Chief Justice John Marshall portrait
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Introduction

This case, decided by the Supreme Court in 1819, asserted national supremacy vis-Ã-vis state action in areas of constitutionally granted authority. Maryland had placed a prohibitive tax on the bank notes of the Second Bank of the United States. When the Maryland courts upheld this law, the Bank, in the name of its Baltimore branch cashier James W. McCulloch, appealed to the Supreme Court. Daniel Webster, with William Pinkney, argued the case on behalf of the Bank.

Chief Justice John Marshall wrote the unanimous opinion of the Court. He stated first that the Constitution gave Congress the power to make ‘all laws … necessary and proper’ to carry out the specific powers conferred on Congress in Article I, Section 8. Incorporating Alexander Hamilton’s doctrine of ‘broad construction’ of the Constitution, Marshall wrote, ‘Let the end be legitimate, let it be within the scope of the constitution, and all means which are appropriate, … which are not prohibited, … are constitutional.’ Since the Bank was a lawful instrument of specific federal authority, the law creating the Bank was constitutional.

Marshall then pointed to Article VI of the Constitution, which says that the Constitution is the ‘supreme Law of the Land; … any Thing in the … Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.’ Stating that ‘the power to tax involves the power to destroy,’ he said that the states ‘have no power, by taxation or otherwise, to retard, impede, or … control’ the laws of the federal government, and thus the law ‘imposing a tax on the Bank of the United States, is unconstitutional and void.’

The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.