Home >> Encyclopedia Americana, Volume 8 >> Dance Of Death to Dean >> Dartmouth College Case_P1

Dartmouth College Case

trustees, decision, charter, constitution, court, contract and act

Page: 1 2

DARTMOUTH COLLEGE CASE, The. The Dartmouth College Case is the name by which is commonly known the action entitled Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward, which is repeated in volume four of Wheaton's 'United States Supreme Court Reports.' Per haps no decision ever rendered in any tribunal has attracted more attention or exerted a greater influence over the legislative and judi cial history of our land than has the decision in this case, which arose as follows: In the year 1769 the Rev. Eleazar Whee lock, aided financially and politically by friends in England and America, conspicuous among whom was the Earl of Dartmouth, and with the assistance of the Province of New Hampshire, given in the form of extensive land grants, founded Dartmouth College under a charter from King George III of England. This charter vested the control of the institu tion in a board of trustees, who were designated by Mr. Wheelock to manage the same, and under the management of those trustees so in corporated and their successors the college grew and prospered until the year 1816, when the State legislature passed an act amending its charter by which they curtailed the power of its trustees, changed its name to Dartmouth Uni versity and made it a State institution subject to State control. For protection against this infringement of their powers, the trustees had recourse to the courts in the now famous case above named.

In the State tribunals the decision went against the college trustees and an appeal was taken to the Supreme Court of the United States, the appeal being based upon the theory that the charter granting the control of the college to the trustees was a contract, that un der Section X of Article 1 of the Federal Con stitution no State can pass an act impairing the obligation of any contract, and that the said act of the New Hampshire legislature violated the contract of the charter of Dartmouth College.

It should be remembered that in 1819 when the case came up for final hearing, the popular views of the scope and effect of the National Constitution were far from harmonious. All then regarded that instrument as the greatest existing governmental compact, but the Repub lican party then in power demanded that it be so strictly construed as to preserve unimpaired the rights and powers of the individual States.

On the other hand, there then. presided over the Federal Bench, in the person of John Marshall, one of the "midnight appointees" of John the last President of that Federal ist party which demanded so liberal a construc tion of the instrument as to give the country a strong national government. Of the section of the Constitution invoked, we may safely say with Ordronaux that °Drafted at a time when commerce was in its infancy; when public credit was depreciated to the lowest ebb; and confi dence in monetary transactions almost de strolled, it was manifestly introduced as a barrier against the tide of repudiation which threatened to overwhelm both public and pri vate credit.° The framers of the Constitution never intended that clause to be given the in terpretation urged in this case. But the case was up before a court presided over by the jurist who has been truthfully said to have °found the Constitution a skeleton and clothed it with flesh and blood.° Therefore, when it was clearly shown, as it was in the celebrated argument of Daniel Webster for the college trustees, that this case came fairly within the provisions of that section, in principle, the court, guided by John Marshall, held that the act of the New Hampshire legislature was void be cause it impaired the obligation of a contract. Justice Duvall alone dissented.

This decision has perhaps been more severely criticized and has perhaps given rise to more strenuous efforts to escape its consequences than has any other decision of the tribunal which rendered it, and the reasons are obvious. While it gave assurance that capital invested in char tered business and charitable ventures would be forever protected from legislative interference, it also invited political corruption by saying in effect to promoters of corporations that the courts would protect them in the possession of every concession or right which they beguiled from pliant legislative bodies. It made possible the mechanical and industrial achievements of the 19th century in this country, but it also made profitable the limitless corruption which has at tended those achievements and which has fre quently, by virtue of this decision, stripped the government of very important powers.

Page: 1 2