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The New International Encyclopædia/Dartmouth College Case

For works with similar titles, see Dartmouth College.

DARTMOUTH COLLEGE CASE. One of the most important cases in constitutional law ever decided by the United States Supreme Court. The charter of Dartmouth College was granted by the British Crown in 1769, incorporating twelve persons by the name of the Trustees of Dartmouth College, and giving them full power to govern the college and to fill all vacancies in their body. In 1816 the Legislature of New Hampshire passed an act amending the original charter, providing for the appointment of eleven new trustees by the Governor of the State, and for a board of overseers to inspect and control the conduct of the trustees. The old trustees refused to accept the amended charter, and brought suit against the officers of the new board who had obtained possession of the college property. The Supreme Court of New Hampshire upheld the constitutionality of the statute, and the case was then taken on writ of error to the Supreme Court of the United States. For the plaintiffs the main argument was made by Daniel Webster (q.v.), and for the defendants by William Wirt (q.v.), Attorney-General of the United States. In its decision, handed down in 1819, and in which all but one of the justices concurred, the court held, through Chief Justice Marshall, that the acts of the New Hampshire Legislature in question were unconstitutional and void. The college was declared to be a private and not a public corporation; the charter of such a corporation was declared to be a contract between the Crown (to whose obligations the State of New Hampshire had succeeded) and the corporators and their successors, and the State statute which attempted to change the charter without the consent of the corporation was held to be within the prohibition of the Federal Constitution, that “no State shall . . . pass any . . . law impairing the obligation of contracts.” The consequences of this decision have been very far-reaching, both in securing the inviolability of private trusts, and in limiting State sovereignty and extending, through the Federal courts, the authority of the Federal Constitution. The principles of the decision have been applied frequently both by Federal and State courts. The case is reported in 1 New Hampshire Reports, 111., and 4 Wheaton (United States) Reports, 518. For favorable comments on the decision, consult: Kent, Commentaries on American Law, vol. i. (Boston, 1884), Lect. xix.; Story, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, vol. ii. (Boston, 1891): Pomeroy, Introduction to the Constitutional Law of the United States (9th ed., Boston, 1886); Maine, Popular Government (London, 1885). For a searching criticism of the case, consult Shirley, The Dartmouth College Causes (Saint Louis, 1879).