from mail box rule study legal formalism-LangdellIndiana Law Journal
Volume 25 | Issue 2
Winter 1955
Acceptance By Mail: Adams v. Lindsell
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(1955) Acceptance By Mail: Adams v. Lindsell, Indiana Law Journal: Vol. 25: Iss. 2, Article 6.
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Article 6
After considerable negotiation, the United States Coast Guard ordered
two sets of ships propellors from H. A. Dick, who signed the order and
returned it by mail. The following day he telegraphed the Coast Guard that
he had mistakenly quoted the price for one instead of for two sets of propellors. The Coast Guard received this telegram several days before the
mailed acceptance. The parties agreed on a new price and the propellors were
manufactured and delivered by Dick. Subsequently, the Comptroller General
of the United States ruled that a contract had been made when Dick mailed his
acceptance and that the contract could not be reformed. Dick brought suit
in the Court of Claims when the government refused to pay the higher price.
On the Governments demurrer the court, one judge dissenting, refused to
hold that a contract had been formed when Dick mailed his acceptance, reasoning that since current postal regulations permit one to withdraw a letter from
the mail, the post office is no longer an agent of the of feror for the purpose
of receiving an acceptance. Dick v. United States, 82 F. Supp. 326 6(Ct. Cl.
Here again are parties seeking the answer to the familiar question: At
what stage during negotiation by mail is a contract formed? This battleground for legal scholars 2 has not perplexed the courts which, for one-hundred
and forty years, have clung to the ruling in Adams v. Lindsell.3 There the
offeror revoked by selling the goods to a third party while the offerees
1. See Madden, J., dissenting in the instant case at 332: It is a mistake for the
court to introduce confusion into a satisfactorily settled legal situation. His chief concern, however, seemed to be a feeling that the ruling of the majority necessarily implied
that a bilateral contract entered into through the mail was not formed until the acceptance
was received by the offeror. See note 11 infra. The case, which came up on demurrer,
may on trial have turned on other collateral issues: (1) whether defendant was charged
with knowledge of plaintiffs mistake, (2) whether the parties had intended to contract,
(3) what authority had been delegated to the Coast Guard to negotiate contracts.
2. For typical comments see: Ashley, Formation of Contracts Inter Absentes, 2 CoL.
L. REv. 1 (1902); ANSON, LAW OF CONTRACTS (Corbins Ed. 1930) 46-47; Hodel, Colnmnunication of Acceptance Between Parties at a Distance, 14 CORN. L. Q. 273 (1929) ;
Corbin, Offer and Acceptance, 26 YALE L. J. 169, 204 (1917) ; Stimson, Effective Time
of an Acceptance, 23 MINN. L. Rxv. 776 (1939) ; Langdell, Contracts by Letter, 7 AM\%.
L. REV. 433 (1872) ; 1 WILLISTON, CONTRACTS § 81 (1920); POLL&cK, CONTRACTS 38 (9th
Ed. 1921); 1 PAGE, CONTRACTS § 199 (2d. Ed. 1920); Note 7 HARv. L. REV. 301 (1894).
3. 1 B. and Ald. 681, 106 Eng. Rep. 250 (1818). With the exception of one early
Massachusetts case (McCulloch v. Eagle Ins. Co., 1 Pick 278 [1822]) the courts of the
United States have been unanimous in ruling that a bilateral contract entered into through
the medium of the mails is complete at the moment the offeree deposits his acceptance in
the mail. The cases are collected in 1 WILLISTON & THompSON, CONTRACTS § 81, note 4
(1936). But see Traders National Bank v. First National Bank, 142 Tenn. 229, 217 S. W.
977 (1919) and Guardian National Bank v. Huntington County State Bank, 206 Ind. 185,
187 N. E. 388 (1933) dealing with the time of delivery of a negotiable instrument when
transmitted through the mails.
acceptance was in the mail.4 The court was doubtless influenced by a realization that, if commerce were to be facilitated and business to prosper, the
of feree should be able to rely upon his acceptance as early as possible, thus
encouraging him to execute the contract secure in the knowledge that his
expectations would not be defeated by a withdrawal of the of fer. Opposing
this result, however, was the legal doctrine that an irrevocable offer was a
legal impossibility, requiring the offeree and offeror to be bound simultaneously. This conflict was resolved by holding the bilateral contract to
4. The actual facts were that the offer, which was limited to acceptance by return
post, was misdirected and reached the offeree late. The offeree replied immediately,
but by the time the acceptance had reached the offeror, he had sold the goods to
another. The court ruled that the contract was complete at the moment the offeree mailed
the acceptance. The decision of the court was, of course, shaped by the then existing
subjective theory of contracts. A strict adherence to the subjective theory would have
produced the absurd result that there would never be an actual simultaneous meeting of
the minds (because of the time necessary for the delivery of correspondence) ; therefore
contracts could not be completed with the parties at a distance. To meet this situation the
court invented the doctrine of the continuing offer. If the offer could be considered as
continuing and being reiterated every minute of its existence until accepted, then simultaneous identity of minds was achieved. Notice, however, that the court could explain
their results only through the device of a fiction. Adams v. Lindsell, 1 B. & Ald. 681, 106
Eng. Rep. 250 (1818). It is interesting to note that under the objective theory of contracts
the same result could be reached as in Adams v. Lindsell by holding that the mailing of
the acceptance was sufficient outward manifestation of assent for completion of the contract. See Ashley, Formation of Contracts Inter Absentes, 2 COL. L. REv. 1 (1902);
Ashley, Mutual Assent in Contracts, 3 CoL. L. REv. 71 (1903) ; Ferson, The Formation
of Simple Contracts,9 CoRN. L. Q. 402 (1924) ; Williston, Mutual Assent in the Forination of Contracts, 14 ILL. L. REv. 85 (1919).
5. See Household Fire Ins. Co. v. Grant, 4 Ex. D. 216, 224 (1878) where Thesiger,
L. J. in arguing for early protection of the of feree states:
If the contract is not finally concluded, except in the event of the acceptance actually reaching the offeror . . . considerable delay in commercial transactions, in which dispatch is, as a rule, of the greatest
consequence, would be occasioned.
See also Harris Case, L.R.7 Ch. 585, 594 (1872) where Mellish, L. J. says:
I have been forcibly struck with the extraordinary and very mischievous consequences which would follow if it were held that an offer
might be revoked at any time until the letter accepting it had actually
been received. . . . Every day, I presume, there must be a large number
of mercantile letters received which require to be acted upon immediately . . . The merchant writes an answer accepting the offer and
goes that instant into the market and purchases the goods in order to
enable him to fulfill the contract . . . but . . . if the person who has
sent the offer . . . may at any time, before he has received the answer,
revoke his offer, the consequences might be very serious for the merchant….
For reasons for protecting and an excellent definition of expectation interests see,
Fuller & Perdue, The Reliance Interest in Contract Damages, 46 YALE L. J. 52, 57-66
6. The firmly established doctrine of consideration plays an important role here. The
concept is that any offer may be freely revoked up until the time that the full consideration requested is received. Cooke v. Oxley, 3 T. R. 653 (1790) ; McGovney, Irrevocable
Offers, 27 HARv. L. REv. 644 (1914); 1 ASHLEY, THE LAW OF CONTRACTS 26 (1911);
1 LANGDELL, SUMMARY OF CONTRACTS §178 (1880). The rule in some of the civil law
countries is that an offer made by mail can not be revoked within a certain period fixed
be formed when the acceptance is mailed.?
Not challenged here is the application of the Adams v. Lindsell rule
where an offeror attempts to revoke his offer after the acceptance has been
mailed. But where the offeree withdraws or countermands his acceptance by
communication reaching the offeror before the acceptance, as in the Dick case,
the reasons behind Adams v. Lindsell disappear. The offeree, not desiring to
rely upon his acceptance, has no interests needing protection. Nor has the
offeror any interests requiring protection.8 Though the offeror is denied
the opportunity to extend new offers after the acceptance has been mailed,
this limitation is assumed by any offeror and is a restriction flowing from
commercial practices. It does not result from reliance upon an offerees acceptance because the offeror can have no knowledge of the acceptance until
he has learned of the withdrawal. Yet, in this situation Adams v. Lindsell
prohibits withdrawal by the offeree and extends unjustified protection to the
The rationale of the Court of Claims negativing the agency fiction,9 while
commendatory, is scarcely a satisfactory solution to the problem.
The fiction
was developed to achieve a mechanical solution and is not adapted to the
realities of commercial transactions between distant parties. Yet, the
obliteration of this fiction requires the innovation of an alternative theory
of contract. The court failed to provide such assistance and say when a
contract is formed, but contented itself with the declaration that the contract
was not formed when the acceptance was mailed.0 Presumably the court
deemed it obvious that the contract was not completed until the acceptance
by law regardless of whether any consideration has been received by the offeror. This
concept has received legislative expression in Germany, France, Italy, Switzerland, and
Japan. See Nussbaum, Comparative Aspects of Anglo-American Offer-and-Acceptance
Doctrine, 36 COL. L. REv. 920, 922-23, N. 15-23 (1936). Anglo-American courts in the
main still accept the revocability doctrine and have begun to modify it only in the field
of unilateral contracts. See note 13 infra.
7. For the suggestion that this was somewhat of a compromise solution see Nussbaum,
Comparative Aspects of the Anglo-American Offer-and-Acceptance Doctrine, 36 COL.
L. REv. 920, 925 (1936) where it is said:
However, the consideration doctrine stood in the way of holding irrevocable an offer made neither for value nor under seal. .
. In this
situation protection for the offeree could be attained only by the Adams
v. Lindsell rule. This was the best solution that could be reconciled
with the consideration doctrine.
8. See note 5 supra. Notice that fundamental to expectation interests is knowledge
of the promise of another. Without such knowledge the interests cannot arise.
9. That the concept of agency as used here is artificial has been recognized by both
the legal writers and the courts. See Henthorn v. Fraser, L. R. 2 Ch. 27, 33 (1892) ;
Bramwell, L. J. dissenting in Household Fire and Carriage Acc. Ins. Co., Ltd. v. Grant,
4 Ex. D. 216 (1879) ; Hodel, Communication of Acceptance Between Parties at a Distance,
15 CORN. L. Q. 273, 275 (1929) ; Stimson, Effective Time of an Acceptance, 23 MINN. L.
REv. 776, 781 (1939).
10. Dick v. United States, 82 F. Supp. 326, 330 (1949).
was received by the offeror3 1 But this view fails to protect the legitimate
expectancy of the of feree from revocation of the offer in the interim between
posting and receipt of the acceptance, and frustrates the purpose of Adams v.
Modem contract thinking calls for a re-examination of the ancient dogma
that an irrevocable offer is a legal impossibility. In recent years this doctrine
has been modified by the Anglo-American courts. Despite theoretical difficulties,- the courts have protected the offerees interest created through part
performance of a unilateral contract, by holding the offer irrevocable for a
reasonable time.1 3 Yet even after partial performance the offeree is not
bound to complete performance but may withdraw providing he injures no
interest of the offeror in so doing.14 The most satisfactory solution would
11. This assumption was made by Madden J. dissenting in the instant case at 332:
The courts decision would mean, quite certainly, that a contractor who
had mailed his acceptance of an offer made to him by the Government
would still be subject to losing his contract if the Government should,
before it receives his letter of acceptance, telephone or telegraph him
withdrawing the offer.
12. 1 WALDS POLLOcK 34, n. 39 (3d ed., Williston, 1906):
On principle it is hard to see why the offeror may not revoke his offer.
He cannot be said to have already contracted, because by the terms of his
offer he was only to be bound if something was done, and it has not as
yet been done, though it has been begun. Moreover, it may never be
done, for the promisee has made no promise to complete the act and may
cease performance at his pleasure. To deny the offeror the right to
revoke is, therefore, in effect to hold the promise of one contracting party
binding though the other party is neither bound to perform nor has
actually performed the requested consideration. The practical hardship
of allowing revocation under such circumstances is all that can make
the decision of the question doubtful.
See also McGovney, Irrevocable Offers, 27 HARV. L. REv. 644, 654 (1914) ; Levinsohn,
Mutual Assent in Califonia, 2 CALIF. L. REv. 345, 358 (1914) ; Wormser, Unilateral
Contracts,26 YALE L. J. 136 (1916).
13. This rule resulted from the realization that strict adherence to the revocability
doctrine creates undue hardship on the of feree in the case of unilateral contracts where
the offeree has partially performed the requested act and the offeror attempts to withdraw his offer. See Ruess v. Baron, 217 Cal. 83, 10 P.2d 518, 519 (1932) :
The growing tendency among American Courts, working through the
medium of the litigated cases, has been to ameliorate the hardships inherent in holding that such an offer may be revoked at any time before
full performance and to hold that such an offer cannot be revoked after
the offeree has done some substantial act looking to performance.
See also Los Angeles Traction Co. v. Wilshire et al., 135 Cal. 654, 67 Pac. 1086 (1902);
Wachtel v. National Alfalfa Journal Co., 190 Iowa 1293, 176 N. W. 801 (1920);
RESTATEMENT, CONTRACTS §45 (1932) ; Ballantine, Acceptance of Offers for Unilateral
.Contractsby PartialPerformance of Service Requested, 5 MINN. L. REv. 213 (1934);
Ashley, ConsiderationOther Than a Counter Promise, 23 HAv. L. Rv. 159 (1909).
14. 1 WILISTON & THaomPsoN, CONTRACTS § 60 (1936) ; Plumb v. Campbell, 129 III.
101, 18 N. E. 790 (1888). RESTATEMENT, CONTRACTS § 45 (1932) :
If an offer for a unilateral contract is made, and part of the consideration requested in the offer is given or tendered by the offeree in
response thereto, the offeror is bound by a contract, the duty of which
is conditional on the full consideration being given or tendered within the
be to extend to bilateral contracts this part performance concept. The
problems in unilateral and bilateral offers are analogous: i.e., how to protect
the interest created by the offeree in himself when he accepts an offer. The
interests of the bilateral-offeree can be adequately protected by holding the
mailing of the acceptance to be sufficient part performance to render the
offer irrevocable for a reasonable time.15 Continuing the analogy to the
unilateral-offeree, the bilateral-offeree would likewise be free to withdraw
his acceptance prior to receipt of it by the offeror, if in so doing no interest
of the offeror is injured. 16 Such a solution would succeed where both Adams
v. Lindsell and the complete on receipt rules fail. The interests of the
time stated in the offer, or, if no time is stated therein, within a reasonable time.
But see 3 PROCEEDINGS A.L.I. 256 (1929) where Professor Williston stated that he interpreted § 45 of the Restatement to mean only that the offer should be irrevocable, and
apparently it was with this understanding that § 45 was incorporated into the Restatement.
15. Note that in the civil law countries an offer made through the mails is irrevocable
when made (Nussbaum, Comparative Aspects of the Anglo-American Offer-and-Acceptance Doctrne, 36 COL. L. REv. 920 [1936]) ; here the offer is not irrevocable until the
acceptance is mailed. This difference is necessitated by the doctrine of consideration
which governs the Anglo-American courts. Consideration can be found here in the change
of position of the offeree in the act of mailing the acceptance. As in the case of unilateral contracts, the time during which the offer is to remain irrevocable must be a
reasonable time. RESTATEMENT, CONTRACTS § 45 (1932). The test here of what is a
reasonable time would seem to be the time necessary for the posted acceptance to reach
the offeror under normal conditions of the mail. Further, the offerors duty of performance would be conditional on full consideration being given, i.e. delivery of the letter
of acceptance. Under this limitation the risk of loss or delay of the letter in the mail is
placed on the offeree. Cf. UNIFORM COMMERCIAL CODE § 2-206 (3) and comment 3
(May 1949).
16. Pollock would agree with this position. See WALDS POLLOCK 37 (3d ed., Williston, 1906) where it is stated:
It appears just and expedient, as concerning the accepting partys
rights, that the acceptance should date from the time when he has done
all he can to accept, by putting his affirmative answer in a determinate
course of transmission to the proposer. From that time he must be free
to act on the confract as valid, and disregard any revocation that reaches
him afterwards. Hence the conclusion is suggested that at this point the
contract is irrevocable and absolute. But are we to hold it absolute for
all purposes? Shall the proposer be bound, though, without any default
of his own, the acceptance never reaches him? Shall the Acceptor remain bound, though he should afterwards dispatch a revocation which
arrives with or even before the acceptance? The first question is
answered by our Courts in the affirmative; the second is still open. On
principle a negative answer to both would seem more reasonable. The
proposer cannot, at all events, act on the contract before the acceptance
is communicated to him; as against him, therefore, a revocation should
be in time if it reaches him together with or before the original
acceptance, whatever the relative times of their dispatch. On the
other hand, it seems not reasonable that he should be bound by an
acceptance that he never receives. He has no means of making sure
whether or when his proposal has been received, or whether it is accepted
or not, for the other party need not answer at all. The acceptor might
more reasonably be left to take the more avoidable risk of his acceptance
offeree in the revocation-of-offer situation would be protected by making
the offer irrevocable when the acceptance is mailed without at the same
time granting unneeded protection to supposed interests of the offeror in the
withdrawal-of-acceptance situation.
The part performance approach to the problem might be criticized
because it gives complete control of the situation to the offeree, leaving him
free to blow hot and cold during the transmission time.17 But the same
result attains under present practice because the postal regulations allow
withdrawal of the acceptance from the mail any time prior to delivery, without
the knowledge of the offeror. 8 So, while the offeree is theoretically bound
by Adams v. Lindsell at the time of posting, he retains control as a practical
matter through his withdrawal privilege. By extending the part performance concept, theory would coincide with practice. 19 To the objection that
such a rule would shift to the of feree the risk of loss or delay of the acceptance,
it may be answered that where one of two innocent parties must suffer, the
risk should be placed on the one best able to protect himself.2 The off eree may
protect himself by registering his letter of acceptance.
While certainty in commercial law is of great importance, stare decisis
is no excuse for perpetuating a doctrine so broad as to treat alike situations
which are fundamentally different.
17. Many of those who have objected to the development of the theory of the irrevocable offer in the field of unilateral contracts have done so on the ground that it is
against settled contract principles to have one party bound while the other remains free.
See notes 12 and 13 supra and 9 A.L.R. 386.
18. §§ 487, 488, and 489 of United States Postal Laws and Regulations, 1893
provide that a sender may apply for a letter in the mails and when properly identified may
receive it back. The postmaster applied to shall telegraph a request. On receipt of such
request the postmaster at the office of address shall return such letter to the mailing
postmaster . . . who will deliver it to the writer upon payment of all expenses. To the
same effect see United States Postal Laws and Regulations §552, 553 (1913). See United
States Postal Laws and Regulations §730 (1940) which provides that the addressee shall
not be notified that a letter addressed to him has been withdrawn from the mails.
19. This development in Post Office Regulations is not of recent origin. The situation existed as long ago as 1893. See Note, 7 HARV. L. REv. 301 (1893) where it is said:
By sections 487, 488, and 489 of Postal Laws and Regulations, 1893
it appears that the writer may apply for a letter in the mails, and when
satisfactory proof of identity has been furnished, may receive it back
. . . The result of this conflict of law and postal regulation is that the
original proposer of a contract is bound from the time of acceptance;
the acceptor is not bound in practice until his leter has been delivered.
He may be bound in law, but if he gets his letter back and burns it up, he
cannot be held in court. So for one party to the contract we have one
rule, for the other the other.
20. It is argued by many that the offeree has implied authority to use the means of
communication used by the offeror. The offeror has made the postal authorities his
agent and therefore receipt of the letter of acceptance by the post office would be receipt
by the offeror. Therefor the risk of loss should fall on the offeror. See Dunlop v. Higgins, 1 H. of L. 381 (1845); Duncan v. Topham, 8 C. B. 225 (1849); Vassar v. Camp,
1 Kernan 441 (N. Y. 1854). This reasoning, however, is based on a highly fictitious
concept of agency.

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