The Supremacy Clause

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, anything in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding.


The Supremacy Clause, in Article VI of the Constitution, declared the Constitution, all federal laws, and any U.S. treaties as "the supreme law of the land," which inspired controversy between Federalists and Anti-Federalists over the extent of federal power over states. Federalists argued that it was merely an explanatory statement specifying that states must conform to the rules and laws of their national government in the same manner that individuals conform to the laws of their government. On the other hand, Anti-Federalists distrusted the implications of the clause, which reminded them too much like tyrannical governments (mostly England) with its declaration of federal supremacy over states. While not as heavily debated during ratification as other clauses, the Supremacy Clause would come to have a significant role later on during the state nullification debates, and continues to draw attention today.

The Federalist and Anti-Federalist Arguments

Federalists argued that the Supremacy Clause merely stated the obvious when assuming federal supremacy. Just as people electing to create a government must follow that government's laws, states electing to from a national government must also be bound by national laws. They argued thus that there was nothing inconsistent about the Supremacy Clause with regards to federal powers superseding state powers when conflicts arose between levels of government. So long as the federal government did not infringe on rights guaranteed to the states, the Constitution guaranteed federal supremacy. Alexander Hamilton made this argument in The Federalist 33, which James Madison concurred with in The Federalist 44.

Anti-Federalists, on the other hand, saw the phrase "the supreme law of the land" as dangerously close to declaring the national government a tyranny over the states. By declaring the federal government to be supreme, they considered the national government to be no better than England in their declaration of supremacy. Because of that clause, states would essentially be forced to follow federal laws whether they agreed to them or not. The national government could thus make laws unrepresentative of the will of the states, and still be able to force obedience. This prospect concerned Anti-Federalists, who would go on to argue that states needed a check on the supremacy of federal law, such as state nullification of federal law.

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License