• Last updated on November 10, 2022

In this landmark decision, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized the doctrine of implied powers, which gave the federal government broad authority over state governments and irrevocably established the principle of federal supremacy.

Summary of Event

From the time of its framing in 1787, the U.S. Constitution has stirred controversy over the nature of the union that it created and the extent of federal authority. The Civil War (1861-1865) would in 1865 settle certain outstanding questions as to the nature of the union, but a more articulate consideration of the problem was provided by the Supreme Court of the United States in 1819 in the landmark case of McCulloch v. Maryland. McCulloch v. Maryland (1819)[MacCulloch v. Maryland (1819)] Supreme Court, U.S.;and implied powers[Implied powers] Constitution, U.S.;and implied powers[Implied powers] McCulloch, James W. Maryland;McCulloch v. Maryland[MacCulloch v. Maryland] Marshall, John [p]Marshall, John;McCulloch v. Maryland[MacCulloch v. Maryland] [kw]McCulloch v. Maryland (Mar. 6, 1819) [kw]Maryland, McCulloch v. (Mar. 6, 1819) McCulloch v. Maryland (1819)[MacCulloch v. Maryland (1819)] Supreme Court, U.S.;and implied powers[Implied powers] Constitution, U.S.;and implied powers[Implied powers] McCulloch, James W. Maryland;McCulloch v. Maryland[MacCulloch v. Maryland] Marshall, John [p]Marshall, John;McCulloch v. Maryland[MacCulloch v. Maryland] [g]United States;Mar. 6, 1819: McCulloch v. Maryland[1000] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Mar. 6, 1819: McCulloch v. Maryland[1000] [c]Government and politics;Mar. 6, 1819: McCulloch v. Maryland[1000] Martin, Luther Pinkney, William Webster, Daniel [p]Webster, Daniel;and Bank of the United States[Bank of the United States] Wirt, William

The arguments surrounding the case were as old as the Constitution itself. Although the Constitutional Convention of 1787 had considered and rejected the proposal that Congress be empowered to charter corporations, a classic constitutional debate Debates;over Bank of United States[Bank of United States] took place during the first administration of President George Washington over the question of chartering the First Bank of the United States. In memoranda they wrote at the president’s request, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton Hamilton, Alexander [p]Hamilton, Alexander;and Bank of the United States[Bank of the United States] and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson Jefferson, Thomas [p]Jefferson, Thomas;and Bank of the United States[Bank of the United States] presented diametrically opposed advice on the question of whether the president should approve the bill chartering the First Bank of the United States. Hamilton urged a broad interpretation of the Constitution’s “necessary and proper” clause, contending that Congress had the power to make all laws that it considered expedient or convenient. Jefferson insisted on a stricter interpretation of that clause, which, he argued, authorized Congress to pass only those laws that were necessary to give effect to its specifically delegated powers.

Washington took Hamilton’s Hamilton, Alexander [p]Hamilton, Alexander;and Bank of the United States[Bank of the United States] advice, and the bank was chartered in 1791. The bank’s charter expired in 1811, and the adverse economic impact of the War of 1812, coupled with the abuses and irresponsibility of state-chartered banks, led to the chartering in 1816 of the Second Bank of the United States. The chartering of the First Bank of the United States had prompted a movement in favor of a constitutional amendment to restrict Congress’s powers under the “necessary and proper” clause, and the chartering of the Second Bank of the United States led many states to adopt laws designed to suppress the bank’s operations.

Hostility toward the bank rested on a number of factors. First, it was regarded as a Federalist-controlled enterprise, much of whose stock was held by foreign investors. Moreover, the operations of the First Bank of the United States had tended to undercut the success of the state banks, and many blamed the bleak economic conditions following the War of 1812 on the policies of the First Bank of the United States. Champions of the new bank regarded renewal of its charter as the only hope of improving economic conditions.

In certain states, antibank sentiment was rampant. Indiana, Illinois, Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Ohio, and Maryland adopted laws designed to curtail or prohibit the operation of the Bank of the United States. The momentum of the antibank movement was encouraged by the mismanagement and fraud of the managers of the Second Bank of the United States. The growing anxiety over the deteriorating state of the economy made an appeal to the courts an attractive way of settling the question of the legitimacy of the state burdens that were being imposed on the bank’s operations. This was the immediate motivation for the litigation that led to McCulloch v. Maryland.

John James, an agent of the state of Maryland, called on James W. McCulloch, the cashier of the Baltimore branch of the bank, and demanded that McCulloch comply with the state law. The Maryland law, adopted in February, 1818, required all banks chartered outside Maryland to pay a tax of one hundred dollars on all notes issued or, alternatively, to pay an annual sum of fifteen thousand dollars into the state’s treasury. McCulloch refused to comply with this prohibitive state law. When he was prosecuted for his refusal, the Maryland courts ruled against him. In September, 1818, his case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court heard arguments in the case for nine days. Appearing on behalf of the bank were Attorney General William Wirt Wirt, William , William Pinkney Pinkney, William , and Daniel Webster Webster, Daniel [p]Webster, Daniel;and Bank of the United States[Bank of the United States] . Luther Martin Martin, Luther , the fiery attorney general of Maryland who had expedited the bringing of the case to the Supreme Court; Joseph Hopkinson; and Walter Jones were the lawyers appearing for Maryland.

On March 6, 1819, the Supreme Court handed down its decision, only three days after completion of arguments and while there was much activity in Congress aimed at revoking the bank’s charter. The opinion by Chief Justice John Marshall is regarded by most scholars as his most important pronouncement in constitutional law and the one most important to the future of the United States. The Constitution, said Marshall, established a truly national government that “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.”

Much of the remainder of Marshall’s opinion is an extension and application of this “national” theory of the Constitution’s foundations. Sovereignty is divided between federal and state governments. When state power conflicts with national power, the former must yield because national sovereignty is supreme. The judiciary, Marshall wrote, is constitutionally required to construe Congress’s enumerated powers broadly. The “necessary and proper” clause, sometimes called the “elastic” clause, was designed to empower Congress to exercise its delegated powers by any convenient and expedient methods not prohibited by the Constitution itself. Marshall found that the “necessary and proper” clause gave rise to what have come to be called “implied powers”:

A constitution, to contain an accurate detail of all the subdivisions of which its great powers will admit, and all of the means by which they may be carried into execution, would partake of the prolixity of a legal code, and could scarcely be embraced by the human mind. It would probably never be understood by the public. Its nature, therefore, requires that only its great outlines should be marked, its important objects designated, and the minor ingredients which compose those objects be deduced from the nature of the objects themselves.

By focusing on the ends sought to be achieved by the Constitution’s framers, Marshall ensured that Congress neither overstepped its bounds nor was denied any powers involved with its responsibilities. That flexible approach allowed Congress to select the means by which to implement its powers. Both the spirit and the language of the Constitution supported that view. The Framers had “omitted to use any restrictive term which might prevent its receiving a fair and just interpretation. In considering this question, then, we must never forget, that it is a constitution we are expounding.”

Significance

McCulloch v. Maryland was the Supreme Court’s earliest and most renowned implied powers case. In its ruling, the Court upheld the constitutionality of the federal government to incorporate a national bank in Baltimore. In doing so, it accomplished three important goals: It clarified the power of state taxation and congressional authority in economic policy making, reinforced the principles of U.S. federalism, and specified that the necessary and proper clause of the Constitution grants Congress certain implied powers that extend beyond its enumerated powers.

After the McCulloch decision, the implied powers were used to expand and contract governmental power in Gibbons v. Ogden Gibbons v. Ogden (1824) in 1824 and in United States v. Lopez United States v. Lopez (1995) in 1995. Although many cases decided by the Court have dealt with economic policies, the Court has also addressed crime prevention programs, federalism cases, and the implied powers of the presidency. Indeed, the majority of presidential powers are based on authority implicit in such enumerated, yet vague, powers as the commander in chief and executive power clauses of the Constitution.

During the twentieth century, Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter Frankfurter, Felix asserted that Marshall’s words were the most important ever uttered by a United States judge, acknowledging an expansive source of power and an extension of that power beyond those expressly named sources. “Let the end be legitimate, let it be within the scope of the Constitution, and all means are appropriate, which are plainly adopted to that end, which are not prohibited, but consist with the letter of the Constitution, are constitutional. . . .” As a precedent for future assertions of national authority, the opinion asserted that legitimate uses of national power took priority over state authority and that the “necessary and proper” clause was a broad grant of national authority.

Luther Martin Martin, Luther had insisted in his argument that even if Congress had the authority to establish the Bank of the United States, a state could still levy the tax in question. Marshall rejected his argument and laid down the general principle that the central government had constitutional power to “withdraw any subject from the action” of the states. “The power to tax,” he declared, “involves the power to destroy.” To permit Maryland to tax the bank’s operations would place all federal programs at the mercy of the states. This facet of the McCulloch opinion gave rise to the doctrine of intergovernmental tax immunity.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barron, Jerome A., and C. Thomas Dienes. Constitutional Law in a Nutshell. 2d ed. St. Paul, Minn.: West, 1991. A compact reference on the law for those with a legal or political science background.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cox, Archibald. The Court and the Constitution. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987. The former U.S. solicitor general and Watergate special prosecutor chronicles issues and debates in each era of constitutional history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gunther, Gerald, ed. John Marshall’s Defense of McCulloch v. Maryland. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1969. A compilation of the debates surrounding Marshall’s decision. Contains the newspaper battle with ideological opponents of the Supreme Court, as well as Marshall’s replies. Introduction by the editor.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Johnson, Herbert A. The Chief Justiceship of John Marshall, 1801-1835. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997. Excellent biography of Marshall that closely examines his work on the Supreme Court.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lewis, Thomas T., and Richard L. Wilson, eds. Encyclopedia of the U.S. Supreme Court. 3 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2001. Comprehensive reference work on the Supreme Court that contains substantial discussions of McCulloch v. Maryland, implied powers, John Marshall, and many related subjects.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McCloskey, Robert G. The American Supreme Court. 2d ed. Revised by Sanford Levinson. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994. A detailed treatment of the Marshall Court. Contains additional resources in a bibliographical essay.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Jean E. John Marshall: Definer of a Nation. New York: Henry Holt, 1996. One of the best biographies of Marshall yet published.

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