Words and Deeds in American History: Selected Documents Celebrating the Manuscript Division's First 100 Years

Letter, Thomas Jefferson to William Plumer regarding the Dartmouth College case, 21 July 1816.
(Thomas Jefferson Papers)


Shortly after being elected governor of New Hampshire in 1816, William Plumer (1759-1850), a former United States senator, sought to transform the administration of the state's Dartmouth College by wresting control from a self-perpetuating board of Federalist trustees and replacing them with elected officials. To accomplish their goal, the governor and his Republican allies in the state legislature enacted statues revising the college's royal charter, which had been granted in 1769. The college trustees contested the state's action by bringing suit and carrying the case forward to the United States Supreme Court. Daniel Webster (1782-1852) argued the college's case and during his climactic concluding remarks uttered his famous plea for the school, stating, "It is, Sir, as I have said, a small college. And yet there are those who love it!"

In his landmark Dartmouth College v. Woodward decision (1819), Chief Justice John Marshall (1755-1835) supported the inviolability of the charter as a contract and ruled that the college, under the charter, was a private and not a public entity. As such, the school was protected from the state's regulatory power through the contract clause of United States Constitution. By interpreting the contract clause as a way of protecting corporate charters from state intervention, Marshall established the Constitution as a powerful tool for safeguarding property rights and limiting state authority.

As indicated in this 21 July 1816 letter to Plumer, former president of the United States Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) was sympathetic to the governor's efforts to seize control of the college from their Federalist adversaries. This letter is often cited to argue that Jefferson was not a strict constructionist in interpreting the Constitution and that he favored regular if not routine amendments and revisions to both the federal and state constitutions. The letter also contains a strong denunciation of federal indebtedness and taxation. In classic Jeffersonian form, the Virginian appears as both a conservative and a radical in the same letter.

Gerard W. Gawalt and Marvin W. Kranz, Manuscript Division

For Additional Information
For additional information on the Thomas Jefferson Papers, you can leave this site and read a summary catalog record for the collection.

Reproduction Number:
A53 (color slide)

Related Terms:
Constitution | Contracts | Dartmouth College v. Woodward | Governors | Jefferson, Thomas (1743-1826) | Law | Marshall, John (1755-1835) | Plumer, William (1759-1850) | Presidents | Right of property | Taxation | United States Constitution | United States Supreme Court | Webster, Daniel (1782-1852)

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