Hamilton defends Article 1, Section 8, Clause 18 of the Constitution granting Congress authority to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying out its powers, and Article 6, Clause 2 which declares national law the supreme law of the land. Opponents of the constitution claimed that these clauses granted too much power to the national government.
Hamilton responds that both clauses are common-sense provisions necessary for any functioning government. If Congress is entrusted with certain tasks, such as raising taxes and maintaining an Army, it must be allowed to do what is “necessary and proper” to fulfill those tasks. Having a power implies being able to do what is necessary to use that power.
Similarly, the very nature of law implies supremacy: “A law, by the very meaning of the term, includes supremacy. It is a rule, which those to whom it is prescribed are bound to observe.” If the national government did not have the power to enact binding legislation, then the states would essentially be bound together by treaty rather than government.
Hamilton asserts that granting this authority to the national government does not allow it to enact laws that violate the constitution. Rather, it merely enables it to perform the basic functions of any government. If the national government were to enact a law that violates the rights of the states—such as deny them the ability to levy taxes—then that law could be justly resisted and the national government held accountable by the people for attempting an usurpation of their rights.
This paper is another attempt by Hamilton to assuage the fears of Americans that a strong national government would threaten the rights of states and individual citizens. He appeals to his audience’s common sense and reminds them that a government must have the ability to pass binding legislation on citizens. Without this authority, a government is not truly a government. He addresses the specific concern of state rights enthusiasts that the federal government might use its power to pass binding legislation in order to take away the ability of states to levy taxes by pointing out that such an action would be unconstitutional and, therefore, not binding.
The “necessary and proper” clause is one of the most important and most controversial clauses in the Constitution. It has been the subject of numerous Supreme Court cases, and has been central to debates throughout American history over the proper role of Congress. Perhaps the central reason for all the debate is the inherent ambiguity in the phrase “necessary and proper.” After all, who decides what is “necessary and proper”? Nevertheless, the founders felt that such ambiguity was essential to creating an effective system of government. The founders recognized that they could not predict the numerous complicated issues that America would face in the future. Therefore, they felt compelled to make clear that Congress had the authority to do what was needed in order to perform the proper function of government.