« iepriekšējāTurpināt »
and that the act of the legislature of New-Hampshire, altering the charter in a material respect, without the consent of the corporation, was an act impairing the obligation of the charter, and, consequently, unconstitutional and void.
The chief justice, in delivering the opinion of the court, observed, that the provision in the constitution never had been understood to embrace other contracts than those which respect property, or some object of value, and confer rights which may be asserted in a court of justice. Dartmouth College was a private eleemosynary institution, endowed with a capacity to take property for objects unconnected with government, and its funds were bestowed by individuals on the faith of the charter, and those funds consisted entirely of private donations. The corporation was not invested with any portion of political power, nor did it partake, in any degree, in the administration of civil government. It was the institution of a private corporation for general charity. The charter was a contract to which the donors, the trustees of the corporation, and the crown, were the original parties, and it was made on a valuable consideration, for the security and disposition of property. The legal interest in every literary and charitable institution is in trustees, and to be asserted by them, and they claim or defend in behalf of the religion, charity, and education, for which the corporation was created, and the private donations made. Contracts of this kind, creating these charitable institutions, are most reasonably within the purview and protection of the constitution. This contract remained unchanged by the revolution; and the duties, as well as the powers of the government, devolved on the people of New-Hampshire, but the act of that state which was complained of, transferred the whole power of governing the college, from trustees appointed according to the will of the founder expressed in the charter, to the executive of New-Hampshire. The will of the state was substituted for the will of the donors, in every essential operation of the college. The charter was reorganized in such a manner as
to convert a literary institution, moulded according to the will of its founders, and placed under the control of private literary men, into a machine entirely subservient to the will of government. This was, consequently, subversive of that contract, on the faith of which the donors invested their property; and the act of the legislature of New-Hampshire was therefore held to be repugnant to the constitution of the United States.
The same course of reasoning, and leading to the same conclusion, was adopted and expressed by some of the other judges.
In the opinion given by Judge Story, he added some new and interesting views of the nature of the contracts which the constitution intended to protect. He denied the power of the legislature to dissolve even the contract of marriage, without a breach on either side, and against the wishes of the parties. A dissolution of the marriage obligation, without any default or assent of the parties, may as well fall within the prohibition of the constitution, as any other contract for a valuable consideration. A man has as good a right to his wife, as to the property acquired under a marriage contract; and to devest him of that right without his default, and against his will, would be as flagrant a violation of the principles of justice, as the confiscation of his estate. The prohibitory clause he also considered to extend to other contracts besides those where the parties took for their own private benefit. A grant to a private trustee, for the benefit of a particular cestui que trust, or for any special private or public charity, cannot be the less a contract, because the trustee takes nothing for his own benefit. Nor does a private donation, vested in a trustee for objects of a general nature, thereby become a public trust, which the government may, at its pleasure, take from the trustee. Government cannot revoke a grant even of its own funds, when given to a private person, or to a corporation, for special uses. It has no other remaining authority but what is judicial to enforce the proper administration of the trust.
is a grant less a contract, though no beneficial interest accrues to the possessor. Many a franchise, whether corporate or not, may, in point of fact, be of no exchangeable value to the owners, and yet they are grants within the meaning and protection of the constitution. All incorporeal hereditaments, as immunities, dignities, offices, and franchises, are rights deemed valuable in law, and whenever they are the subjects of a contract or grant, they are just as much within the reach of the constitution as any other grant. All corporate franchises are legal estates. They are powers coupled with an interest, and corporators have vested rights in their character as corporators. Upon this doctrine it was insisted, that the trustees of Dartmouth College had rights and privileges under the charter, of which they could not be devested by the legislature without their consent. The act of the legislature did impair their rights, and vitally affect the interest of the college under the charter. If a grant of franchise be made to A. in trust for a special purpose, the grant cannot be revoked, and a new grant made to A. B. and C., for the same purpose, without violating the obligation of the first grant. If property be vested by grant in A. and B., for the use of a general charity, or private eleemosynary foundation, the obligation of that grant is impaired, when the estate is taken from their exclusive management, and vested in them in common with ten other persons.
I have thus stated the substance of the argument of the Supreme Court in this celebrated case, and it contains one of the most full and elaborate expositions of the constitutional sanctity of contracts to be met with in any of the reports. The decision in that case did more than any other single act, proceeding from the authority of the United States, to throw an impregnable barrier around all rights and franchises derived from the grant of government; and to give solidity and inviolability to the literary, charitable, religious, and commercial institutions of our country.
The same prohibitory clause in the constitution came again under discussion in the case of Green v. Biddle. was observed by the court, that the objection to a law, on the ground of its impairing the obligation of contracts, could never depend upon the extent of the change which the law effects in it. Any deviation from its terms, by postponing or accelerating the period of performance which it prescribes, imposing conditions not expressed in the contract, or dispensing with the performance of those which are expressed, however minute or apparently immaterial in their effect upon the contract, or upon any part or parcel of it, impairs its obligation. Upon this principle it is, that if a creditor agrees with his debtor, to postpone the day of payment, or in any other way to change the terms of the contract, without the consent of the surety, the latter is discharged, although the change was for his advantage.
The material point decided in that case was, that a compact between two states was a contract within the constitutional prohibition. The terms contract and compact were synonymous, and a contract is an agreement of two or more parties to do or not to do certain acts. The court declared, that the doctrine had been already announced and settled, that the constitution embraced all contracts executed and executory, and whether between individuals, or between a state and individuals; and that a state had no more power to impair an obligation into which she herself had entered, than she had to impair the contracts of individuals.
Another case which led to a very extensive inquiry into the operation and effect of the constitutional prohibition upon the states not to pass laws, impairing the obligation of contracts, was that of Sturges v. Crowninshield. The defendant was sued in one of the federal courts upon two promissory notes, given in March, 1811, and he pleaded his discharge under an insolvent act of New-York, passed in April,
1811. This insolvent act was retrospective, and discharged the debtor upon his single petition, and upon his surrendering his property in the manner therein prescribed, without the concurrence of any creditor, from all his preexisting debts, and from all liability and responsibility by reason thereof.
The chief justice, in the opinion which he delivered on behalf of the court, admitted, that until Congress exercise the power to pass uniform laws on the subject of bankruptcy, the individual states may pass bankrupt laws, provided those laws contain no provision violating the obligation of contracts. It was admitted, that the states might by law discharge debtors from imprisonment, for imprisonment was no part of the contract, but only a means of coercion. It was also admitted, that they might pass statutes of limitation, for such statutes relate to the remedy, and not to the obligation of the contract. It was further stated by the court, that the insolvent laws of far the greater number of the states only discharged the person of the debtor, and left the obligation to pay in full force, and to this the constitution was not opposed. But a law which discharged the debtor from his contract to pay a debt by a given time, without performance, and released him, without payment, entirely from any future obligation to pay, impaired, because it entirely discharged, the obligation of that contract, and, consequently, the discharge of the defendant, under the act of 1811, was no bar to the suit.
The court held, that the obligation of a contract was not fulfilled by a cessio bonorum, for the parties had not merely in view the property in possession when the contract was made, but its obligation extended to future acquisitions; and to release them from being liable, impaired the obligation of the contract. There was a distinction, in the nature of things, between the obligation of a contract, and the remedy to enforce that obligation, and the latter might be modified, as the wisdom of the legislature should direct. But the constitution intended to restore and preserve public confi