Chapter 2: The National Bank and Federalism

McCulloch v. Maryland (1819)

During the early years of the nineteenth century, many Americans were primarily loyal to their state rather than to the United States of America. Luther Martin of Maryland, for example, often spoke of Maryland as “my country.” In 1787, Martin had represented Maryland at the convention in Philadelphia that framed the United States Constitution, but he refused to sign the document because, in his opinion, it granted too much power to the national government at the expense of the states. Martin later campaigned against ratification of the Constitution, but reconciled himself to it after Maryland and other states approved it. However, he remained wary of the national government and any attempts it might make to encroach against the rights and powers of his state.

Luther Martin was serving as Maryland’s attorney general in 1819 when the moment came for him to defend his state against the federal government at the U.S. Supreme Court. A bitterly contested case, McCulloch v. Maryland, raised critical questions about the nature of federalism in the U.S. Constitution. What exactly was the division of powers between the national government and the particular states within the federal union? Did the Constitution grant Congress the power to create a national bank that could significantly affect the operations of banks chartered by Maryland and other states? And did the state of Maryland, or any other state within the federal union, have the power to excessively tax a branch of the national bank within its territory in order to drive it out of business?

The constitutional issues raised in McCulloch v. Maryland were not new. They arose initially in 1791, during the first term of President George Washington, when Congress enacted legislation to establish the First Bank of the United States. The President was uncertain about how to respond. After all, the Constitution did not explicitly grant Congress the power to establish a national bank. So before deciding whether to sign or veto the bill, President Washington asked the advice of Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. Hamilton and Jefferson’s conflicting responses framed the issue not only for President Washington in 1791 but also for the adversaries and decision makers in McCulloch v. Maryland in 1819.

McCulloch v. Maryland

  • 17 U.S. 316 [4 Wheat. 316] (1819)
  • Decided: March 6, 1819
  • Vote: 7–0
  • Opinion of the Court: John Marshall

In a paper written to the President, Jefferson argued that the Congress did not have power under the Constitution to pass the national bank bill. He could not find any statement about a national bank in Article 1, Section 8, which includes the list of Congress’s enumerated powers. Thus, according to Jefferson, Congress could not assume a power not explicitly granted to it by the Constitution. Next, he turned to Clause 18 of Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution, which granted Congress the power “To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.” Jefferson claimed that this “necessary and proper” clause could not be interpreted so expansively as to permit the federal government to establish a national bank. In line with his strict construction, or narrow interpretation, of the Constitution, Jefferson advised the President to veto the national bank bill.

Hamilton, by contrast, counseled Washington to sign the bill into law. He pointed out that the Constitution did not prohibit the establishment of the national bank. Thus, he argued, Congress could exercise a power not denied to it by the supreme law of the land if that action was for the good of the country. In a paper written to President Washington, Hamilton said,

That every power vested in a government is in its nature sovereign, and includes . . . a right to employ all the means requisite and fairly applicable to the attainment of the ends of such power, and which are not precluded by restrictions and exceptions specified in the Constitution, or not immoral, or not contrary to the essential ends of political society.

Furthermore, Hamilton, unlike Jefferson, loosely interpreted the “necessary and proper” clause of Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution to permit Congress to enact legislation for a national bank. According to his loose construction, or broad interpretation, of the Constitution, it was “necessary and proper” for Congress to pass the national bank bill in order to adequately carry out such explicitly stated powers as coining and regulating the value of money, borrowing money, and levying taxes. Therefore, according to Hamilton, the Constitution implicitly provided the federal government with the power to establish a national bank.

President Washington followed Hamilton’s advice. He signed the national bank bill to make it a federal statute, and the First Bank of the United States was chartered for twenty years. Strong public controversy about the constitutionality and desirability of the First Bank of the United States continued, and Congress decided not to renew the bank’s charter in 1811. However, in 1816 a majority in Congress enacted legislation to establish the Second Bank of the United States, which President James Madison signed into law.

Like its predecessor, the second national bank attracted many critics and opponents dedicated to destroying an institution they believed to be an unconstitutional manifestation of federal government power. Unlike the First Bank of the United States, however, the second national bank was poorly managed, and rumors circulated about corruption at the highest levels of the bank’s management. Several states responded to growing public opposition to the national bank with legislation directed against it. The state government of Maryland, for example, enacted a law that levied an extremely high tax on any bank operating in the state without a state charter. At that time, the Second Bank of the United States was the only bank in Maryland that was not chartered by the state. James McCulloch, the head cashier of the national bank’s Baltimore branch, refused to pay the tax. Maryland successfully sued McCulloch in the Baltimore County Court. The Maryland Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s judgment, and this decision was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The case attracted national attention because it posed issues about federalism, the extent and limits of states’ rights and national government power, which had aroused controversy since the framing of the U. S. Constitution in 1787. Now these controversies had come to a head in the highest court in the land. This case was considered so important that the Court waived its rule limiting each side to two lawyers entitled to present oral arguments before the Court. As a result, three lawyers of national prominence argued for the federal government and the Bank of the United States: Daniel Webster, William Pinkney, and William Wirt, attorney general of the United States. Three lawyers of equal prominence represented the state of Maryland: Joseph Hopkinson, Walter Jones, and Luther Martin, attorney general of Maryland.

The oral arguments were presented before the Supreme Court from February 22 until March 3, 1819. During every day of the proceedings, spectators filled the small courtroom in the basement of the Capitol building, the first long-term home of the Supreme Court. They listened intently as the lawyers presented their cases and responded to questions from the Court.

The advocates for Maryland stressed that the U.S. Constitution did not expressly give Congress the power to charter a national bank. Counsel for the federal government countered by noting the Constitution’s Article 1, Section 8, Clause 18, which did grant Congress the power to “make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers.” Did the “necessary and proper” clause give Congress adequate power only to do those few things indispensable for carrying out its listed, or enumerated, powers? Maryland’s lawyers believed it did because they supported a narrow and restrictive interpretation of the U. S. Constitution in general and the “necessary and proper” clause in particular. The federal government’s lawyers argued for a broadly constructed Constitution and a loosely interpreted “necessary and proper” clause to justify the incorporation of a national bank by Congress.

The contending lawyers also addressed the question of a state government’s power to tax an institution chartered by the federal government. Maryland’s lawyers, of course, defended their state’s right to tax a branch of the national bank located within its borders. The federal government’s lawyers held this to be an unconstitutional state government action in defiance of the U.S. Constitution, which according to its Article 6 is “the supreme Law of the Land.”

Only three days after the oral arguments ended, Chief Justice John Marshall presented the Court’s unanimous opinion, declaring Maryland’s tax on the national bank to be unconstitutional. Marshall’s opinion for the Court, the greatest one in his long and illustrious career as chief justice, was a strong refutation of the states’ rights arguments of Maryland’s lawyers.

Marshall began by considering this question: does Congress have the power to incorporate a national bank? His affirmative response emphasized a nationalist interpretation of the federal union’s origin. The chief justice wrote, “The government of the Union . . . is, emphatically and truly, a government of the people. In form and in substance, it emanates from them. Its powers are granted by them, and are to be exercised directly on them, and for their benefit.” Marshall emphasized “that the government of the Union, though limited in its powers [by the Constitution] is supreme within its sphere of action.” He noted that Article 6 declared the Constitution and laws of the United States to be “the supreme law of the land” that must prevail against conflicting actions by a state government.

Like Alexander Hamilton many years earlier, the chief justice held that Congress could constitutionally establish a national bank even though this power was not explicitly mentioned in the U.S. Constitution. So long as the Constitution did not prohibit Congress from chartering a bank, it could do so under the power granted to it through the “necessary and proper” clause. Marshall argued that the framers of the Constitution included the “necessary and proper” clause among the powers of Congress to provide for the enlargement of these powers, not their strict limitation. Drawing upon the ideas of Alexander Hamilton in the twenty-third paper of The Federalist, written in 1787 to explain the Constitution and promote its ratification, and his 1791 paper addressed to President Washington, the chief justice exclaimed, “Let the end be legitimate, let it be within the scope of the constitution, and all means which are appropriate, which are plainly adapted to that end, which are not prohibited, but consist with the letter and spirit of the constitution, are constitutional.”

Marshall noted that the Constitution is not a legal code that specifically describes every power to be exercised by Congress. Rather, it is a general framework of the federal government’s structure and powers in which only the most important “objects” are set forth and the rest of its powers may “be deduced from the nature of the objects themselves.” He emphasized that in considering the powers of Congress and the latitude of the “necessary and proper” clause “we must never forget that it is a Constitution we are expounding.” Thus, a broad interpretation of congressional powers is warranted.

The chief justice foresaw long-term benefits in a flexible use of Congress’s powers in the Constitution. He memorably wrote,

It must have been the intention of those who gave these powers to insure . . . their beneficial execution . . . This provision is made in a Constitution intended to endure for ages to come, and consequently to be adapted to the various crises of human affairs. To have prescribed the means by which Government should, in all future time, execute its powers would have been to change entirely the character of the instrument and give it the properties of a legal code. It would have been an unwise attempt to provide by immutable rules for exigencies which, if foreseen at all, must have been seen dimly, and which can be best provided for as they occur.

Marshall next turned to the question of whether Maryland could tax the branch of the national bank within its borders without violating the U.S. Constitution. He responded for the Court “that the law passed by the Legislature of Maryland, imposing a tax on the Bank of the United States is unconstitutional and void.” He argued that allowing a state government to tax any part of the national government would violate the supremacy clause of the Constitution’s Article 6. Marshall observed “that the power to tax involves the power to destroy.” In conclusion, he denounced the state of Maryland’s attempt to burden and destroy the national bank, which Congress had created constitutionally, by enacting an unconstitutional tax against this federal institution. “This was not intended by the American people,” wrote Marshall. “They did not design to make their [federal] Government dependent upon the states.”

The Supreme Court’s ruling in McCulloch v. Maryland established two enduring constitutional principles. The first, the implied powers doctrine, assumes that the “necessary and proper” clause of the Constitution can be interpreted broadly so that Congress may choose the means it wishes to carry out powers granted to it in the Constitution. The second principle forbids the state governments to obstruct the constitutionally permitted operations of the federal government. It affirms the supremacy of the Constitution and federal laws over state laws that conflict with them.

Over the long term, the McCulloch ruling has supported a loose construction of the Constitution that enables the federal government to apply its constitutionally granted powers flexibly in order to meet the new problems of changing times. This landmark decision also strengthened the Court’s power of judicial review over acts of state government. It thus infuriated supporters of states’ powers and rights, such as Luther Martin, the attorney general of Maryland, who unsuccessfully argued his state’s position in McCulloch v. Maryland.

Despite its long-term significance in American constitutional history, the Court’s decision in McCulloch was very unpopular in the short term. Anger against Chief Justice Marshall and the Supreme Court was especially strong not only in Maryland but also in Virginia and Ohio. In February 1819, while McCulloch v. Maryland was before the U.S. Supreme Court, the state government of Ohio enacted a law to levy very high taxes on the branches of the national bank in Cincinnati and Chillicothe. In defiance of the Supreme Court’s decision against Maryland in the McCulloch case, Ohio enforced its tax laws against the national bank branches within the state. However the national bank’s officers obtained a federal court order that obligated the Ohio tax collectors to immediately return the money they had taken from the bank.

The controversy simmered until 1824, when the case of Osborn v. The Bank of the United States went to the U.S. Supreme Court. The issues and arguments before the Court were practically the same as those of the 1819 McCulloch case, and the Court’s unanimous decision in Osborn reaffirmed the decision in McCulloch. However, public opinion in Ohio and many other parts of the United States generally remained hostile to the national bank and the Marshall Court’s decisions about it. Nonetheless, during John Marshall’s lifetime the Supreme Court’s decisions in the national bank cases weighed heavily in the ongoing struggle between the national and state governments over the balance of power within the federal system. Only long after his death in 1835, however, was Chief Justice Marshall’s opinion for the Court in McCulloch v. Maryland fully vindicated through its strong impact on the development and meaning of federalism in the United States.

From the post–Civil War era to the present, the balance of power in the federal system has shifted steadily away from the states and toward the federal government. During the twentieth century, the Court’s decision in McCulloch v. Maryland buttresessed the federal government’s extensive exercise of power to establish social welfare programs and regulate the economy. John Marshall’s loose construction of the Constitution continues to influence the decisions of the Supreme Court in the twenty-first century.

The Constitution is the Supreme Law of the Land

John Marshall is the only chief justice in American history to write newspaper articles in support of an opinion he wrote for the Supreme Court. Why did he do it?

Negative opinion pieces published in the newspapers of Virginia about the chief justice and the Court, in the wake of the McCulloch v. Maryland decision, prompted him to wield his pen in defense of his own reputation and that of the Court. Marshall was especially sensitive about sharply critical articles against him in his hometown newspaper, the Richmond Enquirer. The articles were signed with the pen names Amphictyon and Hampden, and the newspaper’s editor, Thomas Ritchie, introduced them with comments that Marshall found offensive.

Ritchie’s preface to a series of articles by Hampden, reputed to be the pen name of Spencer Roane, chief justice of the Virginia Court of Appeals and a lifelong nemesis of Marshall, infuriated Marshall almost as much as did Hampden’s essays. Ritchie wrote,

We solemnly believe the opinion of the supreme court in the case of the bank to be fraught with alarming consequences, the federal constitution to be misinterpreted, and the rights of the states and the people to be threatened with danger. We solemnly believe that Hampden has refuted the opinion of the supreme court, and placed it in its proper light before the public.

Marshall answered Thomas Ritchie and Hampden in a series of nine articles published in the Alexandria Gazette between June 30 and July 15, 1819. To hide his identity, Marshall used the pen name “A Friend of the Constitution.”

In his third number Hampden states those specific objections to the opinion of the supreme court, which are to justify the virulent invectives he has so unsparingly bestowed on the judicial department.

Before noticing these objections, I must be allowed to observe that, in recapitulating what he supposes himself to have established in his preceding numbers, he entirely misrepresents what he has himself attempted to prove . . .

I now proceed to the errors ascribed by Hampden, to the opinion of the supreme court.

The first is that the court has agreed in favor of an enlarged construction of the clause authorizing congress “to make all laws necessary and proper for carrying into execution” the powers vested in the government . . .

I will advert to the particular instances of this error, which he has selected in support of his charge.

The first is that the supreme court has said that this clause “is placed among the powers of the government, and not among the limitations on those powers.”

That it is so placed, is acknowledged. But the court is supposed to be highly culpable for stating the truth, because it was stated for a purpose which this writer [Hampden] condemns.

To demonstrate that this argument was not used for the purpose, or in the manner alleged by Hampden, it is only necessary to advert to the opinion itself.

The court has laid down the proposition that “the government which has a right to do an act, and has imposed upon it the duty of performing that act must according to the dictates of reason, have a right to select the means.” Having reasoned on this proposition, the court adds: “But the constitution of the United States has not left the right of congress to employ the necessary means for the execution of the powers conferred on the government to general reasoning. To its enumeration of powers is added that of making ‘all laws which shall be necessary and proper.’”

The meaning of the court cannot be mistaken. It is that this clause expresses what the preceding reasoning showed must be implied.

The court then proceeds, “The counsel for the state of Maryland have urged various arguments to prove that this clause, tho’ in terms a grant of power, is not so in effect; but is really restrictive of the general right, which might otherwise be implied, of selecting means for executing the enumerated powers.”

The court then proceeds to combat these arguments of counsel—and combats them so successfully as to draw from Hampden himself the acknowledgment that “the words prohibit nothing to the general government.” “It is only contended,” he says, “that they create no enlargement of the powers previously given.” Yet after explicitly yielding the point which was really in contest, he attempts to turn this total defeat into a victory, by contending that those arguments which were urged to prove that this clause did not restrain the powers of congress were brought forward to prove that it enlarges them, and fails of doing so.

No man, I think, who will even glance at the opinion, will fall into the error into which Hampden would lead him . . . “This clause,” the court adds, “as construed by the state of Maryland, would abridge, and almost annihilate this useful and necessary right of the legislature to select its means. That this could not be intended, is, we should think, had it not been already controverted, too apparent for controversy. We think so for the following reasons: The clause is placed among the powers of congress, and not among the limitations on those powers.”

The court proceeds to state several other reasons, to show that the clause could not have been intended by the convention to abridge those powers which congress would otherwise have possessed, and concludes with expressing the entire conviction that it could not be construed “to impair the right of the legislature to exercise its best judgment in the selection of measures to carry into execution the constitutional powers of the government.” Hampden himself refers to that part of this conclusion which assigns to the clause the office of removing all doubt respecting the right “to legislate on that vast mass of incidental powers, which must be involved in the constitution,” and approves it. Yet he has mentioned this argument, “that the clause is placed among the powers of congress, and not among the limitations on those powers,” as his first objection to the opinion of the court; and he objects to it, not because the statement is untrue, but because the court urged it to establish an enlarged construction, an “extension” of the powers of congress.

I appeal to any man of the most ordinary understanding, when I ask if Hampden can possibly have misunderstood the opinion of the supreme court on this point? If he has not, why has he misrepresented it? . . .

July 3, 1819