English Common Law

The Social Security Administration’s 2011 definition of legal name explicitly excluding a middle name appears to be based on an American legal tradition interpreting an English common law maxim concerning “one christian name” to mean a person can have only one forename recognizable by law. But as Arthur Walker Blakemore noted in the 1914 Modern American Law (5:625), “there is no real authority for this view.”

What is a christian name?

The British philologist Ernest Weekly noted that use of the term christian name seems to be unique to English; in all other languages the equivalent term is baptismal name—the name given a person at baptism. Weekly thought it likely that christian name is a corruption of the obsolete christening name. In fact, baptismal name is exactly what the term meant in English common law. And because the Christian Church baptizes individuals only once, English courts recognized that a person could have only one christian name, comprised of all the names given at baptism.  As the editor of one English law journal explained: “Christian names, though sounding plural, are in law only one name, thus, John Thomas Henry.” And a writer to another journal explained: “A man can have but one christian or baptismal name, of however many single names or words that baptismal name may be composed”(1).

But in English jurisprudence, the term christian name could refer to the entire combination of baptismal names or to any one of the component parts. What came to be called a middle name in the United States, English courts referred to as  “the second portion of the christian name” or “the other christian name”(2).

Similarly, English jurisprudence used the term first name to refer to either the full christian name or any of its component parts, as distinguished from the surname. A statute enacted by Parliament during the 1830s requiring legal recognition of initials in certain instances refers to “the christian or first name or names”(3), and in Kinnersley v. Knott (1849), counsel argued that the defendant’s “christian name, or first names” should have been stated in full. The notion that a person’s christian name was only the first element of his or her baptismal name, or only the first of several forenames, appears nowhere in English common law.

The premise that the law can recognize only one forename, along with its corollary that the “one name” must be a person’s first, is an American invention, introduced by the New York Supreme Court in 1809. In Franklin v. Talmadge (5 Johns. 84), the court was asked to decide whether the variance in a man’s name in two different legal documents—one with a middle-name initial and one without—was such a variance as to be fatal to the suit. Citing Edward Coke’s seventeenth-century Commentary on Littleton and Robert Raymond’s report on the 1690s case Rex v. Newman to establish 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.

However, neither Coke nor Rex v. Newman restricted the number of given names that could comprise a christian name.

Coke’s Maxim

The passage from Coke discussed how names should appear in deeds and other instruments pertaining to land transactions:

And regularly it is requisite that the purchaser be named by the name of baptism and his surname, and that special heed be taken to the name of baptism; for that a man cannot have two names of baptism as he may have divers surnames. . . . And this doth agree with our ancient books, where it is holden that a man may have divers names at divers times, but not divers christian names.                                                      —Edward Coke, The First Institute of the Laws of England, or a Commentary on Littleton, 1628

Equating the term christian name with name of baptism, Coke stated what was an obvious truth—that while a man could have different surnames and forenames over his lifetime or even simultaneously, it was impossible for him to have different baptismal names because he could be baptized only once. There was only one exception to this maxim. Referring to a practice halted by the Church of England in 1552 whereby a bishop could change a christian name at confirmation, Coke explained that if a man baptized Thomas had subsequently been confirmed as John, then John was his christian name. But there was no civil or ecclesiastical prohibition against the giving of two baptismal names, such as Thomas John or John Thomas. While it was still uncommon in Coke’s day for a person to receive more than one given name, that was a matter of custom and prejudice, not law. The Church had been bestowing multiple baptismal names on Englishmen at least since 1477, and when Coke authored his Commentary, England was ruled by King James I, known by the second of his two baptismal names.

Far from viewing Coke’s maxim as a restriction on the number of forenames a person could bear, English jurisprudence saw it as a mandate to take “special heed” to ensure that a person’s christian name was stated accurately in legal matters. Even before Coke, Chief Justice John Popham had offered the same caution: “The law is not precise in the case of surnames, but for the christian name, this ought always to be perfect” (Britton v. Wrightman, ca. 1600). Consequently, many courts insisted that all baptismal names be stated in legal identification, that they be stated in their proper sequence, and that none be abbreviated or represented by initial letter (4).

Rex. v. Newman

Also cited in Franklin v. Talmadge was the seventeenth-century case Rex. v. Newman, in which the court dismissed an indictment against “Elizabeth Newman alias Judith Hancock” on the ground that a person “cannot have two christian names.” As John Comyns noted in his 1822 Digest of the Laws of England (3:514), this ruling meant simply that a person could not be “described with an alias dictus of the christian name.” At issue was not a multiple baptismal name such as Elizabeth Judith or Judith Elizabeth, which Comyns called “two christian names making one,” but the single baptismal name Elizabeth opposed to the single assumed name Judith. John Frederick Archbold also explained this ruling in his 1822 Pleading and Evidence in Criminal Cases (p. 7): “This must be understood to mean merely . . . that a second christian name cannot be given him after an alias dictus; but it is quite clear that if a man has acquired two names at baptism . . . he may be indicted by both.”

(Archbold explained that only a different surname could be given after an alias dictus, as in “Richard Wilson otherwise called Richard Layer.” But the stricture against aliases for christian names could not withstand the need for accurate identification. It was discredited as early as 1816 when Joseph Chitty said in his Practical Treatise on the Criminal Law (1:203) that while it was true a person could have only one name of baptism, he certainly could be known by two different names, and in that case either was a valid description in a legal proceeding. Much later, the American jurist Joel Prentiss Bishop also showed the fallacy of Rex v. Newman in his 1872 Criminal Procedure (1:415): “The law has always recognized the fact that men may be, and sometimes are, called by different christian names [forenames], and such is exactly what the indictment under an alias dictus alleges.” Thus, in both England and the United States, courts routinely ignored Rex. v. Newman‘s stricture against aliases for forenames.)

Multiple Given Names

Several case reports available to the New York court in 1809 demonstrated that christian names could comprise multiple given names. A 1745 court had ruled that because a man could not have been baptized as both “Henry (alone)” and Henry Vaughn, he could not be sued as “Henry King, otherwise Henry Vaughn King.”  In other words, Henry and Henry Vaughn were two different christian names. A 1793 court had ruled that a man baptized Richard James could not be identified in legal proceedings as James Richard, the “misplacing” of his baptismal names producing a misnomer. In an 1801 case involving a man identified in an arrest warrant as W.G. Coleman, the court rejected the defendant’s objection that he had not been identified by “either of his christian names,” and ruled that in identifying him by “the initials only of his christian name,” the warrant had not stated an incorrect name. And in a rather capricious ruling, an 1802 court refused to dismiss a suit against “Jonathan otherwise John Soans” because the court could not assume that Jonathan otherwise John was not “all one christian name”(5)!

In the years following the 1809 New York ruling, English courts continued to demonstrate that christian names could comprise more than one given name. While some courts continued to insist that all baptismal names be stated precisely, others, stressing that the purpose of law is to determine identity rather than establish names per se, accepted the statement of just one of several baptismal names—whether first or second—as long as it was the name the person used and by which he was known(6).

American Courts

Nevertheless, in 1824, in another case involving a name variance similar to that in Franklin v. Talmadge, the New York Supreme Court again declared that “the law knows of but one christian name,” and ruled the omission of middle-name initials to be of no consequence (7).

While some American courts accepted New York’s interpretation of “one christian name” (See, “The New York Rule”), others followed English precedent. Massachusetts courts held that Thomas Hopkins Perkins could not be indicted as Thomas Perkins, because “the indictment must give the defendant his right christian name.”  Because Charles was a different christian name from Charles Jones, it ruled that enrollment of Charles Hall in the state militia did not obligate Charles Jones Hall to report for duty. Saying that “when a plaintiff has two baptismal names and a mistake is made in the second or middle name, it is a misnomer and a fatal error,” Virginia’s Supreme Court found that a suit instituted by Mary G. Gwatkin could not justify a judgment for Mary S. Gwatkin (8).

Name “Called and Known By”

The common law requirement that a person be described by his or her christian name was based on both the fact that baptismal names were permanent and unchanging, and the assumption that persons used and were known by their baptismal names. But courts knew the assumption was faulty, and as early as the seventeenth century one court ruled that it was not sufficient for a person to plead that he or she was baptized by a certain name without also proving that he or she had been “ever called and known by that name”(9).  “Called and known by,” a phrase found in nearly all English cases involving questions of personal name, became the test for a valid legal description.

Thus in 1800, saying that “all the law requires upon this subject [personal name] is certainty to a common intent,” a court upheld as sufficient identification of a victim of theft the name Victory Baroness Turkheim for a woman baptized Selina Victoire, because she “had always acted in and been known by the appellation Baroness Turkheim and could not possibly be mistaken for any other person” (10).

Courts also applied the “called and known by” test to the only statutory requirement England had for use of a particular name. In an effort to prevent fraudulent marriages, Parliament passed a Marriage Act in 1753 requiring each party to a marriage to state his or her “true christian and surname” in an official notice of intent to marry. The term “true christian and surname” was the only requirement English common law ever had for use of a particular form of name as legal identification. In 1812, a court ruled that when a man had two baptismal names, the one essential to his identification in the banns was that by which he was universally known.  And in 1805, a court ruled that under certain circumstances, “names acquired by general use and habit may be taken by repute as true christian and surname of the parties.” Thus, the forename by which a person was known took precedence over his baptismal name and was deemed essential to his or her legal identification. Again in King v. Inhabitants of Billingshurst and King v. Inhabitants of Burton-on-Trent, courts held that the forename by which a person was known, even though not a name of baptism, met Parliament’s requirement for “true christian name”(11).

As a legal term, christian name broadened to mean the forename by which a person was known, whether given at baptism or not, and was thus applicable to the names of unbaptized Christians and non-Christians as well as to assumed names. The principle reiterated by Coke that a party to legal action should be described by both his christian name and a surname came to reflect its original intent—that a party be identified by both a forename and a surname. And while as a religious principle “one christian name” continued to mean that a person’s baptismal name was fixed and permanent, as a legal maxim it became meaningless because courts recognized that the forename by which a person was known could, indeed, change.

1. Ernest Weekly, Jack and Jill: A Study in Our Christian Names, 1939, p. 1;  The Law Review and Quarterly Journal of British and Foreign Jurisprudence, 9:245, note 1 (1849); Notes and Queries, 7:406 (1853).

2.  Lomax v. Landells, 5 Dowling and Lowndes, 396, 1848; Attorney-general v. Hawkes, 9 Law J. Exch.16, s.c. 1 C& J, 121, s.c. 1 Tyrwh. 3, 1830.

3. Stat. 3&4 William IV, c. 42, s.12; cited in Miller v. Hay, 1848.

4. e.g.,  Arbouin  v. Willoughby, 1 Marshall, 477, 1815; Ogden v. Barker, 1 Dowling 125, 1831; Nash v. Calder, 5 Manning, Granger, and Scott, 177, 1847;  Kinnersley v. Knott, 7 Dowling & Lowndes, 128, 1849.

5. Evans v. King, Willes 554; Jones v. Macquillin, 5 T.R. (Dunford and Hyde) 195; Howell v. Coleman, 2 Bosanquet & Puller, 466; Scott v. Soans, 3 East, 111.

6. Pougett v. Tomkyns, 1 Phillimore 499, 3 Maule & Selwyn, 262n, 1812; Walker v. Willoughby, 2 Marshall, 230, 1816.

7. Roosevelt v. Gardinier, 2 Cowen 463, 1824.

8. Commonwealth v. Perkins, 1 Pick. 388, 1822; Commonwealth v. Hall, 3 Pick. 262, 263,1825;  Ming and Green v. Gwatkin, 6 Rand 551, Va. Rep. 793, 1828.

9. Holman v. Walden, 1 Salk. 6, 1689.

10. King vs. Sulls, 2 Leach, cc 861.

11. Pougett v. Tomkyns, 1 Phillimore 499, 3 Maule & Selwyn, 262n, 1812; (Frankland v. Nicholson, cited in 3 Maule & Selwyn, 258; King v. Inhabitants of Billingshurst, 3 Maule & Selwyn, 250, 1814; King v. Inhabitants of Burton-on-Trent, 3 Maule & Selwyn, 537, 1815.

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