Daniel Webster & the Dartmouth College Case

United States - Scott #1380 (1969)
United States – Scott #1380 (1969)

Daniel Webster was born on January 18, 1782, in Salisbury, New Hampshire, at a location within the present-day city of Franklin. He was the son of Abigail (née Eastman) and Ebenezer Webster, a farmer and local official who served in the French and Indian War and the American Revolutionary War. Ebenezer’s ancestor, the Scottish-born Thomas Webster, had migrated to the United States around 1636. Webster was an American statesman who represented New Hampshire and Massachusetts in the United States Congress and served as the United States Secretary of State under Presidents William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, and Millard Fillmore. He was also a prominent attorney, especially during the period of the Marshall Court. Throughout his career, he was a member of the Federalist Party, the National Republican Party, and the Whig Party.

Webster established a successful legal practice in Portsmouth, New Hampshire after undergoing a legal apprenticeship. He emerged as a prominent opponent of the War of 1812 and won election to the United States House of Representatives, where he served as a leader of the Federalist Party. Webster left office after two terms and relocated to Boston, Massachusetts. He became a leading attorney before the Supreme Court of the United States, winning cases such as Dartmouth College v. Woodward, McCulloch v. Maryland, and Gibbons v. Ogden. Webster returned to the House in 1823 and became a key supporter of President John Quincy Adams. He won election to the United States Senate in 1827 and worked with Henry Clay to build the National Republican Party in support of Adams.

Francis Alexander painting of Daniel Webster, 1834, which was commissioned in honor of his Dartmouth College vs. Woodward defense.
Francis Alexander painting of Daniel Webster, 1834, which was commissioned in honor of his Dartmouth College vs. Woodward defense.

After Andrew Jackson defeated Adams in the 1828 presidential election, Webster became a leading opponent of Jackson’s domestic policies. He strongly objected to the theory of Nullification espoused by John C. Calhoun, and his Second Reply to Hayne speech is widely regarded as one of the greatest speeches ever delivered in Congress. Webster supported Jackson’s defiant response to the Nullification Crisis, but broke with the president due to disagreements over the Second Bank of the United States. Webster joined with other Jackson opponents in forming the Whig Party, and unsuccessfully ran in the 1836 presidential election. He supported Harrison in the 1840 presidential election and was appointed secretary of state after Harrison took office. Unlike the other members of Harrison’s Cabinet, he continued to serve under President Tyler after Tyler broke with congressional Whigs. As secretary of state, Webster negotiated the Webster–Ashburton Treaty, which settled border disputes with Britain.

Webster returned to the Senate in 1845 and resumed his status as a leading congressional Whig. During the Mexican–American War, he emerged as a leader of the “Cotton Whigs,” a faction of Northern Whigs that emphasized good relations with the South over anti-slavery policies. In 1850, President Fillmore appointed Webster as secretary of state, and Webster contributed to the passage of the Compromise of 1850, which settled several territorial issues and enacted a new fugitive slave law. The Compromise proved unpopular in much of the North and undermined Webster’s standing in his home state. Webster sought the Whig nomination in the 1852 presidential election, but a split between supporters of Fillmore and Webster led to the nomination of General Winfield Scott.

By early 1852, Webster had begun to suffer from cirrhosis of the liver, and his poor health increasingly made it difficult for him to serve as secretary of state. In September 1852, Webster returned to his Marshfield estate, where his health continued to decline due to cirrhosis and a subdural hematoma. He died at Marshfield on October 24, 1852. His last words were: “I still live.”

Daniel Webster monument in Central Park, New York City. Photo taken on May 5, 2015.
Daniel Webster monument in Central Park, New York City. Photo taken on May 5, 2015.

Webster is widely regarded as an important and talented attorney, orator, and politician, but historians and observers have offered mixed opinions on his moral qualities and ability as a national leader. Remini writes that “whether men hated or admired [Webster], all agreed … on the majesty of his oratory, the immensity of his intellectual powers, and the primacy of his constitutional knowledge.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson, who had criticized Webster following the Seventh of March address, remarked in the immediate aftermath of his death that Webster was “the completest man”, and that “nature had not in our days or not since Napoleon, cut out such a masterpiece.” In Profiles in Courage, John F. Kennedy called Webster’s defense of the Compromise of 1850, despite the risk to his presidential ambitions and the denunciations he faced from the north, one of the “greatest acts of courageous principle” in the history of the Senate. Conversely, Seventh of March has been criticized by Lodge who contrasted the speech’s support of the 1850 compromise with his 1833 rejection of similar measures. “While he was brave and true and wise in 1833,” said Lodge, “in 1850 he was not only inconsistent, but that he erred deeply in policy and statesmanship” in his advocacy of a policy that “made war inevitable by encouraging slave-holders to believe that they could always obtain anything they wanted by a sufficient show of violence.”

Webster retains his high prestige in recent historiography. Baxter argues that his nationalistic view of the union as one and inseparable from liberty helped the union to triumph over the states-rights Confederacy, making it his greatest contribution. In 1959, the Senate named Webster, Clay, Calhoun, Robert M. La Follette, and Robert A. Taft as the five greatest senators in history. However Bartlett, emphasizing Webster’s private life, says his great oratorical achievements were in part undercut by his improvidence with money, his excessively opulent lifestyle, and his numerous conflict of interest situations. Remini points out that Webster’s historical orations taught Americans their history before textbooks were widely available.

While evaluations on his political career vary, Webster is widely praised for his talent as an orator and attorney. Former Solicitor General Seth P. Waxman writes that “in the realm of advocacy, Webster doesn’t merely sit in the Pantheon: He is Zeus himself.” Kennedy praised Webster’s “ability to make alive and supreme the latent sense of oneness, of union, that all Americans felt but few could express.” Webster’s “Reply to Hayne” in 1830 was generally regarded as “the most eloquent speech ever delivered in Congress,” and was a stock exercise for oratory students for 75 years. Schlesinger, however, notes that he is also an example of the limitations of formal oratory: Congress heard Webster or Clay with admiration, but they rarely prevailed at the vote. Plainer speech and party solidarity were more effective, and Webster never approached Jackson’s popular appeal.

United States - Scott #725 (1932) first day cover postmarked in Franklin, New Hampshire
United States – Scott #725 (1932) first day cover postmarked in Franklin, New Hampshire

Daniel Webster has been honored on 14 different US postage issues, more than most U.S. Presidents. His first appearance on a U.S. postage stamp was in 1870 on the 15-cent value in the definitive series produced by the National Bank Note Company (Scott #141). The same design also appeared on Scott #152 (National Bank Note Company, 1870-1871), Scott #163 (Continental Bank Note Company, 1873), and Scott #189 (American Bank Note Company, 1879), all denominated at 15 cents in yellow orange or similar shades. A smaller sized definitive series stamp portraying Daniel Webster appeared in 1890 on the 10-cent denomination in green (Scott #226) which was reissued in 1894 (Scott #258) and 1895 (Scott #273) in dark green 1898 in brown (Type I, Scott #282C) and orange brown (Scott #283). Daniel Webster was also on the 10-cent stamp in the 1902-1903 definitive series in pale red brown (Scott #307) and saw his first commemorative stamp with Scott #725, a 3-cent stamp released on October 24, 1932, with three New Hampshire cities — Exter, Franklin and Hanover — permitted to sell the stamp on that date.

The 6-cent stamp commemorating the monumental legal decision called the “Dartmouth College Case,” which Daniel Webster won before the Supreme Court 150 years earlier, was first placed on sale at Hanover, New Hampshire, on September 22, 1969 (Scott #1380)  The case was a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision dealing with the government’s right to apply the Contract Clause to private corporations and settled the nature of public versus private charters, resulting in the rise of American business corporations. The green vertical stamp depicted Daniel Webster with Dartmouth Hall in the background. John R. Scotford, Jr., assistant director of Dartmouth’s Hopkins Center for the Creative and Performing Arts, designed it. The stamp was printed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing on the rotary press in panes of fifty, perforated 10½ x 11, with a printing of 129,540,000.

United States - Scott #1380 (1969) first day cover
United States – Scott #1380 (1969) first day cover

Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward, 17 U.S. (4 Wheat.) 518 (1819), was a landmark decision in United States corporate law from the United States Supreme Court dealing with the application of the Contracts Clause of the United States Constitution to private corporations. The case arose when the president of Dartmouth College was deposed by its trustees, leading to the New Hampshire legislature attempting to force the college to become a public institution and thereby place the ability to appoint trustees in the hands of the governor of New Hampshire. The Supreme Court upheld the sanctity of the original charter of the college, which pre-dated the creation of the State. The decision settled the nature of public versus private charters and resulted in the rise of the American business corporation and the American free enterprise system.

In 1769, King George III of Great Britain had 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 college. 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 of the College objected and sought to have the actions of the legislature declared unconstitutional.

Daniel Webster
Daniel Webster

The trustees retained Dartmouth alumnus Daniel Webster, a New Hampshire native who would later become a U.S. Senator for Massachusetts and Secretary of State under President Millard Fillmore. Webster argued the college’s case against William H. Woodward, the state-approved secretary of the new board of trustees. Webster’s speech in support of Dartmouth (which he described as “a small college,” adding, “and yet there are those who love it”) was so moving that it apparently helped convince Chief Justice John Marshall.

The decision, handed down on February 2, 1819, ruled in favor of the College and invalidated the act of the New Hampshire Legislature, which in turn allowed Dartmouth to continue as a private institution and take back its buildings, seal, and charter. The majority opinion of the court was written by John Marshall. The opinion reaffirmed Marshall’s belief in the sanctity of a contract (also seen in Fletcher v. Peck) as necessary to the functioning of a republic (in the absence of royal rule, contracts rule).

The Court ruled that the College’s corporate charter qualified as a contract between private parties, the King and the trustees, with which the legislature could not interfere. Even though the United States were no longer royal colonies, the contract was still valid because the Constitution said that a state could not pass laws to impair a contract. The fact that the government had commissioned the charter did not transform the school into a civil institution. Chief Justice Marshall’s opinion emphasized that the term “contract” referred to transactions involving individual property rights, not to “the political relations between the government and its citizens.”

Webster Hall, at Dartmouth College, houses the Rauner Special Collections Library, which holds some of Webster's personal belongings and writings, including his beaver fur top hat and silk socks. Photo taken on May 2, 2007.
Webster Hall, at Dartmouth College, houses the Rauner Special Collections Library, which holds some of Webster’s personal belongings and writings, including his beaver fur top hat and silk socks. Photo taken on May 2, 2007.

The decision was not without precedent. Earlier the Court had invalidated a state act in Fletcher v. Peck, concluding that contracts, no matter how they were procured (in the case of Fletcher v. Peck, a land contract had been illegally obtained), cannot be invalidated by state legislation. Thus, the court, though working in an early era, was treading on Dartmouth. Fletcher was not a popular decision at the time, and a public outcry ensued. Thomas Jefferson’s earlier commiseration with New Hampshire Governor William Plumer stated essentially that the earth belongs to the living. Popular opinion influenced some state courts and legislatures to declare that state governments had an absolute right to amend or repeal a corporate charter. The courts, however, have imposed limitations to this.

After the Dartmouth decision, many states wanted more control so they passed laws or constitutional amendments giving themselves the general right to alter or revoke at will, which the courts found to be a valid reservation. The courts have established, however, that the alteration or revocation of private charters or laws authorizing private charters must be reasonable and cannot cause harm to the members (founders, stockholders, and the like).

The traditional view holds that this case is one of the most important Supreme Court rulings, strengthening the Contracts Clause and limiting the power of the States to interfere with private charters, including those of commercial enterprises.

Great Star Flag (20 stars), 1818-1819
Coat of arms of Daniel Webster
Coat of arms of Daniel Webster

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