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Jeffersonian View of “Necessary and Proper” Essay

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Updated: Sep 13th, 2021


Similarly to other articles and clauses in the Constitution, the so-called “necessary and proper” clause can be interpreted in different ways, as it is possible to challenge the “aptness” of each law, adopted by the Congress. This means, there has been many debates on the basis of this aspect, many of them are still influencing the development of American political thought. The present paper is designed to discuss the application of the clause in the case known as McCulloch v. Maryland.

Main Points

The Necessary and proper clause entitled the Congress to adopt the necessary and proper laws, which will be observed by state governments, local authorities and other bodies of power, i.e. the clause allegedly enables the Congress to spread its power around the whole country. This means, the entitlements, provided by the clause are to great extent elastic and are often characterized as “elastic” due to the fact that they are not stated clearly and explicitly.

The debate over the meaning of the statement began amongst the Founding Fathers, namely between Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State, and Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury. Whereas Hamilton argued that the statement should have been interpreted directly and the “necessary and proper” included a wide range of laws and powers, whereas Jefferson sought to restrict this excessively broad entitlement and alleged that “necessary” meant “essential”. Jefferson was particularly concerned about the possibility of usurpation of power by the central government, as “essential” could be interpreted as basic or related to the most important aspects like the organization of political power and jurisdiction. George Washington and James Madison decided to select Hamilton’s interpretation and thus the strong central government was fostered.

The United States of America was basically a country, where all states were to receive great autonomy, this was the major motivating force, which actually united the territories. Thomas Jefferson sought to maintain this tradition and establish a reasonable balance between the central and the local governments, which would eliminate the vestiges of colonialism, which remained after the Revolution. The revolution was aimed at eliminating the excessive central government, created by colonists, so the Articles of Confederation were created as guidelines to rational distribution of power between the federal government on the one hand and state governments on the other. As one can understand, in the context of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, both centralization and controlled centralization of power had their advantages – the first form of organization allowed keeping unity, which was necessary at the uneasy times of the numerous threats, associated with the possibility of a new revolution or the additional invasion of the Old World into the United States. Jefferson nevertheless attempted to realize the “Revolution Dream” about the Confederacy and the union of free and relatively autonomous territories. Due to the fact that the first approach was to great extent dictated by common sense and the desire for self-defense, Jefferson’s views were rejected.

The case known as McCulloch v. Maryland was a final stair to federalism, as it referred to the economic independence of the states. According to the actual history of the case, in 1791, Secretary of the Treasury A.Hamilton put forth a proposal of the following content: the Congress should have introduced a Bank of the United States as a central financial institution. Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State, rejected the proposition, motivating his claims with his own notion of the “necessary and proper’, precisely, with the following interpretation: Congress is a limited government and due to the fact that the entitlements, provided by the “necessary and proper” clause, are not specified or listed in the same article, moreover, the list of designated powers was also not specified, so the central government should, first and foremost, carry out its direct responsibilities, established by the Constitution. George Washington supported Hamilton’s views and decided to provide a twenty-year charter to the bank; consequently, the charter lost its power in 1811.

In 1812, the War began, and President Madison came to decision that the country needed a central bank, especially the government. Following Madison’s proposal, the Congress established a second Bank of the United States, which soon created a network with practically all regions. This innovation inhibited the development of already existing banks and created an additional competitor for them, as the BUS operations were poorly regulated and there were almost no restrictions. Maryland, using the power of the local governments, imposed a tax on the Bus, but the cashier of the Maryland branch, James McCulloch, refused to pay it off; as a result, this question remained open and went to Court.

Despite the expectations of the Maryland population, Chief Justice Marshall confirmed the constitutionality of the Bank of the United States with all its current activities and expanded the interpretation of the “necessary and proper” clause towards the increase of the federal government’s powers and entitlements. Due to the fact that the Constitution was a social contract, as Chief Justice alleged, the citizens by default observed the supremacy of the federal government. Thus, no statements from the Constitutions could be declared as fallible, and the citizens’ assent could be expanded to the recognition of the Congress as the ruling body of power: “If any one proposition could command the universal assent of mankind, we might expect it would be this – that the government of the Union, though limited in its power, is supreme within its sphere of action” (McCuloch v. Maryland, 1819).

Speaking critically, the array of powers, given to the Congress, could not have been listed in the Constitution even theoretically, as the list would have been so long that it would have been impossible to embrace it completely. “Although the term “bank” is not included, there are express powers in the Taxing and Spending Clause. Although not explicitly stated, Congress has the implied power to create the bank” (McCulloch v.Maryland, 1819). In addition, the actions of the central government were done in accordance with the general purpose of the Congress in the sphere, i.e. the creation of a financial institution at the country level, so they fit into the requirement of the “necessary and proper” clause.

Furthermore, Marshall disapproved of the interpretation of the clause, prepared by Maryland authorities, as the enumerated entitlements would have been useless in this case. Chief Justice also underlined that the federal government’s decision to create a national bank related to the spirit of the Constitution and coincided the document’s direction towards the true unity. As a result, the tax, imposed upon the BUS branch, was declared unconstitutional.

As for the evaluation of the results of the Court’s decision, it needs to be noted that they could be characterized from different perspectives. For instance, from the position of the basic intentions of the Founding Fathers, this interpretation of the clause actually contradicted to them, as the initial “design” of the distribution of political was closer to Jeffersonian views.. Speaking about the safety, independence, political sovereignty and the well-being of American citizens, this interpretation strengthened the influence of the federal government and thus provided the “insurance” against the concentration of state power in state governments, whose decisions might have led to the deterioration of the population’s economic and social security.

Furthermore, if Jefferson’s view had prevailed, there is no guarantee that the United States wouldn’t have split forever or the new war based upon the return of the union wouldn’t have been waged. My own account of Marshall’s interpretation is consistent with Federalists’ views, as the existing freedom of state governments is enough for setting up the legislation in certain social or educational issues; at the same time, the limitation of the entitlements allows coordinating the efforts of each government at the national level and thus keeping the states in the union in terms of the major and general social, political, economic and cultural courses and policies. In addition, this principle of distribution of political influence allows joining the efforts of different territorial units in the most optimal ways, due to the well-established communication between state governments and the Congress.


To sum up, even though Jeffersonian views on the “necessary and proper” clause reflected the most progressive ideas, which actually launched the engine of the Revolution, the safety, unity and well-being of the population should be recognized as major priorities – in this sense, they were properly addressed after adopting Hamilton’s explanation of the clause. The strength of the federal government determines also American national spirit, created in the conditions of federalism and thus referring to the senses of integrity and mutual support between states, whose interests were knit closely owing to the powers of the central government.

Works cited

McCulloch v.Maryland, 1819. 2007. Web.

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