Legal, bureaucratic, and institutional disregard of middle names in the United States is based on the idea that only a person’s first name can be his or her legal forename. Although many jurists over the past two hundred years have believed this to be an established principle of English common law, it was actually created by the New York Supreme Court in 1809.
In the case Franklin v. Talmadge before the New York court, defendants objected to the variance in one of the plaintiffs’ names as it appeared in the declaration, William T. Robinson, and the way it appeared in a deed offered as evidence, William Robinson. Plaintiffs offered to prove that Robinson was as well known by William as by William T., according to the common law principle that if a man is as known by two names he may be identified by either. But the court said that was not necessary. Rather, citing Edward Coke’s Commentary on Littleton and Robert Raymond’s report on Rex v. Newman to show that “a man can have but one christian name,” the court declared that “the law knows of but one christian name,” concluded that the middle-name initial was no part of that name, and ruled the variance immaterial (1).
Problems with the New York Rule
There are three problems with this ruling. First, neither Coke nor Raymond nor anything else in English common law limited a christian name to one element or directed courts to recognize only one element of a christian name. On the contrary, English common law recognized all names given at baptism to be part of a person’s christian name. The “one christian name” maxim simply meant that because the Church baptizes individuals only once, he or she can ever have only one name of baptism (of however many forenames were given). At the time of the New York ruling, several English courts held that the “one christian name” principle required strict precision in stating a person’s full christian name in legal matters—with all its component parts (See “One Christian Name”). This was in accordance with Coke’s admonition that jurists take “special heed” in stating a person’s christian name, and with an earlier caution by Chief Justice John Popham that, “The law is not precise in the case of surnames, but for the christian name, this ought always to be perfect” (2).
Another problem with Franklin v. Talmadge is that even if the premise that common law dictated recognition of only one forename had been correct, the conclusion that this “one name” must be a person’s first name was arbitrary. The court could just as well have said that the one name must be that closest to the surname, according to an old German tradition and common practice among much of the United States’ German population at the time. But that would have been just as arbitrary. Or it could have ruled that the one name must be that by which a person is “called and known,” and that would have more closely reflected English common law.
And finally, in English common law the term christian name meant the name given an individual at the Christian rite of baptism. Since the U.S. Bill of Rights guarantees freedom of religion, there was no requirement for a person to have a christian name or to be bound by any requirements or restrictions associated with it. This was the position taken by South Carolina’s Court of Appeals in 1822 in City Council [of Charleston] vs. King. Counsel for Alexander William King, who was being sued as A.W. King, insisted that a man must be sued by his proper christian name rather than initials, as some English courts insisted. But South Carolina’s Court of Appeals said: “It surely will not be contended here, that a man may not take any name he pleases. . . . In truth I know no law, nor do I see any reason why a man may not take the letters A.W. for his first name, or as it is generally called, his christian name; for as there is no union here between Church and State, and no obligation on parents to baptize their children, this name may be as often changed as the patronymic [last name]. . . .”
Nevertheless, in 1824 the New York Supreme Court again declared that “the law knows of but one christian name” and ruled that omission of middle-name initials was of no consequence (Roosevelt v. Gardinier, 2 Cowen 463). Despite rulings in Massachusetts and Virginia that followed English precedent in holding that all forenames comprise a person’s christian name and, therefore, his or her legal identity, the two New York rulings set a course for American jurisprudence concerning personal names that diverged from English common law.
The New York Rule as Precedent
Noting the refusal of an English court to accept a middle-name initial but failing to grasp the reason—that the initial represented a name essential to legal identification that must be stated in full (e.g. Ogden v. Barker, 1 Dowling 125, 1831)—a Vermont Supreme Court justice said he considered “the rule laid down in New York, that a middle letter is no part of the name, to be founded in good sense” (3).
Initials also troubled the United States Supreme Court, which in 1830 reasoned: “It is said, the law knows only one christian name, and there are adjudged cases strongly countenancing, if not fully establishing, that the entire omission of a middle letter is not a misnomer or variance . . . and if so, the middle letter is immaterial and a wrong letter may be stricken out or disregarded.” However, it also said, “We think that a man may be known by two or more names which taken together constitute his christian name. But that it lies not with any one to say that he is commonly known by a name composed of an appellative word, preceded or followed by a letter only, and we think that, in reading, the initial letter may be omitted as no part of the name by which the person is known” (4). Thus the court said a name written in full could be recognized as a person’s name, whether first or middle, while an initial could be disregarded, whether representing a first or middle name. In this particular case, the initial represented a middle name and could be disregarded. The court thus upheld the New York rule IF the middle name was represented by initial letter only.
In 1840, the U.S. Supreme Court extended the New York rule to a full middle name. Asked whether the names David Buchanan and David Carrick Buchanan could in law signify the same person, the court said yes. Citing the New York rulings, it said: “The law knows of but one christian name, and the omission or insertion of the middle name or of the initial letter of the name is immaterial.” Citing another common law principle, it also said: “and it is competent for the party to show that he is known as well without as with the middle name” (5).
So far, American cases involving questions of personal name had pertained to persons known by their first names. But in 1863, a case involving a Middle-Namer came before the New York Supreme Court. When William Henry Van Voorhis, known as Henry Van Voorhis, failed to pay a tax assessed against Henry D. Van Voorhis, the collector seized and sold his horse to pay the tax. Van Voorhis sued and was awarded damages by the Justice of the Peace. The collector appealed to the county court, which also ruled in Van Voorhis’s favor. Neither decision is available, but perhaps they ruled that Henry D. could not be an accurate description of William Henry, or perhaps they held that because the law could recognize only a first name, Van Voorhis must be taxed as William. Whatever the lower courts’ rulings, the New York Supreme Court overturned them. It handily dismissed the wrong initial D, saying it must “be regarded as surplusage, upon the well known rule that the law recognizes but one christian name.” But then, the very court that originated that rule and its corollary that a middle name is not part of a person’s name, accepted Van Voorhis’s middle name, Henry, as his legal identity—on the ground that a party is sufficiently identified if he is as well known by the name stated in the legal action as by his actual baptismal name, and because there was no other Henry Van Voorhis in the community with whom the plaintiff could have been mistaken (6).
The two common law principles cited in this case—that the name by which a person is known is appropriate legal description, and that all the law is concerned with is identity—were all that was needed to decide any of the cases that resorted to the New York rule. But by denying the validity of part of a person’s name to the extent of holding its misstatement irrelevant, the courts introduced into American jurisprudence the very kind of confusion and uncertainty Coke and Popham had tried to prevent by urging “special heed” and precision with the christian name.
Despite continued American decisions recognizing all forenames as part of a person’s christian name and therefore part of his or her legal identity (See “Middle Name as Legal Name”), New York’s interpretation of “one christian name” and its rule concerning middle names became widely accepted as an established principle of English common law. In 1879, Indiana’s Supreme Court articulated the New York rule in a decision that was subsequently cited in law encyclopedias as a definition for legal name, and it is still cited by courts today to justify bureaucratic dismissal of middle names (7).
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 (See “English Common Law”). At its writing, the idea that law could recognize only one forename was only seventy years old, and it was an American innovation unknown in English jurisprudence. 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.” Indeed, even today, England’s Deed Poll Service, which registers name changes, requires people to take “at least one forename and one surname”(8).
1. Franklin v. Talmadge, 5 Johns. 84.
2. Britton v. Wrightman, ca. 1600.
3. Isaacs v. Wiley, 12 Vt. 674, 1839.
4. Keane v. Meade, 28 U.S. 1.
5. Games v. Stiles, 39 U.S. 14 Pet. 322.
6. Van Voorhis v. Budd, 39 Barb. 479, 1863.
7. e.g., Leone et al. v. Commissioner Indiana BMV, No.49S02-0910-505, 2010.