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December 1, 1869


IN this second case the charter was to the Washington University, an institution of learning. It was granted on the 22d of February, 1853, and by the same legislature which incorporated the Home of the Friendless on the 3d of that same February. It contained exactly the same provision about freedom of the corporation from taxation and from liability to have its charter interfered with at the discretion of the legislature, and the case came here under proceedings similar to those in the last case, and from the same court, and was argued by the same counsel, to wit:

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Mr. Justice Davis delivered the opinion of the court.

Mr. B. R. Curtis, for the appellant; Messrs. Dick and Blair, contra.

There are no material points of difference between the case just decided and this case, and the views presented in that case are applicable to this. The object of the charter in the one was to promote a charity, in the other encourage learning. Both were public objects of advantage to the country, and which every government is desirous of promoting. Whether the endowment of a charity is of more concern to the State than the endowment of a university for learing, is with the power of the legislature to determine. If the legislature has acted in a manner to show that it considered both objects equally worthy of favor, it is not the province of this court to pass on the wisdom of the measure.

On the contrary, it is the duty of the court to carry out the intention of the legislature, if ascertainable, by applying to both charters the ordinary rules of construction applicable to legislative grants. In applying these rules to this charter, we find the existence of the same contract of permanent exemption from taxation, as in the charter of the Home of the Friendless. The State contracted in the one case as in the other, not to tax the property of the corporation, using the same words in both charters, to convey its meaning, and binding itself in the same terms, not to repeal or modify either charter in that regard. Both charters were passed by the same legislature, within a few days of each other, and neither charter is unusual in its provisions, except in this particular. The infence would, therefore, seem to be clear, that it was the legislative intention that both should, in this respect, be on an equality. The public purposes to be attained in each case constituted the consideration on which the contracts were based. The charter of the University, with its amendment (not material to notice, because not affecting this question), having been accepted, and the corporation, since its acceptance, having been actively employed in the specific purpose of which it was created, the exemption from taxation became one of the franchises of the corporation of which it would not be deprived by any species of State legislation.

It is urged that the corporation, as there is no limit to its right of acquisition, may acquire property beyond its legitimate wants, and in this way abuse the favor of the legislature, and, in the end, become dangerous, on account of its wealth and influence. It would seem that this apprehension is more imaginary than real, for the security against this course of action, is to be found in the nature of the object for which the corporation was created. It was created specially to promote the endowment of a seminary of learning, and it is not to be presumed that it will ever act in such a manner as to jeopardize its corporate rights; nor can there be any well-grounded fear that it will absorb, in its effort to establish a literary institution of a high order of merit, in the city of St. Louis, any more property than is necessary to accomplish that object. Should a state of case in the future arise, showing that the corporation has pursued a different line of conduct, it will be time enough then to determine the rights of the parties to this contract, under this altered condition of things. The present record presents no such question, and we have no right to anticipate that it will ever occur. It is enough for the purposes of this suit to say, that so long as the corporation uses its property to support the educational establishments for which it was organized, it does not forfeit its right not to be taxed under the contract which the State made with it.

We cannot see that the case of the University is distinguishable from that of the Home of the Friendless.

JUDGMENT REVERSED, and the cause remanded to the court below, with directions to proceed


Mr. Justice MILLER, dissenting.

The CHIEF JUSTICE, Mr. Justice FIELD, and myself, do not concur in these judgments.

It is the settled doctrine of this court, that it will, in every case affecting personal rights, where, by the course of judicial proceedings, the matter is properly presented, decide whether a State law impairs the obligation of contracts; and if it does, will declare such law ineffectual for that purpose. And it is also settled, beyond controversy, that the State legislatures may, by the enactment of statutes, make contracts which they cannot impair by any subsequent statutes.

It may be conceded that such contracts are so far protected by the provisions of the Federal Constitution that even a change in the fundamental law of the State, by the adoption of a new constitution, cannot impair them, though express provisions to that effect are incorporated in the new constitution. We are also free to admit that one of the most beneficial provisions of the Federal Constitution, intended to secure private rights, is the one which protects contracts from the invasion of State legislation. And that the manner in which this court has sustained the contracts of individuals has done much to restrain the State legislatures, when urged by the pressure of popular discontent under the sufferings of great financial disturbances, from unwise, as well as unjust legislation.

In this class of cases, when the validity of the contract is clear, and the infringement of it by the legislature of a State is also clear, the duty of this court is equally plain.

But we must be permitted to say, that in deciding the first of these propositions, namely, the validity of the contract, this court has, in our judgment, been, at times, quick to discover a contract that it might be protected, and slow to perceive that what are claimed to be contracts were not so, by reason of the want of authority in those who profess to bind others. This has been especially apparent in regard to contracts made by legislatures of States, ...

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