Published online by Cambridge University Press: 09 April 2015
Dartmouth College v. Woodward is taken to be the seminal case in the rise of the corporation. In recognizing a charter as a contract that vested private rights against many forms of state regulation, the case paved the way for the private business corporation and helped usher in large-scale commercial development against Jeffersonian agrarianism. In this “classical liberal story,” Dartmouth College is understood to have preserved a private corporation against public interference. Yet this understanding of Dartmouth College neglects what the actual case was about and erases an important moment of constitutional development. American colleges in the colonial period were church–state schools forged when the church and state were not separated. The Dartmouth College case was part of a wider constitutional debate over what many saw as a public institution that, in the wake of the American Revolution, needed to be “disestablished” from the church. Doing so was part of a revolutionary constitutionalism that would help frame how we understood the relationship between public and private, church and state. This was a conflict about recasting institutions and embedding them in constitutional ideas. While advocates failed to solidify Dartmouth as a “public” institution, they succeeded in forging distinctions between public and private that shape how we think today.
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