This section is from the book "The Law Of Contracts", by William Herbert Page. Also available from Amazon: Commercial Contracts: A Practical Guide to Deals, Contracts, Agreements and Promises.
Whether or not a breach of a contract amounts to a discharge of the executory covenants of the party not in default,1 it gives to such party a right of action at law for damages. As is said elsewhere,2 the constant attempt of the King's Courts when established by Henry II., and for a considerable space of time thereafter, was to make relief as specific as possible. A party to a contract was constantly compelled to do what he had agreed to do. This idea, however, was gradually abandoned by the King's Common Law Courts, and by the classic period of the Common Law it became established that the only relief which could be given by the ordinary forms of action was compensation in money damages, and not specific relief. This general theory controls everywhere as to the form of relief to be given for breach of contract by an action at law. The question, therefore, at law in case of breach, is merely what amount of damages can be recovered. If it is sought to compel the party in default to do the very thing that he agreed to do, relief must be sought in equity. Under what circumstances this form of relief may be had is discussed elsewhere.3 The refusal of the Common Law to give any relief except damages has given rise to a controversy chiefly academic in character, as to what the true obligation of a contract is. Is the promisor bound in law to do what he agrees to do; or is he merely bound in the alternative either to do that or to pay such damages as may arise from his refusal to do it? The solution of this question depends upon the extent to which primary rights are embodied in the remedial rights which arise on their violation. If there is no primary right apart from the remedial right; or if the invasion of the primary right does away with it so completely that only the remedial right thus created exists, it is probably correct to say that in law the obligation of an executory contract is alternative in law, either to perform or to pay damages. In proper cases, however, a party may be compelled in equity to do the thing which he agrees to do. It is anomalous, to say the least, to treat the obligation of a contract as varying with the jurisdiction before which it may come, especially in view of the fact that it is often not merely the nature of the contract, but also the facts in the nature of performance, arising subsequent thereto, that determine whether speeiiic performance can be had or not. Furthermore it seems that a change of law, giving specific performance where none could be had before, does not impair the obligation of pre-existing contracts.4 If this is true the obligation is solely to do what the party has agreed to do. The question is largely theoretical and need not detain us longer. Whether by original obligation, or by defect in legal remedy, the injured party in an action on the contract at law, for breach thereof must seek compensation in money damages. The right to damages depends on the fact of breach by the party against whom relief is sought. Whatever loss may be suffered by one party as the result of a valid contract into which he has entered, he cannot recover damages from the adversary party if the latter has not been guilty of some breach.5
1 Peck-Hammond Co. v. Heifner, 136 Ala. 473; 96 Am. St. Rep. 36; 33 So. 807.
2 Knowlson v. Piehl, 130 Mich. 597; 90 N. W. 415. 1 See Ch. LXX.
2 See Sec. 1606.
3 See Ch. LXXV.