Article 1, Section 10, Clause 1

Document 21

Craig v. Missouri

4 Pet. 410 1830

Marshall, C.J. . . . This brings us to the great question in the cause: Is the act of the legislature of Missouri repugnant to the constitution of the United States?

The counsel for the plaintiffs in error maintain, that it is repugnant to the constitution, because its object is the emission of bills of credit contrary to the express prohibition contained in the tenth section of the first article.

The act under the authority of which the certificates loaned to the plaintiffs in error were issued, was passed on the 26th of June, 1821, and is entitled "an act for the establishment of loan offices." The provisions that are material to the present inquiry, are comprehended in the third, thirteenth, fifteenth, sixteenth, twenty-third and twenty-fourth sections of the act, which are in these words:

Section the third enacts: "that the auditor of public accounts and treasurer, under the direction of the governor, shall, and they are hereby required to issue certificates, signed by the said auditor and treasurer, to the amount of two hundred thousand dollars, of denominations not exceeding ten dollars, nor less than fifty cents (to bear such devices as they may deem the most safe), in the following form, to wit: "This certificate shall be receivable at the treasury, or any of the loan offices of the state of Missouri, in the discharge of taxes or debts due to the state, for the sum of $------, with interest for the same, at the rate of two per centum per annum from this date, the ------ day of ------ 182."

The thirteenth section declares: "that the certificates of the said loan office shall be receivable at the treasury of the state, and by all tax gatherers and other public officers, in payment of taxes or other moneys now due to the state or to any county or town therein, and the said certificates shall also be received by all officers civil and military in the state, in the discharge of salaries and fees of office."

The fifteenth section provides: "that the commissioners of the said loan offices shall have power to make loans of the said certificates, to citizens of this state, residing within their respective districts only, and in each district a proportion shall be loaned to the citizens of each county therein, according to the number thereof," &c.

Section sixteenth. "That the said commissioners of each of the said offices are further authorised to make loans on personal securities by them deemed good and sufficient, for sums less than two hundred dollars; which securities shall be jointly and severally bound for the payment of the amount so loaned, with interest thereon," &c.

Section twenty-third. "That the general assembly shall, as soon as may be, cause the salt springs and lands attached thereto, given by Congress to this state, to be leased out, and it shall always be the fundamental condition in such leases, that the lessee or lessees shall receive the certificates hereby required to be issued, in payment for salt, at a price not exceeding that which may be prescribed by law: and all the proceeds of the said salt springs, the interest accruing to the state, and all estates purchased by officers of the said several offices under the provisions of this act, and all the debts now due or hereafter to be due to this state; are hereby pledged and constituted a fund for the redemption of the certificates hereby required to be issued, and the faith of the state is hereby also pledged for the same purpose."

Section twenty-fourth. "That it shall be the duty of the said auditor and treasurer to withdraw annually from circulation, one-tenth part of the certificates which are hereby required to be issued," &c.

The clause in the constitution which this act is supposed to violate is in these words: "No state shall" "emit bills of credit."

What is a bill of credit? What did the constitution mean to forbid?

In its enlarged, and perhaps its literal sense, the term "bill of credit" may comprehend any instrument by which a state engages to pay money at a future day; thus including 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 its ordinary purposes, as money, which paper is redeemable at a future day. This is the sense in which the terms have been always understood.

At a very early period of our colonial history, the attempt to supply the want of the precious metals by a paper medium was made to a considerable extent; and the bills emitted for this purpose have been frequently denominated bills of credit. During the war of our revolution, we were driven to this expedient; and necessity compelled us to use it to a most fearful extent. The term has acquired an appropriate meaning; and "bills of credit" signify a paper medium, intended to circulate between individuals, and between government and individuals, for the ordinary purposes of society. Such a medium has been always liable to considerable fluctuation. Its value is continually changing; and these changes, often great and sudden, expose individuals to immense loss, are the sources of ruinous speculations, and destroy all confidence between man and man. To cut up this mischief by the roots, a mischief which was felt through the United States, and which deeply affected the interest and prosperity of all; the people declared in their constitution, that no state should emit bills of credit. If the prohibition means any thing, if the words are not empty sounds, it must comprehend the emission of any paper medium, by a state government, for the purpose of common circulation.

What is the character of the certificates issued by authority of the act under consideration? What office are they to perform? Certificates signed by the auditor and treasurer of the state, are to be issued by those officers to the amount of two hundred thousand dollars, of denominations not exceeding ten dollars, nor less than fifty cents. The paper purports on its face to be receivable at the treasury, or at any loan office of the state of Missouri, in discharge of taxes or debts due to the state.

The law makes them receivable in discharge of all taxes, or debts due to the state, or any county or town therein; and of all salaries and fees of office, to all officers civil and military within the state; and for salt sold by the lessees of the public salt works. It also pledges the faith and funds of the state for their redemption.

It seems impossible to doubt the intention of the legislature in passing this act, or to mistake the character of these certificates, or the office they were to perform. The denominations of the bills, from ten dollars to fifty cents, fitted them for the purpose of ordinary circulation; and their reception in payment of taxes, and debts to the government and to corporations, and of salaries and fees, would give them currency. They were to be put into circulation, that is, emitted by the government. In addition to all these evidences of an intention to make these certificates the ordinary circulating medium of the country, the law speaks of them in this character; and directs the auditor and treasurer to withdraw annually one-tenth of them from circulation. Had they been termed "bills of credit," instead of "certificates," nothing would have been wanting to bring them within the prohibitory words of the constitution.

And can this make any real difference? Is the proposition to be maintained, that the constitution meant to prohibit names and not things? That a very important act, big with great and ruinous mischief which is expressly forbidden by words most appropriate for its description; may be performed by the substitution of a name? That the constitution, in one of its most important provisions, may be openly evaded by giving a new name to an old thing? We cannot think so. We think the certificates emitted under the authority of this act, are as entirely bills of credit, as if they had been so denominated in the act itself.

But it is contended, that though these certificates should be deemed bills of credit, according to the common acceptation of the term, they are not so in the sense of the constitution; because they are not made a legal tender.

The constitution itself furnishes no countenance to this distinction. The prohibition is general. It extends to all bills of credit, not to bills of a particular description. That tribunal must be bold indeed, which, without the aid of other explanatory words, could venture on this construction. It is the less admissible in this case, because the same clause of the constitution contains a substantive prohibition to the enactment of tender laws. The constitution, therefore, considers the emission of bills of credit, and the enactment of tender laws, as distinct operations, independent of each other, which may be separately performed. Both are forbidden. To sustain the one, because it is not also the other; to say that bills of credit may be emitted, if they be not made a tender in payment of debts; is, in effect, to expunge that distinct independent prohibition, and to read the clause as if it had been entirely omitted. We are not at liberty to do this.

The history of paper money has been referred to, for the purpose of showing that its great mischief consists in being made a tender; and that therefore the general words of the constitution may be restrained to a particular intent.

Was it even true, that the evils of paper money resulted solely from the quality of its being made a tender, this Court would not feel itself authorized to disregard the plain meaning of words, in search of a conjectured intent to which we are not conducted by the language of any part of the instrument. But we do not think that the history of our country proves either, that being made a tender in payment of debts, is an essential quality of bills of credit, or the only mischief resulting from them. It may, indeed, be the most pernicious; but that will not authorise a Court to convert a general into a particular prohibition.

We learn from Hutchinson's History of Massachusetts, vol. 1, p. 402, that bills of credit were emitted for the first time in that colony in 1690. An army returning unexpectedly from an expedition against Canada, which had proved as disastrous as the plan was magnificent, found the government totally unprepared to meet their claims. Bills of credit were resorted to, for relief from this embarrassment. They do not appear to have been made a tender; but they were not on that account the less bills of credit, nor were they absolutely harmless. The emission, however, not being considerable, and the bills being soon redeemed, the experiment would have been productive of not much mischief, had it not been followed by repeated emissions to a much larger amount. The subsequent history of Massachusetts abounds with proofs of the evils with which paper money is fraught, whether it be or be not a legal tender.

Paper money was also issued in other colonies, both in the north and south; and whether made a tender or not, was productive of evils in proportion to the quantity emitted. In the war which commenced in America in 1755, Virginia issued paper money at several successive sessions, under the appellation of treasury notes. This was made a tender. Emissions were afterwards made in 1769, in 1771, and in 1773. These were not made a tender; but they circulated together; were equally bills of credit; and were productive of the same effects. In 1775 a considerable emission was made for the purposes of the war. The bills were declared to be current, but were not made a tender. In 1776, an additional emission was made, and the bills were declared to be a tender. The bills of 1775 and 1776 circulated together; were equally bills of credit; and were productive of the same consequences.

Congress emitted bills of credit to a large amount, and did not, perhaps could not, make them a legal tender. This power resided in the states. In May, 1777, the legislature of Virginia passed an act for the first time making the bills of credit issued under the authority of Congress a tender so far as to extinguish interest. It was not until March, 1781, that Virginia passed an act making all the bills of credit which had been emitted by Congress, and all which had been emitted by the state, a legal tender in payment of debts. Yet they were in every sense of the word bills of credit, previous to that time; and were productive of all the consequences of paper money. We cannot then assent to the proposition, that the history of our country furnishes any just argument in favour of that restricted construction of the constitution for which the counsel for the defendant in error contends.

The certificates for which this note was given, being in truth "bills of credit" in the sense of the constitution, we are brought to the inquiry:

Is the note valid of which they form the consideration?

It has been long settled, that a promise made in consideration of an act which is forbidden by law is void. It will not be questioned, that an act forbidden by the constitution of the United States, which is the supreme law, is against law. Now the constitution forbids a state to "emit bills of credit." The loan of these certificates is the very act which is forbidden. It is not the making of them while they lie in the loan offices; but the issuing of them, the putting them into circulation, which is the act of emission; the act that is forbidden by the constitution. The consideration of this note is the emission of bills of credit by the state. The very act which constitutes the consideration, is the act of emitting bills of credit, in the mode prescribed by the law of Missouri; which act is prohibited by the constitution of the United States.

Cases which we cannot distinguish from this in principle, have been decided in State Courts of great respectability; and in this Court. In the case of the Springfield Bank vs. Merrick et al., 14 Mass. Rep. 322, a note was made payable in certain bills, the loaning or negotiating of which was prohibited by statute, inflicting a penalty for its violation. The note was held to be void. Had this note been made in consideration of these bills, instead of being made payable in them, it would not have been less repugnant to the statute; and would consequently have been equally void.

In Hunt vs. Knickerbocker, 5 Johns. Rep. 327, it was decided that an agreement for the sale of tickets in a lottery, not authorised by the legislature of the state, although instituted under the authority of the government of another state, is contrary to the spirit and policy of the law, and void. The consideration on which the agreement was founded being illegal, the agreement was void. The books, both of Massachusetts and New York, abound with cases to the same effect. They turn upon the question whether the particular case is within the principle, not on the principle itself. It has never been doubted, that a note given on a consideration which is prohibited by law, is void. Had the issuing or circulation of certificates of this or of any other description been prohibited by a statute of Missouri, could a suit have been sustained in the Courts of that state, on a note given in consideration of the prohibited certificates? If it could not, are the prohibitions of the constitution to be held less sacred than those of a state law?

It had been determined, independently of the acts of Congress on that subject, that sailing under the license of an enemy is illegal. Patton vs. Nicholson, 3 Wheat. 204, was a suit brought in one of the Courts of this district on a note given by Nicholson to Patton, both citizens of the United States, for a British license. The United States were then at war with Great Britain; but the license was procured without any intercourse with the enemy. The judgment of the Circuit Court was in favour of the defendant; and the plaintiff sued out a writ of error. The counsel for the defendant in error was stopped, the Court declaring that the use of a license from the enemy being unlawful, one citizen had no right to purchase from or sell to another such a license, to be used on board an American vessel. The consideration for which the note was given being unlawful, it followed of course that the note was void.

A majority of the Court feels constrained to say that the consideration on which the note in this case was given, is against the highest law of the land, and that the note itself is utterly void. In rendering judgment for the plaintiff, the Court for the state of Missouri decided in favour of the validity of a law which is repugnant to the constitution of the United States.

In the argument, we have been reminded by one side of the dignity of a sovereign state; of the humiliation of her submitting herself to this tribunal; of the dangers which may result from inflicting a wound on that dignity: by the other, of the still superior dignity of the people of the United States; who have spoken their will, in terms which we cannot misunderstand.

To these admonitions, we can only answer: that if the exercise of that jurisdiction which has been imposed upon us by the constitution and laws of the United States, shall be calculated to bring on those dangers which have been indicated: or if it shall be indispensable to the preservation of the union, and consequently of the independence and liberty of these states: these are considerations which address themselves to those departments which may with perfect propriety be influenced by them. This department can listen only to the mandates of law; and can tread only that path which is marked out by duty.

The judgment of the Supreme Court of the state of Missouri for the first judicial district is reversed; and the cause remanded, with directions to enter judgment for the defendants.

Mr. Justice Johnson. . . . This leads us to the main question: "Was this an emission of bills of credit in the sense of the constitution?" And here the difficulty which presents itself is to determine whether it was a loan or an emission of paper money; or, perhaps, whether it was not an emission of paper money, under the disguise of a loan. There cannot be a doubt that this latter view of the subject must always be examined; for that which it is not permitted to do directly, cannot be legalized by any change of names or forms. Acts done "in fraudem legis," are acts in violation of law.

The great difficulty, as it is here, must ever be to determine, in each case, whether it be a loan, or an emission of bills of credit. That the states have an unlimited power to effect the one, and are divested of power to do the other, are propositions equally unquestionable; but where to draw the discriminating line is the great difficulty. I fear it is an insuperable difficulty.

The terms, "bills of credit," are in themselves vague and general, and, at the present day, almost dismissed from our language. It is then only by resorting to the nomenclature of the day of the constitution, that we can hope to get at the idea which the framers of the constitution attached to it. The quotation from Hutchinson's History of Massachusetts, therefore, was a proper one for this purpose; inasmuch as the sense in which a word is used, by a distinguished historian, and a man in public life in our own country, not long before the revolution, furnishes a satisfactory criterion for a definition. It is there used as synonymous with paper money; and we will find it distinctly used in the same sense by the first Congress which met under the present constitution.

The whole history and legislation of the time prove that, by bills of credit, the framers of the constitution meant paper money, with reference to that which had been used in the states from the commencement of the century, down to the time when it ceased to pass, before reduced to its innate worthlessness.

It was contended, in argument, for the defendant in error, that it was essential to the description of bills of credit in the sense of the constitution, that they should be made a lawful tender. But his own quotations negative that idea; and the constitution does the same, in the general prohibition in the states to make any thing but gold or silver a lengal tender. If, however, it were otherwise, it would hardly avail him here, since these certificates were, as to their officers' salaries, declared a legal tender.

The great end and object of this restriction on the power of the states, will furnish the best definition of the terms under consideration. The whole was intended to exclude every thing from use, as a circulating medium, except gold and silver; and to give to the United States the exclusive control over the coining and valuing of the metallic medium. That the real dollar may represent property, and not the shadow of it.

Now, if a state were to pass a law declaring that this representative of money shall be issued by its officers, this would be a palpable and tangible case; and we could not hesitate to declare such a law, and every contract entered into on the issue of such paper, purporting a promise to return the sum borrowed, to be a mere nullity. But suppose a state enacts a law authorising her officers to borrow a hundred thousand dollars, and to give in lieu thereof certificates of one hundred dollars, each expressing an acknowledgement of the debt; it is presumed there could be no objection to this. Then suppose that the next year she authorises these certificates to be broken up into ten, five, and even one dollar bills. Where can be the objection to this? And if, at the institution of the loan, the individual had given for the script his note at twelve months, instead of paying the cash; it would be but doing in another form what was here done in Missouri; and what is often done, in principle, where the loan is not required to be paid immediately in cash.

Pursuing the scrutiny farther, and with a view to bringing it as close home to the present case as possible: a state having exhausted its treasury, proposes to anticipate its taxes for one, two or three years; its citizens, or others, being willing to aid it, give their notes payable at sixty days, and receive the script of the state at a premium, for the advance of their credit, which enables the state, by discounting these notes, to realise the cash. There could be no objection to this negotiation; and their script being by contract to be receivable in taxes, nothing would be more natural than to break it up into small parcels in order to adapt it to the payment of taxes. And if in this state it should be thrown into circulation, by passing into the hands of those who would want it to meet their taxes, I see nothing in this that could amount to a violation of the constitution. Thus far the transaction partakes of the distinctive features of a loan; and yet it cannot be denied that its adaptation to the payment of taxes does give it one characteristic of a circulating medium. And another point of similitude, if not of identity, is the provision for forcing the receipt of it upon those to whom the state had incurred the obligation to pay money.

The result is, that these certificates are of a truly amphibious character; but what then should be the course of this Court? My conclusion is, that, as it is a doubtful case, for that reason we are bound to pronounce it innocent. It does indeed approach as near to a violation of the constitution as it can well go, without violating its prohibition; but it is in the exercise of an unquestionable right, although in rather a questionable form; and I am bound to believe that it was done in good faith, until the contrary shall more clearly appear.

Believing it then a candid exercise of the power of borrowing, I feel myself at liberty to go further, and briefly to suggest two points, on which these bills vary from the distinctive features of the paper money of the revolution.

1. On the face of them they bear an interest, and for that reason vary in value every moment of their existence: this disqualifies them for the uses and purposes of a circulating medium; which the universal consent of mankind declares should be of an uniform and unchanging value, otherwise it must be the subject of exchange, and not the medium.

2. All the paper medium of the revolution consisted of promises to pay. This is a promise to receive, and to receive in payment of debts and taxes due the state. This is not an immaterial distinction; for the objection to a mere paper medium is, that its value depends upon mere national faith. But this certainly has a better dependence; the public debtor who purchases it may tender it in payment; and upon a suit brought to recover against him, the constitution contains another provision to which he may have recourse. As far as the feeble powers of this Court extend, he would be secured (if he could ever need security) from a violation of his contracts. This approximates them to bills on a fund; and a fund not to be withdrawn by a law of the state.

Upon the whole, I am of opinion that the judgment of the State Court should be affirmed.

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 3, Article 1, Section 10, Clause 1, Document 21
The University of Chicago Press

Easy to print version.