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Charter Document: Examples and Definition

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, we are going to explore charter documents and see what they are, how they have been used, and what role they've played in history. We'll also look at some real examples of different kinds of charters.

Charters

Do you ever wonder where an institution comes from? Well, just like anything else, it has to be created, but how? In the United States, and in many other parts of the world, we rely on a charter, a document outlining the rights, responsibilities, structure, and purpose of an institution being created. You can think of the charter sort of like a contract between some sovereign power, like a king or state government, and the institution itself. The institution presents its structure and purpose, and the power grants it certain rights that cannot be legally violated. It's an important part of our modern world, which as you may have noticed, is chock full of institutions. They all had to come from somewhere.

The Charter in History

Charters are not a new concept, but neither are they timelessly old. The charter as we know it really traces its roots back to the Magna Carta, which literally means the Great Charter. This document was signed in the year 1215 by King John of England. The actual authors of the document remain unknown to this day. In it, he guaranteed certain rights to his barons and recognized a royal council which had to approve new taxes. Not only would this council eventually turn into the English Parliament, but the Magna Carta became the de facto standard for establishing the rights, privileges, and responsibilities of specific groups within English society.

King John signs the Magna Carta
Magna Carta

Colonial Charters

The charter would end up having some pretty dramatic implications in American history. As the English began settling North America, they did so by establishing formal geopolitical units called colonies. Each colony was its own little state, and guess how it was created. With a charter. The English king would issue charters to those wishing to create a colony. This charter recognized the existence of the colony, and laid out their legal rights. There were multiple ways a charter could be granted.

A proprietary charter was issued to a single person, the proprietor, who was in charge of the colony. For example, King Charles II issued a proprietary charter to the Duke of York, who established the colony of New York, and one to William Penn, who established the colony of Pennsylvania. The charter met the individual needs of each proprietor; for example, Penn's charter allowed for the creation of a Quaker colony practicing a level of religious tolerance not found in England.

Not all colonial charters were given to individuals, however. Some were given to companies. The colony of Virginia was established via a royal charter granted to the Virginia Company of London, a joint-stock company whose sole purpose was to set up the colony and make lots of money for their shareholders. These charters established the rights of the company, and guaranteed that the crown would not interfere in their businesses beyond a certain point.

The seal of the Virginia Company was a symbol showing that they had a royal charter
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Other Kinds of Charters

The charter met the individual needs of each proprietor; for example, Penn's charter allowed for the creation of a Quaker colony practicing a level of religious tolerance not found in England.

Not all colonial charters were given to individuals, however. Some were given to companies. The colony of Virginia was established via a royal charter granted to the Virginia Company of London, a joint-stock company whose sole purpose was to set up the colony and make lots of money for their shareholders.This was not a unique situation. Many institutions that required more than one person to operate were created by a charter, including schools of higher education.

What makes Dartmouth unique is that its charter was actually challenged by New Hampshire several years later. In 1816, 40 years after America had declared its independence, the state tried to change the school's charter. The trustees sued the state government, and the lawsuit went to the Supreme Court in the 1819 case of Dartmouth College v. Woodward. The Supreme Court ruled that the state government could not impair a charter, because charters were a form of contract. In the United States Constitution, states are expressly forbidden from impairing contracts.

Dartmouth was founded with a royal charter, which the Supreme Court upheld as a legal contract
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