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Article VI of the Constitution | National Constitution Center | Khan Academy

September 21, 2019


– [Kim] Hi, this is Kim from Khan Academy and today I’m learning
more about Article VI of the U.S. Constitution. Article VI is as we’ll soon see kind of a constitutional grab bag. It covers debts,
religious tests for office and it establishes the Constitution as the supreme Law of the Land. To learn more about what binds
these diverse ideas together, I sought out the help of two experts. Kermit Roosevelt is a Professor of Law specializing in constitutional
law and conflict of laws at the University of
Pennsylvania Law School. And Michael Ramsey is Professor of Law and Director of International
and Comparative Law programs at the University of San
Diego’s School of Law. So let’s start out talking about the debts portion of Article VI. Professor Roosevelt, why were the framers so interested in debt? What was the historical
context that led them to explicitly address debt in Article IV? – [Professor Roosevelt] Well,
debt is important generally because nations often
need to borrow money. And specifically with the Constitution and the Articles of
Confederation, the U.S. government had been borrowing money to
pay for the Revolutionary War. So there was a question we’re moving from a sort of loose confederation, almost like a treaty between nations, under the Articles of Confederation, to a single unitary country with a stronger national
government under the Constitution. And there’s a question, is
it still the same country? Will the new United States pay the debt? So the old United States. – [Professor Ramsey] Now,
there’s a general principle of international law that
a successor government undertakes the obligations
of the predecessor. So you wouldn’t necessarily
think this would be a problem but I think they were
particularly concerned because the idea of a
republic was a somewhat new, and at least in the 18th
century a somewhat unusual one. And the change of a republican government might cause some worries in Europe where this money was owed. So I think they just wanted to
reassure all of the creditors that even if they were changing
their method of government, that that wasn’t going to
effect any of the debts. – [Kim] What might have
happened had they decided not to pay those debts? – [Professor Roosevelt]
If they had decided not to pay the debts, then other countries would probably have been much less willing to lend money to the new United States. Because they might have thought, well you know another change
in government could occur. – [Professor Ramsey] There
was substantial question throughout the world
whether the United States would be able to survive in
the face of all the challenges that they had after
gaining their independence. So in order to make it
seem that the United States was a country that could be trusted, a country that could be
expected to stick around and not collapse in the chaos
or revert to colonial status, one of the most important things for them was to show that the
debts would be honored. Because a failure to honor debts would suggest that the
country did not in fact have true sovereignty and was
not prepared to be an actor on the international stage
that could be trusted. – [Professor Roosevelt]
Another interesting thing to contrast this to is
the treatment of debts after the Civil War. Where of course the United
States, the federal government, paid its own debts but there’s a provision in the 14th amendment
explicitly repudiating the Confederate debt. So if you loaned money to the
Confederate States of America, you’re never getting that back. Because we didn’t treat
that as a valid government that would be continued going forward. – [Professor Ramsey] Another
thing that it illustrates is that the Constitution in some respects was a visionary document
that was concerned with the long term future
of the United States but in other respects, it
responded to very immediate, practical problems that the
framers faced in their day. They were thinking about
not just the future of the country for the ages,
they were thinking about that but they weren’t thinking just about that. They were also thinking
about reassuring France with respect to the debts that
existed right at that moment. – [Kim] So there’s a lot
going on in Article VI and specifically it talks
about the Constitution as the supreme Law of the Land. So what’s important about that statement? – [Professor Roosevelt]
What’s important about that is that it means the
Constitution is our highest law. It prevails over any other
kind of law in a conflict. So one thing that that means is the Constitution is
supreme over state law. And then the Constitution actually goes on to talk about that a little bit more. But it also means the
Constitution is supreme over federal law. So everyone is bound by the Constitution. The states can’t go against
it, congress can’t go past it, the president can’t violate
constitutional restrictions. The Constitution is really the last word. It’s the pinnacle or the keystone of the arch of American democracy. – [Professor Ramsey] And
that’s why we can say that things are unconstitutional, that laws are unconstitutional
and therefore invalid. And most importantly, it’s
why the Supreme Court can say that laws are
unconstitutional and invalid. It creates a superior
law that limits the laws that can be passed by the
other parts of the government. It creates a hierarchy
of laws and in doing so, it assures that we have
a single set of rules that applies to all the states
and to the federal government and it can’t be changed
except by an amendment. Which is relatively difficult to do. There’s a procedure in the Constitution for how you can amend the Constitution but until amending, the
Constitution as written is our superior law. And that was different from
the way that the framers, the rules the framers were used
to under the English system, where they didn’t have
a written Constitution. They had an unwritten
Constitution but that Constitution was subject to change by Parliament. – [Kim] So has this supremacy of the Constitution been tested over time? – [Professor Roosevelt]
There haven’t been a lot of claims that the
Constitution is not supreme. So generally speaking, everyone gives at least lip service to this idea. What’s been tested is more the question of who gets to decide what
the Constitution means and when something conflicts with it. So if you want the Constitution and federal law to be supreme, probably you would want to have someone in the federal government deciding when there’s a conflict
say with state law. And the forms that resistance
has taken over the years are more states saying not you know we can go
against the Constitution, we’re above the Constitution, but states saying we don’t
think what we’re doing violates the Constitution. Right, and you the Supreme
Court, you think it does but you’re wrong. – [Professor Ramsey] In the 19th century, just before the Civil War, the Supreme Court decided
in the Dread Scott case that African Americans
could not be citizens to the United States even
if they were freed slaves. And President Lincoln
believed that that was wrong. He said that there was
nothing in the Constitution that denied the ability
of them to be citizens. And he said that the Supreme Court had misinterpreted the Constitution and he would not accept
the Supreme Court’s ruling in that regard. Later, in the 20th century,
the Supreme Court held that the Constitution barred segregation particularly in schools in the Brown versus
Board of Education case. But many southern governors
and other institutions throughout the south thought that the Supreme Court
had gotten that one wrong. And they refused to abide by
what the Supreme Court had said the Constitution means. – [Professor Roosevelt]
What they said was not the Constitution doesn’t bind us but we know what the Constitution means better than you Supreme
Court, you’re wrong, you’re making this up, it’s
political, it’s not judging. – [Kim] Another thing that
Article VI talks about is religious tests. Why were the framers so interested in preventing religious
tests in government? What sort of historical evils
were they trying to prevent? – [Professor Roosevelt]
So this is connected to the basic idea of the
separation of church and state. And you separate church and state really to protect both of those things. So you want to protect
religion from being corrupted by political considerations but you also want to protect
your political system from being a battle ground
between rivaled religions. – [Professor Ramsey] So
where this comes from is that in England, they had had a series of what they called Test Acts. And what the Test Acts did was it required that for people to be eligible
for government offices that the people had to be
members of the Church of England. And that other religious groups, they were barred by the Test Acts from holding government office. So actually, many of
those minority religions, many adherence of those ended up coming to the American Colonies
to gain some measure of religious freedom. The pilgrims were an example of that. There was a Catholic colony in Maryland. And just generally speaking,
many of the people, many of the colonists who came over were people who were not part of the main established church in England. And so you can see why
they would not want to have something like the Test Acts. And they wanted to make clear that in the new national government that any religion, or no religion would be allowed for
government office holders. – [Kim] Do you think it’s true that we don’t have
religious tests or oaths in the United States? How about the practice
of swearing on a Bible during the presidential inauguration? – [Professor Roosevelt] Well
the practice of swearing on a Bible is very
interesting as is the fact that when the president
recites the oath of office, every president going
back to George Washington has added on to the end
of it, so help me God. There’s actually an
oath in the Constitution the president has to swear to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution but the Constitution
doesn’t say so help me God. The presidents just add
that on on their own. And actually that sort
of illustrates the way in which the Constitution treats religion. Which is it can’t be part of government in an official sense. But we know that members of
government are also people and they have religious beliefs
that are important to them and we don’t demand that
they exclude religion from their lives, we just demand that it be separated from
government authority. So you can swear on a
Bible if you want to, you don’t have to. You can swear on some
other religious book. We had a member of congress take an oath of office on a Quran. So individual government
officials are allowed to include religion in so far as
it’s about them personally. You know, what you think is appropriate to mark this occasion. What solemnifies this oath for you. You can do that. But we can’t require
it and they can’t make the exercise of their
power religious in nature. So you can’t, you know
as a government official, exercise your power on religious grounds. – [Kim] Something that
strikes me about Article VI is that is addresses so
many different things. Do you have a sense of why debts and constitutional
supremacy and religious tests are all in one article? – [Professor Ramsey] The
Article VI, as you said, is a little bit of a grab bag. It’s not entirely clear
how these different pieces of Article VI relate to each other. And I think they were just
things that the framers wanted in the Constitution
and didn’t know for sure where else to put them. – [Professor Roosevelt]
I’m not exactly sure why the debts are there. If I had to say something about Article VI it would be it’s sort of the glue that holds the constitutional
architecture together. So maybe the debts are in
there to explain the continuity between the U.S. government under the Articles of Confederation and U.S. government
under the Constitution. Then the supremacy clause explains how all of the different parts of the federal system are
supposed to fit together. And what the supremacy clause is saying is the Constitution is above all of them. The Constitution connects them all. Everyone has to abide by the Constitution. And it tells you, you
know the Constitution is the highest law, then
you’ve got federal law and then below that is state law so that if there’s a conflict between federal law and state law, the federal law is gonna win. And then the last part of Article VI is sort of doing the same thing. Because what holds a country together? What binds people into a single people? In a lot of countries at
the time of the founding, it was religion. Right, religion was the glue that held the society together and if you weren’t a
member of that religion, you were an outsider, you
were a second class citizen, you would be shunned and not given equal rights in some ways. The last clause of Article VI
says something sort of similar about America except it explicitly says it’s not religion that binds us together. Right, no religious tests can be required but you do have to take an oath. What do you have to pledge to support? You have to pledge to
support the Constitution. So there again is telling
you the Constitution is what we all have in common. That’s what makes us Americans. That really is the glue that
binds our society together. – [Kim] So we’ve learned
that Article VI is, as Professor Roosevelt put it, the glue that binds the country together. In assuming the debts from the era of the
Articles of Confederation, Article VI established the
continuity of U.S. government. It also placed the
Constitution, not religion, as the supreme law of the United States. To learn more about Article VI, visit the National Constitution Center’s Interactive Constitution and Khan Academy’s resources on U.S. government and politics.

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