[Back to the Unit Three Summary]
Important Rulings of the Marshall Court (1810s-20s)

John Marshall served as Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court from 1801 until 1835.  A Federalist appointed by John Adams, Marshall served more than three decades after the Federalist party lost control of the executive and legislative branches of government.  He dominated the court like no other Chief Justice before or after.  Though he sat on the court for 1127 decisions, he was in the minority only seven times. The Marshall court generally supported the values of national supremacy, economic competition and judicial power. Below are summaries of and excerpts from three of the Marshall CourtĚs most significant rulings.  As you read each case, think about how it reflects the courtĚs commitment to the values of national supremacy, economic competition and judicial power.

McCulloch v. Maryland (1819)

Congress incorporated the Bank of the United States and established a branch in Baltimore, Maryland.  The state of Maryland required all banks not chartered by the state to pay a tax on each issuance of bank notes.  McCulloch, the cashier of the Baltimore branch of the Bank of the United States issued notes without complying with the state law, claiming that the law was unconstitutional.  Maryland sued for the taxes due it.  The state made two claims:  First, that the Bank of the United States was an unconstitutional misuse of the necessary and proper clause; and second, that as a sovereign state it had the (concurrent) power to tax.  The court ruled in favor of McCulloch and the federal government.

As you read, think about how the Marshall Court is interpreting the elastic clause and the supremacy clause of the Constitution.

The first question made in the cause is ­ has Congress the power to incorporate a bank?.... Although among the enumerated powers of government we do not find the word "bank"... we find the great powers, to lay and collect taxes; to borrow money; to regulate commerce.... A government entrusted with such ample powers... must also be entrusted with ample means for their execution.... We think the sound construction of the Constitution must allow the national legislature that discretion, with respect to the means by which the powers it confers are to be carried into execution, which will enable that body to perform the high duties assigned to it....  The act to incorporate the Bank of the United States is a law made in pursuance to the Constitution....

[May the state of Maryland] without violating the Constitution, tax that branch [of the Bank of the United States?].... The power to create [a bank] implies the power to preserve [it].... The power to tax involves the power to destroy... the power to destroy may defeat and render useless the power to create.... If we apply the principle for which Maryland contends... we shall find [Maryland] capable of arresting all the measures of the government, and prostrating it at the foot of the states....

If any one proposition could command the universal assent of mankind, we might expect it to be this: that the government of the Union, though limited in its powers, is supreme within its sphere of action.  This would seem to result necessarily from [the Constitution]....  It is the government of all; its powers are delegated by all; it represents all, and acts for all.... The nation, on the subjects on which it can act, must necessarily bind its component parts.  But this question is not left to mere reason: the people have, in express terms, decided it, by saying, "this Constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof, shall be the supreme law of the land."  The government of the United States, then, though limited in its powers, is supreme [within its sphere of power].... The law passed by the legislature of Maryland, imposing a tax on the Bank of the United States, is unconstitutional and void.

Dartmouth College v. Woodward (1819)

In 1769 Dartmouth College was chartered by the English monarch.  In 1816 the state legislature of New Hampshire passed a law making the private college a public state university (and changing the name to Dartmouth University).  The former trustees of the private college brought the state to court.  The trustees claimed that the original charter granted by England (prior to the Revolution) was a contract and that the New Hampshire law violated the contract clause of the Constitution (Article I, section 10) which prevents states from passing laws impairing the "obligations of contracts."  The court ruled in favor of the original trustees of Dartmouth College.

It can require no argument to prove, that the circumstances of this case constitute a contract.... A charter of incorporation has been granted, [and] nothing can be inferred, which changes the character of the institution, or transfers to the government any new power over it.... [The trustees of Dartmouth College] are not public officers, nor is it a civil institution... [it is] a seminary of education, incorporated for the preservation of its property.  This is plainly a contract... made for the security and disposition of property.... It is, then, a contract within the letter of the Constitution, and within its spirit also... the obligation of which cannot be impaired, without violating the Constitution of the United States.... The obligations, then, which were created [by the government of EnglandĚs] charter to Dartmouth College, are the same in the new [United States government] that they had been in the old government.... The acts of the legislature of New Hampshire... are repugnant to the Constitution of the United States.

Gibbons v. Ogden (1824)

New York State granted R. Livingston and R. Fulton exclusive navigation rights on all waters within the jurisdiction of the state.  That is, New York gave them a monopoly over shipping on all New York State waterways.  Fulton and Livingston, in turn, issued licenses to all who wished to operate steamboats in New York waters including Aaron Ogden.  Ogden was given license to operate a route between New York City and New Jersey ports.  Thomas Gibbons owned steamboats running between New Jersey and New York City and held a license to do so issued under the provisions of a 1793 act of the U.S. Congress.  Ogden sued, claiming that New York State had given him the authorization to ship that route and that, according to the State of New York, Gibbons had no such authorization. On the other hand, Gibbons claimed that under the interstate commerce clause of the Constitution (Article I, Section 8, Clause 3), the federal government had the power to regulate such a route.  And, if state and federal law were in conflict, the federal law must be supreme.

As you read, think about how the Marshall Court is interpreting the interstate commerce clause and the elastic clause of the Constitution.

The words [of the Constitution] are "Congress shall have the power to regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes."  The subject to be regulated is "commerce.".... Commerce, undoubtedly, is traffic, but it is something more ­ it is intercourse.... All America understands, and has universally understood, that the word "commerce," to comprehend navigation.  Commerce among the states, cannot stop at the external boundary line of each state, but may be introduced to the interior.... To regulate implies, in its full nature, full power over the thing to be regulated, it excludes necessarily, the actions of all others that would perform the same operation on the same thing.... [The Constitution] contains an enumeration of powers expressly granted by the people to their government.  It has been said that these powers ought to be construed strictly.  But why ought they be so construed?  Is there one sentence in the Constitution which gives continence to this rule?  In the last of the enumerated powers, that which grants expressly the means of carrying all others into execution, Congress is authorized "to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper" for the purpose.... What do the gentlemen mean by a strict construction?.... That narrow construction, which would cripple the government and render it unequal to the objects for which it is declared to be instituted.... We cannot perceive the propriety of this strict construction, nor adopt it as the rule by which the Constitution is to be expounded.  The acts of New York must yield to the laws of Congress....

[Back to the Unit Three Summary]