In many ways, the opinion in this case represents a final step in the creation of the federal government. The issue involved, the power of Congress to charter a bank, seems insignificant, but the larger questions go to the very heart of constitutional interpretation, and are still debated today.
In 1791, as part of his financial plan, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton proposed that Congress charter a Bank of the United States, to serve as a central bank for the country. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson opposed the notion, on the grounds that the Constitution did not specifically give Congress such a power, and that under a limited government, Congress had no powers other than those explicitly given to it. Hamilton responded by arguing that Congress had all powers except those specifically denied to it in the Constitution, and that moreover, the "necessary and proper" clause of Article I required a broad reading of the designated powers. President Washington backed Hamilton, and the bank was given a twenty-year charter. The charter expired in 1811, and the Jeffersonians had not renewed it.
Then came the War of 1812, and President Madison realized that the government needed the services of a central bank. In 1816, at his recommendation, Congress chartered a second Bank of the United States (BUS), which quickly established branches throughout the Union. Many local, state-chartered banks, eager to follow speculative policies, resented the cautious fiscal policy of the BUS, and looked to state legislatures to restrict the BUS operations. Maryland imposed a tax on the bank's operations, and when James McCulloch, the cashier of the Baltimore branch of the BUS, refused to pay the tax, the issue went to Court.
Few people expected the Court to hold the charter establishing the bank unconstitutional; what was at issue was the extent of state power and federal authority. In what has justly been termed a state paper, Chief Justice Marshall not only...
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