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The core of a legal contract is the agreement between the parties. This is not a necessary ingredient; in Communist nations, contracts were (or are, in the few remaining Communist countries) routinely negotiated between parties who had the terms imposed on them. But in the West, and especially in the United States, agreement is of the essence. That is not merely a matter of convenience; it is at the heart of our philosophical and psychological beliefs. As the great student of contract law Samuel Williston put it, “It was a consequence of the emphasis laid on the ego and the individual will that the formation of a contract should seem impossible unless the wills of the parties concurred. Accordingly we find at the end of the eighteenth century, and the beginning of the nineteenth century, the prevalent idea that there must be a “meeting of the minds” (a new phrase) in order to form a contract.”Samuel Williston, “Freedom of Contract,” Cornell Law Quarterly 6 (1921), 365.
Although agreements may take any form, including unspoken conduct between the parties, they are usually structured in terms of an offer and an acceptance.Uniform Commercial Code, Section 2-204(1). These two components will be the focus of our discussion. Note, however, that not every agreement, in the broadest sense of the word, need consist of an offer and an acceptance, and that it is entirely possible, therefore, for two persons to reach agreement without forming a contract. For example, people may agree that the weather is pleasant or that it would be preferable to go out for Chinese food rather than to see a foreign film; in neither case has a contract been formed. One of the major functions of the law of contracts is to sort out those agreements that are legally binding—those that are contracts—from those that are not.
In interpreting agreements, courts generally apply an objective standardJudging something as an outsider would understand it; not subjective. (outwardly, as an observer would interpret; not subjectively). The Restatement (Second) of Contracts defines agreement as a “manifestation of mutual assent by two or more persons to one another.”Uniform Commercial Code, Section 3. The Uniform Commercial Code defines agreement as “the bargain of the parties in fact as found in their language or by implication from other circumstances including course of dealing or usage of trade or course of performance.”Uniform Commercial Code, Section 1-201(3). The critical question is what the parties said or did, not what they thought they said or did, or not what impression they thought they were making.
The distinction between objective and subjective standards crops up occasionally when one person claims he spoke in jest. The vice president of a company that manufactured punchboards, used in gambling, testified to the Washington State Game Commission that he would pay $100,000 to anyone who found a “crooked board.” Barnes, a bartender, who had purchased two boards that were crooked some time before, brought one to the company office and demanded payment. The company refused, claiming that the statement was made in jest (the audience at the commission hearing had laughed when the offer was made). The court disagreed, holding that it was reasonable to interpret the pledge of $100,000 as a means of promoting punchboards:
[I]f the jest is not apparent and a reasonable hearer would believe that an offer was being made, then the speaker risks the formation of a contract which was not intended. It is the objective manifestations of the offeror that count and not secret, unexpressed intentions. If a party’s words or acts, judged by a reasonable standard, manifest an intention to agree in regard to the matter in question, that agreement is established, and it is immaterial what may be the real but unexpressed state of the party’s mind on the subject.Barnes v. Treece, 549 P.2d 1152 (Wash. App. 1976).
Lucy v. Zehmer (Section 5.4.1 "Objective Intention" at the end of the chapter) illustrates that a party’s real state of mind must be expressed to the other party, rather than in an aside to one’s spouse.
Fundamentally, a contract is a legally binding “meeting of the minds” between the parties. It is not the unexpressed intention in the minds of the parties that determines whether there was “a meeting.” The test is objective: how would a reasonable person interpret the interaction?