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.
One of the first questions to determine in ascertaining the effect of the statute of limitations was whether the statute was one of repose - i. e., whether the mere fact of the lapse of the required time was a complete defense - or whether it was one of presumption only - i. e., whether it merely fixed a shorter statutory time at the expiration of which the Common Law prima facie presumption of payment would arise, subject to be rebutted by evidence showing non-payment. The original view held by the English courts was that the statute was one of repose. This view was subsequently abandoned and the statute was held to be one of presumption merely. In turn this view was abandoned; and the courts returned to the original view that the contract was one of repose. In the United States the modern view of the statute is that it is one of repose.1 Another question which must be determined in order to ascertain the true place of the statute is whether the statute is a wise measure founded on sound public policy and designed to prevent imposition by means of stale claims, and hence a defense to be treated as at least in as good standing in law as other defenses; or whether it is a technical defense devoid of merit and to be permitted only when required by the strict rules of law. In some jurisdictions limitations is treated as a defense as worthy of consideration as other defenses, and as meritorious.2 It has been held proper to open a judgment rendered by an excusable default to allow the statute of limitations to be interposed as a defense.3
1 Llanelly, etc., Co. v. Ry., L. R. 7 H. L. 567; United States v. Thompson, 98 U. S. 486; Life Ins. Co. v. Buchanan, 100 Ind. 64; Green v. Disbrow, 79 N. Y. 1; 35 Am. Rep. 496; Cowhick v. Shingle, 5 Wyom. 87; 63 Am. St. Rep. 17; 25 L. R. A. 608; 37 Pac. 689. "Until one (i. e., a statute of limitations) exists, there can be no bar arising from the lapse of time. A party entitled can sue whenever he chooses to do so, and he is clothed with all the rights of any other litigant, asserting a claim where there is no statute of limitation applicable to the case." Hauenstein v. Lynham, 100 U. S. 483, 488. 2 21 Jac. 1, c. 16.