If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

McCulloch v. Maryland (1819)

A quick guide to the background, decision, and impact of McCulloch v. Maryland. 

Key points

  • In the case McCulloch v. Maryland, the Supreme Court considered whether Congress had the power to create a national bank and whether the state of Maryland had interfered with congressional powers by taxing the national bank.
  • The Supreme Court ruled in favor of McCulloch and found that the state of Maryland had interfered with one of Congress’s implied powers.

Background of the case

After the founding of the United States, one of the first things the new government had to address was the debt the nation had incurred fighting the Revolutionary War. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton came up with a plan to create the Bank of the United States, a national bank, in order to absorb state debts from the war and to create a national currency. But not everyone agreed that the federal government had the power to create a bank.
One of the bank’s most vocal opponents was Thomas Jefferson, who argued that it was not within the federal government’s explicit powers to create a national bank and that doing so was an overreach of federal power. Despite opposition to the bank, Congress passed the first charter of the Bank of the United States in 1791, granting it the power to operate for twenty years.
But when it came time to renew the bank’s charter in 1811, the measure was defeated in Congress by one vote. It would take another five years for Congress to pass the second charter of the Bank of the United States, but in 1816, the national bank was reestablished. Once again, conflict flared over whether Congress had the power to create a national bank.
The government of Maryland did not want a national bank and did not want a branch in Maryland. Nevertheless, the branch opened in 1817. The state of Maryland decided to tax the Baltimore branch of the Bank of the United States in an effort to run it out of business.
The bank’s cashier, James W. McCulloch, refused to pay the tax. In response, the state of Maryland sued him. Both the state trial court and the state supreme court agreed that McCulloch had to pay the tax. McCulloch appealed to the US Supreme Court, which heard the case in 1819.
Check your understanding
What was the main argument against creating a national bank?
Choose 1 answer:

The Constitutional question at stake

The Supreme Court has two conditions for hearing a case: the case needs to be nationally significant, meaning that its outcome will most likely affect the entire country, or it has to deal with a question regarding the Constitution. Since 1803, the Court has had the power of judicial review, the responsibility to determine whether or not a law violates the Constitution.
So, when we ask “What was the Constitutional question in this case?” we are really asking, “What question is the Court trying to answer about how the law interacts with the Constitution?”
For McCulloch v. Maryland, there were two questions the Court was trying to answer:
  • Did Congress have the authority to establish the bank under the Constitution?
  • Did the Maryland law unconstitutionally interfere with congressional powers?


For the first question, the Supreme Court decided that Congress did have the power to establish a national bank, not as an enumerated, or explicit, power, but as an implied power granted by the Constitution. The Supreme Court found that the Constitution grants Congress the explicit power to levy (or collect) taxes and regulate currency, which means that they need to have a way to do that.
So, even though the Constitution does not explicitly say that the federal government can create a national bank, because Congress needs a national bank in order to levy taxes and regulate currency, the court argued that the power to create a national bank was implied.
Chief Justice John Marshall
Portrait of Chief Justice John Marshall, 1833. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Chief Justice Marshall explained the Court’s decision this way:
“The government which has a right to do an act, and has imposed on it the duty of performing that act, must, according to the dictates of reason, be allowed to select the means . . . The power of creating a corporation is never used for its own sake, but for the purpose of effecting something else. No sufficient reason is, therefore, perceived, why it may not pass as incidental to those powers which are expressly given, if it be a direct mode of executing them.”
Check your understanding
According to the Supreme Court, what is the difference between enumerated powers and implied powers?
Choose 1 answer:

As for the second question, the Supreme Court found that the Maryland law did unconstitutionally interfere with Congressional powers. Seeing as the Court decided that Congress needed the national bank to perform its constitutional duties, Maryland's attempt to tax the bank was unconstitutional and violated federal supremacy. The Supreme Court found that federal law had supremacy, or authority, over state laws and that states could not interfere with federal powers.
Marshall explained the Court’s decision as follows:
“If the States may tax one instrument, employed by the government in the execution of its powers, they may tax any and every other instrument. They may tax the mail; they may tax the mint; they may tax patent rights; they may tax the papers of the custom-house; they may tax judicial process; they may tax all the means employed by the government, to an excess which would defeat all the ends of government. This was not intended by the American people. They did not design to make their government dependent on the States. . .”
Under the Constitution, the Supreme Court argued that a strong central government had more power than the states and that states could not tax one part of the federal government without undermining that power.
Check your understanding
If Congress has the power to “deliver the mail,” which of the following might be an implied power of Congress?
Choose 2 answers:

Why does McCulloch v. Maryland matter?

McCulloch v. Maryland has had two significant effects on what federalism means for the United States. Federalism is the institutional arrangement in which power is distributed between two relatively independent levels of government: the federal government and the state governments.
First, the federal government has powers that are not listed in the Constitution. The decision in McCulloch v. Maryland enhanced federal power and gave the federal government ways to achieve the responsibilities that were given to it in the Constitution.
Second, federalism is a system of shared power between state governments and the national government, but the decision in McCulloch v. Maryland established and reaffirmed the fact that the United States has a strong central government and that federal law has authority over state law. Imagine if states could just ignore federal laws: how would that affect how much authority the federal government has? This case ensured that the original intention of the Constitution to make a strong central government was met and guaranteed that states cannot interfere with powers given to the federal government.

What do you think?

What are the potential arguments for and against giving federal laws supremacy over state laws?
Explain what an implied power is in your own words. Name two examples of implied powers the federal government has today.

Want to join the conversation?