Article 1, Section 8, Clause 18

[Volume 3, Page 267]

Document 21

Joseph Story, Commentaries on the Constitution 3:§§ 1238--89


§ 1238. The plain import of the clause is, that congress shall have all the incidental and instrumental powers, necessary and proper to carry into execution all the express powers. It neither enlarges any power specifically granted; nor is it a grant of any new power to congress. But it is merely a declaration for the removal of all uncertainty, that the means of carrying into execution those, otherwise granted, are included in the grant. Whenever, therefore, a question arises concerning the constitutionality of a particular power, the first question is, whether the power be expressed in the constitution. If it be, the question is decided. If it be not expressed, the next inquiry must be, whether it is properly an incident to an express power, and necessary to its execution. If it be, then it may be exercised by congress. If not, congress cannot exercise it.

§ 1239. But still a ground of controversy remains open, as to the true interpretation of the terms of the clause; and it has been contested with no small share of earnestness and vigour. What, then, is the true constitutional sense of the words "necessary and proper" in this clause? It has been insisted by the advocates of a rigid interpretation, that the word "necessary" is here used in its close and most intense meaning; so that it is equivalent to absolutely and indispensably necessary. It has been said, that the constitution [Volume 3, Page 268] allows only the means, which are necessary; not those, which are merely convenient for effecting the enumerated powers. If such a latitude of construction be given to this phrase, as to give any non-enumerated power, it will go far to give every one; for there is no one, which ingenuity might not torture into a convenience in some way or other to some one of so long a list of enumerated powers. It would swallow up all the delegated powers, and reduce the whole to one phrase. Therefore it is, that the constitution has restrained them to the necessary means; that is to say, to those means, without which the grant of the power would be nugatory. A little difference in the degree of convenience cannot constitute the necessity, which the constitution refers to.

§ 1240. The effect of this mode of interpretation is to exclude all choice of means; or, at most, to leave to congress in each case those only, which are most direct and simple. If, indeed, such implied powers, and such only, as can be shown to be indispensably necessary, are within the purview of the clause, there will be no end to difficulties, and the express powers must practically become a mere nullity. It will be found, that the operations of the government, upon any of its powers, will rarely admit of a rigid demonstration of the necessity (in this strict sense) of the particular means. In most cases, various systems or means may be resorted to, to attain the same end; and yet, with respect to each, it may be argued, that it is not constitutional, because it is not indispensable; and the end may be obtained by other means. The consequence of such reasoning would be, that, as no means could be shown to be constitutional, none could be adopted. For instance, congress possess the power to make war, and to raise armies, and incidentally to erect fortifications, and purchase cannon and ammunition, and other munitions of war. But war may be carried on without fortifications, cannon, and ammunition. No particular kind of arms can be shown to be absolutely necessary; because various sorts of arms of different convenience, power, and utility are, or may be resorted to by different nations. What then becomes of the power? Congress has power to borrow money, and to provide for the payment of the public debt; yet no particular method is indispensable to these ends. They may be attained by various means. Congress has power to provide a navy; but no particular size, or form, or equipment of ships is indispensable. The means of providing a naval establishment are very various; and the applications of them admit of infinite shades of opinion, as to their convenience, utility, and necessity. What then is to be done? Are the powers to remain dormant? Would it not be absurd to say, that congress did not possess the choice of means under such circumstances, and ought not to be empowered to select, and use any means, which are in fact conducive to the exercise of the powers granted by the constitution? Take another example; congress has, doubtless, the authority, under the power to regulate commerce, to erect light-houses, beacons, buoys, and public piers, and authorize the employment of pilots. But it cannot be affirmed, that the exercise of these powers is in a strict sense necessary; or that the power to regulate commerce would be nugatory without establishments of this nature. In truth, no particular regulation of commerce can ever be shown to be exclusively and indispensably necessary; and thus we should be driven to admit, that all regulations are within the scope of the power, or that none are. If there be any general principle, which 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, it is, 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 end of such power; unless they are excepted in the constitution, or are immoral, or are contrary to the essential objects of political society.

§ 1241. There is another difficulty in the strict construction above alluded to, that it makes the constitutional authority depend upon casual and temporary circumstances, which may produce a necessity to-day, and change it tomorrow. This alone shows the fallacy of the reasoning. 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 and invariable; the same today as to-morrow.

§ 1242. Neither can the degree, in which a measure is necessary, ever be a test of the legal right to adopt it. That must be a matter of opinion, (upon which different men, and different bodies may form opposite judgments,) and can only be a test of expediency. The relation between the measure and the end, between the nature of the means employed towards the execution of a power, and the object of that power, must be the criterion of constitutionality; and not the greater or less of necessity or expediency. If the legislature possesses a right of choice as to the means, who can limit that choice? Who is appointed an umpire, or arbiter in cases, where a discretion is confided to a government? The very idea of such a controlling authority in the exercise of its powers is a virtual denial of the supremacy of the government in regard to its powers. It repeals the supremacy of the national government, proclaimed in the constitution.

§ 1243. It is equally certain, that neither the grammatical, nor the popular sense of the word, "necessary," requires any such 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 interest of the government or person requires, or will be promoted by the doing of this or that thing. Every one's mind will at once suggest to him many illustrations of the use of the word in this sense. To employ the means, necessary to an end, is generally understood, as employing any means calculated to produce the end, and not as being confined to those single means, without which the end would be entirely unattainable.

§ 1244. Such is the character of human language, that no word conveys to the mind in all situations one single definite idea; and nothing is more common, than to use words in a figurative sense. Almost all compositions contain words, which, taken in their rigorous sense, would [Volume 3, Page 269] convey a meaning, different from that, which is obviously intended. It is essential to just interpretation, that many words, which import something excessive, should be understood in a more mitigated sense; in a sense, which common usage justifies. The word "necessary" is of this description. It has not a fixed character peculiar to itself. It admits of all degrees of comparison; and is often connected with other words, which increase or diminish the impression, which the mind receives of the urgency it imports. A thing may be necessary, very necessary, absolutely or indispensably necessary. It may be little necessary, less necessary, or least necessary. To no mind would the same idea be conveyed by any two of these several phrases. The tenth section of the first article of the constitution furnishes a strong illustration of this very use of the word. It contains a prohibition upon any state to "lay any imposts or duties, &c. except what may be absolutely necessary for executing its inspection laws." No one can compare this clause with the other, on which we are commenting, without being struck with the conviction, that the word "absolutely," here prefixed to "necessary," was intended to distinguish it from the sense, in which, standing alone, it is used in the other.

§ 1245. That the restrictive interpretation must be abandoned, in regard to certain powers of the government, cannot be reasonably doubted. It is universally conceded, that the power of punishment appertains to sovereignty, and may be exercised, whenever the sovereign has a right to act, as incidental to his constitutional powers. It is a means for carrying into execution all sovereign powers, and may be used, although not indispensably necessary. If, then, the restrictive interpretation must be abandoned, in order to justify the constitutional exercise of the power to punish; whence is the rule derived, which would reinstate it, when the government would carry its powers into operation, by means not vindictive in their nature? If the word, "necessary" means needful, requisite, essential, conducive to, to let in the power of punishment, why is it not equally comprehensive, when applied to other means used to facilitate the execution of the powers of the government?

§ 1246. The restrictive interpretation is also contrary to a sound maxim of construction, generally admitted, namely, that the powers contained in a constitution of government, especially those, which concern the general administration of the affairs of the country, such as its finances, its trade, and its defence, ought to be liberally expounded in advancement of the public good. This rule does not depend on the particular form of a government, or on the particular demarcations of the boundaries of its powers; but on the nature and objects of government itself. The means, by which national exigencies are provided for, national inconveniences obviated, and national prosperity promoted, are of such infinite variety, extent, and complexity, that there must of necessity be great latitude of discretion in the selection, and application of those means. Hence, consequently, the necessity and propriety of exercising the authorities, entrusted to a government, on principles of liberal construction.

§ 1247. It is no valid objection to this doctrine to say, that it is calculated to extend the powers of the government throughout the entire sphere of state legislation. The same thing may be said, and has been said, in regard to every exercise of power by implication and construction. There is always some chance of error, or abuse of every power; but this furnishes no ground of objection against the power; and certainly no reason for an adherence to the most rigid construction of its terms, which would at once arrest the whole movements of the government. The remedy for any abuse, or misconstruction of the power, is the same, as in similar abuses and misconstructions of the state governments. It is by an appeal to the other departments of the government; and finally to the people, in the exercise of their elective franchises.

§ 1248. There are yet other grounds against the restrictive interpretation derived from the language, and the character of the provision. The language is, that congress shall have power "to make all laws, which shall be necessary and proper." If the word "necessary" were used in the strict and rigorous sense contended for, it would be an extraordinary departure from the usual course of the human mind, as exhibited in solemn instruments, to add another word "proper;" the only possible effect of which is to qualify that strict and rigorous meaning, and to present clearly the idea of a choice of means in the course of legislation. If no means can be resorted to, but such as are indispensably necessary, there can be neither sense, nor utility in adding the other word; for the necessity shuts out from view all consideration of the propriety of the means, as contradistinguished from the former. But if the intention was to use the word "necessary" in its more liberal sense, then there is a peculiar fitness in the other word. It has a sense at once admonitory, and directory. It requires, that the means should be, bonâ fide, appropriate to the end.

§ 1249. The character of the clause equally forbids any presumption of an intention to use the restrictive interpretation. In the first place, the clause is placed among the powers of congress, and not among the limitations on those powers. In the next place, its terms purport to enlarge, and not to diminish, the powers vested in the government. It purports, on its face, to be an additional power, not a restriction on those already granted. If it does not, in fact, (as seems the true construction,) give any new powers, it affirms the right to use all necessary and proper means to carry into execution the other powers; and thus makes an express power, what would otherwise be merely an implied power. In either aspect, it is impossible to construe it to be a restriction. If it have any effect, it is to remove the implication of any restriction. If a restriction had been intended, it is impossible, that the framers of the constitution should have concealed it under phraseology, which purports to enlarge, or at least give the most ample scope to the other powers. There was every motive on their part to give point and clearness to every restriction of national power; for they well knew, that the national government would be more endangered in its adoption by its supposed strength, than by its weakness. It is inconceivable, that they should have disguised a restriction upon its powers under the form of a grant of power. They would have sought other terms, and have imposed the restraint [Volume 3, Page 270] by negatives. And what is equally strong, no one, in or out of the state conventions, at the time when the constitution was put upon its deliverance before the people, ever dreamed of, or suggested, that it contained a restriction of power. The whole argument on each side, of attack and of defence, gave it the positive form of an express power, and not of an express restriction.

§ 1250. Upon the whole, the result of the most careful examination of this clause is, that, if it does not enlarge, it cannot be construed to restrain the powers of congress, or to impair the right of the legislature to exercise its best judgment, in the selection of measures to carry into execution the constitutional powers of the national government. The motive for its insertion doubtless was, the desire to remove all possible doubt respecting the right to legislate on that vast mass of incidental powers, which must be involved in the constitution, if that instrument be not a splendid pageant, or a delusive phantom of sovereignty. Let the end be legitimate; let it be within the scope of the constitution; and all means, which are appropriate, which are plainly adapted to the end, and which are not prohibited, but are consistent with the letter and spirit of the instrument, are constitutional.

§ 1251. It may be well, in this connexion, to mention another sort of implied power, which has been called with great propriety a resulting power, arising from the aggregate powers of the national government. It will not be doubted, for instance, that, if the United States should make a conquest of any of the territories of its neighbours, the national government would possess sovereign jurisdiction over the conquered territory. This would, perhaps, rather be a result from the whole mass of the powers of the national government, and from the nature of political society, than a consequence or incident of the powers specially enumerated. It may, however, be deemed, if an incident to any, an incident to the power to make war. Other instances of resulting powers will easily suggest themselves. The United States are nowhere declared in the constitution to be a sovereignty entitled to sue, though jurisdiction is given to the national courts over controversies, to which the United States shall be a party. It is a natural incident, resulting from the sovereignty and character of the national government. So the United States, in their political capacity, have a right to enter into a contract, (although it is not expressly provided for by the constitution,) for it is an incident to their general right of sovereignty, so far as it is appropriate to any of the ends of the government, and within the constitutional range of its powers. So congress possess power to punish offences committed on board of the public ships of war of the government by persons not in the military or naval service of the United States, whether they are in port, or at sea; for the jurisdiction on board of public ships is every where deemed exclusively to belong to the sovereign.

§ 1252. And not only may implied powers, but implied exemptions from state authority, exist, although not expressly provided for by law. The collectors of the revenue, the carriers of the mail, the mint establishment, and all those institutions, which are public in their nature, are examples in point. It has never been doubted, that all, who are employed in them, are protected, while in the line of their duty, from state control; and yet this protection is not expressed in any act of congress. It is incidental to, and is implied in, the several acts, by which those institutions are created; and is preserved to them by the judicial department, as a part of its functions. A contractor for supplying a military post with provisions cannot be restrained from making purchases within a state, or from transporting provisions to the place, at which troops are stationed. He could not be taxed, or fined, or lawfully obstructed, in so doing. These incidents necessarily flow from the supremacy of the powers of the Union, within their legitimate sphere of action.

§ 1253. It would be almost impracticable, if it were not useless, to enumerate the various instances, in which congress, in the progress of the government, have made use of incidental and implied means to execute its powers. They are almost infinitely varied in their ramifications and details. It is proposed, however, to take notice of the principal measures, which have been contested, as not within the scope of the powers of congress, and which may be distinctly traced in the operations of the government, and in leading party divisions.

§ 1254. One of the earliest and most important measures, which gave rise to a question of constitutional power, was the act chartering the bank of the United States in 1791. That question has often since been discussed; and though the measure has been repeatedly sanctioned by congress, by the executive, and by the judiciary, and has obtained the like favour in a great majority of the states, yet it is, up to this very hour, still debated upon constitutional grounds, as if it were still new, and untried. It is impossible, at this time, to treat it, as an open question, unless the constitution is for ever to remain an unsettled text, possessing no permanent attributes, and incapable of having any ascertained sense; varying with every change of doctrine, and of party; and delivered over to interminable doubts. If the constitution is to be only, what the administration of the day may wish it to be; and is to assume any, and all shapes, which may suit the opinions and theories of public men, as they successively direct the public councils, it will be difficult, indeed, to ascertain, what its real value is. It cannot possess either certainty, or uniformity, or safety. It will be one thing to-day, and another thing to-morrow, and again another thing on each succeeding day. The past will furnish no guide, and the future no security. It will be the reverse of a law; and entail upon the country the curse of that miserable servitude, so much abhorred and denounced, where all is vague and uncertain in the fundamentals of government.

§ 1255. The reasoning, upon which the constitutionality of a national bank is denied, has been already in some degree stated in the preceding remarks. It turns upon the strict interpretation of the clause, giving the auxiliary powers necessary, and proper to execute the other enumerated powers. It is to the following effect: The power to incorporate a bank is not among those enumerated in the constitution. It is known, that the very power, thus proposed, as a means, was rejected, as an end, by the convention, which formed the constitution. A proposition was [Volume 3, Page 271] made in that body, to authorize congress to open canals, and an amendatory one to empower them to create corporations. But the whole was rejected; and one of the reasons of the rejection urged in debate was, that they then would have a power to create a bank, which would render the great cities, where there were prejudices and jealousies on that subject, adverse to the adoption of the constitution. In the next place, all the enumerated powers can be carried into execution without a bank. A bank, therefore, is not necessary, and consequently not authorized by this clause of the constitution. It is urged, that a bank will give great facility, or convenience to the collection of taxes. If this were true, yet the constitution allows only the means, which are necessary, and not merely those, which are convenient for effecting the enumerated powers. If such a latitude of construction were allowed, as to consider convenience, as justifying the use of such means, it would swallow up all the enumerated powers. Therefore, the constitution restrains congress to those means, without which the power would be nugatory.

§ 1256. Nor can its convenience be satisfactorily established. Bank-bills may be a more convenient vehicle, than treasury orders, for the purposes of that department. But a little difference in the degree of convenience cannot constitute the necessity contemplated by the constitution. Besides; the local and state banks now in existence are competent, and would be willing to undertake all the agency required for those very purposes by the government. And if they are able and willing, this establishes clearly, that there can be no necessity for establishing a national bank. If there would ever be a superior conveniency in a national bank, it does not follow, that there exists a power to establish it, or that the business of the country cannot go on very well without it. Can it be thought, that the constitution intended, that for a shade or two of convenience, more or less, congress should be authorized to break down the most ancient and fundamental laws of the states, such as those against mortmain, the laws of alienage, the rules of descent, the acts of distribution, the laws of escheat and forfeiture, and the laws of monopoly? Nothing but a necessity, invincible by any other means, can justify such a prostration of laws, which constitute the pillars of our whole system of jurisprudence. If congress have the power to create one corporation, they may create all sorts; for the power is no where limited; and may even establish monopolies. Indeed this very charter is a monopoly.

§ 1257. The reasoning, by which the constitutionality of the national bank has been sustained, is contained in the following summary. The powers confided to the national government are unquestionably, so far as they exist, sovereign and supreme. It is not, and cannot be disputed, that the power of creating a corporation is one belonging to sovereignty. But so are all other legislative powers; for the original power of giving the law on any subject whatever is a sovereign power. If the national government cannot create a corporation, because it is an exercise of sovereign power, neither can it, for the same reason, exercise any other legislative power. This consideration alone ought to put an end to the abstract inquiry, whether the national government has power to erect a corporation, that is, to give a legal or artificial capacity to one or more persons, distinct from the natural capacity. For, if it be an incident to sovereignty, and it is not prohibited, it must belong to the national government in relation to the objects entrusted to it. The true difference is this; where the authority of a government is general, it can create corporations in all cases; where it is confined to certain branches of legislation, it can create corporations only as to those cases. It cannot be denied, that implied powers may be delegated, as well as express. It follows, that a power to erect corporations may as well be implied, as any other thing, if it be an instrument or means of carrying into execution any specified power. The only question in any case must be, whether it be such an instrument or means, and have a natural relation to any of the acknowledged objects of government. Thus, congress may not erect a corporation for superintending the police of the city of Philadelphia, because they have no authority to regulate the police of that city. But if they possessed the authority to regulate the police of such city, they might, unquestionably, create a corporation for that purpose; because it is incident to the sovereign legislative power to regulate a thing, to employ all the means, which relate to its regulation, to the best and greatest advantage.

§ 1258. A strange fallacy has crept into the reasoning on this subject. It has been supposed, that a corporation is some great, independent thing; and that the power to erect it is a great, substantive, independent power; whereas, in truth, a corporation is but a legal capacity, quality, or means to an end; and the power to erect it is, or may be, an implied and incidental power. A corporation is never the end, for which other powers are exercised; but a means, by which other objects are accomplished. No contributions are made to charity for the sake of an incorporation; but a corporation is created to administer the charity. No seminary of learning is instituted in order to be incorporated; but the corporate character is conferred to subserve the purposes of education. No city was ever built with the sole object of being incorporated; but it is incorporated as affording the best means of being well governed. So a mercantile company is formed with a certain capital for 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 means. If an incorporation is added to the association, it only gives it a new quality, an artificial capacity, by which it is enabled to prosecute the business with more convenience and safety. In truth, the power of creating a corporation is never used for its own sake; but for the purpose of effecting something else. So that there is not a shadow of reason to say, that it may not pass as an incident to powers expressly given, as a mode of executing them.

§ 1259. It is true, that among the enumerated powers we do not find that of establishing a bank, or creating a corporation. But we do find there the great powers to lay and collect taxes; to borrow money; to regulate commerce; to declare and conduct war; and to raise and support armies and navies. Now, if a bank be a fit means to execute any or all of these powers, it is just as much implied, as any other means. If it be "necessary and proper" for any [Volume 3, Page 272] of them, how is it possible to deny the authority to create it for such purposes? There is no more propriety in giving this power in express terms, than in giving any other incidental powers or means in express terms. If it had been intended to grant this power generally, and to make it a distinct and independent power, having no relation to, but reaching beyond the other enumerated powers, there would then have been a propriety in giving it in express terms, for otherwise it would not exist. Thus, it was proposed in the convention, to give a general power "to grant charters of incorporation;"--to "grant charters of incorporation in cases, where the public good may require them, and the authority of a single state may be incompetent;"--and "to grant letters of incorporation for canals, &c." If either of these propositions had been adopted, there would have been an obvious propriety in giving the power in express terms; because, as to the two former, the power was general and unlimited, and reaching far beyond any of the other enumerated powers; and as to the latter, it might be far more extensive than any incident to the other enumerated powers. But the rejection of these propositions does not prove, that congress in no case, as an incident to the enumerated powers, should erect a corporation; but only, that they should not have a substantive, independent power to erect corporations beyond those powers.

§ 1260. Indeed, it is most manifest, that it never could have been contemplated by the convention, that congress should, in no case, possess the power to erect a corporation. What otherwise would become of the territorial governments, all of which are corporations created by congress? There is no where an express power given to congress to erect them. But under the confederation, congress did provide for their erection, as a resulting and implied right of sovereignty, by the celebrated ordinance of 1787; and congress, under the constitution, have ever since, without question, and with the universal approbation of the nation, from time to time created territorial governments. Yet congress derive this power only by implication, or as necessary and proper, to carry into effect the express power to regulate the territories of the United States. In the convention, two propositions were made and referred to a committee at the same time with the propositions already stated respecting granting of charters, "to dispose of the unappropriated lands of the United States," and "to institute temporary governments for new states arising therein." Both these propositions shared the same fate, as those respecting charters of incorporation. But what would be thought of the argument, built upon this foundation, that congress did not possess the power to erect territorial governments, because these propositions were silently abandoned, or annulled in the convention?

§ 1261. This is not the only case, in which congress may erect corporations. Under the power to accept a cession of territory for the seat of government, and to exercise exclusive legislation therein; no one can doubt, that congress may erect corporations therein, not only public, but private corporations. They have constantly exercised the power; and it has never yet been breathed, that it was unconstitutional. Yet it can be exercised only as an incident to the power of general legislation. And if so, why may it not be exercised, as an incident to any specific power of legislation, if it be a means to attain the objects of such power?

§ 1262. That a national bank is an appropriate means to carry into effect some of the enumerated powers of the government, and that this can be best done by erecting it into a corporation, may be established by the most satisfactory reasoning. 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 and maintaining fleets and armies. And it may be added, that it has a most important bearing upon the regulation of currency between the states. It is an instrument, which has been usually applied by governments in the administration of their fiscal and financial operations. And in the present times it can hardly require argument to prove, that it is a convenient, a useful, and an essential instrument in the fiscal operations of the government of the United States. This is so generally admitted by sound and intelligent statesmen, that it would be a waste of time to endeavour to establish the truth by an elaborate survey of the mode, in which it touches the administration of all the various branches of the powers of the government.

§ 1263. In regard to the suggestion, that a proposition was made, and rejected in the convention to confer this very power, what was the precise nature or extent of this proposition, or what were the reasons for refusing it, cannot now be ascertained by any authentic document, or even by any accurate recollection of the members. As far as any document exists, it specifies only canals. If this proves any thing, it proves no more, than that it was thought inexpedient to give a power to incorporate for the purpose of opening canals generally. But 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 of rivers; others, that it embraced banks; and others, that it extended to the power of incorporations generally. Some, again, allege, that it was disagreed to, because it was thought improper to vest in congress a power of erecting corporations; others, because they thought it 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 private intentions of the framers of the constitution, which can rarely be established by the mere fact of their votes, it is certain, that the true rule of interpretation is to ascertain the public and just intention from the language of the instrument itself, according to the common rules applied to all laws. The people, who adopted the constitution, could know nothing of the private intentions of the framers. They adopted it upon its own clear import, upon its own naked text. Nothing is more common, than for a law to effect more or less, the intention of the persons, who framed it; and it must be judged of by its words and sense, and not by any private intentions of members of the legislature.

§ 1264. In regard to the faculties of the bank, if congress could constitutionally create it, they might confer on it [Volume 3, Page 273] such faculties and powers, as were fit to make it an appropriate means for fiscal operations. They had a right to adapt it in the best manner to its end. No one can pretend, that its having the faculty of holding a capital; of lending and dealing in money; of issuing bank notes; of receiving deposits; and of appointing suitable officers to manage its affairs; are not highly useful and expedient, and appropriate to the purposes of a bank. They are just such, as are usually granted to state banks; and just such, as give increased facilities to all its operations. To say, that the bank might have gone on without this or that faculty, is nothing. Who, but congress, shall say, how few, or how many it shall have, if all are still appropriate to it, as an instrument of government, and may make it more convenient, and more useful in its operations? No man can say, that a single faculty in any national charter is useless, or irrelevant, or strictly improper, that is conducive to its end, as a national instrument. Deprive a bank of its trade and business, and its vital principles are destroyed. Its form may remain, but its substance is gone. All the powers given to the bank are to give efficacy to its functions of trade and business.

§ 1265. As to another suggestion, that the same objects might have been accomplished through the state banks, it is sufficient to say, that no trace can be found in the constitution of any intention to create a dependence on the states, or state institutions, for the execution of its great powers. Its own means are adequate to its end; and on those means it was expected to rely for their accomplishment. It would be utterly absurd to make the powers of the constitution wholly dependent on state institutions. But if state banks might be employed, as congress have a choice of means, they had a right to choose a national bank, in preference to state banks, for the financial operations of the government. Proof, that they might use one means, is no proof, that they cannot constitutionally use another means.

§ 1266. After all, the subject has been settled repeatedly by every department of the government, legislative, executive, and judicial. The states have acquiesced; and a majority have constantly sustained the power. If it is not now settled, it never can be. If it is settled, it would be too much to expect a re-argument, whenever any person may choose to question it.

§ 1267. Another question, which has for a long time agitated the public councils of the nation, is, as to the authority of congress to make roads, canals, and other internal improvements.

§ 1268. So far, as regards the right to appropriate money to internal improvements generally, the subject has already passed under review in considering the power to lay and collect taxes. The doctrine there contended for, which has been in a great measure borne out by the actual practice of the government, is, that congress may appropriate money, not only to clear obstructions to navigable rivers; to improve harbours; to build breakwaters; to assist navigation; to erect forts, light-houses, and piers; and for other purposes allied to some of the enumerated powers; but may also appropriate it in aid of canals, roads, and other institutions of a similar nature, existing under state authority. The only limitations upon the power are those prescribed by the terms of the constitution, that the objects shall be for the common defence, or the general welfare of the Union. The true test is, whether the object be of a local character, and local use; or, whether it be of general benefit to the states. If it be purely local, congress cannot constitutionally appropriate money for the object. But, if the benefit be general, it matters not, whether in point of locality it be in one state, or several; whether it be of large, or of small extent; its nature and character determine the right, and congress may appropriate money in aid of it; for it is then in a just sense for the general welfare.

§ 1269. But it has been contended, that the constitution is not confined to mere appropriations of money; but authorizes congress directly to undertake and carry on a system of internal improvements for the general welfare; wherever such improvements fall within the scope of any of the enumerated powers. Congress may not, indeed, engage in such undertakings merely because they are internal improvements for the general welfare, unless they fall within the scope of the enumerated powers. The distinction between this power, and the power of appropriation is, that in the latter, congress may appropriate to any purpose, which is for the common defence or general welfare; but in the former, they can engage in such undertakings only, as are means, or incidents to its enumerated powers. Congress may, therefore, authorize the making of a canal, as incident to the power to regulate commerce, where such canal may facilitate the intercourse between state and state. They may authorize light-houses, piers, buoys, and beacons to be built for the purposes of navigation. They may authorize the purchase and building of custom-houses, and revenue cutters, and public ware-houses, as incidents to the power to lay and collect taxes. They may purchase places for public uses; and erect forts, arsenals, dock-yards, navy-yards, and magazines, as incidents to the power to make war.

§ 1270. For the same reason congress may authorize the laying out and making of a military road, and acquire a right over the soil for such purposes; and as incident thereto they have a power to keep the road in repair, and prevent all obstructions thereto. But in these, and the like cases, the general jurisdiction of the state over the soil, subject only to the rights of the United States, is not excluded. As, for example, in case of a military road; although a state cannot prevent repairs on the part of the United States, or authorize any obstructions of the road, its general jurisdiction remains untouched. It may punish all crimes committed on the road; and it retains in other respects its territorial sovereignty over it. The right of soil may still remain in the state, or in individuals, and the right to the easement only in the national government. There is a great distinction between the exercise of a power, excluding altogether state jurisdiction, and the exercise of a power, which leaves the state jurisdiction generally in force, and yet includes, on the part of the national government, a power to preserve, what it has created.

§ 1271. In all these, and other cases, in which the power of congress is asserted, it is so upon the general ground of its being an incidental power; and the course of reasoning, [Volume 3, Page 274] by which it is supported, is precisely the same, as that adopted in relation to other cases already considered. It is, for instance, admitted, that congress cannot authorize the making of a canal, except for some purpose of commerce among the states, or for some other purpose belonging to the Union; and it cannot make a military road, unless it be necessary and proper for purposes of war. To go over the reasoning at large would, therefore, be little more, than a repetition of what has been already fully expounded. The Journal of the Convention is not supposed to furnish any additional lights on the subject, beyond what have been already stated.

§ 1272. The resistance to this extended reach of the national powers turns also upon the same general reasoning, by which a strict construction of the constitution has been constantly maintained. It is said, that such a power is not among those enumerated in the constitution; nor is it implied, as a means of executing any of them. The power to regulate commerce cannot include a power to construct roads and canals, and improve the navigation of watercourses in order to facilitate, promote, and secure such commerce, without a latitude of construction departing from the ordinary import of the terms, and incompatible with the nature of the constitution. The liberal interpretation has been very uniformly asserted by congress; the strict interpretation has not uniformly, but has upon several important occasions been insisted upon by the executive. In the present state of the controversy, the duty of forbearance seems inculcated upon the commentator; and the reader must decide for himself upon his own views of the subject.

§ 1273. Another question has been made, how far congress could make a law giving to the United States a preference and priority of payment of their debts, in cases of the death, or insolvency, or bankruptcy of their debtors, out of their estates. It has been settled, upon deliberate argument, that congress possess such a constitutional power. It is a necessary and proper power to carry into effect the other powers of the government. The government is to pay the debts of the Union; and must be authorized to use the means, which appear to itself most eligible to effect that object. It may purchase, and remit bills for this object; and it may take all those precautions, and make all those regulations, which will render the transmission safe. It may, in like manner, pass all laws to render effectual the collection of its debts. It is no objection to this right of priority, that it will interfere with the rights of the state sovereignties respecting the dignity of debts, and will defeat the measures, which they have a right to adopt to secure themselves against delinquencies on the part of their own revenue or other officers. This objection, if of any avail, is an objection to the powers given by the constitution. The mischief suggested, so far as it can really happen, is the necessary consequence of the supremacy of the laws of the United States on all subjects, to which the legislative power of congress extends.

§ 1274. It is under the same implied authority, that the United States have any right even to sue in their own courts; for an express power is no where given in the constitution, though it is clearly implied in that part respecting the judicial power. And congress may not only authorize suits to be brought in the name of the United States, but in the name of any artificial person, (such as the Postmaster-General,) or natural person for their benefit. Indeed, all the usual incidents appertaining to a personal sovereign, in relation to contracts, and suing, and enforcing rights, so far as they are within the scope of the powers of the government, belong to the United States, as they do to other sovereigns. The right of making contracts and instituting suits is an incident to the general right of sovereignty; and the United States, being a body politic, may, within the sphere of the constitutional powers confided to it, and through the instrumentality of the proper department, to which those powers are confided, enter into contracts not prohibited by law, and appropriate to the just exercise of those powers; and enforce the observance of them by suits and judicial process.

§ 1275. There are almost innumerable cases, in which the auxiliary and implied powers belonging to congress have been put into operation. But the object of these Commentaries is, rather to take notice of those, which have been the subject of animadversion, than of those, which have hitherto escaped reproof, or have been silently approved.

§ 1276. Upon the ground of a strict interpretation, some extraordinary objections have been taken in the course of the practical operations of the government. The very first act, passed under the government, which regulated the time, form, and manner, of administering the oaths prescribed by the constitution, was denied to be constitutional. But the objection has long since been abandoned. It has been doubted, whether it is constitutional to permit the secretaries to draft bills on subjects connected with their departments, to be presented to the house of representatives for their consideration. It has been doubted, whether an act authorizing the president to lay, regulate, and revoke, embargoes was constitutional. It has been doubted, whether congress have authority to establish a military academy. But these objections have been silently, or practically abandoned.

§ 1277. But the most remarkable powers, which have been exercised by the government, as auxiliary and implied powers, and which, if any, go to the utmost verge of liberal construction, are the laying of an unlimited embargo in 1807, and the purchase of Louisiana in 1803, and its subsequent admission into the Union, as a state. These measures were brought forward, and supported, and carried, by the known and avowed friends of a strict construction of the constitution; and they were justified at the time, and can be now justified, only upon the doctrines of those, who support a liberal construction of the constitution. The subject has been already hinted at; but it deserves a more deliberate review.

§ 1278. In regard to the acquisition of Louisiana:--The treaty of 1803 contains a cession of the whole of that vast territory by France to the United States, for a sum exceeding eleven millions of dollars. There is a stipulation in the treaty on the part of the United States, that the inhabitants of the ceded territory shall be incorporated into the Union, and admitted, as soon as possible, according to the [Volume 3, Page 275] principles of the federal constitution, to the enjoyment of all the rights, advantages, and immunities of citizens of the United States.

§ 1279. It is obvious, that the treaty embraced several very important questions, each of them upon the grounds of a strict construction full of difficulty and delicacy. In the first place, had the United States a constitutional authority to accept the cession and pay for it? In the next place, if they had, was the stipulation for the admission of the inhabitants into the Union, as a state, constitutional, or within the power of congress to give it effect?

§ 1280. There is no pretence, that the purchase, or cession of any foreign territory is within any of the powers expressly enumerated in the constitution. It is no where in that instrument said, that congress, or any other department of the national government, shall have a right to purchase, or accept of any cession of foreign territory. The power itself (it has been said) could scarcely have been in the contemplation of the framers of it. It is, in its own nature, as dangerous to liberty, as susceptible of abuse in its actual application, and as likely as any, which could be imagined, to lead to a dissolution of the Union. If congress have the power, it may unite any foreign territory whatsoever to our own, however distant, however populous, and however powerful. Under the form of a cession, we may become united to a more powerful neighbour or rival; and be involved in European, or other foreign interests, and contests, to an interminable extent. And if there may be a stipulation for the admission of foreign states into the Union, the whole balance of the constitution may be destroyed, and the old states sunk into utter insignificance. It is incredible, that it should have been contemplated, that any such overwhelming authority should be confided to the national government with the consent of the people of the old states. If it exists at all, it is unforeseen, and the result of a sovereignty, intended to be limited, and yet not sufficiently guarded. The very case of the cession of Louisiana is a striking illustration of the doctrine. It admits, by consequence, into the Union an immense territory, equal to, if not greater, than that of all the United States under the peace of 1783. In the natural progress of events, it must, within a short period, change the whole balance of power in the Union, and transfer to the West all the important attributes of the sovereignty of the whole. If, as is well known, one of the strong objections urged against the constitution was, that the original territory of the United States was too large for a national government; it is inconceivable, that it could have been within the intention of the people, that any additions of foreign territory should be made, which should thus double every danger from this source. The treaty-making power must be construed, as confined to objects within the scope of the constitution. And, although congress have authority to admit new states into the firm, yet it is demonstrable, that this clause had sole reference to the territory then belonging to the United States; and was designed for the admission of the states, which, under the ordinance of 1787, were contemplated to be formed within its old boundaries. In regard to the appropriation of money for the purposes of the cession the case is still stronger. If no appropriation of money can be made, except for cases within the enumerated powers, (and this clearly is not one,) how can the enormous sum of eleven millions be justified for this object? If it be said, that it will be "for the common defence, and general welfare" to purchase the territory, how is this reconcileable with the strict construction of the constitution? If congress can appropriate money for one object, because it is deemed for the common defence and general welfare, why may they not appropriate it for all objects of the same sort? If the territory can be purchased, it must be governed; and a territorial government must be created. But where can congress find authority in the constitution to erect a territorial government, since it does not possess the power to erect corporations?

§ 1281. Such were the objections, which have been, and in fact may be, urged against the cession, and the appropriations made to carry the treaty into effect. The friends of the measure were driven to the adoption of the doctrine, that the right to acquire territory was incident to national sovereignty; that it was a resulting power, growing necessarily out of the aggregate powers confided by the federal constitution; that the appropriation might justly be vindicated upon this ground, and also upon the ground, that it was for the common defence and general welfare. In short, there is no possibility of defending the constitutionality of this measure, but upon the principles of the liberal construction, which has been, upon other occasions, so earnestly resisted.

§ 1282. As an incidental power, the constitutional right of the United States to acquire territory would seem so naturally to flow from the sovereignty confided to it, as not to admit of very serious question. The constitution confers on the government of the Union the power of making war, and of making treaties; and it seems consequently to possess the power of acquiring territory either by conquest or treaty. If the cession be by treaty, the terms of that treaty must be obligatory; for it is the law of the land. And if it stipulates for the enjoyment by the inhabitants of the rights, privileges, and immunities of citizens of the United States, and for the admission of the territory into the Union, as a state, these stipulations must be equally obligatory. They are within the scope of the constitutional authority of the government, which has the right to acquire territory, to make treaties, and to admit new states into the Union.

§ 1283. The more recent acquisition of Florida, which has been universally approved, or acquiesced in by all the states, can be maintained only on the same principles; and furnishes a striking illustration of the truth, that constitutions of government require a liberal construction to effect their objects, and that a narrow interpretation of their powers, however it may suit the views of speculative philosophers, or the accidental interests of political parties, is incompatible with the permanent interests of the state, and subversive of the great ends of all government, the safety and independence of the people.

§ 1284. The other instance of an extraordinary application of the implied powers of the government, above alluded to, is the embargo laid in the year 1807, by the special recommendation of President Jefferson. It was [Volume 3, Page 276] avowedly recommended, as a measure of safety for our vessels, our seamen, and our merchandise from the then threatening dangers from the belligerents of Europe; and it was explicitly stated "to be a measure of precaution called for by the occasion;" and "neither hostile in its character, nor as justifying, or inciting, or leading to hostility with any nation whatever." It was in no sense, then, a war measure. If it could be classed at all, as flowing from, or as an incident to, any of the enumerated powers, it was that of regulating commerce. In its terms, the act provided, that an embargo be, and hereby is, laid on all ships and vessels in the ports, or within the limits or jurisdiction, of the United States, &c. bound to any foreign port or place. It was in its terms unlimited in duration; and could be removed only by a subsequent act of congress, having the assent of all the constitutional branches of the legislature.

§ 1285. No one can reasonably doubt, that the laying of an embargo, suspending commerce for a limited period, is within the scope of the constitution. But the question of difficulty was, whether congress, under the power to regulate commerce with foreign nations, could constitutionally suspend and interdict it wholly for an unlimited period, that is, by a permanent act, having no limitation as to duration, either of the act, or of the embargo. It was most seriously controverted, and its constitutionality denied in the Eastern states of the Union, during its existence. An appeal was made to the judiciary upon the question; and it having been settled to be constitutional by that department of the government, the decision was acquiesced in, though the measure bore with almost unexampled severity, upon the Eastern states; and its ruinous effects can still be traced along their extensive seaboard. The argument was, that the power to regulate did not include the power to annihilate commerce, by interdicting it permanently and entirely with foreign nations. The decision was, that the power of congress was sovereign, relative to commercial intercourse, qualified by the limitations and restrictions contained in the constitution itself. Non-intercourse and Embargo laws are within the range of legislative discretion; and if congress have the power, for purposes of safety, of preparation, or counteraction, to suspend commercial intercourse with foreign nations, they are not limited, as to the duration, any more, than as to the manner and extent of the measure.

§ 1286. That this measure went to the utmost verge of constitutional power, and especially of implied power, has never been denied. That it could not be justified by any, but the most liberal construction of the constitution, is equally undeniable. It was the favourite measure of those, who were generally the advocates of the strictest construction. It was sustained by the people from a belief, that it was promotive of the interests, and important to the safety of the Union.

§ 1287. At the present day, few statesmen are to be found, who seriously contest the constitutionality of the acts respecting either the embargo, or the purchase and admission of Louisiana into the Union. The general voice of the nation has sustained, and supported them. Why, then, should not that general voice be equally respected in relation to other measures of vast public importance, and by many deemed of still more vital interest to the country, such as the tariff laws, and the national bank charter? Can any measures furnish a more instructive lesson, or a more salutary admonition, in the whole history of parties, at once to moderate our zeal, and awaken our vigilance, than those, which stand upon principles repudiated at one time upon constitutional scruples, and solemnly adopted at another time, to subserve a present good, or foster the particular policy of an administration? While the principles of the constitution should be preserved with a most guarded caution, and a most sacred regard to the rights of the states; it is at once the dictate of wisdom, and enlightened patriotism to avoid that narrowness of interpretation, which would dry up all its vital powers, or compel the government (as was done under the confederation,) to break down all constitutional barriers, and trust for its vindication to the people, upon the dangerous political maxim, that the safety of the people is the supreme law, (salus populi suprema lex;) a maxim, which might be used to justify the appointment of a dictator, or any other usurpation.

§ 1288. There remain one or two other measures of a political nature, whose constitutionality has been denied; but which, being of a transient character, have left no permanent traces in the constitutional jurisprudence of the country. Reference is here made to the Alien and Sedition laws, passed in 1798, both of which were limited to a short duration, and expired by their own limitation. One (the Alien act) authorized the president to order out of the country such aliens, as he should deem dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States; or should have reasonable grounds to suspect to be concerned in any treasonable, or secret machinations against the government of the United States, under severe penalties for disobedience. The other declared it a public crime, punishable with fine and imprisonment, for any persons unlawfully to combine, and conspire together, with intent to oppose any measure or measures of the United States, &c.; or with such intent, to counsel, advise, or attempt to procure any insurrection, unlawful assembly, or combination; or to write, print, utter, or publish, or cause, or procure to be written, &c., or willingly to assist in writing, &c., any false, scandalous, and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States, or either house of congress, or the president, with intent to defame them, or to bring them into contempt, or disrepute, or to excite against them the hatred of the people, or to stir up sedition; or to excite any unlawful combination for opposing, or resisting any law, or any lawful act of the president, or to resist, oppose, or defeat any such law or act; or to aid, encourage, or abet any hostile designs of any foreign nations against the United States. It provided, however, that the truth of the writing or libel might be given in evidence; and that the jury, who tried the cause, should have a right to determine the law and the fact, under the direction of the court, as in other cases.

§ 1289. The constitutionality of both the acts was assailed with great earnestness and ability at the time; and was defended with equal masculine vigour. The ground of the advocates, in favour of these laws, was, that they resulted [Volume 3, Page 277] from the right and duty in the government of self-preservation, and the like duty and protection of its functionaries in the proper discharge of their official duties. They were impugned, as not conformable to the letter or spirit of the constitution; and as inconsistent in their principles with the rights of citizens, and the liberty of the press. The Alien act was denounced, as exercising a power not delegated by the constitution; as uniting legislative and judicial functions, with that of the executive; and by this Union as subverting the general principles of free government, and the particular organization and positive provisions of the constitution. It was added, that the Sedition act was open to the same objection, and was expressly forbidden by one of the amendments of the constitution, on which there will be occasion hereafter to comment. At present it does not seem necessary to present more than this general outline, as the measures are not likely to be renewed; and as the doctrines, on which they are maintained, and denounced, are not materially different from those, which have been already considered.

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 3, Article 1, Section 8, Clause 18, Document 21
The University of Chicago Press

Story, Joseph. Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States. 3 vols. Boston, 1833.