Article 6, Clause 2

Document 42

Joseph Story, Commentaries on the Constitution 3:§§ 1831--33, 1835--36


§ 1831. The propriety of this clause would seem to result from the very nature of the constitution. If it was to establish a national government, that government ought, to the extent of its powers and rights, to be supreme. It would be a perfect solecism to affirm, that a national government should exist with certain powers; and yet, that in the exercise of those powers it should not be supreme. What other inference could have been drawn, than of their supremacy, if the constitution had been totally silent? And surely a positive affirmance of that, which is necessarily implied, cannot in a case of such vital importance be deemed unimportant. The very circumstance, that a question might be made, would irresistibly lead to the conclusion, that it ought not to be left to inference. A law, by the very meaning of the term, includes supremacy. It is a rule, which those, to whom it is prescribed, are bound to observe. This results from every political association. If individuals enter into a state of society, the laws of that society must be the supreme regulator of their conduct. If a number of political societies enter into a larger political society, the laws, which the latter may enact, pursuant to the powers entrusted to it by its constitution, must necessarily be supreme over those societies, and the individuals, of whom they are composed. It would otherwise be a mere treaty, dependent upon the good faith of the parties, and not a government, which is only another name for political power and supremacy. But it will not follow, that acts of the larger society, which are not pursuant to its constitutional powers, but which are invasions of the residuary authorities of the smaller societies, will become the supreme law of the land. They will be merely acts of usurpation, and will deserve to be treated as such. Hence we perceive, that the above clause only declares a truth, which flows immediately and necessarily from the institution of a national government. It will be observed, that the supremacy of the laws is attached to those only, which are made in pursuance of the constitution; a caution very proper in itself, but in fact the limitation would have arisen by irresistible implication, if it had not been expressed.

§ 1832. In regard to treaties, there is equal reason, why they should be held, when made, to be the supreme law of the land. It is to be considered, that treaties constitute solemn compacts of binding obligation among nations; and unless they are scrupulously obeyed, and enforced, no foreign nation would consent to negotiate with us; or if it did, any want of strict fidelity on our part in the discharge of the treaty stipulations would be visited by reprisals, or war. It is, therefore, indispensable, that they should have the obligation and force of a law, that they may be executed by the judicial power, and be obeyed like other laws. This will not prevent them from being cancelled or abrogated by the nation upon grave and suitable occasions; for it will not be disputed, that they are subject to the legislative power, and may be repealed, like other laws, at its pleasure; or they may be varied by new treaties. Still, while they do subsist, they ought to have a positive binding efficacy as laws upon all the states, and all the citizens of the states. The peace of the nation, and its good faith, and moral dignity, indispensably require, that all state laws should be subjected to their supremacy. The difference between considering them as laws, and considering them as executory, or executed contracts, is exceedingly important in the actual administration of public justice. If they are supreme laws, courts of justice will enforce them directly in all cases, to which they can be judicially applied, in opposition to all state laws, as we all know was done in the case of the British debts secured by the treaty of 1783, after the constitution was adopted. If they are deemed but solemn compacts, promissory in their nature and obligation, courts of justice may be embarrassed in enforcing them, and may be compelled to leave the redress to be administered through other departments of the government. It is notorious, that treaty stipulations (especially those of the treaty of peace of 1783) were grossly disregarded by the states under the confederation. They were deemed by the states, not as laws, but like requisitions, of mere moral obligation, and dependent upon the good will of the states for their execution. Congress, indeed, remonstrated against this construction, as unfounded in principle and justice. But their voice was not heard. Power and right were separated; the argument was all on one side; but the power was on the other. It was probably to obviate this very difficulty, that this clause was inserted in the constitution; and it would redound to the immortal honour of its authors, if it had done no more, than thus to bring treaties within the sanctuary of justice, as laws of supreme obligation. There are, indeed, still cases, in which courts of justice can administer no effectual redress; as when the terms of a stipulation import a contract, when either of the parties engages to perform a particular act the treaty addresses itself to the political, and not to the judicial, department; and the legislature must execute the contract, before it can become a rule for the courts.

§ 1833. It is melancholy to reflect, that, conclusive as this view of the subject is in favour of the supremacy clause, it was assailed with great vehemence and zeal by the adversaries of the constitution; and especially the concluding clause, which declared the supremacy, "any thing in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding." And yet this very clause was but an expression of the necessary meaning of the former clause, introduced from abundant caution, to make its obligation more strongly felt by the state judges. The very circumstance, that any objection was made, demonstrated the utility, nay the necessity of the clause, since it removed every pretence, under which ingenuity could, by its miserable subterfuges, escape from the controlling power of the constitution.

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§ 1835. At an early period of the government a question arose, how far a treaty could embrace commercial regulations, so as to be obligatory upon the nation, and upon congress. It was debated with great zeal and ability in the house of representatives. On the one hand it was contended, that a treaty might be made respecting commerce, as well as upon any other subject; that it was a contract between the two nations, which, when made by the president, by and with the consent of the senate, was binding upon the nation; and that a refusal of the house of representatives to carry it into effect was breaking the treaty, and violating the faith of the nation. On the other hand, it was contended, that the power to make treaties, if applicable to every object, conflicted with powers, which were vested exclusively in congress; that either the treaty making power must be limited in its operation, so as not to touch objects committed by the constitution to congress; or the assent and co-operation of the house of representatives must be required to give validity to any compact, so far as it might comprehend these objects: that congress was invested with the exclusive power to regulate commerce; that therefore, a treaty of commerce required the assent and co-operation of the house of representatives; that in every case, where a treaty required an appropriation of money, or an act of congress to carry it into effect, it was not in this respect obligatory, till congress had agreed to carry it into effect; and, that they were at free liberty to make, or withhold such appropriation, or act, without being chargeable with violating the treaty, or breaking the faith of the nation. In the result, the house of representatives adopted a resolution declaring, that the house of representatives do not claim any agency in making treaties; but when a treaty stipulates regulations on any of the subjects submitted to the power of congress, it must depend for its execution, as to such stipulations, on a law or laws to be passed by congress; and that it is the constitutional right and duty of the house of representatives, in all such cases, to deliberate on the expediency or inexpediency of carrying such treaty into effect, and to determine and act thereon, as in their judgment may be most conducive to the public good. It is well known, that the president and the senate, on that occasion, adopted a different doctrine, maintaining, that a treaty once ratified became the law of the land, and congress were constitutionally bound to carry it into effect. At the distance of twenty years, the same question was again presented for the consideration of both houses, upon a bill to carry into effect a clause in the treaty of 1815 with Great Britain, abolishing discriminating duties; and, upon that occasion, it was most ably debated. The result was, that a declaratory clause was adopted, instead of a mere enacting clause, so that the binding obligation of treaties was affirmatively settled.

§ 1836. From this supremacy of the constitution and laws and treaties of the United States, within their constitutional scope, arises the duty of courts of justice to declare any unconstitutional law passed by congress or by a state legislature void. So, in like manner, the same duty arises, whenever any other department of the national or state governments exceeds its constitutional functions. But the judiciary of the United States has no general jurisdiction to declare acts of the several states void, unless they are repugnant to the constitution of the United States, notwithstanding they are repugnant to the state constitution. Such a power belongs to it only, when it sits to administer the local law of a state, and acts exactly, as a state tribunal is bound to act. But upon this subject it seems unnecessary to dwell, since the right of all courts, state as well as national, to declare unconstitutional laws void, seems settled beyond the reach of judicial controversy.

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 4, Article 6, Clause 2, Document 42
The University of Chicago Press

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

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