Daniel Webster was the most famous lawyer of his day. In 1819, the “Godlike Daniel” stood before the U.S. Supreme Court and argued passionately for the right of Dartmouth College to govern itself, and not to be brought under the rule of the New Hampshire legislature. Webster appealed to the Constitution, arguing that New Hampshire’s actions would violate the provision that forbade states to “impair the obligations of contract.” But the emotional power of his argument caught the attention of Chief Justice John Marshall and Justice Joseph Story — and, in truth, captured the hearts of the country.
Richard N. Current gives us a gripping description of Daniel Webster’s defense of Dartmouth College in a 1963 American Heritage article.
“Sir, you may destroy this little institution. It is weak. It is in your hands! I know it is one of the lesser lights in the literary horizon of the country. You may put it out. But if you do so, you must carry through your work. You must extinguish, one after another, all those great lights of science which, for more than a century, have thrown their radiance over our land. It is, Sir, as I have said, a small college, and yet, there are those who love it …”
The Dartmouth College case became one of the pillars of American jurisprudence. And Webster’s powerful appeal propelled him to a brilliant career in the U.S. Senate.
The Supreme Court that year ruled in favor of Dartmouth College. It recognized not only the supremacy of the Constitution, but it showed that it valued the signal role played by colleges and universities in American life.
The Obama administration is showing it values that role not at all. It is attempting to crush The Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio. Mr. Obama’s health and human services secretary, Kathleen Sebelius, is trying to force Steubenville to dispense abortion-producing drugs and pay for sterilizations. This is a Roman Catholic institution. Such things are strictly proscribed by the Catholic faith.
Secretary Sebelius may be aware that Catholic institutions are required by faith and fidelity to their mission to uphold these principles. It is an indispensable part of their mission and their reason for being. To force a Catholic institution to violate the consciences of its faculty, students and alumni in this fashion is like forcing a Yeshiva to serve pork to Orthodox Jewish students.
This attempt to crush The Franciscan University of Steubenville is, tragically, not an isolated incident. From the first days of the Obama administration, there has been a kulturkampf (culture clash) against Catholic institutions not seen since the days of the Iron Chancellor of Germany, Otto von Bismarck. It was Bismarck who attempted to put all churches and universities in Prussia under his hobnailed boot.
Writer Charlotte Allen wrote of the “Persecution of Belmont Abbey” by the Obama administration in 2009. There, too, liberal zealots were demanding that the Catholic school, founded in 1876, provide contraception, abortifacients and sterilizations or face federal sanctions. This, according to the institution’s president, could lead to closing down the historic little college.