Dartmouth College v. Woodward: Summary & Overview

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  • 0:03 ''Dartmouth College v.…
  • 0:48 The Case Background
  • 1:35 The Case Lawsuit
  • 2:07 The Case Decision
  • 2:59 The Case Impact
  • 4:36 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

Many landmark Supreme Court cases impacted American history, but some influenced the nation in unexpected ways. In this lesson, we'll look at the case of Dartmouth College v. Woodward and see what impact this case had on the United States.

Dartmouth College v. Woodward

Contracts are important. They are legally-binding documents which are so powerful they can either grant you rights not specifically listed in the Constitution, or take them away. That's why it's so important to read them carefully. It is also important to note that contracts come in various forms. This became an issue in the 1819 Supreme Court case involving contracts of Dartmouth College v. Woodward. At the time, the American people were still figuring out exactly which powers were held by the state versus federal governments. They were also attempting to determine how governments relate to institutions that were older than their still-young nation. With Dartmouth College v. Woodward, the country was about to get some answers.

The Case Background

Dartmouth College is one of America's oldest institutions of higher education, created by a charter from King George III of England in 1769. A charter is a type of contract, outlining the rights and responsibilities of the institution being created. This charter established Dartmouth College, outlined its purpose and structure, and established that it was to be a private, not public, school of higher education.

Fast-forward a few years. The American colonies had fought the Revolutionary War, won, and set about building their new nation. In 1816, the state government of New Hampshire decided that Dartmouth should be a public school and rewrote the school's charter. The new charter also changed how the trustees of the school were selected and what their powers entailed.

The Case Lawsuit

The trustees who were in charge of Dartmouth in 1816 were enraged by the changes to the charter made by the state government. They claimed that New Hampshire was overstepping its legal authority by interfering with the contract of a private institution. So, the former trustees got a lawyer, the famous New Hampshire statesman Daniel Webster, and filed a lawsuit against William Woodward, the state-appointed secretary of the board of Dartmouth under the new charter. Dartmouth College v. Woodward made it to the Supreme Court in 1819.

The Case Decision

The Supreme Court, then under Chief Justice John Marshall, heard all of the arguments, and in the end, ruled 5-1 in favor of the former trustees. The new charter was invalid. But why? According to Article 1, Section 10 of the United States Constitution, state governments may not impair, weaken, or cancel a contract. This is sometimes referred to as the contract clause of the Constitution, for obvious reasons. Since the charter that established Dartmouth was a contract, the state of New Hampshire could not revise it. It didn't matter that the contract was made while New Hampshire was still a colony of England. It didn't matter that Dartmouth was established before the Constitution was written, and it didn't matter that the English king had created the contract. The charter was representative of a valid contract, and therefore, the state could not cancel it.

The Case Impact

The ruling of Dartmouth v. Woodward had several implications. For one, it obviously meant that the new charter was invalid, and that the state government of New Hampshire could not force Dartmouth to become a public college. Incidentally, Dartmouth is still a private institution to this day.

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