What was the US Supreme Court case McCulloch v Maryland 1819 about and what did it establish?
McCulloch v. Maryland, (1819), was a landmark United
States Supreme Court decision.
In this case, the state of Maryland attempted to impede
operation of a branch of the Second Bank of the United States by
imposing a tax on all notes of banks not chartered in Maryland.
Though the law, by its language, was generally applicable, the U.S.
Bank was the only out-of-state bank then existing in Maryland, and
the law is generally recognized as specifically targeting the U.S.
Bank. The Court invoked the doctrine of implied powers in the
Constitution, which allowed the Federal government to pass laws not
expressly provided for in the Constitution's list of enumerated
powers as long as they are in useful furtherance of those
The fundamental case established the following two
- The Article I, Section 8, Necessary and Proper Clause of the US
Constitution grants Congress implied powers inherent as a blueprint
for a practically functional government, and
- that state action may not impede valid constitutional exercises
of power by the Federal government.
The opinion was written by Chief Justice John Marshall, a man
whose many opinions shape modern constitutional law.
The dispute that led to McCulloch began in 1790 between
Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, who favored
congressional authority to create a Bank of the United States, and
Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Attorney General Edmund
Randolph, who opposed. Despite the resistance, Congress created the
First Bank of the United States in 1791. The bank existed until
1811, when the charter expired. However, the bank was re-instituted
as the Second Bank of the United States in 1816 to resolve the
serious economic problems of the country. The economic troubles
continued, however, and many states opposed the bank because it
called for loans owed by the states. The State of Maryland
retaliated by creating a law to tax any bank not chartered by the
state. The U.S. Bank refused to pay the taxes and Maryland filed
suit against James McCulloch, the cashier of the Baltimore branch
of the Bank of the United States.
To begin, the court determined that Congress had the power to
charter the bank. Marshall supported this conclusion with three
arguments. First, the court argued historically that the
Constitution was a social contract created by the people at the
Constitutional Convention. The government proceeds from the people
and bound the state sovereignties. Therefore, the federal
government is supreme based on the consent of the people.
Second, Congress is bound to act under explicit or implied
powers of the Constitution. Pragmatically, if all of the powers
were listed, we would not be able to understand or embrace the
document; it is not possible to write everything. Although the term
"bank" is not included, there are powers such as to lay and collect
taxes, to borrow money and to regulate commerce. Although not
explicitly stated, Congress has the implied right to create the
Third, Marshall supports the opinion textually under the
Necessary and Proper Clause, which permits Congress to seek an
objective that is within the enumerated powers as long as it is
rationally related to the objective and not forbidden by the
Constitution. Marshall rejected Maryland's narrow interpretation of
the clause because many of the enumerated powers would be useless.
Also, the clause is listed within the powers of Congress, not the
limitations. For those reasons, "necessary" does not mean the only
way to do something and applies to procedures to implement all
constitutionally established powers. In conclusion, Congress has
the authority to promulgate legislation as long as the result is
legitimate under the Constitution and adopted for the
Next, Marshall determined whether Maryland may tax the branch of
the bank without violating the Constitution. The Supremacy clause
dictates that State laws comply with the Constitution and succumb
when there is a conflict. Taking as undeniable the fact that "the
power to tax involves the power to destroy", the court concluded
that the Maryland tax could not be levied against the government.
If states were allowed to continue their acts, they would destroy
the institution created by federal government and oppose the
principle of federal supremacy which originated in the text of the
The court held that Maryland violated the Constitution by taxing
the bank, and therefore voided that tax. The opinion mandated that
Congress has implied power that needs to be related to the text of
the Constitution, but not all powers need to be within the text.
This case was an essential element in the struggle for the creation
of federalism, and the permanent balance between federal power and
McCulloch v. Maryland, 17 U.S. 316 (1819)
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