The famous case of McCulloch v. Maryland in 1819 provided proof that the Supreme Court had developed an institutional identity separate from the political preferences of the presidents who had appointed the justices. In this case, the Court unanimously gave a distinctly pro-nationalist interpretation of the nature of the union, the powers of Congress, and constitutional limitations on the states.
McCulloch addressed fundamental questions about the Constitution, Congress’s power under the Necessary and Proper Clause, and the relationship between the national government and the states. The uproar the decision generated was a clear indication that the country did not share a common vision about the nature of the Constitution or how ambiguous provisions in it should be interpreted. Marshall had ruled that the Constitution emanates from the people, thereby rejecting the compact theory that it is a creature of the states. Marshall also had construed the Necessary and Proper clause in a manner that gives Congress latitude to legislate on myriad matters not explicitly identified in Article I, Section 8. Finally, Marshall had held that the United States Constitution limits the range of policy options available to state legislatures. This was an unpopular message to states that persisted in believing that their legislatures were constrained only by limitations in their own state constitutions.
Within a few weeks of the decision, a powerful political group known as the Richmond Junto began publishing essays attacking McCulloch. They had a copy of the opinion printed in the leading Richmond newspaper so that the ruling could be “controverted and exposed.” For the next three months, they published essays criticizing Marshall’s reasoning in the case. Marshall was incensed. He wrote a series of essays under the pen name “A Friend to the Union” in the Philadelphia Union newspaper defending the decision. Spencer Roane entered the fray in June, writing under the pen name Hampden, refuting Marshall’s arguments. He declared McCulloch to be the “Alpha and Omega” of federal usurpations of state sovereignty.
The controversy over McCulloch helped to shape political responses to issues looming on the horizon, including the debate over slavery. The Supreme Court would continue to play a central role in those debates, thanks in large part to the institutional identity it had developed under the leadership of John Marshall.