Under the general principle that no promise can be enforced unless its meaning can be ascertained,22 a new promise (whether express or implied from an acknowledgment) to pay a debt cannot be effectual unless it can be determined to what debt the promise relates, and where a statute requires a new promise to be in writing the terms of the promise must sufficiently appear in the writing.23 If on interpreting the new promise in
Mass. 249, 46 N. E. 1066; Graham p. Stanton, 177 Mass. 321, 58 N. E. 1023; San Antonio etc. Assoc, v. Stewart, 94 Tex. 441, 61 S. W. 386, 86 Am. St. Rep. 864.
22See infra, Sec.37.
23 Bell v. Morrison, I Pet. 361, 7 L. Ed. 174; Pollak v. Billing, 131 Ala. 619, 32 So. 639 (promise to pay "all" notes of the debtor sufficiently definite); Bingo v. Brooks, 26 Ark. 640 (promise to pay all debts due from a partnership too indefinite); Opp v. Wack, 52 Ark. 288, 12 S. W. 566, 5 L. R, A. 473; Pierce v. Merrill, 128 Cal. 473, 61 Pao. 67, 79 Am. St. Rep. 63; Buckingham v. Smith, 23 Conn. 453 (promise that all debtor owed "would be settled and made right" insufficient to remove the bar where there were a number of debts); Walker v. Griggs, 32 Ga. 119; Pendley v. Powers, 129 Ga. 69, 58 8. E. 653; Carroll v. Forsyth, 69 111. 127; O'Hara v. Murphy, 196 111. 599, 63 N. E. 1081 (promise by debtor to pay "every cent he owed him" held sufficiently definite); Kleis v. McGrath, 127 Iowa, 459, 103 N. W. 371, 69 L. R, A. 260, 109 Am. St. Rep. 396 (a promissory note for interest due on a prior note, but not so stating will not revive the prior note not being an admission in writing of the earlier debt); Lehman v. Mahier, 34 La. Ann. 319 (an acknowledgment of indebtedness of $3,468.52, the amount named in a statement tendered by the creditor, cannot be shown by parol to include a note, though witnesses testified the note was included in the statement); Pray v. Garcelon, 17 Me. 145 (general acknowledgement of indebtedness insufficient though there seems to have been but one debt); Smith v. Moulton, 12 Minn. 352 (general acknowledgment of indebtedness insufficient where creditor has more than one claim); Russell v. Davis, 51 Minn. 482, 53 N. W. 766 (acknowledgment of "this note and the one attached to it" sufficient, and the notes though no longer attached may be identified by parol); Baxter v. Brandenburg, 137 Minn. 259, 163 N. W. 616 (reiterates the general rule, but holds that checks given for outlawed debts were enforceable against the maker though they did not recite the consideration); Big Diamond Milling Co. v. Chicago etc. Ry. Co., (Minn. 1919), 171 N. W. 799 (promise to pay all claims of a certain class sufficiently definite); Allen v. Hillman 69 Miss. 225, 13 So. 871 (general acknowledgment of indebtedness insufficient); Braithwaite v. Harvey, 14 Mont. 208, 36 Pac. 38, 27 L. R. A. 101, 43 Am. St. Rep. 625; Clarke v. Dut-cher, 9 Cow. 674; Faison p. Bowden, 72 N. C. 405 (general acknowledgment insufficient to revive barred portion of running account); Husaey v. Kirkman, 95 N. C. 63; Rosencrance v. Johnson, 191 Pa. 520, 43 Atl. 360 (general acknowledgement insufficient to revive barred portion of running account); Cole's Exec v. Martin, 99 the light of the circumstances surrounding its making, the debt to which it relates can be determined, there seems no necessity for any other identification. Nevertheless a few cases hold that the promise itself must so define the indebtedness to which it relates, that it can be identified without extrinsic evidence,24 and a few courts even hold that the amount of the claim must be defined.25 But generally, and rightly, an acknowledgment or new promise is held sufficient if, under the circumstances, as shown by parol, it is clear to what the acknowledgment must have related.26 In many jurisdictions where the debtor makes a general acknowledgment of indebtedness, a presumption is made by the court that the acknowledgment relates to the debt afterwards sued upon by the creditor, in the absence of evidence on the part of the defendant to prove that the acknowledgment referred to some other indebtedness.27 But other jurisdictions allow no such presumption and require the plaintiff to prove that the debt to which the acknowledgment relates was clearly identified.28
Va. 223, 37 S. E. 907; Holley'e Ex'r v. Curry, 58 W. Va. 70, 51 S. E. 135 (promise to pay whatever the debtor owed, insufficient to revive barred portion of debt); see a discussion of analogous questions under the Statute of Frauds, infra, Sec.Sec. 576, 578.
24 Kleis v. McGrath, 127 Ia. 459,103 N. W. 371, 69 L. R. A. 280, 109 Am. St. Rep. 396; Burr v. Burr, 26 Pa. St. 284 (the creditor requested a payment "on that note which I hold of thine," and a payment was made. There was no evidence of any other note between the parties but the acknowledgment was held insufficient); Ward v. Jack, 172 Pa. 416, 33 Atl. 577; see also cases in the preceding note.
25 See infra, Sec. 188.
26 Beale v. Nind, 4 B. & Ald. 568; Cheslyn v. Dailby, 10 L. J. Exch. 4; Cook v. Martin, 29 Conn. 63 (general acknowledgment. There were two claims. Jury must determine to which the acknowledgment referred); Deep River Nat. Bank's Appeal, 73 Conn. 341, 47 Atl. 675 (general acknowledgment. Jury justified in inferring it related to both of two debts); O'Hara v. Murphy, 196 111. 599, 63 N. E. 1081 (promise by debtor to pay "every cent he owed " construed as including barred, as well as unbarred indebtedness); Campbell v. Campbell, 118 Iowa, 131, 91 N. W. 894 (a payment stated to be "on my note," the note in question being the only note of the defendant held by the plaintiff, sufficiently identifies the debt); Kugler's Succession, 23 La. Ann. 455 (promise to pay indebtedness, parol evidence admissible to show no other debt but that in suit existed); Barnard v. Bartholomew, 22 Pick. 291 (general acknowledgment held to cover barred as well as unbarred indebtedness); Rumsey v. Settle's Estate, 120 Mich. 372, 79 N. W. 579 (promise by debtor to pay "every cent" he owed held applicable to all of various barred and unbarred notes which he owed the promisee); Stewart v. Forman, 90 Mies. 85, 43 So. 67; Manchester v. Breedner, 107 N. Y. 346,14 N. E. 405, 1 Am. St. Rep. 829 (orders given by debtor to creditor for the payment of money may be shown by parol to have been given to secure part payment of a debt); Wilcox v. Clarke, 18 R. I. 324, 27 Atl. 219; Gruenberg v. Buhring, 5 Utah, 414, 16 Pac. 486. ("I will pay you all" is a sufficient, written promise and may be shown to refer to a general account, the only indebtedness of the defendant to the plaintiff).