Arguing the Dartmouth College Case, 200 Years On

A March symposium revisits Daniel Webster’s famous victory in Dartmouth v. Woodward.

“It is, Sir, as I have said, a small college. And yet, there are those who love it.”

In 1818, an attorney named Daniel Webster, Class of 1801, spoke these words before the U.S. Supreme Court, successfully arguing the side of his alma mater in a lawsuit that has shaped not only Dartmouth’s history, but the history of American constitutional law. 

On March 1 and 2, Dartmouth will commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Dartmouth College v. Woodward—also known as the Dartmouth College Case—with a two-day symposium featuring a re-argument of the oral arguments by former Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal ’91 and former Solicitor General Gregory Garre ’87 before a panel of alumni jurists on March 1. (The event is free for students and $25 for the public. Space is limited; participants must register by Feb. 25.)

The symposium, which will be held at the Hanover Inn, is one of two dozen academic conferences the College is convening this year as part of its 250th anniversary celebration.

In addition to the re-argument of the case, the symposium will feature panels on constitutional law, the Supreme Court, and the history of the American university as well as a performance of Daniel Webster’s famous oration by Thomas Burack ’82, this year’s Perkins Bass Distinguished Visitor.

Donald Pease, the Ted and Helen Geisel Third Century Professor in the Humanities, a co-chair of the College’s 250th anniversary events, calls the Dartmouth College Case Symposium “the foundation stone” of the sestercentennial. “What we’re doing is, in effect, taking Dartmouth’s case to the world,” he says.

The crux of the 19th-century dispute between Dartmouth and the State of New Hampshire turned on whether the post-Revolutionary War state legislature could nullify the contract of Dartmouth’s Colonial-era charter, which had been enacted between the College and King George III. The state’s action would have turned Dartmouth into a public university.

“Dartmouth would not have the history it presently enjoys were it not for this case. We would have become a forgettable institution,” says Pease. “Dartmouth College is not forgettable in any sense—that’s why we’re celebrating its 250th year. In a sense, Dartmouth was founded by Eleazar Wheelock in 1769, and re-founded by Daniel Webster in 1819.”

The court’s landmark decision in the case continues to have profound ramifications for American constitutional law.

“The reason it matters in legal history has to do not merely with the sanctity of contracts, but with questions of due process and the relationship between private corporations and the state,” Pease says. “Hence it was very important in the history of capitalism in America.”

Pease says the idea to revisit the Dartmouth College Case during the sestercentennial came from James Bassett ’78, a justice on the New Hampshire Supreme Court whom Pease calls “a great exponent of both Daniel Webster and the Dartmouth College Case.”

Bassett will be one of the judges presiding over Katyal and Garre’s re-arguments at the symposium, along with Vermont Supreme Court Justice Beth Robinson ’87; New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Anne Patterson ’80; retired Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Justice Robert Cordy ’71; U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Gregg Costa ’94; and U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama Judge Abdul Kallon ’90.

Kate Stith-Cabranes ’73, the Lafayette S. Foster Professor of Law at Yale Law School, will moderate.

In conjunction with the symposium, this winter Pease and two of his colleagues—Russell Muirhead, the Clements Professor of Democracy and Politics and chair of the government department, and historian Robert Bonner, the Kathe Tappe Vernon Professor in Biography—are co-teaching an interdisciplinary undergraduate course on “Daniel Webster and the Dartmouth College Case.” The course is a deep dive into American history, rhetoric, and law through the lens of the case.

“It’s one of the most remarkable classes I’ve ever taught,” Pease says. “I’ve never been as aware of the differences in the internalized disciplinary assumptions of a government professor, a historian, and a professor of English. This allows the students to become conscious of the need for an interdisciplinary response to complex matters.”

During the course, students have traveled to Washington, D.C., to watch Kaytal and Garre argue the case before Chief Justice John Roberts (who wrote his undergraduate thesis on the Dartmouth College Case). And they will be presenting papers to a panel of alumni law professors at the March symposium.

The sestercentennial celebration will feature seven other special courses in 2019 and more than 20 other public symposia on subjects ranging from the College’s founding to coeducation to the future of the liberal arts. To learn more about events, visit the 250th website.

Hannah Silverstein can be reached at [email protected].