Article VI of the Constitution | US government and civics | Khan Academy
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Article VI of the Constitution | US government and civics | Khan Academy

– [Kim] Hi, this is Kim from Khan Academy. And today I’m learning
more about Article VI of the US Constitution. Article VI is, as we’ll soon see, kind of a constitutional grab bag. It covers debts, religious
tests for office, and it establishes the
constitution as the supreme law of the land. To learn more about what binds
these diverse ideas together I sought out the help of two experts. Kermit Roosevelt is a
professor of law specializing in Constitutional Law and conflict of laws at the University of
Pennsylvania Law School. And, Michael Ramsey is
professor of law and director of International and
Comparative Law programs at the University of
San Diego School of Law. So, let’s start out
talking about the debts portion of Article VI. Professor Roosevelt, why were the framers so interested in debt? What was the historical
context that led them to explicitly address debt in Article VI? – [Kermit] Debt is important
generally because nations often need to borrow money. And specifically, with
the constitution and the Articles of Confederation
the US Government had been borrowing money to
pay for the Revolutionary War. So, there was a question,
we’re moving from a sort of loose confederation almost
like a treaty between nations under the Articles of
Confederation to a single unitary country with a
stronger national government under the constitution. And, there’s a question, is
it still the same country? Will the new United States pay the debts of the old United States? – [Michael] Now, there’s
a general principal of international law that
a successor government undertakes the obligations
of the predecessor. So, you wouldn’t necessarily
think this would be a problem, but I think they were
particularly concerned because the idea of a republic
was a somewhat new one, at least in the 18th century,
a somewhat unusual one. And, the change of a
republican government might cause some worries in Europe
where this money was owed. So, I think they just
wanted to reassure all of the creditors that
even if they were changing their method of government
that that wasn’t going to effect any of the debts. – [Kim] What might have
happened if they decided not to pay those debts? – [Kermit] If they decided
not to pay the debts than other countries would probably
have been much less willing to lend money to the new United
States because they might have thought, “Well,
you know, another change “in government could occur.” – [Michael] There was
substantial question throughout the world whether the United
States would be able to survive in the face of all the
challenges that they had after gaining their independence. So, in order to make it
seem that the United States was a country that could be
trust, a country that could be expected to stick around
and not collapse into chaos or revert to colonial status
one of the most important things for them was to show
that the debts would be honored because a failure to
honor debts would suggest that the country did not, in
fact, have a true sovereignty and it was not prepared to be an actor on the international stage
that could be trusted. – [Kermit] Another interesting
thing to contrast this to is the treatment of debts
after the Civil War where, of course, the United States,
the federal government paid its own debts but
there’s a provision in the 14th Amendment explicitly repudiating the Confederate debt. So, if you loaned money to the
Confederate States of America you’re never getting that back
because we didn’t treat that as a valid government that would
be continued going forward. – [Michael] Another thing
that it illustrates is that the constitution, in some
respects, was a visionary document that was concerned
with a long term future of the United States. But, in other respects it
responded to very immediate practical problems that the
framers faced in their day. They were thinking about not
just the future of the country for the ages, they were
thinking about that, but they weren’t thinking just about that. They were also thinking about
reassuring France with respect to the debts that existed
right at that moment. – [Kim] So, there’s a lot
going on in Article VI. And specifically, it talks
about the constitution as the supreme law of the land. So, what’s important about that statement? – [Kermit] What’s important
about that is that means the Constitution is our highest law. It prevails over any other
kind of law in a conflict. So, one thing that that
means is the constitution is supreme over state law. And then, the constitution
actually goes on to talk about that a little bit more. But, it also means the
constitution is supreme over federal law. So, everyone is bound by the constitution. The states can’t go against it. Congress can’t go past it. The president can’t violate
constitutional restrictions. The constitution is really the last word. It’s the pinnacle or
the keystone of the arch of American democracy. – [Michael] And, that’s
why we can say that things are unconstitutional, that
laws are unconstitutional and therefore invalid. And, most importantly,
it’s why the Supreme Court can say that laws are
unconstitutional and invalid. It creates a superior
law that limits the laws that can be passed by the
other parts of the government. It creates a hierarchy of laws. And, in doing so, it assures
that we have a single set of rules that applies to all the states and to the federal government. And, it can’t be changed
except by an amendment, which is relatively difficult to do. There’s a procedure in
the constitution for how you can amend the
constitution, but until amended the constitution, as
written, is our superior law. And, that was different from the way that the rules that the framers were used to under the English system
where they didn’t have a written constitution. They had an unwritten
constitution, but that constitution was subject to change by parliament. – [Kim] So, has the
supremacy of the constitution been tested over time? – [Kermit] There haven’t
been a lot of claims that the constitution is not supreme. So, generally speaking
everyone gives, at least, lip service to this idea. What’s been tested is more the question of who gets to decide what
the constitution means and when something conflicts with it. So, if you want the
constitution and federal law to be supreme, probably
you would want to have someone in the federal
government deciding when there’s a conflict, say with state law. And, the forms that
resistance that has taken over the years are more states saying not, “We can go against the
constitution, we’re above “the constitution,” but
states saying, “We don’t think “what we’re doing violates
the constitution,” right, “And you at the Supreme
Court, you think it does “but you’re wrong.” – [Michael] In the 19th century
just before the Civil War the Supreme Court decided
in the Dred Scott case that African Americans
could not be citizens to the United States, even
if they were freed slaves. And, President Lincoln
believed that that was wrong. He said that there was
nothing in the constitution that denied that, the ability
of them to be citizens. And, he said that the Supreme Court had misinterpreted the constitution. And, he would accept the
Supreme Court’s ruling in that regard. Later, in the 20th
century, the Supreme Court held that the constitution
barred segregation, particularly in schools
in the Brown versus Board of Education case. But, many southern governors
and other institutions throughout the south thought
that the Supreme Court had gotten that one wrong. And, they refused to abide
by what the Supreme Court had said the constitution means. – [Kermit] What they said
was not the constitution doesn’t bind us, but we know
what the constitution means better than you, Supreme
Court, you’re wrong. You’re making this up, it’s
political, it’s not judging. – [Kim] Another thing that
Article VI talks about is religious tests. Why were the framers so
interested in preventing religious tests in government? What sort of historical evils
were they trying to prevent? – [Kermit] So, this is
connected to the basic idea of the separation of church and state. And, you separate church
and state really to protect both of those things. So, you wanna protect
religion from being corrupted by political considerations,
but you also want to protect your political system
from being a battleground between rival religions. – [Michael] So, where
this comes from is that in England they had had a series of what they called Test acts. And, what the Test Acts
did was it required that for people to be eligible
for government offices that the people had to be
members of the Church of England. And, that other religious
groups they were barred by the Test Act from
holding government office. So, actually many of
those minority religions, many adherents of those ended up coming to the American colonies to gain some measure of religious freedom. The pilgrims were an example of that. There was a Catholic colony in Maryland. And, just generally
speaking many of the people, many of the colonists
who came over were people who were not part of the main
established church in England. And so, you can see why they
would not wanna have something like the Test Acts. And, they wanted to make
clear that in the new national government that
any religion or no religion would be allowed for
government office holders. – [Kim] Do you think it’s
true that we don’t have religious tests or oaths
in the United States? How about the practice
of swearing on a Bible during the presidential inauguration? – [Kermit] Well, the practice
of swearing on a Bible is very interesting, as
is the fact that when the president recites the oath
of office every president, going back to George
Washington, has added on to the end of it, “So help me God.” There’s actually an
oath in the constitution the president has to swear
to preserve, protect, and defend the constitution. But, the constitution doesn’t
say, “So help me God.” The presidents just add
that on on their own. And actually, that sort
of illustrates the way in which the constitution
treats religion, which is it can’t be part of government
in an official sense, but we know that members of
government are also people. And, they have religious beliefs
that are important to them. And, we don’t demand that
they exclude religion from their lives, we just
demand that it be separated from government authority. So, you can swear on a
Bible if you want to. You don’t have to. You can swear on some
other religious book. We had a member of congress
take an oath of office on a Quran. So, individual government
officials are allowed to include religion in so far as
it’s about them personally. What you think is appropriate
to mark this occasion, what solemnifies this oath
for you, you can do that. But, we can’t require
it, and they can’t make the exercise of their
power religious in nature. So, you can’t, as a government
official, exercise your power on religious grounds. – [Kim] Something that
strikes me about Article VI is that it addresses so
many different things. Do you have a sense of why
debts and constitutional supremacy and religious
tests are all in one article. – [Michael] Article VI, as
you said, is a little bit of a grab bag. It’s not entirely clear
how these different pieces of Article VI relate to each other. And, I think they were just
things that the framers wanted in the constitution
and didn’t know, for sure, where else to put them. – [Kermit] I’m not exactly
sure why the debts are there. If I had to say something about Article VI it would be it’s sort
of the glue that holds the constitutional architecture together. So, maybe the debts
are in there to explain the continuity between
the US government under the Articles of Confederation
and the US government under the constitution. Then, the supremacy clause
explains how all of the different parts of the
federal system are supposed to fit together. And, what the supremacy clause
is saying the constitution is above all of them. The constitution connects them all. Everyone has to abide by the constitution. And, it tells you the
constitution is the highest law, then you’ve got federal
law, and then below that is state law. So that, if there’s a
conflict between federal law and state law, the
federal law is gonna win. And then, the last part
of Article VI is sort of doing the same thing. Because, what holds a country together? What binds people into a single people? In a lot of countries at
the time of the founding it was religion, right,
religion was the glue that held the society together. And, if you weren’t a
member of that religion you were an outsider or you
were a second class citizen. You would be shunned and
not given equal rights in some ways. The last clause of
Article VI says something sort of similar about
America, except it explicitly says it’s not religion that
binds us together, right? No religious tasks can be
required but you do have to take an oath. What do you have to pledge to support? You have to pledge to
support the constitution. So, there again, it’s
telling you the constitution is what we all have in common. That’s what makes us Americans. That really is the glue that
binds our society together. – [Kim] So, we’ve learned
that Article VI is, as Professor Roosevelt put
it, the glue that binds the country together. In assuming the debts from
the era of the Articles of Confederation Article VI
established the continuity of the U.S. government. It also placed the
constitution, not religion, as the supreme law of the United States. To learn more about Article VI visit the National Constitution Center’s
interactive constitution and Khan Academy’s resources
on US government and politics.


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