There is a misconception widespread among legal authorities that English common law decreed that a person can have only one legally recognized given name. In an 1879 ruling reprinted in law dictionaries and still cited today, Indiana’s Supreme Court said:
By the common law, since the time of William the Norman, a full name consists of one christian name or given name and one surname or patronymic. The two, using the christian name first, constitute the legal name of the person. Any one may have as many middle names or initials as are given to him or as he chooses to take; they do not affect his legal name; and they may be inserted or not in a deed or contract without affecting its legal validity. —Schofield v. Jennings, 68 Ind. 232, 1879
This ruling was a serious misrepresentation of English common law, which declared that because a person could be baptized only once, he could ever have only one baptismal, or “Christian,” name, but that all names given at baptism comprised that “one Christian name” (Edward Coke, The First Institute of the Laws of England, or a Commentary on Littleton, 1628; Evans v. King, Willes 554; Arbouin v. Willoughby, 1 Marshall, 477; Jones v. Macquillin, 5 T.R. [Dunford and Hyde] 195; Howell v. Coleman, 2 Bosanquet & Puller, 466; Scott v. Soans, 3 East, 111). English law also held that when a person’s Christian name was comprised of multiple given names, the given name by which he was universally known was essential to his legal identification (Pougett v. Tomkyns, 1 Phillimore 499, 3 Maule & Selwyn, 262n, 1812).
At the time of the Indiana ruling, the idea that law could recognize only one given name was only seventy years old, and it was an American innovation unknown in English jurisprudence (Franklin v. Talmadge, 5 Johns. 84). As Arthur Walker Blakemore said in the 1914 Modern American Law (5:625): “There is a common theory that the common law did not recognize a person’s middle name, but there is no real authority for this view.”
Several US courts of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries ruled that the middle name was not essential to a person’s legal name. But these cases involved individuals known by a first name and for whom the middle name was not essential to identification. In cases involving people known by their middle name, courts consistently upheld the middle name as appropriate legal identification.
In what appears to have been the first US court ruling to use the term legal name, Judge Charles L. Benedict of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit explained:
There appears to be no law against a person’s bearing several given names, nor anything to prevent a person from adopting any one of several given names given him at baptism, as the one by which he will be called and known; and when a person has selected a particular given name as the only given name by which he will be known, I conceive that such given name becomes part of his legal name, and that he is properly described by that name in an indictment, whether it stands first, or second, or third, in the order of his given names.—US v. Winter, 13 Blatchf. 276, Fed. Case. No. 16, 743 (1876)
Other courts upheld the middle name by which a person was known as his/her legal name:
•The name is for the identification of the person and to distinguish one from another. It would be absurd to require the use of the name not commonly and generally in use in preference to the one commonly and generally used. — State v. Peterson, 70 Me 216 (1879)
•The name by which a man always went, which he declares is his name in his dying declaration, and by which his own mother knew him, may be deemed his right name. — Binfield v. State, 15 Neb. 484, 19 N.W. 607 (1884)
•A man’s name, for all practical and legal purposes, is the name by which he is known and called in the community where he lives and is best known. — Loser v. Plainfield Savings Bank, 128 N.W. 1101 1911)
Also: Steinmann v. Strimple, 29 Mo. App. 485 (1888); Laflin v. Steytler, 14 L.R.A. 690, 146 Pa. 434 (1892).