Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward (1819) stands out not only because it was the U.S. Supreme Court’s first case dealing with a dispute involving education but also because it provided constitutional protections for private contracts, albeit in an educational context. At issue in Dartmouth was the validity of private contracts after the New Hampshire legislature sought to overturn agreements that the college’s trustees had entered. As a result of Dartmouth, private colleges were allowed to have self-governance and maintenance without interference from state legislatures and other public entities. This entry reviews the background, the facts, and the Court’s rationale in this seminal case.
By way of background to Dartmouth, it is worth noting that previously, in Fletcher v. Peck (1810), the Supreme Court reviewed the legality of contracts for the exchange of land in Georgia. Here, writing for the Court, Chief Justice Marshall pointed out that Georgia was not a single unconnected power but was a member of the American union that was bound by the federal Constitution. Marshall observed that a state law annulling the sale of public lands due to fraudulent acts, although deplorable, violated the sanctity of contracts. This judgment indicates that states are subject to the federal Constitution, which includes the provision forbidding the states from enacting laws impairing the obligation of contracts, and it serves as a necessary backdrop for Dartmouth.
Facts of the Case
The Board of Trustees of Dartmouth College received a corporate charter from England in 1769. Earlier, the Reverend Eleazar Wheelock had founded a charity school in 1754 for “civilizing and spreading the Christian knowledge to children of pagans.” Wheelock, who sought private funds in England and New Hampshire to maintain and expand the school, received a charter from the English King George in 1769 for the education of youth including American Indians, English children, and others desirous of receiving an education. The charter granted the trustees of Dartmouth College corporate governance rights in perpetuity. The original Dartmouth trustees had contributed private funds for the college’s founding and maintenance and had intended that the funds be used to spread “knowledge of the only true God and Savior among the American savages.” Dartmouth was named after one of its English benefactors, the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth.
A dispute arose in 1816 when senior trustees disagreed with those seeking to expand the body’s membership from 12 to 21 in order to grant control over the college to the New Hampshire state legislature, which had passed a law changing the charter from private to state control. After the Superior Court of New Hampshire ruled that control of Dartmouth was the province of the state, Wheelock and the original founders sought further review from the U.S. Supreme Court, where Daniel Webster argued the case successfully on behalf of the trustees. Webster, an alumnus, spoke of Dartmouth as a small college, emphasizing that yet there were those who loved the school.
The Supreme Court’s Ruling
In a majority opinion written by Chief Justice John Marshall, the Supreme Court reversed in favor of the college. In so doing, the Court upheld the sanctity of private contracts even though the original charter was between King George and the trustees, and the United States was independent of England. The Court ruled that Article 1, Section 10 of the United States Constitution prevented states from encroaching on a private contract in its assertion that “No state shall . . . pass any . . . Law impairing the Obligation of Contracts [sic]. . . .”
In striking down the judgment of the New Hampshire court as unconstitutional, Chief Justice Marshall addressed how delicate such decisions are for the Supreme Court when reviewing cases between citizens of different states, between states and their citizens, or between two states. The Court reasoned that the issue at bar was not limited to a single college but included every college and educational institution in the country. To this end, the Court explained that all private institutions have a common principle in their existence, namely the inviolability of their charters. As such, the Court maintained that it would have been dangerous to allow these institutions be subject to the rise and fall of popular parties and the fluctuations of public opinion. The Court was of the opinion that because the college was created and maintained by private donations, its benefactors need assurances that their contributions were honored for the purposes intended. Consequently, the Court concluded that although a corporation is an artificial being, invisible, intangible, and existing only in the law, Dartmouth’s charter provided for perpetuation of its educational mission.
It is important to acknowledge the role of Chief Justice John Marshall, author of the opinion in Dartmouth, because it is an important illustration in an educational context of his leadership role in strengthening the Supreme Court by making it a coequal partner with the executive and legislative branches of the government. Although Marshall had only one month of formal legal studies before he was admitted to the bar, he proved to be an effective chief justice who served for 34 years while authoring 574 opinions. Thus, Dartmouth is significant because it set an important precedent for the existence and perpetuity of private colleges and universities in America.
In sum, Dartmouth still serves as useful precedent for cases dealing with state interference with private schools, including the Supreme Court’s 1925 decision in Pierce v. Society of Sisters that, in upholding the rights of parents to satisfy compulsory attendance laws by sending their children to religiously affiliated nonpublic K–12 schools, essentially upheld the right of these schools to continue operating. Dartmouth is important, then, because it stimulated the growth of private educational institutions at all levels while providing protection for private corporations including colleges and universities.
James J. Van Patten
See also boards of trustees; Federalism
Friedman, L. M. (2005). A history of American law. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Knight, E. (1951). Education in the United States. New York: Ginn.
Rehnquist, W. H. (1987). The Supreme Court. New York: Vintage Books.
Fletcher v. Peck, 10 U.S. 87 (1810).
Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 355 (1925).
Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward, 17 U.S. 518 (1819).