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McCulloch v. Maryland Summary: Lesson for Kids

Instructor: Jenny Homer

Jenny has masters' degrees in public health and public administration.

In this lesson we'll discuss one of the landmark Supreme Court cases, McCulloch v. Maryland. We will review the case, the ruling, and its lasting impact on how we view the role of states today.

A Bank Cashier and the State of Maryland

One of the main questions since the United States first became a country has been what powers belong to the states and what powers belong to the federal government. The Supreme Court case McCulloch v. Maryland helped settle this question.

In 1816, Congress chartered the Second Bank of the United States. Existing state banks didn't want to compete with the Second Bank, so Maryland started taxing it. James McCulloch was the cashier at the Baltimore branch of the Second Bank, and he said the Bank should not have to pay the tax - so Maryland sued him to collect the money.

Courts in Maryland ruled that the Bank should pay the tax, but McCulloch and the Bank appealed. In 1819, the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case to answer whether Congress had the right to charter the Second Bank of the United States in the first place, and whether the Bank had to pay Maryland's tax.

The United States Supreme Court
Supreme Court building

What the Supreme Court Said

The Supreme Court decision was unanimous, which means that all the Supreme Court Justices said the same thing. Chief Justice John Marshall wrote that Section 8 in Article I of the Constitution gives Congress the power to make 'necessary and proper' laws to help it carry out its jobs. This means that Congress can make laws that are not specifically listed in the Constitution as long as the Constitution does not say that Congress can't do them. These are called implied powers. This means that Congress had the constitutional right to establish the Bank, even though the Constitution did not explicitly say it should.

Chief Justice John Marshall wrote the decision in McCulloch v. Maryland. Portrait by Henry Inman, 1831.
John Marshall

What is an example of an implied power in our own lives? Let's say we are told to finish our homework, but the pencil breaks when we start our work. We were not told to sharpen our pencil, but the power to do so would be implied so that we can accomplish our main goal of getting the homework done. This assumes, of course, that there is no rule at home that we cannot sharpen our own pencils.

The United States Constitution
U.S. Constitution picture

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