The Act of March 2, 1819, c. 47, § 6, 3 Stat. 489, under which
Alabama became a state, vested the legal title of section 16 of
every township in the state absolutely, although the statute
declared that it was for the use of schools.
While the trust created by a compact between the states and the
United States that section 16 be used for school purposes is a
sacred obligation imposed on the good faith of the state, the
obligation is honorary, and the power of the state where legal
title has been vested in it is plenary and exclusive.
18 How. 173.
Statutes of limitation providing for title by adverse possession
against the state after a specified period are a valid exercise of
the power of the state, and apply to lands conveyed to the state
absolutely by the United States although for the use of schools.
Nor. Pac. Railway Co. v. Townsend, 190 U.
A statute passed by a state disposing of lands conveyed in the
Enabling Act by the United States to be used by the state for
Page 232 U. S. 169
not to impair the obligation of the contract
created by the acceptance of the enabling act. The state has the
right to subject such lands in its hands to the ordinary incidents
of title. Cooper v.
18 How. 173.
The facts are states in the opinion.
Page 232 U. S. 172
MR. JUSTICE HOLMES delivered the opinion of the Court.
This is a suit brought by the State of Alabama to recover
possession of a specified part of Section 16, Township 17, Range 5,
Talladega County. It was agreed that the land was a part of the
sixteenth section school lands given to the state by the Act of
March 2, 1819, c. 47, § 6, 3 Stat. 189, 491, and still belonged to
the state if the defendant had not got a title by adverse
possession, which it was agreed the defendant had if the statutes
of Alabama, limiting suits like the present to twenty years, were
valid. The trial court ruled that the statutes were valid, and
ordered judgment for the defendant, and this judgment was affirmed
by the supreme court of the state.
We are of opinion that the judgment must be affirmed. The
above-mentioned act of Congress, under which Alabama became a
state, provided that section 16 in every township "shall be granted
to the inhabitants of such township for the use of schools." Of
course, the state must admit, as it expressly agreed, that these
words vested the legal title in it, since it relies upon them for
recovery in the present case. Any other interpretation hardly would
be reasonable. In some cases, the grant has been to the state in
terms; but in whichever way expressed, probably it means the same
thing so far as the legal title is concerned. Certainly it has the
same effect with regard to the scope of the state's legal
The argument for the plaintiff in error relies mainly upon
Northern Pacific Ry. Co. v. Townsend, 190 U.
, which held that a right of way over public
Page 232 U. S. 173
granted by the United States for railway purposes could not be
extinguished by adverse possession under the statute of limitations
of the state in which the land lay. The ground of that decision was
that the grant to the railroad was not a conveyance of the land in
fee simple absolute, but a limited grant "on an implied condition
of reverter in the event that the company ceased to use or retain
the land for the purpose for which it was granted." This decision
has been met for some similar cases elsewhere by the Act of June
24, 1912, c. 181, 37 Stat. 138. Union Pacific R. Co. v. Laramie
Stock Yards Co., 231 U. S. 190
Union Pacific R. Co. v. Snow, 231 U.
. But it does not apply to a gift to a state for a
public purpose of which that state is the sole guardian and
minister. As long ago as 1856, it was decided,
"the trusts created by these compacts relate to a subject
certainly of universal interest, but of municipal concern, over
which the power of the state is plenary and exclusive,"
and it was held that the State of Michigan could sell its school
lands without the consent of Congress. Cooper v.
18 How. 173. This decision adverted to the
fact that it had been usual for Congress to authorize the sale of
lands if the state should desire it, but suggested that it was
unnecessary (which, indeed, followed from what was decided), and
thus met the further argument, here pressed, that a qualified
permission to sell was given to Alabama by a much later Act of
March 2, 1827, c. 59, 4 Stat. 237. It also disposes of other forms
of the same contention -- that the state law impairs the obligation
of its contract, or involves a breach of trust, supposing that such
positions are open to the state to take. American Emigrant Co.
v. Adams County, 100 U. S. 61
Spokane & British Columbia Ry. Co. v. Washington &
Great Northern Ry. Co., 219 U. S. 166
gift to the state is absolute, although, no doubt, as said in
Cooper v. Roberts,
"there is a sacred obligation imposed
on its public faith." But that
Page 232 U. S. 174
obligation is honorary, like the one discussed in Conley v.
Ballinger, 216 U. S. 84
even in honor would not be broken by a sale and substitution of a
fund, as in that case -- a course, we believe, that has not been
uncommon among the states. See further Stuart v. Easton,
170 U. S. 383
170 U. S.
Some reliance was placed upon Vincennes
University v. Indiana,
14 How. 268, but the
decision of the majority in that case rested upon the grant having
been made to a private corporation, of which the rights could not
be impaired by the state.
The result of Cooper v. Roberts
and of what we have
said is that the state has authority to subject this land in its
hands to the ordinary incidents of other titles in the state, and
that the judgment must be affirmed. Northern Pacific Ry. Co. v.
Ely, 197 U. S. 1
197 U. S. 8