The Charter of Columbia University is the document that recognizes the "Trustees of Columbia University in the City of New York" as a legal entity, specifically a corporation of that name. The University Statutes are the rules then laid down by the Trustees for the operation of the school.
Royal Charter of 1754
Columbia was born as a legal entity on October 31, 1754 (although classes had already convened in July 1754), when Governor James DeLancey issued a royal charter to "The Governors of The College of The Province of New York in The City of New York in America" which ordained the erection of "a College... which shall be called and Known by the Name of King's College, for the Instruction and Education of Youth in the Learned Languages, and Liberal Arts and Sciences," in the name of King George II.
King's College was forced to close in 1776 when revolutionary troops commandeered College Hall as a barracks. When the British drove the continental army from New York, they appropriated College Hall for use as a hospital.
Post-Revolutionary-War Charters of 1784 and 1787
After the revolution, Columbia was re-established by two significant Acts of legislature, referred to as the 1784 Charter, and the 1787 Charter. On May 1, 1784, when the legislature of New York State chartered the "Regents of the University of the State of New-York," it did so by transferring to it the powers, privileges, and property of the Governors of King's College, establishing "That the College within the City of New-York, heretofore called King's College, be forever hereafter called and known by the Name of COLUMBIA COLLEGE," and making Columbia College the first college in the state's university.
However, this arrangement proved dysfunctional, with Columbia located in New York City, and the state government in Albany. Columbia's brief tenure as a "Universitas Status Novi Eboraci" is commemorated on the Morningside Heights campus among the set of seals carved above the doors of Hamilton Hall and Butler Library.
On April 13, 1787, acknowledging that in attempting the amend the 1784 Charter to make it functional it had instead rendered it unintelligible, the legislature of New York State repealed the 1784 Charter, once again separately established the "Regents of the University of the State of New York", and, most importantly, "fully and absolutely ratified and confirmed, in all respects" the 1754 Royal Charter, except that the college should henceforth be known as Columbia College, and that the title of the corporation should be "Trustees of Columbia College in the City of New York."
Thus was Columbia finally re-established as a private institution after the revolutionary war. Notably, Columbia is able to trace its founding to 1754 not just based on tradition, but through a legal line of succession, because the legislative act in 1787 forming the corporation did so by ratifying the 1754 Charter and then amending it.
Charter of 1810 (Present Charter)
Finally, on March 23, 1810, the state legislature hit the reset button one last time, amending the 1787 Charter in full through an act of legislature. As since amended by acts of legislature and the Courts of New York State, Columbia operates under these rules to this day. Amusingly, the 1810 Charter placed a cap on real estate purchases that the trustees could make. Unsurprisingly, Columbia got the state to eliminate the cap in 1884. Less amusingly, the cap became the subject of litigation when a bequest of property from the estate of Stephen Whitney Phoenix was challenged as violating the limitation on property Columbia could own.
Although the Trustees voted to change the name of the school from "Columbia College in the City of New York" to "Columbia University in the City of New York" in 1896 (and to rename the undergraduate "School of Arts" as "Columbia College"), the trustees themselves continued operate under the corporate name "Trustees of Columbia College in the City of New York." In 1912, the trustees filed a petition in New York state court requesting an order to change the corporation's name. On July 17, 1912, Judge Leonard A. Giegerich ordered that as of August 25, 1912, the corporation name would be "Trustees of Columbia University in the City of New York."
October 31 is Columbia's Charter Day. At various points in history, the school hosted annual celebrations to mark the occasion. Similarly, 1754 is accepted as the founding date of the University, and the date from which major anniversaries are calculated, like the Columbia Bicentennial (1954), and Columbia 250 (2004).
Links to Charters
- University Charter and Statutes of 1959 as Amended to December 2015 (PDF)
- "The Original Charter of Columbia College in the City of New York, October 31st, 1754; with the Acts of Legislature amending the same, or relating to the College" (1836) Google eBook
- "The Original Charter of Columbia College in the City of New York, October 31st, 1754; with the Acts of Legislature amending the same, or relating to the College" (1854) Google eBook
- "Charters Acts and Official Documents Together with the Lease and Re-Lease by Trinity Church of a Portion of the King's Farm" compiled by John B. Pine (1895) Google eBook
- "Charters and Statutes with Amendments to April 3, 1916" (1916) Google eBook
- "Charters Acts of the Legislature Official Documents and Records" compiled by John B. Pine (1920) Google eBook