• Last updated on November 10, 2022

“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.”

Summary Overview

McCulloch v. Maryland is a US Supreme Court case that was decided on March 6, 1819, under the leadership of Chief Justice John Marshall. The Second Bank of the United States was operating a branch in Baltimore when the state of Maryland passed legislation effectively taxing its operation. James McCulloch, an officer of the Baltimore branch, refused to pay the tax and appealed to the US Supreme Court after the Maryland state courts decided the issue in favor of Maryland. McCulloch v. Maryland specifically addresses whether the United States Congress has the power under the US Constitution to establish a federal bank, and whether the states have the authority to tax a federal bank’s operation within their borders. However, this case carries significance beyond these facts, because its rulings affected the balance of power between the federal government and the states, and shaped the future of US expansion during the nineteenth century.

Defining Moment

During the drafting of the US Constitution, the division of power between the federal and state governments was a hotly debated issue, with respected leaders holding strong opinions on both sides. Some, including the first US treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton, and future US Supreme Court chief justice John Marshall, argued that a strong federal government was necessary to unite the people of the new nation. Others, including future president Thomas Jefferson, hesitated to give a centralized government too much control, still wary after the recent struggles against England’s heavy-handed rule from afar.

In the end, perhaps as a matter of compromise, the Constitution addressed this matter in a rather vague way: it grants only a few specific powers to the federal government, and places only a few clear limitations on those powers. This is further complicated by a clause in article 1, section 8 known as the “Necessary and Proper Clause,” which states that Congress has the authority to “make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution” the powers granted to it by the Constitution. From the early days of the United States, opinion was divided as to whether this clause should be interpreted as affirmatively granting Congress the power to pass any laws it deems necessary to carry out its constitutional duties, or intentionally limiting Congress’s power to write only those laws that are deemed absolutely necessary to carry out its duties.

This interpretive difference has great meaning, because the Tenth Amendment reserves to the states any powers not explicitly granted to the federal government, and article 1, section 10 forbids the states from interfering with the exercise of those explicit federal powers. Thus, the broader “granting” interpretation of the Necessary and Proper Clause effectively reduces the states’ autonomy in favor of stronger national regulation that states cannot challenge. By contrast, the narrower “limiting” interpretation skews the balance of power more toward the states.

On its face, the Supreme Court in McCulloch v. Maryland simply needed to decide whether the Constitution authorized Congress to charter a federal bank, and whether the state of Maryland had the right to tax its operation. However, all parties involved knew that the case would have a far-reaching impact on the ideological split between those who favored a strong, centralized federal government, and those who championed more autonomous states.

Author Biography

John Marshall was born near Germantown, Virginia, on September 24, 1755. His formal education on the Virginia frontier was sparse but classical, consisting of one year at a private academy and some home tutoring. At age twenty, he joined a Virginia militia as a lieutenant to fight in the Revolutionary War. In 1780, he left the military and returned to Virginia, where he briefly studied law at the College of William and Mary. He was admitted to the Virginia bar and moved to Richmond, where he set up a law practice and established a strong reputation for his work in the state’s appeals court. Marshall also served in a legislative capacity as a member of the Virginia House of Delegates from 1782 to 1789, and in 1788 he was appointed as a delegate to the Virginia convention charged with ratifying or rejecting the newly proposed US Constitution.

Marshall’s first federal appointment in the young United States government was to a diplomatic mission to France in 1797 under President John Adams. Upon his return, at the request of former president George Washington, Marshall successfully ran for the Richmond seat in the US House of Representatives as a member of the Federalist Party. He took this seat in late 1799, and by May of the following year, President Adams had appointed him secretary of state. In 1801, Adams appointed Marshall chief justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.

Marshall served on the Supreme Court for thirty-four years, during which time he wrote 519 of the 1,215 opinions issued by the court, including several landmark cases defining the court’s powers to interpret the Constitution, such as Marbury v. Madison (1803). During the early years of his tenure, Marshall had considerable influence among his fellow justices, reflected in the strong Federalist leaning of many decisions from that time. This started to change around 1804, when President Thomas Jefferson, a distant cousin of Marshall’s and a strong anti-Federalist, appointed the first of three new justices to the court. The country’s rapid economic growth and western expansion in the 1810s and early 1820s led to many decisions on the balance of power between the federal and state governments, including McCulloch v. Maryland. By the late 1820s, Marshall’s influence further declined as President Andrew Jackson’s appointees arrived on the court, skewing the bench further in favor of states’ rights.

Chief Justice John Marshall continued to serve on the US Supreme Court until his death in Philadelphia on July 6, 1835.

Document Analysis

In the early days of the United States, there was much debate about whether a national bank should be established, and whether doing so would be permissible under the US Constitution. In 1791, the Congress chartered the First Bank of the United States, with the goals of establishing a consistent and stable currency, extending credit to encourage further expansion of US territory, and facilitating the collection of taxes from the states for the benefit of the newly founded nation. The bank was championed by those in the administration of President George Washington with Federalist leanings, including Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, but was opposed by those who supported states’ rights, including Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. Under its charter, the First Bank of the United States was limited to twenty years of operation; in 1811, Congress debated renewing the charter, and the bank’s opponents won the day: the charter was not renewed, and the First Bank of the United States ceased operations.

However, the War of 1812 and the Napoleonic Wars led to worldwide financial instability, and it became clear that some intervention was needed to keep the fledgling US economy on track. Some of the national bank’s earlier opponents conceded that the bank had served a useful function during its tenure, and in 1817, the Second Bank of the United States began operations under a new twenty-year charter. The Second Bank’s headquarters were in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, but the bank established branch locations in a number of cities across the United States.

The Second Bank had opened and was operating a branch in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1817 when the state passed legislation that amounted to a tax on the operations of any bank not chartered in Maryland, which included the Second Bank. The new law required that out-of-state banks must print their notes on special paper purchased from the state, or pay $15,000 per year to be exempt from the requirement. Noncompliant banks would face stiff fines. This law was controversial, as it was reminiscent of the stamp taxes that England had forced upon legal documents prepared in the United States prior to the American Revolution.

James McCulloch, who was then acting as the head of the Baltimore branch of the Second Bank, refused to pay the tax. He was reported to the state and ordered to pay the fine for noncompliance, but the Second Bank fought back. The fine was first appealed in the Maryland state court, where a judge ruled against McCulloch and the Second Bank on the grounds that the entire notion of a federal bank was unconstitutional, as the Constitution did not explicitly authorize Congress to establish such a bank. The case was then appealed to the US Supreme Court—which, in its decision, reaffirmed the court’s authority to determine the constitutionality of state and federal legislative actions with respect to the US Constitution.

The Trial

Oral argument in McCulloch v. Maryland began before the US Supreme Court on February 22, 1819, and lasted for nine days. The members of the Supreme Court, as well as the Congress and numerous state leaders, were quite interested in the arguments and the outcome of the case. So, moreover, was the general public: a quote from the letters of Justice Joseph Story noted that the arguments took place before “a crowded audience of ladies and gentlemen; the hall was full almost to suffocation, and many went away for want of room” (325). Indeed, it was widely recognized that this case held more significance than the simple taxation of a single bank branch.

Altogether, six attorneys argued before the Supreme Court. Arguing on behalf of McCulloch and the Second Bank of the United States was Daniel Webster, a well-respected attorney from Massachusetts who frequently appeared before the court; William Wirt, the attorney general of the United States; and William Pinkney, former US attorney general under President James Madison. Arguing on behalf of the state of Maryland was Joseph Hopkinson, a well-known attorney from Philadelphia; Walter Jones, a private attorney from Washington, DC, with a reputation for extensive legal knowledge; and Luther Martin, attorney general for the state of Maryland.

The Supreme Court issued its opinion on March 6, 1819, just three days after the conclusion of oral arguments—impressively fast for an opinion that filled more than 150 written pages. Chief Justice John Marshall wrote the opinion, which, to the surprise of many observers, was unanimous. The ruling established that Congress did indeed have the authority to charter a federal bank, and that Maryland did not have the power to tax that bank’s operations. However, the legal justification behind the decision gave the case significant and long-lasting impact.

The Decision

In writing for the court, Chief Justice Marshall lays out four arguments explaining why Congress did in fact have the authority to establish a national bank. First, the court states that, since Congress had created the First Bank of the United States, it likewise had the authority to create the second. This logic seems dubious, but Chief Justice Marshall explains that the decision to create the First Bank was made by “minds as pure and as intelligent as this country can boast.” He notes that “its principle was completely understood, and was opposed with equal zeal and ability,” and that Congress nonetheless voted to charter the First Bank. He reasoned that, since the decision to charter a federal bank was not made lightly the first time around, the judgment of those who made that decision should be trusted and allowed to stand. Chief Justice Marshall further noted that the chartering of the Second Bank occurred after a “short experience of the embarrassments to which the refusal to revive it exposed the government”; in other words, the Second Bank was chartered in a somewhat rushed manner. Marshall acknowledges that laws passed in this way might be more suspect than those that are extensively debated, but that fact alone does not mean the law is “irreconcilable with the constitution.” This is particularly true in this case, since the First Bank was chartered only after lengthy discussion.

Second, the court rejected Maryland’s argument that the states retain full sovereignty because they were the entities that ratified the Constitution in the first place. Drafted in 1787 at the Constitutional Convention held in Philadelphia, the Constitution was then ratified over a period of two years by state-level ratification conventions. The fact that the Constitution was ratified at the state level formed the basis of Maryland’s argument that it was really the states, not the people, who adopted the Constitution, therefore making the states the locus of sovereignty from which federal power is derived. Chief Justice Marshall writes, however, that “it is true, [the ratification conventions] assembled in their several States,” but that “the measures they adopt do not, on that account, cease to be the measures of the people themselves.”

The third and fourth arguments are tied closely together, and address the provisions of the Constitution directly. The court agreed that the power to charter a national bank was not explicitly granted to Congress in article 1, section 8 of the Constitution. However, Marshall writes that “there is no phrase in the instrument which . . . requires that everything granted shall be expressly and minutely described.” In other words, there was nothing in the Constitution that restricted Congress’s powers to that which was specifically enumerated. He further elaborates that the Constitution does provide for “great powers, to lay and collect taxes; to borrow money; to regulate commerce; to declare and conduct a war; and to raise and support armies and navies,” and that as a result Congress “must also be entrusted with ample means for their execution.” So while Congress may not explicitly have the power to establish a national bank, it implicitly has that power if establishing such a bank will help to execute constitutional duties such as collecting taxes and borrowing money. Marshall particularly emphasized that, because the Constitution was meant to be a living document subject to interpretation, any rulings on the extent of its provisions must be considered in a broader context, and not limited to a strict reading of the text.

This led into Marshall’s final argument, which relied upon the Necessary and Proper Clause. This clause, which is found in article 1, section 8, clause 18, states that Congress can pass any law that is “necessary” and “proper” to carry out the powers granted to it by the Constitution. However, the word “necessary” led to disagreement over its interpretation: Maryland argued that it meant Congress could only enact laws that were absolutely necessary in order to carry out its powers, and that establishing a national bank was not absolutely necessary for the government to function. However, Chief Justice Marshall ultimately said that it referred to “all means which are appropriate” and was not intended to limit Congress to actions that were essentially a last resort. He justified this interpretation by noting that the Necessary and Proper Clause was listed among Congress’s powers in article 8, rather than among its limitations in article 9, and also by noting again that the US Constitution was intended to be a flexible document subject to contextual interpretation. If this were not the case, he argues, it would “deprive the legislature of the capacity to avail itself of experience, to exercise its reason, and to accommodate its legislation to circumstances.”

The decision on this point was significant in the long-running battle between federalism and states’ rights. Chief Justice Marshall stated that the Necessary and Proper Clause was meant to be “an additional power” granted to Congress, rather than “a restriction on those already granted.” This gave Congress broad authority to pass many specific provisions not explicitly addressed in the Constitution, as long as they could be justifiably related to a power that Congress was specifically granted by the Constitution. Further complicating the issue is that the Tenth Amendment, which was ratified as part of the Bill of Rights in 1791, states that any power “not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” This meant that any decision that expanded the power of the federal government necessarily limited the power of the states to legislate in that same area.

This tension informed the second part of the court’s decision in McCulloch v. Maryland: once it was determined that the federal government had the authority to create the Second Bank of the United States, the Supreme Court had to decide whether it was permissible for the state of Maryland to tax the operations of the Baltimore branch.

On this point, the court established that Maryland did not have the power to tax the operation of the federal bank within its borders. Chief Justice Marshall clearly stated that “the power to tax involves the power to destroy,” and that a state cannot “retard impede, burden, or in any manner control, the operations of the Constitutional laws enacted by congress to carry into execution” its powers and duties. To support this ruling, Marshall makes what is commonly referred to as a “slippery slope” argument: he suggests that, if the state is allowed to tax the bank, next it will tax the mail, the mint, the judicial process, the patent system, and any other federal government operation that occurs within its borders. He notes that this would effectively allow a state to shut down the operation of the federal government in that state, which would directly contradict the will of the people as expressed in the ratification of the US Constitution.


The decision in McCulloch v. Maryland was not well received in states known for anti-Federalist views, primarily in the South. The decision was widely criticized in newspapers, including the Richmond Enquirer, of Marshall’s own hometown. Within a few days of the court’s opinion being issued, a writer using the pen name “Amphictyon” wrote an editorial criticizing Marshall on several points, including the issuance of a single court opinion (when, until a few years prior, each justice had generally issued his own opinion), and suggesting that his ruling might have been a result of political influence. The writer likewise noted that the ruling would have broad implications for the future development of the United States, particularly with respect to westward expansion and the creation of railroads, canals, and other matters affecting interstate travel and commerce; the decision in McCulloch v. Maryland would ensure that the federal government could always have the final say on these matters if it so desired. In a rare move, Marshall felt it necessary to defend the ruling in the popular media, publishing a piece titled “A Friend to the Union” in the Philadelphia newspapers. This piece reiterated a significant point in the original opinion, namely that it was the people and not the states who had ratified the Constitution, and expressed Marshall’s belief that it was within the federal government’s authority to take any actions necessary to preserve the nation on behalf of the people that had chosen to form it.

Alas, there was no clear resolution of this ideological split, either at the time of the McCulloch decision, or at present; the issue of the division of power between the federal and state governments continues to be debated.

Essential Themes

McCulloch v. Maryland was a landmark case for the US Supreme Court because of its ruling on the balance of power between federal and state governments, and the constitutional justifications provided for its decision. In the early days of the United States, opinion was starkly divided between those who favored strong federal regulation and those who favored state autonomy. This issue was addressed only vaguely in the Constitution itself. The federal government was granted several specifically enumerated powers, with only a few explicit limitations. Any power not specifically granted to the federal government was reserved for the states by operation of the Tenth Amendment. However, the Necessary and Proper Clause of article 1, section 8 complicated the interpretation of these provisions, and the balance of federal power and state autonomy hinged upon whether that clause was interpreted in a broad “power-granting” sense or a narrow “power-limiting” sense.

McCulloch v. Maryland was significant because, in writing for the court, Chief Justice Marshall stated that the Necessary and Proper Clause should be interpreted broadly. This meant that Congress did indeed have authority to pass laws on matters not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution, as long as those laws were “necessary and proper” to carrying out its constitutional duties. This extended to the establishment of the Second Bank of the United States, because Congress did have explicit authority in several related areas, including levying taxes, lending money, and funding armies and navies. Additionally, by prohibiting the state from taxing the national bank, the court clearly established a limit on states’ power: a state cannot take an action that interferes with the federal government’s exercise of its constitutionally authorized powers.

The ruling in McCulloch v. Maryland had far-reaching consequences for the growth and development of the United States and its government. This theme was present quite often during the early days of the United States, as common infrastructure was being established. For example, it frequently arose in the context of the Interstate Commerce Clause, a clause of the US Constitution that granted Congress the authority to regulate any economic activity that would cross state lines. This effectively gave the federal government ultimate authority over the establishment of railroads, canals, and roadways in new states and territories, which was vitally important as the United States expanded across North America. Additionally during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency, much of the legislation that formed the New Deal was upheld as constitutional because of the precedent establishing broad powers for the federal government. This expansiveness has been called into question many times throughout history, and sometimes Congress’s acts are struck down as unconstitutional if they are deemed insufficiently closely related to its enumerated powers. But since the established precedent is for broad legislative authority, any reduction in this power must be justified by the court, rather than the other way around. As a result, this ideology and the US Supreme Court’s decision in McCulloch v. Maryland had a significant impact on the federal-state balance of power throughout the history of the United States.

  • Crompton, Samuel Willard. McCulloch v. Maryland: Implied Powers of the Federal Government. New York: Infobase, 2007. Print. Harrison, Maureen, and Steve Gilbert, eds. Landmark Decisions of the United States Supreme Court IV. La Jolla: Excellent, 1994. Print.
  • Killenbeck, Mark R. M’Culloch v. Maryland: Securing a Nation. Lawrence: UP of Kansas, 2006. Print.
  • Story, Joseph. Life and Letters of Joseph Story. Boston: Little, 1851. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Catterall, Ralph C. H. The Second Bank of the United States. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1968. Print.
  • Cushman, Clare, Ed. The Supreme Court Justices: Illustrated Biographies, 1789–1993. Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, 1993. Print.
  • Gunther, Gerald, Ed. John Marshall’s Defense of McCulloch v. Maryland. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1969. Print.
  • Hall, Kermit L., ed. The Oxford Guide to United States Supreme Court Decisions. New York: Oxford UP, 1999. Print.

Categories: History