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.
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).
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