A Small Key to a Big Door

Dartmouth College, 1793.

The Supreme Court of the United States, led by Chief Justice John Marshall made a crucial decision in Dartmouth College v. Woodward in 1819. This decision resulted “in placing all private corporations under the protection of the United States Constitution.” Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 466. The vast majority of corporations thus were “no longer exclusive monopolies,” but rather “[t]hey became private property belonging to individuals, not the state.” Id.

This development was a small key to open the big door of American commerce and capitalism. While countries in Europe were still monarchical and had antiquated systems that did not allow for privately held corporations, the United States Supreme Court ensured that America moved into the 19th Century with a system ready for innovation and entrepreneurship.

Over the course of the 19th Century, the Civil War notwithstanding, the ability of individuals to form their own corporations provided an incentive for success that would lead to widespread prosperity. While in other countries, the state had a piece of ownership in corporations, Americans had the privilege of private ownership at a time when that was uncommon.

Many of the developments in the early Republic have had reverberations over the past two centuries. Those developments sometimes began with small, humble steps, such as this holding by the Supreme Court. Those small steps have unquestionably aggregated to create a more prosperous society for America.

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