Dartmouth College v. Woodward

How Dartmouth College Commemorated the Bicentennial of the Dartmouth College Case

Editors’ Note: Robert Bonner continues HistPhil’s forum commemorating the 200th anniversary of Dartmouth College v. Woodward with a post on how Dartmouth College marked the occasion.

Students at Dartmouth College launch the calendar year with two extravaganzas: a snowy Winter Carnival followed by a glitzy “Dartmouth Idol” talent competition. In 2019, a different sort of tradition was on display across the Hanover, New Hampshire campus. A course involving thirty-four undergraduates devoted the winter term to Daniel Webster’s defense of his alma mater two hundred years ago. It was a small course. But there were those who loved it.

I served as one of three instructors for the recently concluded class on “Daniel Webster and the Dartmouth College Case” (or more simply “DW and the DCC”). The for-credit offering was the brainchild of English Professor Donald Pease, who set the tone by situating Webster within the tradition of republican oratory and by making him a case-study of Emersonian self-making and unmaking (the latter related to “Black Dan’s” advocacy of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act). Government Professor Russ Muirhead helped students to track the larger principles of law-based rulership, to handle the intricacies of U.S. Supreme Court jurisprudence, and to appreciate Webster’s embodiment of statesmanship before the bar and in the Senate. As the historian on the team, I addressed the political and social (rather than strictly legal) contexts and consequences of Trustees of Dartmouth College v Woodward, focusing on “near-term” legacies up to the eve of the U.S. Civil War.

Our enrollment was capped according to the number of seats available on a Washington-bound bus carrying faculty and students to the Supreme Court of the United States. A late-January late-night trek down I-95 allowed our merry band to witness a gala re-argument of Dartmouth v. Woodward before a panel of four justices, one of whom currently serves as Chief Justice of the United States. Dartmouth alums Greg Garre and Neal Katyal, fixtures of the Supreme Court bar, prepared fresh written briefs for the occasion. Their oral arguments withstood the rapid-fire questioning of a hot bench brimming with queries about contracts, charters, prerogatives, and long-term implications. In a chamber packed with alumni, there were also a few inside (Hanover) jokes. As it did two centuries before, the College held its own against what most audience members perceived as a grasping and hostile New Hampshire state legislature. An outcome favorable to the Trustees likewise marked a Hanover-based repeat of appellate arguments convened in early March.

The imperative towards institutional self-scrutiny was threaded through every aspect of the course. The drawn-out legal battle has inspired more myth-making than careful and prolonged investigation. Marshall’s articulation of Article One, Section 10 has held less purchase for those who “bleed green” than Webster’s famed peroration, delivered a full year before the case was decided. With words that drew tears from Justice Marshall, Webster concluded:

This, Sir, is my case! It is the case not merely of that humble institution, it is the case of every college in our Land! …. You may put it out! But if you do so, you must carry through your work! You must extinguish, one after another, all those great lights of science which for more than a century have thrown their radiance over our land! It is, Sir, as I have said, a small college. And yet there are those who love it!

Dartmouth loyalists have long elevated Webster’s rhetoric of 1818 over Marshall’s legalism of 1819; for them corporate rights and royal charters have been beside the point in an epic “refounding” of Eleazar Wheelock’s 1769 creation. The nasty dispute that pitted son John Wheelock and Jeffersonian legislators against College Trustees ended happily as far as Dartmouth folk are concerned. The salutary outcome was to reject the status of a large-scale public university and to cling to the intimate private liberal arts education that is still part of the institution’s brand. Webster’s words stand out in the legendary emotional attachment of these alums to this institution, with Webster’s peroration setting the standard for how graduates should rally to the College Cause. His appeal concluded thus:

Sir, I know not how others may feel… but for myself, when I see my Alma Mater surrounded, like Cesar in the senate house, by those who are reiterating stab upon stab, I would not for this right hand have her say to me, ‘Et tu quoque, mi fili’!

This oft-played story of a College saved from interlopers by an alum overwhelmed by emotion has its blind spots, which may be especially evident in a forum such as the one convened by HistPhil. Yet Webster’s carefully staged melodrama does draw attention to one vital legacy: the way the case elevated donors over elected officials in shaping U.S. higher education. Long before he reached his peroration, Webster reasoned as follows:

The case before the court is not of ordinary importance, nor of every-day occurrence. It affects not this college only, but every college, and all the literary institutions of the country. They have flourished hitherto, and have become in a high degree respectable and useful to the community.… It will be a dangerous, a most dangerous experiment, to hold these institutions subject to the rise and fall of popular parties, and the fluctuations of political opinions. If the franchise may be at any time taken away, or impaired, the property also may be taken away, or its use perverted. Benefactors will have no certainty of effecting the object of their bounty; and learned men will be deterred from devoting themselves to the service of such institutions, from the precarious title of their offices. Colleges and halls will be deserted by all better spirits, and become a theater for the contentions of politics. Party and faction will be cherished in the places consecrated to piety and learning.

Our “DCC bicentennial” of 2019 was the latest iteration of a commemorative tradition. Rufus Choate’s gauzy on-campus tribute to Webster in 1853, the year after his death, set a laudatory tone echoed by Salmon P. Chase when he presided over the College’s 1869 centennial. Chase, a member of the Class of 1826, was the first sitting U.S. Chief Justice to meld Dartmouth filial piety with Marshall’s landmark decision. Melville Fuller became the second in 1901, when he came to Hanover for the laying of the cornerstone of Webster Hall, a building that William Rehnquist returned to in 1989, as the featured speaker to mark the completion of The Papers of Daniel Webster. In 1969, Earl Warren delivered remarks during a College-sponsored event in Washington while a more intimate gathering was held at the Old Supreme Court in the basement of the Senate in 1994.

Participants in the 2019 celebration were just as illustrious as those in earlier ones, but there was much greater commitment to critical scrutiny this time around. More than a few Dartmouth students wondered whether the New Hampshire legislature had the better case, setting aside the self-assured reverence typifying local collective memory on earlier anniversaries. The open-mindedness resembled the interplay between past and present that has engendered controversy across U.S. elite and ancient colleges. Student-driven discontent has lately prompted Princetonians to rethink Woodrow Wilson, Yalies to ponder John C. Calhoun, and denizens of the Charlottesville “grounds” to make their peace with Mr. Jefferson. In this cultural moment, it is fitting that Webster’s achievements would be set against his less heroic moments. Our attending to his 1850 fall from grace was in keeping with the times.

Two seniors in our class advanced the conversation by pointing out one of the most remarkable silences of the 1819 case. Margaret Cross and Matthew Shearin each explored the way that the 1769 royal charter affirmed how the College might engage in “the education and instruction of youth of the Indian tribes in this land in reading, writing, and all parts of learning which shall appear necessary and expedient for civilizing and christianizing children of pagans.” At the half-century mark, this element of institutional purpose had all but vanished. Why, these students asked, had not opposing counsel made more of the Trustees’ retreat from the intent of the original donors? At our symposium, these students went beyond second-guessing to suggest how Dartmouth students might supplement tributes to Webster with greater attention to Wheelock, his non-English students, and to the College’s recommitment in the 1970s to Native students in contemporary United States.

Students sought to recast the narratives that have developed around the Dartmouth College case by revisiting what Dartmouth’s official school song describes as “the old traditions” of “the college on the Hill.” Time will tell what impact this winter course will have on campus—and perhaps beyond. A minor achievement lay in collectively adding to Dartmouth lingo a specialized vocabulary from the case. Across lecture halls, conference hall, and dorm rooms, the chestnut of Webster’s “small college” phraseology was enlivened by discussions of the “eleemosynary corporate form,” of “epideictic oratory” and of a post-War of 1812 “Era of Good Feelings.” If unlikely to spark new College anthems, such matters did cause old tunes to be heard in new ways.

-Robert Bonner.

Robert Bonner is chair of the Dartmouth College History Department and Kathe Tappe Vernon Professor in Biography. Most of his research and teaching involve the American Civil War.

One thought on “How Dartmouth College Commemorated the Bicentennial of the Dartmouth College Case

  1. Dartmouth College opted to expand its small liberal arts college identity when it became the home of the original A&M programs for the state of New Hampshire as part of the federal Morrill Act.

    I think the DCC had relatively little to do with the creation of “private” colleges in the United States. Its main legacy at the time was sanctity of contracts, especially for businesses. I doubt our notions of “public” and “private” colleges of the 20th and 21st centuries would have made much sense to colleges in the first half of the 19th century. Even in the late 19th century, for example, Joseph Chamberlain as President of Bowdoin College would refer to his college as a “public institution.”

    I think an excellent source on this topic is John Whitehead’s THE SEPARATION OF COLLEGE AND STATE, published in the 1970s.


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