School Improvement in Maryland
Clarifications: Each clarification provides an explanation of an indicator/objective to help teachers better understand the skills and/or concepts.

Standard 1.0 Political Science

Topic A. The Foundations and Function of Government

Indicator 1. Investigate the evolution of the U.S. political system as expressed in the United States Constitution

Objective d. Explain and summarize how the supremacy of the national government was defined by events, such as Shay's Rebellion and early decisions of the Supreme Court, such as McCulloch v. Maryland (1819)


After declaring independence from Great Britain, Americans were very hesitant to create a national government with too much power, fearing that such a body would abuse its power in the same way that the British king and Parliament had. The first national government created by the Articles of Confederation was therefore quite weak, but the weaknesses of this government soon became apparent. Because it lacked the power to tax and requests for money from the state were often ignored, the central government faced financial problems. The United States government also encountered problems with foreign powers like Great Britain and Spain, again because it lacked the power to force the states to abide by foreign agreements.

The problems created by a weak national government were exposed dramatically by Shays' Rebellion in 1786. Massachusetts farmers unable to pay their debts protested the confiscation of their homes and property by attempting to arm themselves and shut down the courts. Their rebellion was put down, but property owners in other states were frightened by the incident. Those in power began to fear that the nation was on the brink of anarchy. They questioned whether "common" Americans possessed sufficient character and skills to trust them with participation in a representative democracy and worried that the pursuit of so many local and state interests was acting against the national best interests. Ultimately, national leaders concluded that a stronger central government was necessary and drafted the Constitution, which created a much more powerful national government.

Gradually, the national government assumed even more power over state and local governments as a result of various events. One important such event was the Supreme Court case of McCulloch vs. Maryland. Congress had created a bank called the Second Bank of the United States. The State of Maryland placed a heavy tax on its branch of the Second Bank of the United States, which the bank's cashier, James McCulloch, refused to pay. The ensuing court case reached the Supreme Court, which ruled that Maryland did not have the right to tax the national bank. Chief Justice John Marshall said that the federal government was given its authority through the Constitution directly from the people and not by the state governments, making the federal government superior to the state governments. Moreover, the supremacy clause dictates that when a federal law conflicts with a state law, the federal law wins out. Marshall argued that because taxation can destroy an institution, Maryland's taxation of the bank would make the Second Bank of the United States dependent on the state for survival, and no federal institution should be dependent on any state. This ruling clearly established the power of the national government over the states by, some claimed, stretching the Constitution.

Another Supreme Court case that expanded the power of the federal government was Gibbons v. Ogden in 1824. In this case, the Supreme Court ruled that a federal license to operate steamboats between New York and New Jersey took precedence over a state license. To take advantage of the Constitution's delegation of the power to regulate interstate commerce to Congress, the Court took a very broad view of the definition of commerce, thus expanding the issues over which the federal government had power.

Another important event that reinforced the national government's superiority to the state governments was the Nullification Crisis of 1832. When South Carolina voted to nullify a federal tariff and threatened secession if the federal government tried to interfere, Congress passed the Force Bill at the urging of President Andrew Jackson. This bill authorized the president to use military force to enforce Congressional acts.

Resources for Objective 1.A.1.d: