Jefferson v. Hamilton, federal powers, and the Marshall Court

Jefferson and Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson were the most prominent representatives of two contrary interpretations of the U.S. Constitution. Two landmark Supreme Court cases, Marbury v. Madison (1803) and McCulloch v. Maryland (1819), show the relative influences of these two interpretations on American political thought.

Jefferson was a strict constructionist. He desired a limited government, and thought Congress should be restricted to the enumerated powers of the Constitution. In 1787, he wrote to James Madison from Paris, “I own I am not a friend to a very energetic government. It is always oppressive.”

Hamilton, on the other hand, believed in a strong and energetic central government. He thought Congress should have more legislative powers than those expressly stated in Section 8 of the first article of the Constitution. He also favored a strong executive power.

Jefferson and Hamilton became political rivals. In 1818, explaining the notes taken during his tenure as Secretary of State (Hamilton was Secretary of the Treasury at the time), Jefferson remembered, “Hamilton was not only a monarchist, but for a monarchy bottomed on corruption.”

The two politicians squared off when arguing about the constitutionality of a national bank before the legislature in 1791, and that instance best displayed their different interpretations of the Constitution. The argument centered around a part of the Constitution that has become famously known as the “necessary and proper” clause.

The last power of Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution reads, “To make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers, and all other powers vested by this Constitution in the government of the United States, or in any department or officer thereof.”

According to Jefferson, the establishment of a national bank was illegal under the Constitution. His argument before Congress was unsuccessful but legally sound and compelling. He said, “The second general phrase is, ‘to make all laws necessary and proper for carrying into execution the enumerated powers.’ But they can all be carried into execution without a bank. A bank therefore is not necessary, and consequently not authorized by this phrase. It has been urged that a bank will give great facility or convenience in the collection of taxes. Suppose this were true: yet the Constitution allows only the means which are ‘necessary,’ not those which are merely ‘convenient’ for effecting [sic] the enumerated powers.” In addition to this logical argument, Jefferson claims that the Constitutional convention specifically rejected the power to erect a bank, because it would cause the Constitution to be rejected by the states.

Alexander Hamilton’s response to Jefferson’s interpretation, which today brings to mind Bill Clinton’s “depends on what the meaning of the word is is” defense, was to alter the meaning of the word “necessary.” With tortured logic, Hamilton explained that “necessary often means no more than needful, requisite, incidental, useful, or conductive to.” He argued as if the Constitution was not a deliberate legal document, but a casually rendered text of hyperbole, a rubber instrument open to broad interpretations.

Government tends to expand its own powers to the furthest extent tolerated by a majority of citizens. As Hamilton’s program proceeded, so did this tendency in the United States; Marbury v. Madison and McCulloch v. Maryland help to commemorate this procession.

In Marbury v. Madison, Chief Justice John Marshall wrote the decision against Jefferson’s administration. Jefferson was upset by the decision, but he was not entirely opposed to its points. Reacting to the Constitution in 1787, Jefferson wrote in a letter to Madison, “I like the negative given to the Executive with a third of either house, though I should have liked it better had the Judiciary been associated for that purpose, or invested with a similar and separate power.” The Marbury v. Madison decision established Jefferson’s wish precisely, judicial review, which is the ability of the Supreme Court to declare a law unconstitutional and void.

As a strict constructionist, however, Jefferson believed that the Constitution meant what it said, and was alarmed by Marshall’s claim in Marbury v. Madison that “it is, emphatically, the province and duty of the judicial department, to say what the law is.” According to Jefferson, this dangerously opened the Constitution to liberal interpretations like Hamilton’s.

If in 1803 Marbury v. Madison lobbed Jefferson’s strict constructionist interpretation, McCulloch v. Maryland batted it to oblivion in 1819. The issue hotly debated by the political giants in Congress twenty-nine years earlier, the constitutionality of a national bank, again entered the national political arena, this time in the Supreme Court. Marshall wrote the decision. He affirmed Hamilton’s interpretation of the “necessary and proper” clause, instituting the implied powers of Congress.

These decisions effectively turned the Constitution into the glass-encased relic it is today, and made the United States government one of men, and not of laws. The judges of the Supreme Court, appointed for life by the President and confirmed by a majority of the Senate, granted themselves in Marbury v. Madison the power “to say what the law is” in 1803, after which any statute wished for by the President and a majority of Senators, however offensive to the Constitution, could be legally enacted, so long as there were sufficient vacancies in the Supreme Court to procure a majority of like-minded judges. Congress was granted implied powers by McCulloch v. Maryland in 1819. Despite John Marshall’s lip-service to the Constitution in McCulloch v. Maryland, “its limits are not to be transcended,” his decision legally ended constitutionally limited government in the United States. The Marshall Court assented to Hamilton’s interpretation, and killed Jefferson’s. Jefferson knew he was defeated, and called upon the democratic forces of the people to reinstitute a strict constructionist interpretation of the Constitution. That call remains unanswered.

Works Referenced

Hamilton, Alexander. “Opinion on the Constitutionality of a National Bank”. 1791.Dolbeare, Kenneth M. and Michael S. Cummings, Ed. American Political Thought. Fifth Edition. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2004.

Jefferson, Thomas. “Explanations of the 3. volumes bound in marbled paper”. February 4, 1818. Thomas Jefferson Writings: pp. 661-673. New York: Library of America. 1984.

Jefferson, Thomas. “Opinion on the Constitutionality of a National Bank”. February 15, 1791. Thomas Jefferson Writings: pp. 416-421. New York: Library of America. 1984.

Jefferson, Thomas. “To James Madison”. Paris, Dec. 20, 1787. Thomas Jefferson Writings: pp. 914-918. New York: Library of America. 1984.

Marshall, John. “Marbury v. Madison”. 1803. Dolbeare, Kenneth M. and Michael S. Cummings, Ed. American Political Thought. Fifth Edition. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2004.

Marshall, John. “McCulloch v. Maryland”. 1819. Dolbeare, Kenneth M. and Michael S. Cummings, Ed. American Political Thought. Fifth Edition. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2004.  I also referenced the full arguments and decision of this case available at: “http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?court=US&vol=17&invol=316

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