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alexander hamilton Opinion on the Constitutionality of a National Bank 15 February 1791 - Lance Banning, Liberty and Order: The First American Party Struggle 
Liberty and Order: The First American Party Struggle, ed. and with a Preface by Lance Banning (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2004).
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alexander hamilton Opinion on the Constitutionality of a National Bank 15 February 1791
The Secretary of the Treasury having perused with attention the papers containing the opinions of the Secretary of State and Attorney General concerning the constitutionality of the bill for establishing a National Bank proceeds according to the order of the President to submit the reasons which have induced him to entertain a different opinion.
It will naturally have been anticipated that, in performing this task, he would feel uncommon solicitude. Personal considerations alone arising from the reflection that the measure originated with him would be sufficient to produce it. The sense which he has manifested of the great importance of such an institution to the successful administration of the department under his particular care, and an expectation of serious ill consequences to result from a failure of the measure, do not permit him to be without anxiety on public accounts. But the chief solicitude arises from a firm persuasion that principles of construction like those espoused by the Secretary of State and the Attorney General would be fatal to the just & indispensable authority of the United States.
In entering upon the argument it ought to be premised that the objections of the Secretary of State and Attorney General are founded on a general denial of the authority of the United States to erect corporations. The latter indeed expressly admits that if there be anything in the bill which is not warranted by the Constitution, it is the clause of incorporation.
Now it appears to the Secretary of the Treasury that this general principle is inherent in the very definition of Government and essential to every step of the progress to be made by that of the United States: namely—that every power vested in a Government is in its nature sovereign and includes by force of the term a right to employ all the means requisite and fairly applicable to the attainment of the ends of such power; and which are not precluded by restrictions & exceptions specified in the Constitution, or not immoral, or not contrary to the essential ends of political society.
This principle in its application to Government in general would be admitted as an axiom. And it will be incumbent upon those who may incline to deny it to prove a distinction; and to shew that a rule which in the general system of things is essential to the preservation of the social order is inapplicable to the United States.
The circumstances that the powers of sovereignty are in this country divided between the national and state governments does not afford the distinction required. It does not follow from this that each of the portions of powers delegated to the one or to the other is not sovereign with regard to its proper objects. It will only follow from it that each has sovereign power as to certain things, and not as to other things. To deny that the Government of the United States has sovereign power as to its declared purposes & trusts, because its power does not extend to all cases, would be equally to deny that the state governments have sovereign power in any case, because their power does not extend to every case. The tenth section of the first article of the Constitution exhibits a long list of very important things which they may not do. And thus the United States would furnish the singular spectacle of a political society without sovereignty, or of a people governed without government.
If it would be necessary to bring proof to a proposition so clear as that which affirms that the powers of the federal government, as to its objects, are sovereign, there is a clause of its Constitution which would be decisive. It is that which declares that the Constitution and the laws of the United States made in pursuance of it, and all treaties made or which shall be made under their authority shall be the supreme law of the land. The power which can create the Supreme law of the land, in any case, is doubtless sovereign as to such case.
This general & indisputable principle puts at once an end to the abstract question—Whether the United States have power to erect a corporation? that is to say, to give a legal or artificial capacity to one or more persons, distinct from the natural. For it is unquestionably incident to sovereign power to erect corporations, and consequently to that of the United States, in relation to the objects intrusted to the management of the government. The difference is this—where the authority of the government is general, it can create corporations in all cases; where it is confined to certain branches of legislation, it can create corporations only in those cases.
Here then as far as concerns the reasoning of the Secretary of State & the Attorney General, the affirmative of the constitutionality of the bill might be permitted to rest. It will occur to the President that the principle here advanced has been untouched by either of them.
For a more complete elucidation of the point nevertheless, the arguments which they have used against the power of the government to erect corporations, however foreign they are to the great & fundamental rule which has been stated, shall be particularly examined. And after shewing that they do not tend to impair its force, it shall also be shewn that the power of incorporation incident to the government in certain cases does fairly extend to the particular case which is the object of the bill.
The first of these arguments is that the foundation of the Constitution is laid on this ground “that all powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution nor prohibited to it by the States are reserved to the States or to the people,” whence it is meant to be inferred that Congress can in no case exercise any power not included in those enumerated in the Constitution. And it is affirmed that the power of erecting a corporation is not included in any of the enumerated powers.
The main proposition here laid down, in its true signification, is not to be questioned. It is nothing more than a consequence of this republican maxim, that all government is a delegation of power. But how much is delegated in each case is a question of fact to be made out by fair reasoning & construction upon the particular provisions of the Constitution—taking as guides the general principles & general ends of government.
It is not denied that there are implied as well as express powers, and that the former are as effectually delegated as the latter. And for the sake of accuracy it shall be mentioned that there is another class of powers which may be properly denominated resulting powers. It will not be doubted that if the United States should make a conquest of any of the territories of its neighbors, they would possess sovereign jurisdiction over the conquered territory. This would rather be a result from the whole mass of the powers of the government & from the nature of political society, than a consequence of either of the powers specially enumerated.
But be this as it may, it furnishes a striking illustration of the general doctrine contended for. It shews an extensive case in which a power of erecting corporations is either implied in or would result from some or all of the powers vested in the National Government. The jurisdiction acquired over such conquered territory would certainly be competent to every species of legislation.
To return—It is conceded, that implied powers are to be considered as delegated equally with express ones.
Then it follows that as a power of erecting a corporation may as well be implied as any other thing; it may as well be employed as an instrument or mean of carrying into execution any of the specified powers as any other instrument or mean whatever. The only question must be, in this as in every other case, whether the mean to be employed, or in this instance the corporation to be erected, has a natural relation to any of the acknowledged objects or lawful ends of the government. Thus a corporation may not be erected by Congress for superintending the police of the city of Philadelphia because they are not authorized to regulate the police of that city; but one may be erected in relation to the collection of the taxes, or to the trade with foreign countries, or to the trade between the states, or with the Indian Tribes, because it is the province of the federal government to regulate those objects & because it is incident to a general sovereign or legislative power to regulate a thing to employ all the means which relate to its regulation to the best & greatest advantage.
A strange fallacy seems to have crept into the manner of thinking & reasoning upon the subject. Imagination appears to have been unusually busy concerning it. An incorporation seems to have been regarded as some great, independent, substantive thing—as a political end of peculiar magnitude & moment; whereas it is truly to be considered as a quality, capacity, or mean to an end. Thus a mercantile company is formed with a certain capital for the purpose of carrying on a particular branch of business. Here the business to be prosecuted is the end; the association in order to form the requisite capital is the primary mean. Suppose that an incorporation were added to this; it would only be to add a new quality to that association; to give it an artificial capacity by which it would be enabled to prosecute the business with more safety & convenience.
That the importance of the power of incorporation has been exaggerated, leading to erroneous conclusions, will further appear from tracing it to its origin. The Roman law is the source of it, according to which a voluntary association of individuals at any time or for any purpose was capable of producing it. In England, whence our notions of it are immediately borrowed, it forms a part of the executive authority, & the exercise of it has been often delegated by that authority. Whence, therefore, the ground of the supposition that it lies beyond the reach of all those very important portions of sovereign power, legislative as well as executive, which belong to the government of the United States?
To this mode of reasoning respecting the right of employing all the means requisite to the execution of the specified powers of the government, it is objected that none but necessary & proper means are to be employed, & the Secretary of State maintains that no means are to be considered as necessary but those without which the grant of the power would be nugatory. Nay so far does he go in his restrictive interpretation of the word as even to make the case of necessity which shall warrant the constitutional exercise of the power to depend on casual & temporary circumstances, an idea which alone refutes the construction. The expediency of exercising a particular power, at a particular time, must indeed depend on circumstances; but the constitutional right of exercising it must be uniform & invariable—the same today as tomorrow.
All the arguments therefore against the constitutionality of the bill derived from the accidental existence of certain state-banks, institutions which happen to exist today, & for ought that concerns the government of the United States, may disappear tomorrow, must not only be rejected as fallacious, but must be viewed as demonstrative that there is a radical source of error in the reasoning.
It is essential to the being of the national government that so erroneous a conception of the meaning of the word necessary should be exploded.
It is certain that neither the grammatical nor popular sense of the term requires that construction. According to both, necessary often means no more than needful, requisite, incidental, useful, or conducive to. It is a common mode of expression to say that it is necessary for a government or a person to do this or that thing when nothing more is intended or understood than that the interests of the government or person require, or will be promoted, by the doing of this or that thing. The imagination can be at no loss for exemplification of the use of the word in this sense.
And it is the true one in which it is to be understood as used in the Constitution. The whole turn of the clause containing it indicates that it was the intent of the convention by that clause to give a liberal latitude to the exercise of the specified powers. The expressions have peculiar comprehensiveness. They are—“to make all laws, necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers & all other powers vested by the constitution in the government of the United States, or in any department or officer thereof.” To understand the word as the Secretary of State does would be to depart from its obvious & popular sense, and to give it a restrictive operation; an idea never before entertained. It would be to give it the same force as if the word absolutely or indispensably had been prefixed to it.
Such a construction would beget endless uncertainty & embarassment. The cases must be palpable & extreme in which it could be pronounced with certainty that a measure was absolutely necessary, or one without which the exercise of a given power would be nugatory. There are few measures of any government which would stand so severe a test. To insist upon it would be to make the criterion of the exercise of any implied power a case of extreme necessity; which is rather a rule to justify the overleaping of the bounds of constitutional authority than to govern the ordinary exercise of it.
It may be truly said of every government, as well as of that of the United States, that it has only a right to pass such laws as are necessary & proper to accomplish the objects intrusted to it. For no government has a right to do merely what it pleases. Hence by a process of reasoning similar to that of the Secretary of State, it might be proved that neither of the state governments has a right to incorporate a bank. It might be shewn that all the public business of the state could be performed without a bank, and inferring thence that it was unnecessary it might be argued that it could not be done, because it is against the rule which has been just mentioned. A like mode of reasoning would prove that there was no power to incorporate the inhabitants of a town, with a view to a more perfect police: For it is certain that an incorporation may be dispensed with, though it is better to have one. It is to be remembered that there is no express power in any state constitution to erect corporations.
The degree in which a measure is necessary can never be a test of the legal right to adopt it. That must ever be a matter of opinion; and can only be a test of expediency. The relation between the measure and the end, between the nature of the mean employed towards the execution of a power and the object of that power, must be the criterion of constitutionality, not the more or less of necessity or utility.
The practice of the government is against the rule of construction advocated by the Secretary of State. Of this the act concerning light houses, beacons, buoys & public piers is a decisive example. This doubtless must be referred to the power of regulating trade, and is fairly relative to it. But it cannot be affirmed that the exercise of that power, in this instance, was strictly necessary; or that the power itself would be nugatory without that of regulating establishments of this nature.
This restrictive interpretation of the word necessary is also contrary to this sound maxim of construction: namely, that the powers contained in a constitution of government, especially those which concern the general administration of the affairs of a country, its finances, trade, defence, etc. ought to be construed liberally in advancement of the public good. This rule does not depend on the particular form of a government or on the particular demarkation of the boundaries of its powers, but on the nature and objects of government itself. The means by which national exigencies are to be provided for, national inconveniencies obviated, national prosperity promoted, are of such infinite variety, extent and complexity, that there must, of necessity, be great latitude of discretion in the selection & application of those means. Hence, consequently, the necessity & propriety of exercising the authorities intrusted to a government on principles of liberal construction… .
But while, on the one hand, the construction of the Secretary of State is deemed inadmissible, it will not be contended on the other that the clause in question gives any new or independent power. But it gives an explicit sanction to the doctrine of implied powers, and is equivalent to an admission of the proposition that the government, as to its specified powers and objects, has plenary & sovereign authority, in some cases paramount to that of the states, in others coordinate with it. For such is the plain import of the declaration that it may pass all laws necessary & proper to carry into execution those powers.
It is no valid objection to the doctrine to say that it is calculated to extend the powers of the general government throughout the entire sphere of state legislation. The same thing has been said and may be said with regard to every exercise of power by implication or construction. The moment the literal meaning is departed from, there is a chance of error and abuse. And yet an adherence to the letter of its powers would at once arrest the motions of the government. It is not only agreed, on all hands, that the exercise of constructive powers is indispensable, but every act which has been passed is more or less an exemplification of it. One has been already mentioned, that relating to light houses, etc. That which declares the power of the President to remove officers at pleasure acknowledges the same truth in another and a signal instance.
The truth is that difficulties on this point are inherent in the nature of the federal constitution. They result inevitably from a division of the legislative power. The consequence of this division is that there will be cases clearly within the power of the National Government; others clearly without its power; and a third class, which will leave room for controversy & difference of opinion, & concerning which a reasonable latitude of judgment must be allowed.
But this doctrine which is contended for is not chargeable with the consequence imputed to it. It does not affirm that the national government is sovereign in all respects, but that it is sovereign to a certain extent: that is, to the extent of the objects of its specified powers.
It leaves therefore a criterion of what is constitutional and of what is not so. This criterion is the end to which the measure relates as a mean. If the end be clearly comprehended within any of the specified powers, & if the measure have an obvious relation to that end, and is not forbidden by any particular provision of the constitution—it may safely be deemed to come within the compass of the national authority. There is also this further criterion which may materially assist the decision. Does the proposed measure abridge a preexisting right of any state, or of any individual? If it does not, there is a strong presumption in favour of its constitutionality; & slighter relations to any declared object of the Constitution may be permitted to turn the scale… .
There are two points in the suggestions of the Secretary of State which have been noted that are peculiarly incorrect. One is that the proposed incorporation is against the laws of monopoly, because it stipulates an exclusive right of banking under the national authority. The other that it gives power to the institution to make laws paramount to those of the states.
But with regard to the first point, the bill neither prohibits any state from erecting as many banks as they please, nor any number of individuals from associating to carry on the business, & consequently is free from the charge of establishing a monopoly: for monopoly implies a legal impediment to the carrying on of the trade by others than those to whom it is granted.
And with regard to the second point, there is still less foundation. The bylaws of such an institution as a bank can operate only upon its own members; can only concern the disposition of its own property; and must essentially resemble the rules of a private mercantile partnership. They are expressly not to be contrary to law; and law must here mean the law of a state as well as of the United States. There never can be a doubt that a law of the corporation, if contrary to a law of a state, must be overruled as void; unless the law of the state is contrary to that of the United States; and then the question will not be between the law of the state and that of the corporation, but between the law of the state and that of the United States.
Another argument made use of by the Secretary of State is the rejection of a proposition by the convention to empower Congress to make corporations, either generally, or for some special purpose.
What was the precise nature or extent of this proposition, or what the reasons for refusing it, is not ascertained by any authentic document, or even by accurate recollection. As far as any such document exists, it specifies only canals. If this was the amount of it, it would at most only prove that it was thought inexpedient to give a power to incorporate for the purpose of opening canals, for which purpose a special power would have been necessary; except with regard to the Western Territory, there being nothing in any part of the Constitution respecting the regulation of canals. It must be confessed, however, that very different accounts are given of the import of the proposition and of the motives for rejecting it. Some affirm that it was confined to the opening of canals and obstructions in rivers; others, that it embraced banks; and others, that it extended to the power of incorporating generally. Some again alledge that it was disagreed to because it was thought improper to vest in Congress a power of erecting corporations—others, because it was thought unnecessary to specify the power, and inexpedient to furnish an additional topic of objection to the Constitution. In this state of the matter, no inference whatever can be drawn from it.
But whatever may have been the nature of the proposition or the reasons for rejecting it concludes nothing in respect to the real merits of the question. The Secretary of State will not deny that whatever may have been the intention of the framers of a constitution, or of a law, that intention is to be sought for in the instrument itself, according to the usual & established rules of construction. Nothing is more common than for laws to express and effect more or less than was intended. If then a power to erect a corporation, in any case, be deducible by fair inference from the whole or any part of the numerous provisions of the Constitution of the United States, arguments drawn from extrinsic circumstances, regarding the intention of the convention, must be rejected… .
It is presumed to have been satisfactorily shewn in the course of the preceding observations
1. That the power of the government as to the objects intrusted to its management is in its nature sovereign.
2. That the right of erecting corporations is one inherent in & inseparable from the idea of sovereign power.
3. That the position that the government of the United States can exercise no power but such as is delegated to it by its constitution does not militate against this principle.
4. That the word necessary in the general clause can have no restrictive operation, derogating from the force of this principle, indeed, that the degree in which a measure is or is not necessary cannot be a test of constitutional right, but of expediency only.
5. That the power to erect corporations is not to be considered as an independent & substantive power but as an incidental & auxiliary one; and was therefore more properly left to implication than expressly granted.
6. That the principle in question does not extend the power of the government beyond the prescribed limits, because it only affirms a power to incorporate for purposes within the sphere of the specified powers.
And lastly that the right to exercise such a power, in certain cases, is unequivocally granted in the most positive & comprehensive terms.
To all which it only remains to be added that such a power has actually been exercised in two very eminent instances: namely in the erection of two governments, One, northwest of the river Ohio, and the other southwest—the last, independent of any antecedent compact.
And there results a full & complete demonstration that the Secretary of State & Attorney General are mistaken when they deny generally the power of the national government to erect corporations.
It shall now be endeavored to be shewn that there is a power to erect one of the kind proposed by the bill. This will be done by tracing a natural & obvious relation between the institution of a bank and the objects of several of the enumerated powers of the government; and by shewing that, politically speaking, it is necessary to the effectual execution of one or more of those powers. In the course of this investigation, various instances will be stated by way of illustration of a right to erect corporations under those powers.
Some preliminary observations may be proper.
The proposed bank is to consist of an association of persons for the purpose of creating a joint capital to be employed, chiefly and essentially, in loans. So far the object is not only lawful, but it is the mere exercise of a right which the law allows to every individual. The Bank of New York, which is not incorporated, is an example of such an association. The bill proposes in addition that the government shall become a joint proprietor in this undertaking, and that it shall permit the bills of the company payable on demand to be receivable in its revenues, & stipulates that it shall not grant privileges similar to those which are to be allowed to this company to any others. All this is incontrovertibly within the compass of the discretion of the government. The only question is, whether it has a right to incorporate this company in order to enable it the more effectually to accomplish ends which are in themselves lawful.
To establish such a right, it remains to shew the relation of such an institution to one or more of the specified powers of the government.
Accordingly it is affirmed that it has a relation more or less direct to the power of collecting taxes; to that of borrowing money; to that of regulating trade between the states; and to those of raising, supporting & maintaining fleets & armies. To the two former, the relation may be said to be immediate.
And, in the last place, it will be argued that it is, clearly, within the provision which authorizes the making of all needful rules & regulations concerning the property of the United States, as the same has been practiced upon by the government.
A Bank relates to the collection of taxes in two ways; indirectly, by increasing the quantity of circulating medium & quickening circulation, which facilitates the means of paying—directly, by creating a convenient species of medium in which they are to be paid… .
A Bank has a direct relation to the power of borrowing money, because it is a usual and in sudden emergencies an essential instrument in the obtaining of loans to government.
A nation is threatened with a war. Large sums are wanted, on a sudden, to make the requisite preparations. Taxes are laid for the purpose, but it requires time to obtain the benefit of them. Anticipation is indispensable. If there be a bank, the supply can at once be had; if there be none loans from individuals must be sought. The progress of these is often too slow for the exigency; in some situations they are not practicable at all. Frequently, when they are, it is of great consequence to be able to anticipate the product of them by advances from a bank… .
The institution of a bank has also a natural relation to the regulation of trade between the states: in so far as it is conducive to the creation of a convenient medium of exchange between them, and to the keeping up a full circulation by preventing the frequent displacement of the metals in reciprocal remittances. Money is the very hinge on which commerce turns. And this does not mean merely gold & silver; many other things have served the purpose with different degrees of utility. Paper has been extensively employed… .
Illustrations of this kind might be multiplied without end. They shall, however, be pursued no further.
There is a sort of evidence on this point arising from an aggregate view of the Constitution, which is of no inconsiderable weight. The very general power of laying & collecting taxes & appropriating their proceeds—that of borrowing money indefinitely—that of coining money & regulating foreign coins—that of making all needful rules and regulations respecting the property of the United States—these powers combined, as well as the reason & nature of the thing speak strongly this language: That it is the manifest design and scope of the Constitution to vest in Congress all the powers requisite to the effectual administration of the finances of the United States. As far as concerns this object, there appears to be no parsimony of power.
To suppose, then, that the government is precluded from the employment of so usual as well as so important an instrument for the administration of its finances as that of a bank, is to suppose what does not coincide with the general tenor & complexion of the Constitution, and what is not agreeable to impressions that any mere spectator would entertain concerning it. Little less than a prohibitory clause can destroy the strong presumptions which result from the general aspect of the government. Nothing but demonstration should exclude the idea that the power exists.
In all questions of this nature the practice of mankind ought to have great weight against the theories of individuals.
The fact, for instance, that all the principal commercial nations have made use of trading corporations or companies for the purposes of external commerce is a satisfactory proof that the establishment of them is an incident to the regulation of that commerce.
This other fact, that banks are an usual engine in the administration of national finances, & an ordinary & the most effectual instrument of loans, & one which in this country has been found essential, pleads strongly against the supposition that a government clothed with most of the most important prerogatives of sovereignty in relation to the revenues, its debts, its credit, its defense, its trade, its intercourse with foreign nations—is forbidden to make use of that instrument as an appendage to its own authority… .
It is presumed, that nothing of consequence in the observations of the Secretary of State and Attorney General has been left unnoticed.
There are indeed a variety of observations of the Secretary of State designed to shew that the utilities ascribed to a bank in relation to the collection of taxes and to trade could be obtained without it, to analyse which would prolong the discussion beyond all bounds. It shall be forborne for two reasons—first because the report concerning the Bank may speak for itself in this respect; and secondly, because all those observations are grounded on the erroneous idea that the quantum of necessity or utility is the test of a constitutional exercise of power… .