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Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States: A Familiar Exposition of the Constitution of the United States - Bruce Frohnen, The American Republic: Primary Sources 
The American Republic: Primary Sources, ed. Bruce Frohnen (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2002).
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Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States
A Familiar Exposition of the Constitution of the United States
Seven years after the first publication of Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, Story published a version for high school and college students under the title A Familiar Exposition of the Constitution of the United States. Selections here, taken from both the Commentaries and Familiar Exposition, concern the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause—establishing that federal laws shall be accepted as the law of the land whenever they come in conflict with any state’s laws.
Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States
Supremacy of Laws
§1830. The next clause [in the Constitution] is “This constitution, and the laws of the United States, which shall be made in pursuance thereof, and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land. And the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, any thing in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding.”1
§1831. The propriety of this clause would seem to result from the very nature of the constitution. If it was to establish a national government, that government ought, to the extent of its powers and rights, to be supreme. It would be a perfect solecism to affirm, that a national government should exist with certain powers; and yet, that in the exercise of those powers it should not be supreme. What other inference could have been drawn, than of their supremacy, if the constitution had been totally silent? And surely a positive affirmance of that, which is necessarily implied, cannot in a case of such vital importance be deemed unimportant. The very circumstance, that a question might be made, would irresistibly lead to the conclusion, that it ought not to be left to inference. A law, by the very meaning of the term, includes supremacy. It is a rule, which those, to whom it is prescribed, are bound to observe. This results from every political association. If individuals enter into a state of society, the laws of that society must be the supreme regulator of their conduct. If a number of political societies enter into a larger political society, the laws, which the latter may enact, pursuant to the powers entrusted to it by its constitution, must necessarily be supreme over those societies, and the individuals, of whom they are composed. It would otherwise be a mere treaty, dependent upon the good faith of the parties, and not a government, which is only another name for political power and supremacy. But it will not follow, that acts of the larger society, which are not pursuant to its constitutional powers, but which are invasions of the residuary authorities of the smaller societies, will become the supreme law of the land. They will be merely acts of usurpation, and will deserve to be treated as such. Hence we perceive, that the above clause only declares a truth, which flows immediately and necessarily from the institution of a national government.2 It will be observed, that the supremacy of the laws is attached to those only, which are made in pursuance of the constitution; a caution very proper in itself, but in fact the limitation would have arisen by irresistible implication, if it had not been expressed.3
§1832. In regard to treaties, there is equal reason, why they should be held, when made, to be the supreme law of the land. It is to be considered, that treaties constitute solemn compacts of binding obligation among nations; and unless they are scrupulously obeyed, and enforced, no foreign nation would consent to negotiate with us; or if it did, any want of strict fidelity on our part in the discharge of the treaty stipulations would be visited by reprisals, or war.4 It is, therefore, indispensable, that they should have the obligation and force of a law, that they may be executed by the judicial power, and be obeyed like other laws. This will not prevent them from being cancelled or abrogated by the nation upon grave and suitable occasions; for it will not be disputed, that they are subject to the legislative power, and may be repealed, like other laws, at its pleasure;5 or they may be varied by new treaties. Still, while they do subsist, they ought to have a positive binding efficacy as laws upon all the states, and all the citizens of the states. The peace of the nation, and its good faith, and moral dignity, indispensably require, that all state laws should be subjected to their supremacy. The difference between considering them as laws, and considering them as executory, or executed contracts, is exceedingly important in the actual administration of public justice. If they are supreme laws, courts of justice will enforce them directly in all cases, to which they can be judicially applied, in opposition to all state laws, as we all know was done in the case of the British debts secured by the treaty of 1783, after the constitution was adopted.6 If they are deemed but solemn compacts, promissory in their nature and obligation, courts of justice may be embarrassed in enforcing them, and may be compelled to leave the redress to be administered through other departments of the government.7 It is notorious, that treaty stipulations (especially those of the treaty of peace of 1783) were grossly disregarded by the states under the confederation. They were deemed by the states, not as laws, but like requisitions, of mere moral obligation, and dependent upon the good will of the states for their execution. Congress, indeed, remonstrated against this construction, as unfounded in principle and justice.8 But their voice was not heard. Power and right were separated; the argument was all on one side; but the power was on the other.9 It was probably to obviate this very difficulty, that this clause was inserted in the constitution;10 and it would redound to the immortal honour of its authors, if it had done no more, than thus to bring treaties within the sanctuary of justice, as laws of supreme obligation.11 There are, indeed, still cases, in which courts of justice can administer no effectual redress; as when the terms of a stipulation import a contract, when either of the parties engages to perform a particular act the treaty addresses itself to the political, and not to the judicial, department; and the legislature must execute the contract, before it can become a rule for the courts.12
§1833. It is melancholy to reflect, that, conclusive as this view of the subject is in favour of the supremacy clause, it was assailed with great vehemence and zeal by the adversaries of the constitution; and especially the concluding clause, which declared the supremacy, “any thing in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding.”13 And yet this very clause was but an expression of the necessary meaning of the former clause, introduced from abundant caution, to make its obligation more strongly felt by the state judges. The very circumstance, that any objection was made, demonstrated the utility, nay the necessity of the clause, since it removed every pretence, under which ingenuity could, by its miserable subterfuges, escape from the controlling power of the constitution.
§1834. To be fully sensible of the value of the whole clause, we need only suppose for a moment, that the supremacy of the state constitutions had been left complete by a saving clause in their favour. “In the first place, as these constitutions invest the state legislatures with absolute sovereignty, in all cases not excepted by the existing articles of confederation, all the authorities contained in the proposed constitution, so far as they exceed those enumerated in the confederation, would have been annulled, and the new congress would have been reduced to the same impotent condition with their predecessors. In the next place, as the constitutions of some of the states do not even expressly and fully recognize the existing powers of the confederacy, an express saving of the supremacy of the former would, in such states, have brought into question every power contained in the proposed constitution. In the third place, as the constitutions of the states differ much from each other, it might happen, that a treaty or national law, of great and equal importance to the states, would interfere with some, and not with other constitutions, and would consequently be valid in some of the states, at the same time, that it would have no effect in others. In fine, the world would have seen, for the first time, a system of government founded on an inversion of the fundamental principles of all government; it would have seen the authority of the whole society everywhere subordinate to the authority of the parts; it would have seen a monster, in which the head was under the direction of the members.”14
§1835. At an early period of the government a question arose, how far a treaty could embrace commercial regulations, so as to be obligatory upon the nation, and upon congress. It was debated with great zeal and ability in the house of representatives.15 On the one hand it was contended, that a treaty might be made respecting commerce, as well as upon any other subject; that it was a contract between the two nations, which, when made by the president, by and with the consent of the senate, was binding upon the nation; and that a refusal of the house of representatives to carry it into effect was breaking the treaty, and violating the faith of the nation. On the other hand, it was contended, that the power to make treaties, if applicable to every object, conflicted with powers, which were vested exclusively in congress; that either the treaty making power must be limited in its operation, so as not to touch objects committed by the constitution to congress; or the assent and co-operation of the house of representatives must be required to give validity to any compact, so far as it might comprehend these objects: that congress was invested with the exclusive power to regulate commerce; that therefore, a treaty of commerce required the assent and co-operation of the house of representatives; that in every case, where a treaty required an appropriation of money, or an act of congress to carry it into effect, it was not in this respect obligatory, till congress had agreed to carry it into effect; and, that they were at free liberty to make, or withhold such appropriation, or act, without being chargeable with violating the treaty, or breaking the faith of the nation. In the result, the house of representatives adopted a resolution declaring, that the house of representatives do not claim any agency in making treaties; but when a treaty stipulates regulations on any of the subjects submitted to the power of congress, it must depend for its execution, as to such stipulations, on a law or laws to be passed by congress; and that it is the constitutional right and duty of the house of representatives, in all such cases, to deliberate on the expediency or inexpediency of carrying such treaty into effect, and to determine and act thereon, as in their judgment may be most conducive to the public good. It is well known, that the president and the senate, on that occasion, adopted a different doctrine, maintaining, that a treaty once ratified became the law of the land, and congress were constitutionally bound to carry it into effect.16 At the distance of twenty years, the same question was again presented for the consideration of both houses, upon a bill to carry into effect a clause in the treaty of 1815 with Great Britain, abolishing discriminating duties; and, upon that occasion, it was most ably debated. The result was, that a declaratory clause was adopted, instead of a mere enacting clause, so that the binding obligation of treaties was affirmatively settled.17
§1836. From this supremacy of the constitution and laws and treaties of the United States, within their constitutional scope, arises the duty of courts of justice to declare any unconstitutional law passed by congress or by a state legislature void. So, in like manner, the same duty arises, whenever any other department of the national or state governments exceeds its constitutional functions.18 But the judiciary of the United States has no general jurisdiction to declare acts of the several states void, unless they are repugnant to the constitution of the United States, notwithstanding they are repugnant to the state constitution.19 Such a power belongs to it only, when it sits to administer the local law of a state, and acts exactly, as a state tribunal is bound to act.20 But upon this subject it seems unnecessary to dwell, since the right of all courts, state as well as national, to declare unconstitutional laws void, seems settled beyond the reach of judicial controversy.21
A Familiar Exposition of the Constitution of the United States
General Power to make Necessary and Proper Laws
§206. The next power of Congress is, “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.”
§207. This clause is merely declaratory of a truth, which would have resulted by necessary implication from the act of establishing a National Government, and investing it with certain powers. If a power to do a thing is given, it includes the use of the means, necessary and proper, to execute it. If it includes any such means, it includes all such means; for none can, more correctly than others, be said exclusively to appertain to the power; and the choice must depend upon circumstances, to be judged of by Congress. What is a power, but the ability or faculty of doing a thing? What is the ability to do a thing, but the power of employing the means necessary to its execution? What is a legislative power, but a power of making laws? What are the means to execute a legislative power, but laws? What is the power, for instance, of laying and collecting taxes, but a legislative power, or a power to make laws to lay and collect taxes? What are the proper means of executing such a power, but necessary and proper laws? In truth, the constitutional operation of the government would be precisely the same, if the clause were obliterated, as if it were repeated in every article. It would otherwise result, that the power could never be exercised; that is, the end would be required, and yet no means allowed. This would be a perfect absurdity. It would be to create powers, and compel them to remain for ever in a torpid, dormant, and paralytic state. It cannot, therefore, be denied, that the powers, given by the Constitution, imply the ordinary means of execution; for, without the substance of the power, the Constitution would be a dead letter. If it should be asked, why, then, was the clause inserted in the Constitution; the answer is, that it is peculiarly useful, in order to avoid any doubt, which ingenuity or jealousy might raise upon the subject. There was also a clause in the Articles of Confederation, which restrained the authority of Congress to powers expressly granted; and, therefore, it was highly expedient to make an explicit declaration, that that rule of interpretation, which had been the source of endless embarrassments under the Confederation, should no longer prevail. The Continental Congress had been compelled, in numerous instances, to disregard that limitation, in order to escape from the most absurd and distressing consequences. They had been driven to the dangerous experiment of violating the Confederation, in order to preserve it.
§208. The plain import of the present clause is, that Congress shall have all the incidental and instrumental powers, necessary and proper to carry into execution the other express powers; not merely such as are indispensably necessary in the strictest sense, (for then the word “proper” ought to have been omitted,) but such also as are appropriate to the end required. Indeed, it would otherwise be difficult to give any rational interpretation to the clause; for it can scarcely be affirmed, that one means only exists to carry into effect any of the given powers; and if more than one should exist, then neither could be adopted, because neither could be shown to be indispensably necessary. The clause, in its just sense, then, does not enlarge any other power, specifically granted; nor is it the grant of any new power. It is merely a declaration, to remove all uncertainty, that every power is to be so interpreted, as to include suitable means to carry it into execution. The very controversies, which have since arisen, and the efforts, which have since been made, to narrow down the just interpretation of the clause, demonstrate its wisdom and propriety. The practice of the government, too, has been in conformity to this view of the matter. There is scarcely a law of Congress, which does not include the exercise of implied powers and means. This might be illustrated by abundant examples. Under the power “to establish post offices and post roads,” Congress have proceeded to make contracts for the carriage of the mail, have punished offences against the establishment, and have made an infinite variety of subordinate provisions, not one of which is found expressly authorized in the Constitution. A still more striking case of implied power is, that the United States, as a government, have no express authority given to make any contracts; and yet it is plain, that the government could not go on for an hour without this implied power.
§209. There are many other cases, in which Congress have acted upon implied powers, some of which have given rise to much political discussion, and controversy; but it is not within the design of this work to examine those cases, or to express any opinion respecting them. It is proper, however, that the reader should be apprized, that among them, are the questions respecting the power of Congress to establish a national bank; to make national roads, canals, and other internal national improvements; to purchase cessions of foreign territory, (such, for example, as Louisiana and Florida;) to lay embargoes, without any fixed limitation of the time of their duration; and to prohibit intercourse or commerce with a foreign nation for an unlimited period.
§210. And here terminates the eighth section of the Constitution professing to enumerate the powers of Congress. But there are other clauses, delegating express powers, which, though detached from their natural connection in that instrument, should be here brought under review, in order to complete the enumeration.
Prohibitions on the United States
§221. We next come to the consideration of the prohibitions and limitations upon the powers of Congress, which are contained in the ninth section of the first article, passing by such, as have been already incidentally discussed.
§222. The first clause is, “The migration or importation of such persons, as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress, prior to the year eighteen hundred and eight. But a tax or duty may be imposed upon such importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each person.”
§223. This clause, as is manifest from its language, was designed solely to reserve to the Southern States, for a limited period, the right to import slaves. It is to the honor of America, that she should have set the first example of interdicting and abolishing the slave trade, in modern times. It is well known, that it constituted a grievance, of which some of the Colonies complained, before the Revolution, that the introduction of slaves was encouraged by the parent country, and that the prohibitory laws, passed by the Colonies, were negatived by the Crown. It was, doubtless, desirable, that the importation of slaves should have been at once interdicted throughout the Union. But it was indispensable to yield something to the prejudices, the wishes, and the supposed interests of the South. And it ought to be considered as a great point gained, in favor of humanity, that a period of twenty years should enable Congress to terminate, in America, (as Congress in fact have terminated the African slave trade,) a traffic, which has so long and so loudly upbraided the morals and justice of modern nations.
§224. The next clause is, “The privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when, in cases of rebellion or invasion, the public safety may require it.” In order to understand the exact meaning of the terms here used, recourse must be had to the common law. The writ of habeas corpus, here spoken of, is a writ known to the common law, and used in all cases of confinement, or imprisonment of any party, in order to ascertain whether it is lawful or not. The writ commands the person, who detains the party, to produce his body, with the day and cause of his detention, before the Court or Judge, who issues the writ, to do, submit to, and receive, whatever the Court or Judge shall direct at the hearing. It is hence called the writ of habeas corpus ad subjiciendum, from the effective words of the writ, (when it was issued, as it originally was, in the Latin language) that you (the person, detaining the party,) have the body (habeas corpus) to submit (ad subjiciendum) to the order of the Court or Judge. And if the cause of detention is found to be insufficient, or illegal, the party is immediately set at liberty by the order of the Court or Judge. It is justly, therefore, esteemed the great bulwark of personal liberty, and is grantable, as a matter of right, to the party imprisoned. But as it had often, for frivolous reasons of state, been suspended or denied in the parent country, to the grievous oppression of the subject, it is made a matter of constitutional right in all cases, except when the public safety may, in cases of rebellion or invasion, require it. The exception is reasonable, since cases of great urgency may arise, in which the suspension may be indispensable for the preservation of the liberties of the country against traitors and rebels.
§225. The next clause is, “No bill of attainder, or ex post facto law, shall be passed.” A bill of attainder, in its technical sense, is an act passed by the legislature, convicting a person of some crime, for which it inflicts upon him, without any trial, the punishment of death. If it inflicts a milder punishment, it is usually called a bill of pains and penalties. Such acts are in the highest degree objectionable, and tyrannical, since they deprive the party of any regular trial by jury, and deprive him of his life, liberty, and property, without any legal proof of his guilt. In a republican government, such a proceeding is utterly inconsistent with first principles. It would be despotism in its worst form, by arming a popular Legislature with the power to destroy, at its will, the most virtuous and valuable citizens of the state.
§226. To the same class, belong ex post facto laws, that is, (in a literal interpretation of the phrase,) laws made after the act is done. In a general sense, all retrospective laws are ex post facto; but the phrase is here used to designate laws to punish, as public offences, acts, which, at the time when they were done, were lawful, or were not public crimes, or, if crimes, which were not liable to so severe a punishment. It requires no reasoning to establish the wisdom of a prohibition, which puts a fixed restraint upon such harsh legislation. In truth, the existence of such a power in a legislature is utterly incompatible with all just notions of the true ends and objects of a republican government.
§227. The next clause (not already commented on) is, “No money shall be drawn from the treasury, but in consequence of appropriations made by law. And a regular statement and account of the receipts and expenditures of all public money shall be published from time to time.” The object of this clause is, to secure regularity, punctuality, fidelity, and responsibility, in the keeping and disbursement of the public money. No money can be drawn from the treasury by any officer, unless under appropriations made by some act of Congress. As all the taxes raised from the people, as well as the revenues arising from other sources, are to be applied to the discharge of the expenses, and debts, and other engagements of the government, it is highly proper, that Congress should possess the power to decide, how and when any money should be applied for these purposes. If it were otherwise, the Executive would possess an unbounded power over the public purse of the nation; and might apply all its monied resources at his pleasure. The power to control and direct the appropriations, constitutes a most useful and salutary check upon profusion and extravagance, as well as upon corrupt influence and public peculation In arbitrary governments, the prince levies what money he pleases from his subjects, disposes of it, as he thinks proper, and is beyond responsibility or reproof. It is wise, in a republic, to interpose every restraint, by which the public treasure, the common fund of all, should be applied, with unshrinking honesty, to such objects, as legitimately belong to the common defence, and the general welfare. Congress is made the guardian of this treasure; and, to make their responsibility complete and perfect, a regular account of the receipts and expenditures is required to be published, that the people may know, what money is expended, for what purposes, and by what authority.
§228. The next clause is, “No title of nobility shall be granted by the United States; and no person, holding any office of profit or trust under them, shall, without the consent of the Congress, accept of any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state.” A perfect equality of rights, privileges, and rank, being contemplated by the Constitution among all citizens, there is a manifest propriety in prohibiting Congress from creating any titles of nobility. The other prohibition, as to presents, emoluments, offices, and titles from foreign governments, besides aiding the same general object, subserves a more important policy, founded on the just jealousy of foreign corruption and undue influence exerted upon our national officers. It seeks to destroy, in their origin, all the blandishments from foreign favors, and foreign titles, and all the temptations to a departure from official duty by receiving foreign rewards and emoluments. No officer of the United States can without guilt wear honors borrowed from foreign sovereigns, or touch for personal profit any foreign treasure.
Prohibitions on the States
§229. Such are the prohibitions upon the government of the United States. And we next proceed to the prohibitions upon the States, which are not less important in themselves, or less necessary to the security of the Union. They are contained in the tenth section of the first article.
§230. The first clause is, “No State shall enter into any treaty, alliance, or confederation; grant letters of marque or reprisal; coin money; emit bills of credit; make any thing but gold or silver coin a tender in payment of debts; pass any bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law impairing the obligation of contracts; or grant any title of nobility.”
§231. The prohibition against a State’s entering into any treaty, alliance or confederation, is indispensable to the preservation of the rights and powers of the National Government. A State might otherwise enter into engagements with foreign governments, utterly subversive of the policy of the National Government, or injurious to the rights and interests of the other States. One State might enter into a treaty or alliance with France, and another with England, and another with Spain, and another with Russia,—each in its general objects inconsistent with the other; and thus, the seeds of discord might be spread over the whole Union.
§232. The prohibition to “grant letters of marque and reprisal” stands on the same ground. This power would hazard the peace of the Union by subjecting it to the passions, resentments, or policy of a single State. If any State might issue letters of marque or reprisal at its own mere pleasure, it might at once involve the whole Union in a public war; or bring on retaliatory measures by the foreign government, which might cripple the commerce, or destroy the vital interests of other States. The prohibition is, therefore, essential to the public safety.
§233. The prohibition to “coin money” is necessary to our domestic interests. The existence of the power in the States would defeat the salutary objects intended, by confiding the like power to the National Government. It would have a tendency to introduce a base and variable currency, perpetually liable to frauds, and embarrassing to the commercial intercourse of the States.
§234. The prohibition to “emit bills of credit.”— Bills of credit are a well-known denomination of paper money, issued by the Colonies before the Revolution, and afterwards by the States, in a most profuse degree. These bills of credit had no adequate funds appropriated to redeem them; and though on their face they were often declared payable in gold and silver, they were in fact never so paid. The consequence was, that they became the common currency of the country, in a constantly depreciating state, ruinous to the commerce and credit, and disgraceful to the good faith of the country. The evils of the system were of a most aggravated nature, and could not be cured, except by an entire prohibition of any future issues of paper money. And, indeed, the prohibition to coin money would be utterly nugatory, if the States might still issue a paper currency for the same purpose.
§235. But the inquiry here naturally occurs; What is the true meaning of the phrase “bills of credit” in the Constitution? In its enlarged, and perhaps in its literal sense, it may comprehend any instrument, by which a State engages to pay money at a future day, (and, of course, for which it obtains a present credit;) and thus it would include a certificate given for money borrowed. But the language of the Constitution itself, and the mischief to be prevented, which we know from the history of our country, equally limit the interpretation of the terms. The word “emit” is never employed in describing those contracts, by which a State binds itself to pay money at a future day for services actually received, or for money borrowed for present use. Nor are instruments, executed for such purposes, in common language denominated “bills of credit.” To emit bills of credit, conveys to the mind the idea of issuing paper, intended to circulate through the community for ordinary purposes, as money, which paper is redeemable at a future day. This is the sense, in which the terms of the Constitution have been generally understood. The phrase (as we have seen) was well known, and generally used to indicate the paper currency, issued by the States during their colonial dependence. During the war of our Revolution, the paper currency issued by Congress was constantly denominated, in the acts of that body, bills of credit; and the like appellation was applied to similar currency issued by the States. The phrase had thus acquired a determinate and appropriate meaning. At the time of the adoption of the Constitution, bills of credit were universally understood to signify a paper medium intended to circulate between individuals, and between government and individuals, for the ordinary purposes of society. Such a medium has always been liable to considerable fluctuation. Its value is continually changing; and these changes, often great and sudden, expose individuals to immense losses, are the sources of ruinous speculations, and destroy all proper confidence between man and man. In no country, more than our own, had these truths been felt in all their force. In none, had more intense suffering, or more wide-spreading ruin accompanied the system. It was, therefore, the object of the prohibition to cut up the whole mischief by the roots, because it had been deeply felt throughout all the States, and had deeply affected the prosperity of all. The object of the prohibition was not to prohibit the thing, when it bore a particular name; but to prohibit the thing, whatever form or name it might assume. If the words are not merely empty sounds, the prohibition must comprehend the emission of any paper medium by a State government for the purposes of common circulation. It would be preposterous to suppose, that the Constitution meant solemnly to prohibit an issue under one denomination, leaving the power complete to issue the same thing under another. It can never be seriously contended, that the Constitution means to prohibit names, and not things; to deal with shadows, and to leave substances. What would be the consequence of such a construction? That a very important act, big with great and ruinous mischief, and on that account forbidden by words the most appropriate for its description, might yet be performed by the substitution of a name. That the Constitution, even in one of its vital provisions, might be openly evaded by giving a new name to an old thing. Call the thing a bill of credit, and it is prohibited. Call the same thing a certificate, and it is constitutional.
§236. Connected with this, is the prohibition, No State shall “make any thing but gold and silver coin a tender in payment of debts.” The history of the State laws on this subject, while we were Colonies, as well as during the Revolution, and afterwards before the adoption of the Constitution, is startling at once to our morals, to our patriotism, and to our sense of justice. In the intermediate period between the commencement of the Revolutionary War, and the adoption of the Constitution, the system had attained its most appalling character. Not only was paper money declared to be a tender in payment of debts; but other laws, having the same general object, and interfering with private debts, under the name of appraisement laws, instalment laws, and suspension laws, thickened upon the statute book of many States in the Union, until all public confidence was lost, and all private credit and morals were prostrated. The details of the evils, resulting from this source, can scarcely be comprehended in our day. But they were so enormous, that the whole country seemed involved in a general bankruptcy; and fraud and chicanery obtained an undisputed mastery. Nothing but an absolute prohibition, like that contained in the Constitution, could arrest the overwhelming flood; and it was accordingly hailed with the most sincere joy by all good citizens. It has given us that healthy and sound currency, and that solid private credit, which constitute the true foundation of our prosperity, industry, and enterprise.
§237. The prohibition, to “pass any bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law impairing the obligation of contracts,” requires scarcely any vindication or explanation, beyond what has been already given. The power to pass bills of attainder, and ex post facto laws, (the nature of which has been already sufficiently explained,) is quite as unfit to be intrusted to the States, as to the General Government. It was exercised by the States during the Revolutionary War, in the shape of confiscation laws, to an extent, which, upon cool reflection, every sincere patriot must regret. Laws “impairing the obligation of contracts” are still more objectionable. They interfere with, and disturb, and destroy, private rights, solemnly secured by the plighted faith of the parties. They bring on the same ruinous effects, as paper tender laws, instalment laws, and appraisement laws, which are but varieties of the same general noxious policy. And they have been truly described, as contrary to the first principles of the social compact and to every principle of sound legislation.
§238. Although the language of this clause, “law impairing the obligation of contracts,” would seem, at first view, to be free from any real ambiguity; yet there is not perhaps a single clause of the Constitution, which has given rise to more acute and vehement controversy. What is a contract? What is the obligation of a contract? What is impairing a contract? To what classes of laws does the prohibition apply? To what extent does it reach, so as to control prospective legislation on the subject of contracts? These and many other questions, of no small nicety and intricacy, have vexed the legislative halls, as well as the judicial tribunals, with an uncounted variety and frequency of litigation and speculation.
§239. In the first place, What is to be deemed a contract, in the constitutional sense of this clause? A contract is an agreement to do, or not to do, a particular thing; or (as was said on another occasion) a contract is a compact between two or more persons. A contract is either executory, or executed. An executory contract is one, in which a party binds himself to do, or not to do, a particular thing. An executed contract is one, in which the object of the contract is performed. This differs in nothing from a grant; for a contract executed conveys a thing in possession; a contract executory conveys only a thing in action. Since, then, a grant is in fact a contract executed, the obligation of which continues; and since the Constitution uses the general term, contract, without distinguishing between those, which are executory, and those, which are executed; it must be construed to comprehend the former, as well as the latter. A State law, therefore, annulling conveyances between individuals, and declaring, that the grantors shall stand seized of their former estates, notwithstanding those grants, would be as repugnant to the Constitution, as a State law, discharging the vendors from the obligation of executing their contracts of sale by conveyances. It would be strange, indeed, if a contract to convey were secured by the Constitution, while an absolute conveyance remained unprotected. That the contract, while executory, was obligatory; but when executed, might be avoided.
§240. Contracts, too, are express, or implied. Express contracts are, where the terms of the agreement are openly avowed, and uttered at the time of the making of them. Implied contracts are such, as reason and justice dictate from the nature of the transaction, and which, therefore, the law presumes, that every man undertakes to perform. The Constitution makes no distinction between the one class of contracts and the other. It then equally embraces, and equally applies to both. Indeed, as by far the largest class of contracts in civil society, in the ordinary transactions of life, are implied, there would be very little object in securing the inviolability of express contracts, if those, which are implied, might be impaired by State legislation. The Constitution is not chargeable with such folly, or inconsistency. Every grant, in its own nature, amounts to an extinguishment of the right of the grantor, and implies a contract not to reassert it. A party is, therefore, always estopped by his own grant. How absurd would it be to provide, that an express covenant by a party, as a muniment attendant upon the estate, should bind him for ever, because executory, and resting in action; and yet, that he might reassert his title to the estate, and dispossess his grantee, because there was only an implied covenant not to reassert it.
§241. In the next place, What is the obligation of a contract? It seems agreed, that, when the obligation of contracts is spoken of in the Constitution, we are to understand, not the mere moral, but the legal obligation of contracts. The moral obligation of contracts is, so far as human society is concerned, of an imperfect kind, which the parties are left free to obey or not, as they please. It is addressed to the conscience of the parties, under the solemn admonitions of accountability to the Supreme Being. No human lawgiver can either impair, or reach it. The Constitution has not in contemplation any such obligations, but such only, as might be impaired by a State, if not prohibited. It is the civil obligation of contracts, which it is designed to reach, that is, the obligation, which is recognised by, and results from, the law of the State, in which it is made. If, therefore, a contract, when made, is by the law of the State declared to be illegal, or deemed to be a nullity, or a naked pact, or promise, it has no civil obligation; because the law, in such cases, forbids its having any binding efficacy, or force. It confers no legal right on the one party, and no correspondent legal duty on the other. There is no means allowed, or recognised to enforce it; for the maxim is, that from a mere naked promise no action arises. But when it does not fall within the predicament of being either illegal, or void, its obligatory force is coextensive with its stipulations.
§242. Nor is this obligatory force so much the result of the positive declarations of the municipal law, as of the general principles of natural, or (as it is sometimes called) universal, law. In a state of nature, independent of the obligations of positive law, contracts may be formed, and their obligatory force be complete. Between independent nations, treaties and compacts are formed, which are deemed universally obligatory; and yet in no just sense can they be deemed dependent on municipal law. Nay, there may exist (abstractly speaking) a perfect obligation in contracts, where there is no known and adequate means to enforce them. As, for instance, between independent nations, where their relative strength and power preclude the possibility, on the side of the weaker party, of enforcing them. So, in the same government, where a contract is made by a State with one of its own citizens, which yet its laws do not permit to be enforced by any action or suit. In this predicament are the United States, who are not suable on any contract made by themselves; but no one doubts, that these are still obligatory on the United States. Yet their obligation is not recognised by any positive municipal law, in a great variety of cases. It depends altogether upon principles of public or universal law. Still, in these cases, there is a right in the one party to have the contract performed, and a duty on the other side to perform it. But, generally speaking, when we speak of the obligation of a contract, we include in the idea some known means acknowledged by the municipal law to enforce it. Where all such means are absolutely denied, the obligation of the contract is understood to be impaired, although it may not be completely annihilated. Rights may, indeed, exist, without any present adequate correspondent remedies between private persons. Thus, a State may refuse to allow imprisonment for debt; and the debtor may have no property. But still the right of the creditor remains; and he may enforce it against the future property of the debtor. So, a debtor may die without leaving any known estate, or without any known representative. In such cases, we should not say, that the right of the creditor was gone; but only, that there was nothing, on which it could presently operate. But suppose an administrator should be appointed, and property in contingency should fall in, the right might then be enforced to the extent of the existing means.
§243. The civil obligation of a contract, then, although it can never arise, or exist, contrary to positive law, may arise or exist independently of it; and it may be, exist, notwithstanding there may be no present adequate remedy to enforce it. Wherever the municipal law recognises an absolute duty to perform a contract, there the obligation to perform it is complete, although there may not be a perfect remedy.
§244. In the next place, What may properly be deemed impairing the obligation of contracts, in the sense of the Constitution? It is perfectly clear, that any law, which enlarges, abridges, or in any manner changes the intention of the parties, resulting from the stipulations in the contract, necessarily impairs it. The manner or degree, in which this change is effected, can in no respect influence the conclusion; for, whether the law affect the validity, the construction, the duration, the discharge, or the evidence of the contract, it impairs its obligation, although it may not do so, to the same extent, in all the supposed cases. Any deviation from its terms, by postponing, or accelerating the period of performance, which it prescribes, or by imposing conditions not expressed in the contract, or by dispensing with the performance of those, which are a part of the contract, however minute, or apparently immaterial in their effects upon it, impairs its obligation. A fortiori, a law, which makes the contract wholly invalid, or extinguishes, or releases it, is a law impairing it. Nor is this all. Although there is a distinction between the obligation of a contract, and a remedy upon it; yet if there are certain remedies existing at the time, when it is made, all of which are afterwards wholly extinguished by new laws, so that there remain no means of enforcing its obligation, and no redress for its violation; such an abolition of all remedies, operating immediately, is also an impairing of the obligation of such contract. But every change and modification of the remedy does not involve such a consequence. No one will doubt, that the Legislature may vary the nature and extent of remedies, so always, that some substantive remedy be in fact left. Nor can it be doubted, that the Legislature may prescribe the times and modes, in which remedies may be pursued; and bar suits, not brought within such periods, and not pursued in such modes. Statutes of limitations are of this nature; and have never been supposed to destroy the obligation of contracts, but to prescribe the times, within which that obligation shall be enforced by a suit; and in default thereof, to deem it either satisfied, or abandoned. The obligation to perform a contract is coeval with the undertaking to perform it. It originates with the contract itself, and operates anterior to the time of performance. The remedy acts upon the broken contract, and enforces a preexisting obligation. And a State Legislature may discharge a party from imprisonment upon a judgement in a civil case of contract, without infringing the Constitution; for this is but a modification of the remedy, and does not impair the obligation of the contract. So, if a party should be in jail, and give a bond for the prison liberties, and to remain a true prisoner, until lawfully discharged, a subsequent discharge by an act of the Legislature would not impair the contract; for it would be a lawful discharge in the sense of the bond.
§245. These general considerations naturally conduct us to some more difficult inquiries growing out of them; and upon which there has been a very great diversity of judicial opinion. The great object of the framers of the Constitution undoubtedly was, to secure the inviolability of contracts. This principle was to be protected in whatever form it might be assailed. No enumeration was attempted to be made of the modes, by which contracts might be impaired. It would have been unwise to have made such an enumeration, since it might have been defective; and the intention was to prohibit every mode or device for such purpose. The prohibition was universal.
§246. The question has arisen, and has been most elaborately discussed, how far the States may constitutionally pass an insolvent law, which shall discharge the obligation of contracts. It is not doubted, that the States may pass insolvent laws, which shall discharge the person, or operate in the nature of a cessio bonorum, or a surrender of all the debtor’s property, provided such laws do not discharge, or intermeddle with, the obligation of contracts. Nor is it denied, that insolvent laws, which discharge the obligation of contracts, made antecedently to their passage, are unconstitutional. But the question is how far the States may constitutionally pass insolvent laws, which shall operate upon, and discharge contracts, which are made subsequently to their passage. After the most ample argument, it has at length been settled, by a majority of the Supreme Court, that the States may constitutionally pass such laws operating upon future contracts, although not upon past.
§247. The remaining prohibition is, to “grant any title of nobility,” which is supported by the same reasoning as that already suggested, in considering the like prohibition upon the National Government.
§248. The next clause, omitting the prohibition (already cited) to lay any imposts or duties on imports or exports, is, “No State shall, without the consent of Congress, lay any duty on tonnage; keep troops, or ships of war, in time of peace; enter into any agreement or compact with another State, or with a foreign power; or engage in war unless actually invaded, or in such imminent danger, as will not admit of delay.” That part, which respects tonnage duties, has been already considered. The other parts have the same general policy in view, which dictated the preceding restraints upon State power. To allow the States to keep troops, or ships of war, in time of peace, might be hazardous to the public peace or safety, or compel the National Government to keep up an expensive corresponding force. To allow the States to enter into agreements with each other, or with foreign nations, might lead to mischievous combinations, injurious to the general interests, and bind them into confederacies of a geographical or sec-tional character. To allow the States to engage in war, unless compelled so to do in self-defence and upon sudden emergencies, would be (as has been already stated) to put the peace and safety of all the States in the power and discretion of any one of them. But an absolute prohibition of all these powers might, in certain exigencies, be inexpedient, and even mischievous; and, therefore, Congress may, by their consent, authorize the exercise of any of them, whenever, in their judgement, the public good shall require it.
§249. We have thus passed through the positive prohibitions introduced upon the powers of the States. It will be observed, that they divide themselves into two classes; those, which are political in their character, as an exercise of sovereignty; and those, which more especially regard the private rights of individuals. In the latter, the prohibition is absolute and universal. In the former, it is sometimes absolute, and sometimes subjected to the consent of Congress. It will, at once, be perceived, how full of difficulty and delicacy the task was, to reconcile the jealous tenacity of the States over their own sovereignty, with the permanent security of the National Government, and the inviolability of private rights. The task has been accomplished with eminent success. If every thing has not been accomplished, which a wise forecast might have deemed proper for the preservation of our national rights and liberties in all political events, much has been done to guard us against the most obvious evils, and to secure a wholesome administration of private justice. To have attempted more, would probably have endangered the whole fabric; and thus might have perpetuated the dominion of misrule and imbecility.
§250. It has been already seen, and it will hereafter more fully appear, that there are implied, as well as express, prohibitions in the Constitution upon the power of the States. Among the former, one clearly is, that no State can control, or abridge, or interfere with the exercise of any authority under the National Government. And it may be added, that State laws, as, for instance, State statutes of limitations, and State insolvent laws, have no operation upon the rights or contracts of the United States.
§251. And here end our commentaries upon the first article of the Constitution, embracing the organization and powers of the Legislative department of the government, and the prohibitions upon the State and National Governments. If we here pause, but for a moment, we cannot but be struck with the reflection, how admirably this division and distribution of legislative powers between the State and National Governments is adapted to preserve of the liberty, and to promote the happiness of the people of the United States. To the General Government are assigned all those powers, which relate to the common interests of all the States, as comprising one confederated nation; while to each State is reserved all those powers, which may affect, or promote its own domestic interests, its peace, its prosperity, its policy, and its local institutions. At the same time, such limitations and restraints are imposed upon each government, as experience has demonstrated to be wise to control any public functionaries, or as are indispensable to secure the harmonious operations of the Union.
Forging a Nation
The clear continuities in American politics and cul-ture played an important role in the development of the Republic but do not overshadow the significant developments brought about by the Revolution and the construction of a new, independent government for the United States. Furthermore, America changed significantly with such events as Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase, by which the United States gained vast new territories and trade routes, and the effects of immigration and economic development, along with internal improvements such as roads, harbors, and canals, which vastly increased American population and commerce.
As America’s size and population increased—at times exponentially—new issues arose and old issues were transformed in character by new circumstances. New parties and coalitions arose, committed to greater and more widely spread political participation, to greater federal efforts on behalf of commercial growth, and to the spread of commercial habits and virtues. Issues of federal control and influence over commerce, taxation, and internal improvements often centered on particular events, such as the chartering of a national bank to hold deposits of the federal government. But they continued to raise nagging questions of the proper relationship between the state and the federal governments, as well as the proper size and scope of government in general, and the nature and purpose of America and her people.
[1.] See Journal of Convention, p. 222, 282, 293.
[2.] The Federalist, No. 33. See Gibbons v. Ogden, 9 Wheat. R. 210, 211; McCulloch v. Maryland, 4 Wheat. R. 405, 406.—This passage from the Federalist (No. 33) has been, for another purpose, already cited in Vol. I. § 340; but it is necessary to be here repeated to give due effect to the subsequent passages.
[3.] Ibid. See also 1 Tuck. Black. Comm. App. 369, 370.
[4.] See The Federalist, No. 64.
[5.] See Act of Congress, 7th July, 1798, ch. 84; Talbot v. Seeman, 1 Cranch, 1; Ware v. Hylton, 3 Dall. 361, Per Iredell J.
[6.]Ware v. Hylton, 3 Dall. R. 199. See also Gibbons v. Ogden+ 69, 9 Wheat. R. 210, 211; Letter of Congress of 13th April, 1787; 12 Journ. of Congress, 32.
[7.] See Iredell J.’s reasoning in Ware v. Hylton, 3 Dall. R. 270 to 277; 5 Marshall’s Life of Washington, ch. 8, p. 652, 656; 1 Wait’s State Papers, 45, 47, 71, 81, 145; Serg. on Const. ch. 21, p. 217, 218, ch. 33, p. 396, 397, (2d edit. ch. 21, p. 218, 219, ch. 34, p. 406, 407.)—“A treaty,” said the Supreme Court, in Foster v. Neilson, 2 Peters’s R. 314, “is in its nature a contract between two nations, not a legislative act. It does not generally effect of itself the object to be accomplished, especially so far, as its operation is infraterritorial; but is carried into execution by the sovereign power of the respective parties to the instrument. In the United States a different principle is established. Our constitution declares a treaty to be the law of the land. It is consequently to be regarded by courts of justice as equivalent to an act of the legislature, whenever it operates of itself without the aid of any legislative provision.”
[8.] Circular Letter of Congress, 13th April, 1787; 12 Journ. of Congress, 32 to 36.
[9.] See the opinion of Iredell J. in Ware v. Hylton, 3 Dall. 270 to 277.
[10.] Id. 276, 277. See Journal of Convention, p. 222, 282, 283, 293.
[11.] The importance of this power has been practically illustrated by the redress afforded by courts of law in cases pending before them upon treaty stipulations. See United States v. The Peggy, 1 Cranch, 103; Ware v. Hylton, 3 Dall. R. 199, 244, 261; United States v. Arradondo, 6 Peters’s R. 691; Soulard v. Smith, 4 Peters’s Sup. R. 511; Case of Jonathan Robbins, 1 Hall’s Journ. of Jurisp. 25; Bees Adm’rs Rep. 263; 5 Wheat. Rep. App.
[12.]Foster v. Neilson, 2 Peters’s Sup. R. 254, 314. See also the Bello Corunnes, 6 Wheat. R. 171; Serg. on Const. ch. 33, p. 397, 398, 399, (ch. 34, p. 407, 408, 409, 410, 2d edit.)
[13.] See The Federalist, No. 44, 64.
[14.] The Federalist, No. 44.
[15.] The question arose in the debate for carrying into effect the British Treaty of 1794.
[16.] See Journal of House of Representatives, 6th April, 1796; 5 Marshall’s Life of Washington, ch. 8, p. 650 to 659; Serg. on Const. ch. 33, p. 401, (2d edit. ch. 34, p. 410, 411); 1 Debates on British Treaty, by F. Bache, 1796, p. 374 to 386; 4 Elliot’s Deb. 244 to 248.—President Washington, on this occasion, refused to deliver the papers respecting the British Treaty of 1794, called for by the house of representatives; and asserted the obligatory force of the treaty upon congress in the most emphatic terms. He added, that he knew, that this was understood in the convention to be the intended interpretation, and he referred to the Journal of the Convention (see Journal of Convention, p. 284, 325, 326, 339, 342, 343) to show, that a proposition was made, “that no treaty should be binding on the United States, which was not ratified by a law;” and that it was explicitly rejected. (5 Marshall’s Life of Washington, ch. 8, p. 654 to 658.) At a much earlier period, viz. in 1790, the same point came before the cabinet of President Washington in a treaty proposed with the Creek Indians. Upon that occasion, there seems to have been no doubt in the minds of any of his cabinet of the conclusiveness of a treaty containing commercial stipulations. Mr. Jefferson, on that occasion, firmly maintained it. A treaty, (said he,) made by the president with the concurrence of two thirds of the senate is the law of the land, and a law of a superior order, because it not only repeals past laws, but cannot itself be repealed by future ones. The treaty then will legally control the duty act, and the act for securing traders in this particular instance. Yet Mr. Jefferson afterwards, (in Nov. 1793,) seems to have fluctuated in opinion, and to have been unsettled, as to the nature and extent of the treaty-making power. 4 Jefferson’s Corresp. 497, 498.
[17.] Serg. on Const. ch. 33, p. 402, (2d edit. ch. 34, p. 411) 2 Elliot’s Deb. 273 to 279.—Upon this occasion, a most admirable speech was delivered by the late William Pinkney, in which his great powers of reasoning and juridical learning had an ample scope. See Wheaton’s Life of Pinkney, p. 517.
[18.]Marbury v. Madison, 1 Cranch, 137, 176.
[19.]Calder v. Bull, 3 Dall. R. 386; S. C. 1 Peters’s Cond. R. 172, 177.
[20.]Satterlee v. Matthewson, 2 Peters’s Sup. R. 380, 413.
[21.] See Serg. on Const. ch. 33, p. 391, (2d edit. ch. 34, p. 401); 1 Kent’s Comm. Lect. 20, p. 420, 421, (2d edit. p. 448, 449, 450.)