Dartmouth College v. Woodward

Dartmouth College v. Woodward
Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Supreme Court of the United States
Decided February 2, 1819
Full case name Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward 1819
Citations 17 U.S. 518 (more)
4 L. Ed. 629
Prior history ERROR to the Superior Court of the State of New Hampshire
The charter granted by the British crown to the trustees of Dartmouth College, in New-Hampshire, in the year 1769, is a contract within the meaning of that clause of the constitution of the United States, (art. 1. s. 10.) which declares that no State shall make any law impairing the obligation of contracts. The charter was not dissolved by the revolution.
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Marshall
Concurrence Washington
Concurrence Story
Concurrence Franklin (for reasons stated by Marshall)
Concurrence Livingston (for reasons stated by Marshall, Washington, Story)
Dissent Duvall
Todd took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.
Laws applied
U.S. Const. Art. 1, Sec. 10

Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward, 17 U.S. (4 Wheat.) 518 (1819), was a landmark United States Supreme Court case dealing with the application of the Contract Clause of the United States Constitution to private corporations. The case arose when the president of Dartmouth College was deposed by its trustees, leading to the New Hampshire legislature attempting to force the college to become a public institution and thereby place the ability to appoint trustees in the hands of the governor. The Supreme Court upheld the sanctity of the original charter of the college, which pre-dated the creation of the State. The decision settled the nature of public versus private charters and resulted in the rise of the American business corporation.[1]



In 1769 King George III of England granted a charter to Dartmouth College. This document spelled out the purpose of the school, set up the structure to govern it, and gave land to the college.

In 1815, over thirty years after the conclusion of the American Revolution, the legislature of New Hampshire attempted to alter Dartmouth's charter in order to reinstate the College's deposed president, placing the ability to appoint positions in the hands of the governor, adding new members to the board of trustees, and creating a state board of visitors with veto power over trustee decisions. This effectively converted the school from a private to a public institution. The College's book of records, corporate seal, and other corporate property were removed. The trustees of the College objected and sought to have the actions of the legislature declared unconstitutional.

The trustees retained Dartmouth alumnus Daniel Webster, a New Hampshire native who would later become a U.S. Senator for Massachusetts and Secretary of State under President Millard Fillmore. Webster argued the college's case against William H. Woodward, the state-approved secretary of the new board of trustees. Webster's speech in support of Dartmouth (which he described as "a small college," adding, "and yet there are those who love it") was so moving that it apparently helped convince Chief Justice John Marshall, also reportedly bringing tears to Webster's eyes.


The decision, handed down on February 2, 1819, ruled in favor of the College and invalidated the act of the New Hampshire Legislature, which in turn allowed Dartmouth to continue as a private institution and take back its buildings, seal, and charter. The majority opinion of the court was written by John Marshall. The opinion reaffirmed Marshall's belief in the sanctity of a contract (also seen in Fletcher v. Peck) as necessary to the functioning of a republic (in the absence of royal rule, contracts rule).

The Court ruled that the College's corporate charter qualified as a contract between private parties, the King and the trustees, with which the legislature could not interfere. Even though the United States are no longer royal colonies, the contract is still valid because the Constitution says that a state cannot pass laws to impair a contract. The fact that the government had commissioned the charter did not transform the school into a civil institution. Chief Justice Marshall's opinion emphasized that the term "contract" referred to transactions involving individual property rights, not to "the political relations between the government and its citizens.[2]

The decision was not without precedent. Earlier the Court had invalidated a state act in Fletcher v. Peck, 10 U.S. 87 (1810), concluding that contracts, no matter how they were procured (in the case of Fletcher v. Peck, a land contract had been illegally obtained), cannot be invalidated by state legislation. Thus, the court, though working in an early era, was treading on Dartmouth. Fletcher was not a popular decision at the time, and a public outcry ensued. Thomas Jefferson's earlier commiseration with New Hampshire Governor William Plumer stated essentially that the earth belongs to the living. Popular opinion influenced some state courts and legislatures to declare that state governments had an absolute right to amend or repeal a corporate charter. The courts, however, have imposed limitations to this.

After the Dartmouth decision, many states wanted more control so they passed laws or constitutional amendments giving themselves the general right to alter or revoke at will, which the courts found to be a valid reservation.[3][4] The courts have established, however, that the alteration or revocation of private charters or laws authorizing private charters must be reasonable and cannot cause harm to the members (founders, stockholders, and the like) .[5][6][7]

The traditional view holds that this case is one of the most important Supreme Court rulings, strengthening the Contract Clause and limiting the power of the States to interfere with private charters, including those of commercial enterprises.

See also


  1. ^ Newmyer, R. K. (2001). John Marshall and heroic age of the Supreme Court. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. ISBN 0807127019. 
  2. ^ The Oyez Project, "Dartmouth College v. Woodward", 17 U.S. 518 (1819)]
  3. ^ Miller v. State, 82 U.S. 478, 21 L. Ed. 98 (1872)
  4. ^ Pennsylvania College Cases, 80 U.S. 190, 20 L. Ed. 550 (1871)
  5. ^ Terrett v. Taylor (1815)
  6. ^ Shields v. Ohio, 95 U.S. 319, 24 L. Ed. 357 (1877)
  7. ^ Greenwood v. Freight Company, 105 U.S. 13, 26 L. Ed. 961 (1881)

External links

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