remarked and re-established, shall form the boundary between the United States and the said Choctaw Nation, in that quarter, and the said Choctaw Nation, for, and in consideration of one dollar, to them in hand paid by the said United States, the receipt whereof is hereby acknowledged, do hereby release to the said United States, and quit claim for ever, to all that tract of land which is included by the before named line on the north, by the Chickasawhay river on the west, by the Tombigby and the Mobile rivers on the east, and by the boundary of the United States on the south.9

Again, the recital of the one dollar doesn’t mean a thing in terms of the real value of the transaction. It was simply the shorthand way that the lawyers writing the documents — and those printing the forms for those 1910 chattel deeds — made sure that the documents would be interpreted by a court to have consideration and so would be binding on both sides.


  1. Tippah County, Mississippi, Chattel Deed Book 30: 18, Frank Allen, 22 Mar 1910; County Clerk’s Office, Ripley, Mississippi; digital images, “Mississippi, Tippah County Records, 1836-1923,” FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org : accessed 31 Jul 2013).
  2. Ibid., Tippah County Chattel Deed Book 30: 5, W. O. Barnes, 26 Mar 1910.
  3. Ibid., Tippah County Chattel Deed Book 30: 45, J.A. Adams, 23 Apr 1910.
  4. See Judy G. Russell, “An IOU with teeth,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 17 Apr 2013 (http://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 31 Jul 2013).
  5. John Bouvier, A Law Dictionary Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States of America and of the Several States of the American Union, rev. 6th ed. (1856); HTML reprint, The Constitution Society (http://www.constitution.org/bouv/bouvier.htm : accessed 31 Jul 2013), “consideration.”
  6. See Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 255, “consideration.”
  7. Bouvier, A Law Dictionary…, “consideration.”
  8. Lucky Calendar Co. v. Cohen, 19 N.J. 399, 415 (1955).
  9. Article II, 1802 Treaty of Fort Confederation, Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma (http://www.choctawnation.com : accessed 31 Jul 2013)(emphasis added).
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5 Responses to A matter of consideration

  1. Ray Jones says:

    Thanks Judy! I have often wondered why one dollar is used so often in contracts.

    I also enjoy reading documents in which the author used “one dollar” to send a message in a will. Here is one from the will of an ancestor in my family tree:

    “I give, devise and bequeath to my son, Heinrich Hauser, his heirs and assignments forever all my property, be the same real, personal or mixed of what nature or kind soever and wheresoever the same may be found at the time of my death. I give and bequeath to my son, Wilhelm Hauser, the sum of one dollar.”

    You know, I’m getting a sense that he might have liked Heinrich better than Wilhelm. :)

    It’s interesting how the sum of one dollar can take on a much deeper meaning.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      You may be right, Ray, but there are at least two other possibilities about your Hausers: (1) the law in that jurisdiction might have required that every child or every son be included in a will, and the dollar was to abide by the law even though the one son had already received what would have been his share under the will; or (2) no matter how much the ancestor loved his sons, William may moved on and even his whereabouts might not have been known. Yet the father could have felt that he had to mention William.

  2. Ray Jones says:

    Hey Judy! Thanks so much for the response! Please allow me to clarify this, as the additional details further illustrate the impact of “one dollar” in a will.

    Here is the original text of the part of the will of Pius Hauser from 28 February 1895 in which he states the various amounts for each of his children (I apologize for the version I gave in my previous comment – which was from memory):

    “First. I direct all my just debts and funeral expenses to be fully paid and satisfied as soon as conveniently may be after my death.

    Second. I give, devise and bequeath to my son, Heinrich Hauser, his heirs and assignments forever all my property, be the same real, personal or mixed of what nature or kind soever and wheresoever the same may be found at the time of my death.

    Third. I give and bequeath to my son, Wilhelm Hauser, the sum of one dollar.

    Fourth. I give and bequeath to my son, George Ludwig Hauser, the sum of five dollars.

    Fifth. I give and bequeath to my daughter, Elizabeth, wife of Charles Harlander and Josephine, wife of Thomas McKee, each the sum of five dollars.

    And lastly. I do nominate, constitute and appoint my son, Heinrich Hauser, sole Executor of this, my Will and Testament.”

    The Hauser family is interesting. Pius Hauser was born (and baptized Catholic) in Empfingen, which was part of the small province of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen at the time of his birth. Sometime after 1849 (when Empfingen became part of Prussia), Pius Hauser came to the U.S. and settled in Allegheny City (now the North Side of Pittsburgh). Interestingly, all five of his children remained in Allegheny City through 1900. Henry and Louis married sisters from the same family, and William had an address on the same street where he was born and raised in Allegheny all the way through his death in 1928.

    One possible source of his father’s dislike could be the fact that following the death of his first wife, William remarried in 1892 to Jemima Baker, who – curiously – was born in England. Perhaps Pius Hauser did not get along with his new daughter-in-law. It could have been religious differences, although this seems less likely given the fact that his favored son Henry Hauser joined a Christian (Protestant) Church.

    Interestingly though, William Hauser began using the surname Houser beginning in the 1900 Census. His son, Norbert Houser, married my great aunt.

    So – bringing it back on point (finally), the “one dollar” in the will sure seems to have had a big impact….

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      That looks a lot less like the father not liking the son William and much more like the father having some reason for favoring one out of several children, Ray. I’m always a little suspicious when the beneficiary turns out to be the executor, so that raises some questions in my mind, but the big question is this: if all the children continued to live in the same area, did any of the others challenge the will? If not, then you may find that it’s much more likely that they all understood why the one son was getting everything in the will and agreed with it.

      • Ray Jones says:

        Good idea about checking further on the estate Judy!

        This will is from Allegheny County, Pennsylvania – which are now online on Familysearch. Unfortunately, the letters of administration are only available at the City-County building in downtown Pittsburgh. As such, I haven’t had the chance to get down there to look at the letters.

        But – as you have advised, this is definitely worth a further look, as something seems to have been going on with the variable dollar amounts for the children and the elevated status of Henry.

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