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Article VI of the Constitution

CON‑1.C.1 (EK)
A deep dive into Article VI, which acts as the "glue" of the Constitution, holding together the new United States through a shared commitment to the Constitution's principles. In this video, Kim discusses Article VI with scholars Michael Ramsey and Kermit Roosevelt. 

To read more, visit the National Constitution Center’s Interactive Constitution. On this site, leading scholars interact and explore the Constitution and its history. For each provision of the Constitution, experts from different political perspectives coauthor interpretive explanations when they agree and write separately when their opinions diverge.

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  • blobby green style avatar for user Grayson W.
    I am a little confused about how the schools have kids say a pledge to the American flag, particularly the part about "one nation, under God". How does this go around article VI? And why did someone get arrested for not saying it?
    (2 votes)
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  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Kevin Chang
    Is there any other major parts of Article 6 worth noting other than the Supremacy Clause?
    (2 votes)
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    • piceratops seedling style avatar for user Eickmeyer
      The article is very short, so the Supremacy Clause is generally seen as the most relevant piece of information within the article. However, as mentioned in the video, article 6 does discuss debt, which was a major issue at the time article six was written, and, more importantly, article six specifies that religion cannot be used as qualification for public office (which further establishes the separation between church and state.)
      (0 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user PamelaW
    My understanding of the XYZ Affair is the money the US owed to France was not paid, the first five presidents and the US Government did not pay up after the French helped the US win the Revolutionary War. Wasn't the point of the Monroe Doctrine etc to announce we would not be paying any monies, that we decided to focus on building the US. So where can a scholar find the trail of debts owed to foreign nations going back to this time period forward to the present ? American people would probably like to know the debt history. Does anyone know where we can find this ?
    (0 votes)
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Video transcript

- [Kim] Hi, this is Kim from Khan Academy. And today I'm learning more about Article VI of the US Constitution. Article VI is, as we'll soon see, kind of a constitutional grab bag. It covers debts, religious tests for office, and it establishes the constitution as the supreme law of the land. To learn more about what binds these diverse ideas together I sought out the help of two experts. Kermit Roosevelt is a professor of law specializing in Constitutional Law and conflict of laws at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. And, Michael Ramsey is professor of law and director of International and Comparative Law programs at the University of San Diego School of Law. So, let's start out talking about the debts portion of Article VI. Professor Roosevelt, why were the framers so interested in debt? What was the historical context that led them to explicitly address debt in Article VI? - [Kermit] Debt is important generally because nations often need to borrow money. And specifically, with the constitution and the Articles of Confederation the US Government had been borrowing money to pay for the Revolutionary War. So, there was a question, we're moving from a sort of loose confederation almost like a treaty between nations under the Articles of Confederation to a single unitary country with a stronger national government under the constitution. And, there's a question, is it still the same country? Will the new United States pay the debts of the old United States? - [Michael] Now, there's a general principal of international law that a successor government undertakes the obligations of the predecessor. So, you wouldn't necessarily think this would be a problem, but I think they were particularly concerned because the idea of a republic was a somewhat new one, at least in the 18th century, a somewhat unusual one. And, the change of a republican government might cause some worries in Europe where this money was owed. So, I think they just wanted to reassure all of the creditors that even if they were changing their method of government that that wasn't going to effect any of the debts. - [Kim] What might have happened if they decided not to pay those debts? - [Kermit] If they decided not to pay the debts than other countries would probably have been much less willing to lend money to the new United States because they might have thought, "Well, you know, another change "in government could occur." - [Michael] There was substantial question throughout the world whether the United States would be able to survive in the face of all the challenges that they had after gaining their independence. So, in order to make it seem that the United States was a country that could be trust, a country that could be expected to stick around and not collapse into chaos or revert to colonial status one of the most important things for them was to show that the debts would be honored because a failure to honor debts would suggest that the country did not, in fact, have a true sovereignty and it was not prepared to be an actor on the international stage that could be trusted. - [Kermit] Another interesting thing to contrast this to is the treatment of debts after the Civil War where, of course, the United States, the federal government paid its own debts but there's a provision in the 14th Amendment explicitly repudiating the Confederate debt. So, if you loaned money to the Confederate States of America you're never getting that back because we didn't treat that as a valid government that would be continued going forward. - [Michael] Another thing that it illustrates is that the constitution, in some respects, was a visionary document that was concerned with a long term future of the United States. But, in other respects it responded to very immediate practical problems that the framers faced in their day. They were thinking about not just the future of the country for the ages, they were thinking about that, but they weren't thinking just about that. They were also thinking about reassuring France with respect to the debts that existed right at that moment. - [Kim] So, there's a lot going on in Article VI. And specifically, it talks about the constitution as the supreme law of the land. So, what's important about that statement? - [Kermit] What's important about that is that means the Constitution is our highest law. It prevails over any other kind of law in a conflict. So, one thing that that means is the constitution is supreme over state law. And then, the constitution actually goes on to talk about that a little bit more. But, it also means the constitution is supreme over federal law. So, everyone is bound by the constitution. The states can't go against it. Congress can't go past it. The president can't violate constitutional restrictions. The constitution is really the last word. It's the pinnacle or the keystone of the arch of American democracy. - [Michael] And, that's why we can say that things are unconstitutional, that laws are unconstitutional and therefore invalid. And, most importantly, it's why the Supreme Court can say that laws are unconstitutional and invalid. It creates a superior law that limits the laws that can be passed by the other parts of the government. It creates a hierarchy of laws. And, in doing so, it assures that we have a single set of rules that applies to all the states and to the federal government. And, it can't be changed except by an amendment, which is relatively difficult to do. There's a procedure in the constitution for how you can amend the constitution, but until amended the constitution, as written, is our superior law. And, that was different from the way that the rules that the framers were used to under the English system where they didn't have a written constitution. They had an unwritten constitution, but that constitution was subject to change by parliament. - [Kim] So, has the supremacy of the constitution been tested over time? - [Kermit] There haven't been a lot of claims that the constitution is not supreme. So, generally speaking everyone gives, at least, lip service to this idea. What's been tested is more the question of who gets to decide what the constitution means and when something conflicts with it. So, if you want the constitution and federal law to be supreme, probably you would want to have someone in the federal government deciding when there's a conflict, say with state law. And, the forms that resistance that has taken over the years are more states saying not, "We can go against the constitution, we're above "the constitution," but states saying, "We don't think "what we're doing violates the constitution," right, "And you at the Supreme Court, you think it does "but you're wrong." - [Michael] In the 19th century just before the Civil War the Supreme Court decided in the Dred Scott case that African Americans could not be citizens to the United States, even if they were freed slaves. And, President Lincoln believed that that was wrong. He said that there was nothing in the constitution that denied that, the ability of them to be citizens. And, he said that the Supreme Court had misinterpreted the constitution. And, he would accept the Supreme Court's ruling in that regard. Later, in the 20th century, the Supreme Court held that the constitution barred segregation, particularly in schools in the Brown versus Board of Education case. But, many southern governors and other institutions throughout the south thought that the Supreme Court had gotten that one wrong. And, they refused to abide by what the Supreme Court had said the constitution means. - [Kermit] What they said was not the constitution doesn't bind us, but we know what the constitution means better than you, Supreme Court, you're wrong. You're making this up, it's political, it's not judging. - [Kim] Another thing that Article VI talks about is religious tests. Why were the framers so interested in preventing religious tests in government? What sort of historical evils were they trying to prevent? - [Kermit] So, this is connected to the basic idea of the separation of church and state. And, you separate church and state really to protect both of those things. So, you wanna protect religion from being corrupted by political considerations, but you also want to protect your political system from being a battleground between rival religions. - [Michael] So, where this comes from is that in England they had had a series of what they called Test acts. And, what the Test Acts did was it required that for people to be eligible for government offices that the people had to be members of the Church of England. And, that other religious groups they were barred by the Test Act from holding government office. So, actually many of those minority religions, many adherents of those ended up coming to the American colonies to gain some measure of religious freedom. The pilgrims were an example of that. There was a Catholic colony in Maryland. And, just generally speaking many of the people, many of the colonists who came over were people who were not part of the main established church in England. And so, you can see why they would not wanna have something like the Test Acts. And, they wanted to make clear that in the new national government that any religion or no religion would be allowed for government office holders. - [Kim] Do you think it's true that we don't have religious tests or oaths in the United States? How about the practice of swearing on a Bible during the presidential inauguration? - [Kermit] Well, the practice of swearing on a Bible is very interesting, as is the fact that when the president recites the oath of office every president, going back to George Washington, has added on to the end of it, "So help me God." There's actually an oath in the constitution the president has to swear to preserve, protect, and defend the constitution. But, the constitution doesn't say, "So help me God." The presidents just add that on on their own. And actually, that sort of illustrates the way in which the constitution treats religion, which is it can't be part of government in an official sense, but we know that members of government are also people. And, they have religious beliefs that are important to them. And, we don't demand that they exclude religion from their lives, we just demand that it be separated from government authority. So, you can swear on a Bible if you want to. You don't have to. You can swear on some other religious book. We had a member of congress take an oath of office on a Quran. So, individual government officials are allowed to include religion in so far as it's about them personally. What you think is appropriate to mark this occasion, what solemnifies this oath for you, you can do that. But, we can't require it, and they can't make the exercise of their power religious in nature. So, you can't, as a government official, exercise your power on religious grounds. - [Kim] Something that strikes me about Article VI is that it addresses so many different things. Do you have a sense of why debts and constitutional supremacy and religious tests are all in one article. - [Michael] Article VI, as you said, is a little bit of a grab bag. It's not entirely clear how these different pieces of Article VI relate to each other. And, I think they were just things that the framers wanted in the constitution and didn't know, for sure, where else to put them. - [Kermit] I'm not exactly sure why the debts are there. If I had to say something about Article VI it would be it's sort of the glue that holds the constitutional architecture together. So, maybe the debts are in there to explain the continuity between the US government under the Articles of Confederation and the US government under the constitution. Then, the supremacy clause explains how all of the different parts of the federal system are supposed to fit together. And, what the supremacy clause is saying the constitution is above all of them. The constitution connects them all. Everyone has to abide by the constitution. And, it tells you the constitution is the highest law, then you've got federal law, and then below that is state law. So that, if there's a conflict between federal law and state law, the federal law is gonna win. And then, the last part of Article VI is sort of doing the same thing. Because, what holds a country together? What binds people into a single people? In a lot of countries at the time of the founding it was religion, right, religion was the glue that held the society together. And, if you weren't a member of that religion you were an outsider or you were a second class citizen. You would be shunned and not given equal rights in some ways. The last clause of Article VI says something sort of similar about America, except it explicitly says it's not religion that binds us together, right? No religious tasks can be required but you do have to take an oath. What do you have to pledge to support? You have to pledge to support the constitution. So, there again, it's telling you the constitution is what we all have in common. That's what makes us Americans. That really is the glue that binds our society together. - [Kim] So, we've learned that Article VI is, as Professor Roosevelt put it, the glue that binds the country together. In assuming the debts from the era of the Articles of Confederation Article VI established the continuity of the U.S. government. It also placed the constitution, not religion, as the supreme law of the United States. To learn more about Article VI visit the National Constitution Center's interactive constitution and Khan Academy's resources on US government and politics.