The Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences

Dartmouth College Public Service Legacy: Levi Woodbury, Class of 1809

Levi Woodbury

 Levi Woodbury graduated from Dartmouth College, Phi Beta Kappa, in 1809.

Woodbury House Dartmouth College

Woodbury House on the campus of Dartmouth College is part of the Tuck School of Business. Named for Levi Woodbury, 1789-1851, graduate of Dartmouth College, Class of 1809.

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Woodbury House on the campus of Dartmouth College is part of the Tuck School of Business. Named for Levi Woodbury, 1789-1851, graduate of Dartmouth College, Class of 1809.

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This article is part of a series recognizing Dartmouth Alumni who have served in public office and demonstrated their commitment to public service, leadership, and civic engagement.

Born in Francestown, New Hampshire in 1789, Levi Woodbury arrived Dartmouth College at the age of sixteen in 1806. Little is known about Woodbury during his time at Dartmouth. There is record like many of his contemporaries, that he helped pay for his tuition by teaching school in the neighboring towns around Hanover. Having graduated with honors in 1809, he traveled to Connecticut to study law at Tapping Reeve, America’s first law school. He didn’t stay long in Litchfield; before the year was over Woodbury returned home to hang out his shingle. At just twenty-two, he was admitted to the New Hampshire Bar, which allowed him to establish a small law office.

Woodbury proved to be an immensely talented lawyer, which, along with his aptitude for politics that was apparent in his frequent articles in local newspapers, was noticed by the Granite State’s political parties. His reputation with these groups resulted in a short-lived legal practice: in 1823 the State Senate appointed Woodbury governor. In this position, the Dartmouth alumnus served for just a year – or what in those days was a full term. That he was not reappointed, however, is hardly a sign of failure; for, although his administration was “one-and-done,” Woodbury’s public career was just getting started.

Shortly after his governorship ended, Woodbury became a United States Senator from New Hampshire. At that time, Senators were not elected by popular vote as they are today, but, instead, selected by state legislatures. Appointed as a Jacksonian Democrat, Woodbury remained true to his political party, and faithful to the agenda of the President Andrew Jackson. His party loyalty paid off: when his term expired, President Jackson appointed Woodbury U.S. Secretary of the Navy. Several years later, Woodbury was appointed to another cabinet position, Secretary of the Treasury. This position he retained for seven years, serving not only through Jackson’s administration, but also under Jackson’s successor, President Van Buren.

As Secretary of the Treasury and Secretary of the Navy, Woodbury served in the Executive Branch for ten years. He spent just as long in the Senate. For, after leaving the cabinet in 1841, he was reappointed to the latter. However, this term, his second, was cut short: in 1845 President James Polk nominated, and the Senate subsequently confirmed, Senator Woodbury to the Supreme Court of the United States. Woodbury would serve until his death, just six years later at the age of 61.

Woodbury is most often recognized for being one of just three people in history to have served as a governor and in all three branches of the federal government. His public legacy, however, finds him on the side of decisions which had severe consequences for many people. For instance, during his first term in the U.S. Senate Woodbury voted in favor of the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Shortly thereafter, Woodbury, acting in his capacity as U.S. Secretary of Treasury, supported and issued the Specie Circular. Many historians cite this act as a primary cause of the Panic of 1837 – America’s first recession. Finally, Justice Woodbury wrote the majority opinion for Jones v Van Zandt, a case concerning the constitutionality of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 and, by extension, slavery.  

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