The Supremacy Clause: McCulloch v. Maryland
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The Supremacy Clause: McCulloch v. Maryland


[♪♪♪] – The supremacy clause
is a funny name for a very basic concept
in our Constitution. – The supremacy clause was
very important to the project of building a nation out of what had been
very separate states. – It’s called
the supremacy clause because it tells you
what the supreme authority in our legal system is. – Right here
in Article VI, it says, “This Constitution, and the laws
of the United States, shall be the supreme law
of the land.” – The supremacy clause essentially put
everyone on notice and everyone agreed because
they ratified the Constitution that we would be one country. – Above everything,
the supreme law of the land is the U.S. Constitution, and that’s what binds everyone
as Americans. – Simple, right? America’s one country
with one Constitution. Well, remember, we’re
the United States of America. States have their own laws, their own governments
and elections. They were here first. – Most of our law, most of the law that affects
people’s everyday lives, is actually state law. – Criminal laws, civil laws, laws about property
and contracts, these are mostly state laws. Federal government
is limited to the powers listed in the Constitution. A lot of power that’s
not in the Constitution is left to the states. So, wait a minute. Who’s in charge? – One of the great struggles that American government
has always had is to try and figure out
what’s the right relationship between the states
and the federal government. – How do you build one nation out of so many state
and local governments? OK, we’re going to talk about
national banks and taxes, but this film is about
the balance of power between the states
and the federal Constitution, and there are three lessons
to take away from it: The nation almost failed when it didn’t have
a strong federal Constitution to balance the power
of the states; the supremacy clause
gives the Constitution the last word in conflicts between the federal government and the states; and that structure of power has been in place since
the Supreme Court’s decision in McCulloch v. Maryland. It’s the states versus
the federal government, and the survival of the nation. And all of that is right there
in the supremacy clause. With me? Let’s start with survival. December, 1777.
Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. You’ve seen the paintings. George Washington
and 12,000 soldiers of the Continental Army
were camped here for a brutal winter. The British Army was
18 miles away in Philadelphia, warm and well supplied. But at Valley Forge, only one out of three
American soldiers had shoes. They were sick and starving, and General Washington
and his aide, Alexander Hamilton, were begging Congress
to get them food, clothes and supplies. But Congress
couldn’t get it done. – It couldn’t raise money
through taxes; it couldn’t raise an army, all the things we think
of a federal government doing on behalf of a country. – In 1776,
the Continental Congress declared independence and they wrote
the Declaration of Independence and they also wrote
another document. It was a document
that was designed to be a first constitution, and it was called
the Articles of Confederation. – Constitutions
are drawn from experience. The 13 colonies were
under the thumb of a king and didn’t want to create
a similar government with a strong central power. So, the Articles
of Confederation left most of the power
with the 13 states. – You had troops in each state. And there was a time
in which South Carolina was asked to move their troops
to a different part of the war where the battle was waging and South Carolina said,
no thanks, we’ll keep them
right at home. And so, you have
that kind of behavior. – The Articles of Confederation did not give you
a unified financial system. You could have different
currencies for different states. – It was pretty weak
as federal governments go, and that was on purpose. – There was no president, no judiciary. All the power
was with the states. It was so weak, they didn’t
really want to call it a national government. They actually called it… – A firm league of friendship. – Wait, what? – Yes, so the Articles
of Confederation used this wonderful phrase
that they were a firm league of friendship. In fact, some people said that mostly what Congress
did in those days was they all showed up
and then they went around looking for young women
to marry. And but for that, you wouldn’t know
that even Congress existed. That’s actually true. – And because all the power
was with the states, Congress couldn’t tax them
to raise enough money to support the troops
when they needed it most at Valley Forge. Twenty-five hundred men
died that winter without a shot being fired. And when the war was won,
Washington, Hamilton, and the leaders who watched
their men die at Valley Forge were determined to give
the national government enough power for the new nation
to take care of itself. – And the consequence is,
each state going its own way results in a nation
that is insecure militarily, insecure financially. – Chief among the people who really disliked
the Articles of Confederation was Gen. George Washington. No one could raise
enough money to pay his troops. So, Washington wanted to have
a stronger national government and he found other men
who agreed with him. – Alexander Hamilton was
one of the very strong voices. – James Madison
thought that the states were an enormous problem. – So, they met in secret
in Philadelphia to write a new constitution with a strong
federal government, one with three separate branches
and all the powers necessary to build a new nation: the power to raise an army,
to levy taxes, to regulate
the national economy, and to pass laws
that would apply to every person throughout the country. – What they come up with,
of course, is a whole new system
of government. They come up
with the Constitution. – And while states
kept a lot of power under this Constitution, they gave federal law
the last word right here in Article VI,
with the supremacy clause. – The supremacy clause
creates a first and primary loyalty
to the Constitution. – It says
that the national government is the supreme government, the Constitution is
the supreme law of the land. – But some of the framers
were pretty upset about this. States like Virginia
had been around 170 years before the Revolution, and they didn’t want
this new government far away from their state
telling them what to do. – Historically,
we use the term Federalists and Anti-Federalists, to describe two different
general views about the Constitution. The Federalists are the people
who defend the Constitution. – The intellectual leader
of the Federalists was Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton was an immigrant
from the Caribbean who joined the New York militia and quickly
rose through the ranks to become a chief aide
to General Washington. After the war, he helped found
the Bank of New York and became one of three
delegates sent by New York to the Constitutional Convention
in Philadelphia, where he argued for one thing. – He wanted a very strong and powerful
national government. – Hamilton’s rival
was Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson
was the primary author of the Declaration
of Independence. He wasn’t at Valley Forge
with Washington and Hamilton. In fact, Jefferson
spent part of the war as governor
of the state of Virginia. He wanted the states
to remain strong. – The Anti-Federalists
argued that the states had lost all their power and the whole thing was
going to be a complete disaster. – Jefferson didn’t go that far, but he wanted a Bill of Rights to limit the power
of this new government. James Madison,
now siding with Jefferson, wrote the first 10 amendments
to the Constitution. – And what the 10th Amendment
says is that those powers
not delegated to the United States are reserved to the people
and the states. – We have authorized powers
to the federal government, but everything else that’s
not covered in the Constitution is reserved to the states. – The problem was
you were never quite sure where that line was. – So now we’ve got
a Constitution, a Congress, a judiciary,
and a president. George Washington
was elected in 1789, and he put both rivals
in his cabinet. Thomas Jefferson
became secretary of state, and Alexander Hamilton was the first secretary
of the treasury. – And they clashed,
almost immediately. It was mainly philosophical, but they also didn’t really
like each other too much either. – Alexander Hamilton
believed that the convention had given the national
government significant powers. – Hamilton argues
that we need a bank. A bank is necessary
to collect taxes. It’s necessary
to coin money. It’s necessary
to pay off debts. – The Anti-Federalists
hated this idea. Each state already had a bank. They worried
that a national bank would take money and wealth
from the states and give it
to the federal government. – Jefferson looks at
what Hamilton wants to do, and he’s scared by
the concentration of capital in the nation,
as opposed to in the states. He thinks that the states
should be the center of power in this new government and that the states are the way that we will prevent tyranny from happening again. – But Washington and Hamilton remembered Valley Forge. They remembered
how a weak federal government almost lost them the war
and destroyed the young nation. – And Washington ends up
siding with Hamilton. – In 1791,
President George Washington signed the bill establishing
the First Bank of the United States. But they make a deal:
In exchange for a national bank, the nation’s capital
moves south, closer to Jefferson’s
and Madison’s home state of Virginia. And the Anti-Federalists
got one more concession: The bank was chartered
for only 20 years. So, in 1811, President James Madison
let the bank expire. – Right before
the War of 1812. – And in fact,
what happens is, the War of 1812 under
President Madison takes place, and they have
similar kinds of problems that had existed under
the Articles of Confederation. The absence of the bank
makes it hard to raise money, and after the war ends,
Madison realizes, wow, we really do need a bank. It really did serve a purpose. Boy, wouldn’t it have been
convenient if we had a bank while we were fighting
the British in the War of 1812. And they charter
a new bank in 1816. – So, lesson learned again. Right? No? – Not everyone is happy
about this bank and a lot of the states are
very agitated about the bank. They think
states should have banks, but they don’t think
the federal government should have a bank. It’s too much power;
it’s too much consolidation. And what happens
after the bank is chartered is, states start to attack it. And one of the main ways
that they attack it is they tax it. – They wanted people
to bank with them, not with
the Second National Bank. And some of the states thought: Well, we’ll try
and make money off this bank. – Tennessee, Georgia,
North Carolina, Kentucky and Ohio
all imposed taxes on branches of the Second Bank
of the United States operating within their states. The State of Maryland introduced
a tax of $15,000 a year on all banks
not chartered by that state. And in 1818, there was
only one bank that fit the bill. – The tax is designed,
is structured, to specifically apply
and only apply, to the Bank
of the United States. – The Maryland branch
of the federal government’s Second Bank
of the United States was located in Baltimore. It was run by James McCulloch. We can’t find an image of him, but we did find an old
educational film about the case, and they thought
he looked like this. – That is correct. – James McCulloch
would have been the man to pay Maryland’s tax
on the Second National Bank. – Right again. – But he refused
to pay Maryland’s tax and in this old-school film,
when Maryland threatens to sue, what McCulloch says is
old school for, “Bring it on.” – We have no intention
of paying the state tax. Not now, not at any time
in the future. Now, if under the circumstances
you want to take us to court, please do. – James McCulloch
understood two things. One, the federal government
could not let the states tax it. – If you can tax an entity
of the federal government, you have the tool
to destroy that institution. You can just tax it
out of existence. – And two,
the supremacy clause probably
wouldn’t let that happen. – There’s a concern
that you have an entity that is less supreme,
under the supremacy clause, the state – exercising
some measure of control over an entity
that is more supreme: the federal government. – On February 22, 1819, the Supreme Court
heard oral arguments in McCulloch v. Maryland. – McCulloch was a huge case
at the time, and it was
a really big controversy. Everybody understood
that the stakes were not only about the bank, the stakes were also about
the larger separation of power between the federal government and the states. – McCulloch is argued
by six lawyers. There was a rule that you were
only supposed to have two lawyers per side, but the court knew this was going to be an important case, and so they said everyone
could have three lawyers. – At the head of the Maryland
team of lawyers was Maryland Attorney General
Luther Martin. Martin had been a delegate
to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia back in 1787, and had refused to sign
the Constitution because he felt that it
violated the states’ rights guaranteed under
the Articles of Confederation. – He had opposed the strong
national government that was being created in 1787. Luther Martin also drove people
at the convention crazy because he talked forever. – On the side
of the federal government was one of the greatest orators
in American history, Daniel Webster. Webster’s reputation was so good
that Hollywood made a movie showing him winning a case
against the devil. – Gentlemen of the jury, don’t let this country
go to the devil! – Webster had a fabulous
speaking style. He was so exciting
to listen to. People wrote reports
about how, after he spoke, they could barely
go over and touch him. They felt like
he burned like the fire. – And presiding
over the Supreme Court was a man who arguably
had more influence over the United States judiciary than any other person
in history: Chief Justice John Marshall. – John Marshall
is probably the greatest chief justice
the Supreme Court has ever had. He’s enormously influential. – The reason he’s so important
is because he gives the Supreme Court the stature that we know of it today. He is the first person to say the Supreme Court is
a really important institution. – John Marshall
wrote the decision in Marbury v. Madison, establishing the principle
of judicial review, the idea that the Supreme Court
can overturn the actions of the legislative
and executive branches if they violate
the Constitution. Before Marshall, it wasn’t clear
who had final say over what
the Constitution said. – Suddenly the Supreme Court
of the United States has very, very
considerable power, even over the Congress
of the United States. You could say
Hamilton and Madison were the architects
of the Constitution, but he was the prime interpreter of the Constitution and we still owe a great deal
of thanks to him for that. – John Marshall served
as secretary of state under President John Adams, and there’s one more thing
you should know about Chief Justice Marshall. – John Marshall had been
at Valley Forge with George Washington. – It was the insistence
on state rights that drove us
to the brink of disaster. We would have perished. I know it. – John Marshall had been
one of the people who argued strongly
for the fact that we needed
a strong national government. – Over nine days of arguments, the foremost lawyers
in the country and the greatest jurists
in our history came together
in the Supreme Court. And before a packed house, and with newspapers delivering blow-by-blow accounts, they battled it out over who was ultimately
in charge of the nation: states,
or the federal government. – Maryland’s main argument
in the case is that the Constitution
does not authorize Congress to charter a bank. You don’t need a bank
to collect taxes; maybe it’s easier,
but you don’t need it. – It absolutely goes back
to Jefferson’s argument. There’s nothing
in the Constitution that would justify
creating a national bank. – Luther Martin
complained endlessly in a very long argument
that the national government shouldn’t have all the power, that the states should be given
more power. And this was the same argument
he had made many years ago in Philadelphia. – Daniel Webster argues
that federal law is supreme. – Webster’s argument
basically ends up mimicking the arguments
that Alexander Hamilton uses in defending the bank
way back in 1791. – The lawyers for the bank
also argued that no state could tax
a part of the U.S. government or something authorized
by the U.S. government. They argued
that if you could tax something, you could destroy it. – On Saturday, March 6, 1819, Chief Justice John Marshall delivered his opinion. In a unanimous decision, the court ruled
that the federal government had the power
to create a federal bank and that the states
had no power to tax it because federal law, through the supremacy clause,
is supreme. “This great principle,”
Marshall wrote, “is that the Constitution
and the laws “made in pursuance thereof
are supreme; “that they control
the Constitution “and laws
of the respective States, and cannot
be controlled by them.” – John Marshall
took the position the national government
has to take precedence; it has to be able to do
what is necessary for it to continue in existence. It has to do what is necessary
for it to execute policies that it’s allowed to have. – Marshall argued
that Congress had the power to create a bank because the Constitution
gave it broad powers to protect
and stabilize the nation. Even though that power
isn’t enumerated, the 10th Amendment doesn’t
just give it to the states. – Marshall’s most famous line
in McCulloch is where he says,
“We must never forget it is a constitution
we are expounding.” That’s very fancy for saying, we interpret a constitution differently. And Marshall thought
you interpreted a national constitution differently from the Articles
of Confederation. In some ways,
McCulloch is an argument that Marshall’s
having with people who objected to the Constitution
in the very beginning. – What McCulloch did was, it basically made
the federal government much stronger
vis-à-vis the states than it had been before. – McCulloch is viewed today as one of the really fundamental
early decisions that sets out
what kind of a constitution and what kind of a government
we have. – Today,
what has endured from McCulloch is not the bank
that Alexander Hamilton, Daniel Webster and John Marshall
fought to preserve. When the charter for
the Bank of the United States came up under renewal
again in 1832, President Andrew Jackson, a strong supporter
of states’ rights, vetoed it. Eighty years later,
the Federal Reserve was created after a series
of crippling financial crises. But seriously, that’s
an entirely different film. – The legacy
that McCulloch leaves is not the existence
of a national bank. We don’t have
a national bank today. The legacy is really about
the structure of power as between the federal
government and the states. – And in the centuries
since McCulloch was decided, the supremacy clause
has remained central to keeping us together
as a nation. – In 1860 and 1861, when states are seceding
from the Union, and one of the questions that
the president, Abraham Lincoln, has to answer is: Does the Constitution
give individual states the power to secede? The supremacy clause
is an important part of the argument for saying,
well, no. – In the 20th century, many states
weren’t willing to uphold important civil rights cases like Brown v.
Board of Education. – That decision
really has echoes of McCulloch v. Maryland. Can the states defy
an act of the Supreme Court? And the ultimate answer is no. – Today, we don’t argue about
whether the Constitution is ultimately supreme
over state law so much as
where federal power ends and state power begins. In cases ranging
from environmental law to immigration enforcement, vehicle safety standards
to voting laws, conflicts between
state and federal law happen all the time. And Chief Justice Marshall
predicted as much in his McCulloch decision, saying the debate over
state and federal power will be “perpetually arising, and will probably
continue to arise, as long as our system
shall exist.” – Our Constitution sets up
a lot of structures and it stacks them up
in this great edifice of American democracy. You know, there are
the local governments, there are the state governments, there’s the federal government on top of that. But what prevents the whole
tower from falling down? The supremacy clause
is really the glue of our constitutional
architecture. – What’s really great about
the Constitution in some ways is it begins with that strong “We the people” and then it goes along explaining everything and then right near the end,
it has this little reminder that actually the Constitution and the laws of the government are the supreme law of the land. It’s almost like
if you read a long book and were wondering in the end,
what did all this matter? The supremacy clause reminds us, actually, the whole point
of this Constitution is we agree to be one nation. [♪♪♪] [end credits music] [music ends]

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