The National Bank: Jefferson vs. Hamilton Political parties arose from a debate regarding the role of government. The Constitution was written with both enumerated (specifically stated – Art. I, Section 8) and implied powers (the 2 General Clauses). But during Washington’s presidency, the question became, when should implied powers be used, and for what purpose? When Hamilton proposed the development of a National Bank, enumerated versus implied powers was at the heart of the debate. Was it Constitutional to have a National Bank? Maybe more importantly, was it in the interest of the common good to have a National Bank?
Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson were on opposing ends of this debate. Below you’ll find excerpts detailing each man’s argument. Read through the quotes and decide which argument is more convincing. Essentially, you are playing the role of the Supreme Court – will you allow a National Bank to be created?
Once you’ve decided whether or not a National Bank is Constitutional, write a blog post that explains your thought process. Explain whether Hamilton or Jefferson make the stronger argument, and provide three examples of their reasoning that supports your perspective. Finally, with this interpretation of the Constitution, you are setting a precedent – an example that other Supreme Courts will look to when they decide how to interpret the Constitution. Are you viewing power as strict or implied, and what does that type of interpretation mean for future generations? Explain.
What would a National Bank do for the United States?
Hamilton had long believed in the need for banks to provide credit and stimulate the economy. As early as 1780, he wrote a letter describing central banks in Europe and wondered, "And why cannot we have an American bank?" Hamilton helped found the Bank of New York in 1784. Soon after he became the nation's first Treasury Secretary, he was already proposing a national equivalent. On December 15, 1790, Hamilton submitted a report to Congress making the case. He proposed a Bank of the United States with a $10 million capital (then five times more than all other American banks combined) and the ability to issue paper money. It would be based in Philadelphia and chartered for 20 years. The federal government would have a minority stake in the Bank, but its board of directors would be private individuals, thus ensuring a mix of public oversight and private enterprise. The Bank would be able to lend the government money and safely hold its deposits, give Americans a uniform currency, and promote business and industry by extending credit. Together with Hamilton's other financial programs, it would help place the United States on an equal financial footing with the nations of Europe.
In contrast to Hamilton's plan for the federal government to assume state debts, Hamilton's bank plan had a relative easy time in Congress. The Senate passed it handily on January 20, 1791, and the House followed in early February. But support for the Bank fell largely along sectional lines, with Northern endorsement and Southern opposition. Among those Southern opponents was James Madison, who worried that the Bank's placement in Philadelphia, the nation's temporary capital, might thwart the decision to put the permanent seat of government further south on the banks of the Potomac River. Madison also noted that the Constitution conferred no power to establish a national bank or any other corporation; and if a power was not in the text, by what authority could it be done? When the Bank bill reached George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, who termed the banking industry "an infinity of successive felonious larcenies," also weighed in against it on constitutional grounds, urging a veto.
Thomas Jefferson’s Arguments:
Alexander Hamiltons’ Arguments:
“The incorporation of a bank, and the powers assumed by this bill, have not, in my opinion, been delegated to the United States, by the Constitution.”
“I consider the foundation of the Constitution as laid on this ground: That ‘all powers not delegated to the United States, by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States or to the people’ (10th Amendment). To take a single step beyond the boundaries thus specially drawn around the powers of Congress, is to take possession of a boundless field of power, no longer susceptible of any definition.”
“To "regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the States, and with the Indian tribes." To erect a bank, and to regulate commerce, are very different acts.”
“It would reduce the whole instrument to a single phrase, that of instituting a Congress with power to do whatever would be for the good of the United States; and, as they would be the sole judges of the good or evil, it would be also a power to do whatever evil they please.”
“The second general phrase is, "to make all laws necessary and proper for carrying into execution the enumerated powers." But they can all be carried into execution without a bank. A bank therefore is not necessary, and consequently not authorized by this phrase.”
“It has been much urged that a bank will give great convenience in the collection of taxes…yet the Constitution allows only the means which are ‘necessary,’ not those which are merely “convenient” …there is not one (power) which ingenuity may torture into convenience, in some instance or other, to someone of so long a list of enumerated powers. It would swallow up all the delegated powers, and reduce the whole to one power… Therefore it was that the Constitution restrained them to the necessary means; that is to say, those means without which the grant of power would be nugatory (useless).”
“…(A) restrictive interpretation of the word “necessary” is also contrary to this sound maxim of construction: namely, that the powers contained in a constitution ought to be construed liberally in advancement of the public good.”
“The means by which national exigencies (needs) are to be provided for, national prosperity promoted, are of such infinite variety, extent, and complexity, that there must of necessity be a great latitude of choice in the selection and application of these means. Hence, the necessity of exercising the authorities entrusted to a government on principle of liberal construction.”
“…If the end (purpose of a law) be clearly comprehended within any of the specific powers, and if the measure have an obvious relation to the end, and is not forbidden by any particular provision of the Constitution, it may be safely deemed to come within the compass of national authority.”
“…that as a power of erecting a corporation may as well be implied as any other thing, it may as well be employed as an instrument or mean of carrying into execution any of the specified powers.”
“For the simplest and most precise idea of a bank is, a deposit of coin or other property, as a fund for circulating a credit upon it, which is to answer the purpose of money.”
“The proposed bank is to consist of an association of persons, for the purpose of creating a joint capital, to be employed, chiefly and essentially, in loans. So far, the object is not only lawful, but it is the mere exercise of a right which the law allows to every individual.”
“Accordingly, it is affirmed, that it [the bank] has a relation, more or less direct, to the power of collecting taxes; to that of borrowing money; to that of regulating trade between the States…”