American Constitutional Law: Introductory Essays & Selected Cases

By Alpheus Thomas Mason; William M. Beaney | Go to book overview
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McCulloch v. Maryland

4 Wheat. 316, 4 L.Ed. 579 ( 1819)

This famous case resulted from the attempt of the Maryland legislature in 1818 to tax banks and bank branches not chartered by the state legislature. McCulloch, cashier of the Baltimore branch of the Bank of the United States, against which the law was directed, failed to pay the $15,000 annual fee, or comply with the alternative requirement by affixing tax stamps to the bank notes issued. McCulloch brought a writ of error against the Court of Appeals of the State of Maryland, which had upheld a lower court judgment against him.

MARSHALL, CH., J., delivered the opinion of the court.

In the case now to be determined, the defendant, a sovereign state, denies the obligation of a law enacted by the legislature of the Union; and the plaintiff, on his part, contests the validity of an act which has been passed by the legislature of that state. The constitution of our country, in its most interesting and vital parts, is to be considered; the conflicting powers of the government of the Union and of its members, as marked in that constitution, are to be discussed; and an opinion given, which may essentially influence the great operations of the government. No tribunal can approach such a question without a deep sense of its importance, and of the awful responsibility involved in its decision. But it must be decided peacefully, or remain a source of hostile legislation, perhaps of hostility of a still more serious nature; and if it is to be so decided, by this tribunal alone can the decision be made. On the supreme court of the United States has the constitution of our country devolved this important duty.

The first question made in the cause is, has congress power to incorporate a bank? It has been truly said, that this can scarcely be considered as an open question, entirely unprejudiced by the former proceedings of the nation respecting it. The principle now contested was introduced at a very early period of our history, has been recognized by many successive legislatures, and has been acted upon by the judicial department, in cases of peculiar delicacy, as a law of undoubted obligation. . . .

The power now contested was exercised by the first congress elected under the present constitution. The bill for incorporating the Bank of the United States did not steal upon an unsuspecting legislature, and pass unobserved. Its principle was completely understood, and was opposed with equal zeal and ability. After being resisted, first in the fair and open field of debate, and afterwards in the executive cabinet, with as much persevering talent as any measure has ever experienced, and being supported by arguments which convinced minds as pure and as intelligent as this country can boast, it became a law. The original act was permitted to expire.; but a short experience of the embarrassments to which the refusal to revive it exposed the government, convinced those who were most prejudiced against the measure of its necessity, and induced

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American Constitutional Law: Introductory Essays & Selected Cases
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