The "Amphictyon" Essay, No. 1,  Richmond Enquirer,

March 30, 1819



The essay below was one of several that appeared in Virginia newspapers as responses to John Marshall’s Supreme Court opinions in McCulloch v. Maryland , Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee, and Cohens v. Virginia.  The “Hampden” essays written in June of 1819 were authored by Spencer Roane and introduced by Thomas Ritchie of the Enquirer.  The authorship of the “Amphietyon” essays is less certain, but they were probably written by William Brockenbrough.  Brockenbrough, Roane, Ritchie, and John Taylor of Caroline [County] together led the “Richmond Junto,” a group of Virginia Jeffersonian republicans who hoped to control Virginia politics and extend the state’s influence over national politics.   Marshall responded (anonymously) to both sets of essays.




To the Editor of the Enquirer:

SIR -- I have read with considerable attention the opinion pro­nounced by the Chief Justice of the U.S. in the case of McCulloch against the state of Maryland.  In that opinion we are informed, 1st  That it is the unanimous and decided opinion of the Supreme Court, that the act to incorporate the Bank of the U.S. is a law made in pursuance of the Constitution, and is a part of the supreme law of the land; and,  2ndly. That the Court is also unanimously of opinion that the law of Maryland imposing a tax on the Bank of Maryland, is unconstitutional and void. We are not informed whether the whole court united in the course of reasoning adopted by the Chief justice, nor whether they all accorded in the various positions and principles which he advanced. It may be, that some of them admitted that the bank law is constitutional, and yet did not think proper to deny that the several states are parties to the federal compact: it may be, that some of them, without giving to the term "necessary" the liberal and latitudinous construction, attached to it by the Chief justice, and before him by Mr. Secre­tary Hamilton, may yet have thought that the measure of incor­porating a bank was "necessary and proper" for carrying into execution some of the specific powers granted to Congress; or some of them may have believed that it was for Congress to have judged of that "necessity, and propriety," and having exercised their undoubted functions in so deciding, that it was not consistent with judicial modesty to say "there was no such necessity," and thus to arrogate to themselves a right of putting their veto upon a law; or it may be, that some members of the court thought the bank law "necessary and proper" to carry into effect one power, whilst others thought that it was the instrument for effectuating another and a different power. Although they have all arrived at the same place, they may have travelled thither by different roads; although they have come to the same conclusion, yet their reasons may have been considerably variant from each other. I confess, that as a citizen, I should have been better pleased to have seen the separate opinions of the judges. The occasion called for seriatim opinions. On this great constitutional question, affecting very much the rights of the several states composing our confed­eracy, the decision of which abrogated the law of one state, and is supposed to have formed a rule for the future conduct of other states, the people had surely a right to expect that each judge should assign his own reasons for the vote which he gave. The court seems to have thought that it was sitting as an umpire to decide between the conflicting claims of a sovereign state on the one hand, and the whole United States on the other, and yet the judges decline the expression of the principles on which they have separately formed their judgments! Having thus declined the declaration of their separate opinions, we are driven, however reluctantly, to the conclusion that each judge approves of each argument and position advanced by the chief justice.


That this opinion is very able, every one must admit. This was to have been expected, proceeding as it does from a man of the most profound legal attainments, and upon a subject which has employed his thoughts, his tongue, and his pen, as a politician, and an historian, for more than thirty years. The subject too, is one which has, perhaps more than any other, heretofore drawn a broad line of distinction between the two great parties in this coun­try, in which line no one has taken a more distinguished and decided rank than the judge who has thus expounded the supreme law of the land.‑It is not in my power to carry on a contest upon such a subject with a man of his gigantic powers, but I trust that it will not be thought rash or presumptuous to endeavor to point out the consequences of some of the doctrines maintained by the supreme court, and to oppose to their adjudication some of the principles which have heretofore been advocated by the republican party in this country.


There are two principles advocated and decided on by the su­preme court, which appear to me to endanger the very existence of state rights. The first is the denial that the powers of the federal government were delegated by the states; and the second is, that the grant of powers to that government, and particularly the grant of powers "necessary and proper" to carry the other powers into effect, ought to be construed in a liberal, rather than a restricted sense. Both of these principles tend directly to consolidation of the states, and to strip them of some of the most important attributes of their sovereignty. If the Congress of the United States should think proper to legislate to the full extent, upon the principles now adjudicated by the supreme court, it is difficult to say how small would be the remnant of power left in the hands of the state authorities.


The first position, that the powers of the federal government are not delegated by the states, or in other words that the states are not parties to the compact, is untenable in itself, and fatal in its consequences. But for what purpose, I will ask, did the federal court decide that question? To ascertain whether the bank law was consistent with the constitution, or not, it was not necessary, I apprehend, that the court should have enquired into the source from whence the authority of the government was derived. Whether the powers of the federal government were delegated to it, by the states in their sovereign capacity, or by the people, can make but little difference as to the extent of those powers. In either case, it is still true that the powers of that government are limited by the charter which called it into existence; in either case, it is true that the departments, of that government cannot either separately or conjointly transcend those limits without affecting the rights and liberties of the states, or of the people;  in either case, the construction of the words of the constitution ought to be the same.  The decision of that question then was unnecessary; the court travelled out of the record to decide a point not necessarily growing out of it; the decision of that point is therefore merely obiter, extra‑judicial, and not more binding or obligatory than the opinion of any other six intelligent members of the com­munity. The opinion is erroneous. The several states did delegate to the federal government its powers, and they are parties to the compact. Who gave birth to the constitution? The history of the times, and the instrument itself furnish the ready answer to the question. The federal convention of 1787 was composed of delegates appointed by the respective state legislatures; and who voted by states; the constitution was submitted on their recommendation, to conventions elected by the people of the several states, that is to say, to the states themselves in their highest political, and sovereign authority; by those separate conventions, representing, not the whole mass of the population of the United States, but the people only within the limits of the respective sovereign states, the constitution was adopted and brought into existence.  The in­dividuality of the several states was still kept up when they assem­bled in convention: their sovereignty was still preserved, and the only effect of the adoption of the constitution was to take from one set of their agents and servants, to wit, the state governments, a certain portion of specified powers, and to delegate that same por­tion to another set of servants and agents, then newly created, namely, the federal government. If the powers of the federal government are to be viewed as the grant of the people, without regard to the distinctive features of the states, then it would fol­low that if a majority of the whole sovereign population of the United States had ratified the constitution, it would immediately have been binding on the minority, although that minority should consist of every individual in one or more states. But we know that such was not the case. Each state was an independent political society. The constitution was not binding on any state, even the smallest, without its own free and voluntary consent. Although nineteen‑twentieths of the whole people of the U. States, had approved of, and adopted the constitution, yet it was not a con­stitution obligatory on Rhode Island, until that small state became a party to it by its own act. The respective states, then in their sovereign. capacity did delegate to_ the federal .government its powers, and in so doing were parties to the compact. ‑-The states not only gave birth to the constitution, but its life depends upon the existence of, the state governments.‑-The Senate derives its being from them. The President is elected by persons who are as to numbers partly chosen on the federal principle. Destroy, the state governments, and you by the same blow destroy the Senate, and with it, the constitution. Again, how may this constitution be amended and reformed? By the legislatures of three‑fourths of the states, or by conventions of the same number of states in the manner provided by the 5th article. -‑The states then gave birth to the constitution; they support its existence, and the alone are capable of reforming or of changing its form and substance, and yet we are informed by a solemn adjudication that its powers are not derived from that source, and consequently that they are not parties to it!  --This doctrine now solemnly promulgated by the highest judicial tribunal of that government, is not however a novelty in our history. In the years 1798 and 1799, after the Con­gress of that time had by the force of implication passed a sedition law, and vested the President with arbitrary and despotic powers over the persons of alien friends, after many political writers, and some of the federal courts had advocated the absurd and danger­ous doctrine that the common law of England made a part of the law of these states, in their united and national capacity, then it was that this doctrine, which denies that the states are parties to the federal compact, was pressed with great zeal and ability. Having attempted to place shackles on the press, the glorious work could not be completed without imposing moral fetters on the independent minds of the several state legislatures.  The doc­trine, however, was exposed and refuted, and I did not expect that it would be brought forward at this day under the supposed sanc­tion of the highest judicial authority.


The doctrine, if admitted to be true, would be of fatal conse­quence to the rights and freedom of the people of the states. If the states are not parties to the compact, the legislatures of the several states, who annually bring together the feelings, the wishes, and the opinions of the people within their respective limits, would not have a right to canvass the public measures of the Congress, or of the President, nor to remonstrate against the encroachments of power, nor to resist the advances of usurpation, tyranny and oppression. They would no longer be hailed as the sentinels of the public liberty, nor as the protectors of their own rights. Every government, which has ever yet been established, feels a disposition to increase its own powers. Without the re­straints which are imposed by an enlightened public opinion, this tendency will inevitably conduct the freest government to the exercise of tyrannic power. If the right of resistance be denied, or taken away, despotism inevitably follows. .It has however been supposed by some, that the constitution has provided a remedy for every evil: that the right of the state governments to protest against, or to resist encroachments on their authority is taken away, and transferred to the federal judiciary, whose power extends to all cases arising under the constitution; that the supreme court is the umpire to decide between the states on the one side, and the United States on the other, in all questions touching the constitu­tionality of laws, or acts of the Executive. There are many cases which can never be brought before that tribunal, and I do humbly conceive that the states never could have committed an act of such egregious folly as to agree that their umpire should be altogether,. appointed and paid by the other party.  The supreme court may be a perfectly impartial tribunal, to decide between two states. but cannot be considered in that point, of view when the contest lies between the United States, and one of its members.


That I am not singular in the opinion which I entertain upon this subject, is very certain. There have been two judicial decisions in two of the largest states of the union, which expressly decide that the several states are parties to the federal compact. I refer to the decision of the supreme court of Pennsylvania in the case of the commonwealth against William Cobbett, reported in the 3d volume of Dallas; and to the decision of the Court of appeals of Virginia in Hunter against Martin, reported in 4th Munford.*    ­But I cannot forbear on this occasion from bringing to my aid a part of the report of a committee of the House of Delegates of Virginia in the year 1799, in which this subject is enforced with reasoning the most cogent and explained in language the most perspicuous. It will be recollected that in the session of the legisla­ture of 1798, sundry resolutions had been adopted, complaining of sundry acts of usurpation on the part of congress, and particu­larly of the alien and sedition laws. Those resolutions having been disapproved of, by most of the other state legislatures, became the subject of examination at the succeeding session, and produced that remarkable commentary which has generally been known by the name of Madison's report.  The third resolution is as follows:


That this assembly doth explicitly and peremptorily declare that it views the powers of the federal government as resulting from the compact, to which the states are parties, as limited by the plain sense and intention of the instrument constituting that compact; as no farther valid than they are authorized by the grants enumerated in that com­pact; and that in case of a deliberate, palpable and dangerous exercise of other powers, not granted by the said compact, the states who are parties thereto, have the right, and they are in duty bound, to interpose, for arresting the progress of the evil, and for maintaining within their respective limits, the authorities, rights and liberties appertaining to them.


On this resolution, the committee have bestowed all the attention which its importance merits: they have scanned it not merely with a strict, but with a severe eye; and they feel confidence in pronouncing, that in its just and fair construction, it is unexceptionably true in its several positions, as well as constitutional and conclusive in its inferences.


The resolution declares, first, that "it views the powers of the Fed­eral Government, as resulting from the compact to which the states are parties," in other words, that the federal powers are derived from the constitution, and that the constitution is a compact to which the states are parties.


Clear as the position must seem, that the federal powers are derived from the Constitution, and from that alone, the committee are not un­apprized of a late doctrine which opens another source of federal powers, not less extensive and important, than it is new and unexpected. The examination of this doctrine will be most conveniently connected with a review of a succeeding resolution. The committee satisfy them­selves here with briefly remarking, that in all the contemporary dis­cussions and comments, which the Constitution underwent, it was constantly justified and recommended on the ground, that the powers not given to the government, were withheld from it; & that if any doubt could have existed on this subject, under the original text of the Con­stitution, it is removed as far as words could remove it, by the 12th [10th] amendment, now a part of the Constitution, which expressly.. declares, "that the powers not delegated to the United States, by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people."


The other position involved in thus branch of the resolution, namely, "that the states are parties to the Constitution or compact," is in the judgment of the committee, equally free from objection. It is indeed true that the term "States," is sometimes used in a vague sense, and sometimes in different senses, according to the subject to which it is applied. Thus it sometimes means the separate sections of territory oc­cupied by the political societies within each; sometimes the particular governments, established by those societies; sometimes those societies as organized into those particular governments; and lastly, it means the people composing those political societies, in their highest sovereign capacity. Although it might be wished that the perfection of language admitted less diversity in the signification of the same words, yet little inconveniency is produced by it, where the true sense can be collected with certainty from the different applications. In the present instance whatever different constructions of the term "States," in the resolution may have been entertained, all will at least concur in that last men­tioned; because in that sense, the Constitution was submitted to the "States." In that sense‑the "States" ratified it; and in that sense of the term "States," they are consequently parties to the compact from which the powers of the Federal Government result.


The next position is, that the General Assembly views the powers of the Federal Government, "as limited by the plain sense and intention of the instrument constituting that compact," and "as no farther valid than they are authorized by the grants therein enumerated."  It does not seem possible than any just objection can lie against either of these clauses. The first amounts merely to a declaration that the compact ought to have the interpretation plainly intended by the parties to it; the other, to a declaration, that it ought to have the execution and effect intended by them. If the powers granted, be valid, it is solely because they are granted; and if the granted powers are valid, because all other powers not granted, must not be valid.


The resolution having taken this view of the federal compact, pro­ceeds to infer, "that in case of a deliberate, palpable, and dangerous exercise of other powers riot granted by the said compact, tire states who are parties thereto, have the right, and are in duty bound to inter­pose for arresting the progress of the evil, and' for maintaining within their respective limits, the authorities, rights and liberties appertaining to them."


It appears to your committee to be a plain principle, founded in com­mon sense, illustrated by common practice, and essential to the nature of compacts; that where resort can be had to no tribunal superior to the authority of the parties, the parties themselves must be the rightful judges in the last resort, whether the bargain made, has been pursued or violated. The Constitution of the United States was formed by the sanction of the states, given by each in its sovereign capacity.  It adds to the stability and dignity, as well as to the authority of the Constitu­tion, that it rests on this legitimate and solid foundation. The states then being the parties to the constitutional compact, and in their sovereign capacity, it follows of necessity, that there can be no tribunal above their authority, to decide in the last resort, whether the compact made by them violated; and consequently that as the parties to it, they must themselves decide in the last resort, such questions as may be of suf­ficient magnitude to require their interposition.


It does not follow, however, that because the States as sovereign par­ties to their constitutional compact, must ultimately decide whether it has been violated, that such a decision ought to be interposed either in a hasty manner, or on doubtful and inferior occasions. Even in the case of ordinary conventions between different nations, where, by the strict rule of interpretation, a breach of a part may be deemed a breach of the whole; every part being deemed a condition of every other part, and of the whole, it is always laid down that the breach must be both wilful and material to justify an application of the rule. But in the case of an intimate and constitutional union, like that of the United States, it is evident that the interposition of the parties, in their sovereign ca­pacity, can be called for by occasions only, deeply and essentially affect­ing the vital principles of their political system.

The resolution has accordingly guarded against any misapprehension of its object, by expressly requiring for such an interposition "the case of a deliberate, palpable, and dangerous breach of the Constitution, by the exercise of powers not granted by it." It must be a case, not of a light and transient nature, but of a nature dangerous to the great pur­poses for which the Constitution was established. It must be a case more­over not obscure or doubtful in its construction, but plain and palpable. Lastly, it must be a case not resulting from a partial consideration, or hasty determination; but a case stampt with a final consideration and deliberate adherence. It is not necessary, because the resolution does not require, that the question should be discussed, how far the exercise of any particular power, ungranted by the Constitution, would justify the interposition of the parties to it. As cases might easily be stated, which none would contend, ought to fall within that description: cases on the other hand, might, with equal ease, be stated, so flagrant and so fatal as to unite every opinion in placing them within the description.


But the resolution has done more than guard against misconstruc­tion, by expressly referring to cases of a deliberate, palpable, and dan­gerous nature. It specifies the object of the interposition which it con­templates, to be solely that of arresting the progress of the evil o f usurpation, and of maintaining the authorities, rights and liberties apper­taining to the states, as parties to the Constitution.


From this view of the resolution, it would seem inconceivable that it can incur any just disapprobation from those, who laying aside all momentary impressions, and recollecting the genuine source and object of the Federal Constitution, shall candidly and accurately interpret the meaning of the General Assembly. If the deliberate exercise of dan­gerous powers, palpably withheld by the Constitution, could not justify the parties to it, in interposing even so far as to arrest the progress of the evil, and thereby to preserve the Constitution itself, as well as to provide for the safety of the parties to it; there would be an end to all relief from usurped power, and a direct subversion of the rights specified or recog­nized under all the State Constitutions, as well as a plain denial of the fundamental principle on which our independence itself was declared.


But it is objected that the judicial authority is to be regarded as the sole expositor of the Constitution, in the last resort; and it may be asked for what reason, the declaration by the General Assembly, supposing it to be theoretically true, could be required at the present day and in so solemn a manner.


On this objection it might be observed first: that there may be in­stances of usurped power, which the forms of the Constitution would never draw within the controul of the judicial department: secondly, that if the decision of the judiciary be raised above the, authority ,of the sovereign parties to the Constitution, the decisions of the other departments, not carried by the forms of the Constitution before the judiciary, must be equally authoritative and final with the decisions of that department.  But the proper answer to the objection is, that the resolution of

the General Assembly relates to those great and extraordinary cases, in which all the forms of the Constitution may prove ineffectual against infractions dangerous to the essential rights of the parties to it. The resolution supposes that dangerous powers not delegated, may not only be usurped and executed by the other departments, but that the judicial department also may exercise or sanction dangerous powers beyond the grant of the Constitution; and consequently that the ultimate right of the parties to the Constitution, to judge whether the compact has been dangerously violated, must extend to violations by one delegated author­ity, as well as by another; by the judiciary, as well as by the executive, or the legislature.


However true therefore it may be that the judicial department, is, in all questions submitted to by the forms of the Constitution, to decide in the last resort. This resort must necessarily be deemed the last in relation to the authorities of other departments of the government; not in relation to the rights of the parties to the Constitutional compact, from which the judicial as well as the other departments hold their delegated trusts. On any other hypothesis, the delegation of judicial power, would annul the authority delegating it; & the concurrence of this department with the others in usurped powers, might subvert forever, and beyond the possible reach of any rightful remedy, the very Constitution, which all were instituted to preserve.

March 30, 1819                      AMPHICTYON

* That the state governments are parties to the federal compact, and able to combine for the purpose of protecting their common liberty, seems to have been admitted by the author of the letters of Publius. "It may safely be re­ceived as an axiom in our political system, that the state governments will in all possible contingencies, afford complete security against invasions of the public liberty by the national authority. Projects of usurpation cannot be masked under pretences, so likely to escape the penetration of select bodies of men, as of the people at large. The legislatures will have better means of information‑they can discover danger at a distance; and possessing all the organs of civil power and the confidence of the people, they can at once adopt a regular plan of opposition, in which they can combine all the resources of the community. They can readily communicate with each other in the dif­ferent states; and unite their common forces, for the protection of their com­mon liberty." (See Federalist, No. 28.)