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more was apprehended, that general distrust prevailed, and all confidence between man and man was destroyed. To laws of this description, therefore, it is said, the prohibition to pass laws impairing the obligation of contracts ought to be confined.
Let this argument be tried by the words of the section under consideration.
Was this general prohibition intended to prevent paper money? We are not allowed to say so, because it is expressly provided that no state shall “ emit bills of credit.” Neither could these words be intended to restrain the states from enabling debtors to discharge their debts by the tender of property of no real value to the creditor, because for that subject also particular provision is made. Nothing but gold and silver coin can be made a tender in payment of debts.
It remains to inquire whether the prohibition under consideration could be intended for the single case of a law directing that judgments should be carried into execution by instalments ?
This question will scarcely admit of discussion. If this was the only remaining mischief against which the constitution intended to provide, it would undoubtedly have been, like paper money and tender laws, expressly forbidden. At any rate, terms more directly applicable to the subject, more appropriately expressing the intention of the convention, would have been used. It seems scarcely possible to suppose that the framers of the constitution, if intending to prohibit only laws authorizing the payment of debts by instalment, would have expressed that intention by saying, “No state shall pass any law impairing the obligation of contracts." No men would so express such an intention. No men would use terms embracing a whole class of laws, for the purpose of designating a single individual of that class. No court can be justified in restricting such comprehensive words to a particular mischief to which no allusion is made.
The fair, and, we think, the necessary construction of the sentence requires that we should give these words their full and
obvious meaning. A general dissatisfaction with that lax system of legislation which followed the war of our revolution undoubtedly directed the mind of the convention to this subject. It is probable that laws, such as those which have been stated in argument, produced the loudest complaints, were most immediately felt. The attention of the convention, therefore, was particularly directed to paper money, and to acts which enabled the debtor to discharge his debt otherwise than was stipulated in the contract. Had nothing more been intended, nothing more would have been expressed. But, in the opinion of the convention, much more remained to be done. The same mischief might be effected by other means. To restore public confidence completely, it was necessary not only to prohibit the use of particular means by which it might be effected, but to prohibit the use of any means by which the same mischief might be produced. The convention appears to have intended to establish a great principle, that contracts should be inviolable. The constitution therefore declares that no state shall pass “any law impairing the obligation of contracts.”
If, as we think, it must be admitted that this intention might actuate the convention; that it is not only consistent with, but is apparently manifested by, all that part of the section which respects this subject; that the words used are well adapted to the expression of it ; that violence would be done to their plain meaning by understanding them in a more limited sense ; those rules of construction, which have been consecrated by the wisdom of ages, compel us to say that these words prohibit the passage of any law discharging a contract without performance.
By way of analogy, the statutes of limitations and against usury have been referred to in argument; and it has been supposed that the construction of the constitution which this opinion maintains would apply to them also, and must therefore be too extensive to be correct.
We do not think so. Statutes of limitations relate to the remedies which are furnished in the courts. They rather establish that certain circumstances shall amount to evidence that a
contract has been performed, than dispense with its performance. If, in a state where six years may be pleaded in bar to an action of assumpsit, a law should pass, declaring that contracts already in existence, not barred by the statute, should be construed to be within it, there could be little doubt of its unconstitutionality.
So with respect to the laws against usury. If the law be, that no person shall take more than six per centum per annum for the use of money, and that, if more be reserved, the contract shall be void, a contract made thereafter, reserving seven per cent., would have no obligation in its commencement; but if a law should declare that contracts already entered into, and reserving the legal interest, should be usurious and void, either in the whole or in part, it would impair the obligation of the contract, and would be clearly unconstitutional.
This opinion is confined to the case actually under consideration. It is confined to a case 'in which a creditor sues in a court, the proceedings of which the legislature, whose act is pleaded, had not a right to control ; and to a case where the creditor had not proceeded to execution against the body of his debtor, within the state whose law attempts to absolve a confined insolvent debtor from his obligation. When such a case arises, it will be considered.
It is the opinion of the court that the act of the state of New York which is pleaded by the defendant in this cause, so far as it attempts to discharge this defendant from the debt in the declaration mentioned, is contrary to the constitution of the United States, and that the plea is no bar to the action.
4 Wb. 207.
M’CULLOCH V. THE STATE OF MARYLAND AND
FEBRUARY TERM, 1819.
[4 Wheaton's Reports, 316 - 437.]
In April, 1816, the congress of the United States incorporated the Bank of the United States. In 1817 a branch of this bank was placed at Baltimore, Maryland. In 1818 the legislature of Maryland passed a law to tax “all banks or branches thereof, in the state of Maryland, not chartered by the legislature." The branch of the United States Bank did not pay this tax, and M’Culloch, the cashier, was sued by John James, for himself and the state of Maryland, according to the provisions of the act imposing the tax. Judgment being given in the state courts against M'Culloch, he brought it before the supreme court, the opinion of which was delivered by the, chief justice on the 7th of March, 1819.
In the case now to be determined, the defendant, a sovereign state, denies the obligation of a law enacted by the legislature of the union, and the plaintiff, on his part, contests the validity of an act which has been passed by the legislature of that state. The constitution of our country, in its most interesting and vital part, is to be considered; the conflicting powers of the government of the union and of its members, as marked in that constitution, are to be discussed ; and an opinion given which may essentially influence the great operations of the government. No tribunal can approach such a question without a deep sense of its importance, and of the awful responsibility involved in its decision. But it must be decided peacefully, or remain a source of hostile legislation, perhaps of hostility of a still more serious nature; and if it is to be so decided, by this tribunal alone can the decision be made. On the supreme court of the
United States has the constitution of our country devolved this important duty.
The first question made in the cause is, Has congress power to incorporate a bank ?
It has been truly said that this can scarcely be considered as an open question, entirely unprejudiced by the former proceedings of the nation respecting it. The principle now contested was introduced at a very early period of our history, has been recognized by many successive legislatures, and has been acted upon by the judicial department, in cases of peculiar delicacy, as a law of undoubted obligation.
It will not be denied that a bold and daring usurpation might be resisted, after an acquiescence still longer and more complete than this. But it is conceived that a doubtful question, - one on which human reason may pause and the human judgment be suspended, in the decision of which the great principles of liberty are not concerned, but the respective powers of those who are equally the representatives of the people are to be adjusted, — if not put at rest by the practice of the government, ought to receive a considerable impression from that practice. An exposition of the constitution, deliberately established by legislative acts, on the faith of which an immense property has been advanced, ought not to be lightly disregarded.
The power now contested was exercised by the first congress elected under the present constitution. The bill for incorporating the bank of the United States did not steal upon an unsuspecting legislature, and pass unobserved. Its principle was completely understood, and was opposed with equal zeal and ability. After being resisted, first in the fair and open field of debate, and afterwards in the executive cabinet, with as much persevering talent as any measure has ever experienced, and being supported by arguments which convinced minds as pure and as intelligent as this country can boast, it became a law. The original act was permitted to expire ; but a short experience of the embarrassments, to which the refusal to revive it exposed the government, convinced those, who were most preju