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 C. Protecting Rights and Maintaining Order

Indicator 1. Examine the impact of governmental decisions on individual rights and responsibilities in the United States

Objective d. Describe the expansion of the powers of the national government in the decision of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case McCulloch v. Maryland


In 1816, Congress passed a law creating the Second Bank of the United States. The purpose of the bank was to serve as a depository of federal funds and to fortify the currency of the United States. The Bank was strongly opposed by strict constructionists who were highly suspicious of the power of the federal government, and who assumed a narrow view of the scope of Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, which lays out the powers of Congress. In their view, Congress lacked the authority to create the Bank because this power was not explicitly granted in words of the Constitution. The Bank was also unpopular in many states, some of which had chartered their own banks. State banks saw the Bank of the United States as competitor with unfair advantages. In 1818, the state of Maryland imposed a tax that clearly targeted the Bank of the United States. The case of McCulloch v. Maryland emerged after James McCulloch, who was the cashier at the Baltimore branch of the Bank of the United States, refused to pay this tax, and Maryland sued in response. In 1819, McCulloch’s case was decided by the Supreme Court. At issue were the constitutionality of both the Bank of the United States and of the tax Maryland imposed to destroy it.

The Supreme Court’s ruling in McCulloch rejected the strict constructionists’ narrow conception of the powers of Congress. It affirmed the notion that the Constitution, via the “elastic clause” found in Article I, Section 8, Clause 18, authorizes Congress to take actions that are not explicitly mentioned in the document itself, so long such actions are tied to powers that are. In the McCulloch case, Chief Justice John Marshall’s opinion upheld Congress’s authority to create the Bank on the grounds that doing so was “necessary and proper” for carrying out its enumerated (stated) powers to regulate interstate commerce, collect taxes, and borrow money. “Let the ends be legitimate,” Marshall declared, “let it be within the scope of the constitution, and all means which are appropriate, which are plainly adopted to that end, which are not prohibited, but consist with the letter and spirit of the constitution, are constitutional.”

The decision also ruled that Maryland’s tax on the Bank was a violation of Article VI, Section 2 of the Constitution, also known as the Supremacy Clause. Declaring famously that “the power to tax is the power to destroy,” Marshall’s decision concluded that a state tax on a federal institution such as the Bank undermined the Supremacy Clause’s guarantee that “the Laws of the United States … shall be the Supreme Law of the land.” In addition, the Court rejected Maryland’s contention that since the powers of the federal government, and indeed the Constitution itself, were the creation of “sovereign and independent states,” individual states had the authority to take actions that might supersede laws and actions taken by the federal government. According the Marshall, the opposite was the case. Since the people of the United States had ratified the Constitution, albeit in conventions that had been organized by the states, “the government of the Union” is “supreme within its sphere of action.” “The nation,” Marshall wrote, “must necessarily bind its component parts.”

As of result of its assertion that the Constitution was intended to “endure for ages to come … and to be adapted to the various crises of human affairs,” the McCulloch decision’s affirmation of the elastic (or “necessary and proper”) clause has been used to justify the notion that Congress has the implicit authority to legislate in matters that may have been unforeseen by the Framers. For example, it has given legitimacy to federal environmental, communications, transportation, and financial regulations. But it is important to note that the very same debate between advocates of a strong federal government and those deferential to the states has not subsided in the more than 200 years since Marshall’s momentous ruling.

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