Trustees of Dartmouth Coll. v. Woodward, 17 U.S. 4 Wheat. 518 518 (1819)
In 1769 King George III of Great Britain 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
In 1816, 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 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. The trustees of the College objected and sought to have the actions of the legislature
declared unconstitutional.
WON the plaintiffs lost their franchises by due course and process of law?
The court ruled in favor of the trustees.
The fifteenth article declares that no one shall be 'deprived of his property, immunities or
privileges, but by the judgment of his peers, or the law of the land.' Notwithstanding the light in
which the learned judges in New Hampshire viewed the rights of the plaintiffs under the charter,
and which has been before adverted to, it is found to be admitted, in their opinion, that those
rights are privileges, within the meaning of this fifteenth article of the bill of rights. Having
quoted that article, they say, 'that the right to manage the affairs of this college is a privilege,
within the meaning of this clause of the bill of rights, is not to be doubted.'
By the law of the land, is most clearly intended, the general law; a law, which hears before it
condemns; which proceeds upon inquiry, and renders judgment only after trial. The meaning is,
that every citizen shall hold his life, liberty, property and immunities, under the protection of the
general rules which govern society. Everything which may pass under the form of an enactment,
is not, therefore, to be considered the law of the land. If this were so, acts of attainder, bills of
pains and penalties, acts of confiscation, acts reversing judgments, and acts directly transferring

one man's estate to another, legislative judgments, decrees and forfeitures, in all possible forms,
would be the law of the land. Such a strange construction would render constitutional provisions,
of the highest importance, completely inoperative and void. It would tend directly to establish the
union of all powers in the legislature. There would be no general permanent law for courts to
administer, or for men to live under. The administration of justice would be an empty form, an
idle ceremony. Lord HOLT says, 'it is agreeable to reason and the rules of law, that a franchise
should be vested in the corporation aggregate, and yet the benefit of it to redound to the
particular members, and to be enjoyed by them in their private capacity. Where the privilege of
election is used by particular persons, it is a particular right, vested in every particular man.’
If the view which has been taken of this question be at all correct, this was an eleemosynary
corporation-a private charity. The property was private property. The trustees were visitors, and
their right to hold the charter, administer the funds, and visit and govern the college, was a
franchise and privilege, solemnly granted to them. The use being public, in no way diminishes
their legal estate in the property, or their title to the franchise. There is no principle, nor any case,
which declares that a gift to such a corporation is a gift to the public. The acts in question violate
property; they take away privileges, immunities and franchises; they deny to the trustees the
protection of the law; and they are retrospective in their operation. In all which respects, they are
against the constitution of New Hampshire.