HGov: Constitution the Supreme Law of the Land


McCulloch v. Maryland came before the Marshall Court in the early 1800s. This case affirmed the supremacy of the national government over the states and upheld the implied powers of Congress under the Constitution.

McCulloch_v_MarylandThe case revolved around disputes over the creation of a national bank. In 1791, Congress chartered the First Bank of the United States, even though some national leaders argued that such a bank was not authorized by the Constitution. The bank’s charter ran out in 1811 and was not renewed. In 1816, Congress decided to charter the Second Bank of the United States. Many states opposed the creation of this new national bank, and a number of them passed laws to tax its branches. The cashier of the Maryland branch, James McCulloch, refused to pay the tax. When Maryland courts ordered him to pay, he appealed his case to the Supreme Court.

McCullochMaryland-medOn March 6, 1819, the Court issued a unanimous decision in favor of the bank and McCulloch. In his written opinion, Marshall argued that the federal government’s power to establish a bank, though not specifically cited in the Constitution, was supported by the Elastic Clause in Article I, Section 8. That clause allows Congress to make all laws that are “necessary and proper” to carry out its duties. The power to establish a national bank was implied in the enumerated powers of Congress, including the powers to lay and collect taxes, to borrow money, and to regulate commerce. Marshall said a national bank would conceivably be useful for carrying out those powers and was therefore constitutional. He went on to say that no state has the power to tax the national bank or any other arm of the federal government. Such power would make state law superior to federal law since, “the power to tax involves the power to destroy.” The people “did not design to make their government dependent on the states.” In fact, they declared just the opposite when they ratified the Constitution as “the supreme Law of the Land.”

Federal-state-conflictThe decision in McCulloch v. Maryland had far reaching consequences. By confirming the Elastic Clause, the Court supported a broad expansion of congressional power. It also sent a clear message that in conflicts between federal and state law, federal law would prevail. In both regards, the Court’s decision helped to strengthen the national government.

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