1: All Debts contracted and Engagements entered into, before the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be as valid against the United States under this Constitution, as under the Confederation.
2: This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.
3: The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.
Article VI concerns the debts of the United States, the supremacy of the Constitution and federal law, and the sworn obligation of office holders to uphold the Constitution.
America’s War for Independence was an expensive war – and most of it had been financed. Tens of millions of dollars had been borrowed from foreign governments and wealthy financiers – some of them even English – who were understandably concerned that their debtors might try to use the country’s new-found independence to avoid repaying their loans. Indeed, the 1783 Treaty of Paris, which brokered the peace between Britain and the United States, expressly provided that lawfully-contracted debts were to be paid to creditors on either side.
This concern resurfaced as the fledgling country traded in the relatively weak Articles of Confederation for a more authoritative Constitution. Article VI, clause one, of the new document reassured unpaid creditors that “All Debts contracted and Engagements entered into, before the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be as valid against the United States under this Constitution, as under the Confederation.” The ratification of the new Constitution then could not be used to shirk paying those who were rightfully owed under the old system. It was well understood at the time that good credit must be established and maintained if the country would have any hope of survival or longevity.
The second clause, commonly known as the “Supremacy Clause,” makes clear that the Constitution is the binding legal authority on which the country was founded: “This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.” This may seem axiomatic to us today, but the issue was far from settled and “the source of much virulent invective and petulant declamation against the proposed Constitution,” (Federalist No. 33) for it was widely feared that the formation of the federal government would intrude upon the rights and liberties enjoyed by the states and the people.
Richard Henry Lee, a prominent anti-federalist, expressed this fear in the alliterative “Federal Farmer IV” when he warned, “It is to be observed that when the people shall adopt the proposed constitution it will be their last and supreme act; it will be adopted not by the people of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, &c., but by the people of the United States; and wherever this constitution, or any part of it, shall be incompatible with the ancient customs, rights, the laws or the constitutions heretofore established in the United States, it will entirely abolish them and do them away: And not only this, but the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance of the federal constitution will be also supreme laws, and wherever they shall be incompatible with those customs, rights, laws or constitutions heretofore established, they will also entirely abolish them and do them away.”
Both Alexander Hamilton and James Madison took up the debate and defended the clause. Hamilton first explained, “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 intrusted [sic] 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 on the good faith of the parties, and not a government, which is only another word for Political Power And Supremacy” (Federalist No. 33). But Hamilton, perhaps attempting to assuage the fears of men like Richard Henry Lee, insisted that the “acts of the larger society which are not pursuant to its constitutional powers” must then be held “invasions of the residuary authorities of the smaller societies” and will not become the supreme law of the land. “These,” Hamilton argued, “will be merely acts of usurpation, and will deserve to be treated as such.” Thus, although a supreme law was required for any proper government to function, the federal government would be limited in its scope to those laws pursuant to the Constitution.
James Madison’s Federalist No. 44 echoed Hamilton’s argument and contended that any Constitution without a Supremacy Clause “would have been evidently and radically defective.” Madison warned in Federalist No. 44 that, were the state constitutions to exert supremacy over the federal Constitution, “the world would have seen, for the first time, a system of government founded on an inversion of the fundamental principles of all government; it would have seen the authority of the whole society every where subordinate to the authority of the parts; it would have seen a monster, in which the head was under the direction of the members.”
It didn’t take long for the question of legal supremacy to find its way to the Supreme Court. Coincidentally, both the Supremacy Clause and the issue of pre-Treaty debt were taken up in the same case in 1796. In 1779, during the War for Independence, Virginia had passed a law whereby all property within the state belonging to any British subject or which did belong to any British subject at the time of forfeiture was deemed to be the property of Virginia. Not only did the statute confiscate British-owned property, it arguably nullified private debts owed by Virginians to British subjects. In Ware v. Hylton, a British creditor sued an American debtor to recoup the money owed under a pre-war bond. Virginia’s statute seemed to prevent the creditor from collecting his debt, and the Court was asked to decide: did Virginia’s law or the Treaty of Paris control the collection of the debt?
Making his only appearance as a lawyer before the Supreme Court, John Marshall argued brilliantly on behalf of the American debtor. Justice Iredell, in the controlling opinion of the Court, ruled against the future Chief Justice: “Under this constitution, therefore, so far as a treaty constitutionally is binding, upon principles of moral obligation, it is also, by the vigor of its own authority, to be executed in fact. It would not otherwise be the supreme law, in the new sense provided for, and it was so before, in a moral sense.” The Treaty of Paris thus superseded Virginia’s contrary law, and the Court declined to give effect to the state statute.
Later, Chief Justice Marshall would pen the landmark decision in McCulloch v. Maryland (1819), ruling that Maryland’s tax on the Second Bank of the United States ran afoul of the Constitution. Nullifying the state’s tax on the federal government, Marshall observed: “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.”
A barrage of new federal laws from Capitol Hill and a long line of Supremacy Clause cases marched across the legal landscape in the twentieth century, leaving a blotted trail of nullified state statutes. Today, “A state statute is void to the extent that it actually conflicts with a valid Federal statute,” (Edgar v. Mite Corporation (1982)), and such a conflict exists wherever compliance with both federal and state law is impossible; or where the state law stands as an obstacle to accomplishing the full purposes and objectives of Congress.
Thus, for example, the Supreme Court held in Raich v. Gonzales (2005) that California’s law permitting doctor-prescribed medical marijuana would frustrate Congress’s efforts to regulate the interstate marijuana market under the federal Controlled Substances Act. And, as Justice Stevens’ majority opinion casually reminds us, “The Supremacy Clause unambiguously proves that if there is any conflict between federal and state law, federal law shall prevail,” because, as the Court had previously opined, “‘no form of state activity can constitutionally thwart the regulatory power granted by the commerce clause to Congress.’” (quoting Wickard v. Filburn (1942)). We might now wonder whether – in the Court’s view – there remain any regulatory “acts of the larger society which are not “pursuant to its constitutional powers” or which might still invade “the residuary authorities of the smaller societies.”
The third clause of Article VI establishes two important and related principles. First, its “Oath Clause” requires that “The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution . . . .” Once again, the Constitution is supreme, and a conscious effort was made for it to be supported and upheld not only by federal officers and judges, but by state officials as well. As Hamilton explained in Federalist No. 27, the “Oath Clause” would help ensure that “the legislatures, courts, and magistrates, of the respective members, will be incorporated into the operations of the national government as far as its just and constitutional authority extends; and it will be rendered auxiliary to the enforcement of its laws.”
Second, the “No Religious Test” clause guarantees that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” In the founding era, much of Europe and many of the new American states used religious tests to protect their preferred churches and religions. In England, the Test Act of 1672 required all public officers to swear a conspicuously anti-Catholic oath declaring disbelief in “any transubstantiation in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.” In 1789, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania all had constitutions requiring that their public officials to swear belief in tenets of Christianity. The “No Religious Test” clause prevented such requirements for holding federal office, but left any such qualifications for state officers untouched.
Perhaps surprising to us today, this clause received a fair amount of debate and resistance from anti-federalists during ratification. In Massachusetts, for example, one “principal objection” to the Constitution was its lack of a religious test – “rulers ought to believe in God or Christ,” it was argued. Federalist Oliver Ellsworth defended the constitutional ban on religious tests, believing them to be “utterly ineffectual,” and arguing that “If we mean to have those appointed to public offices, who are sincere friends to religion, we, the people who appoint them, must take care to choose such characters; and not rely upon such cob-web barriers as test-laws are.” Ellsworth’s view won out, of course – although it remains a rather open question whether we, the people who appoint our public officers, have taken much care to choose those predicted “sincere friends to religion.”
Nathaniel Stewart is an attorney in Washington, D.C.