Article VI of the United States Constitution served three distinct and vital functions at the time it was drafted:
- Ensured that the new government created by the Constitution would pay the debts incurred by the previous government under the Articles of Confederation
- Established the Constitution, and federal laws made in accordance with it, the "supreme law of the land"
- Forbid government officials from being subjected to religious tests as a condition of their position
The second of these three functions, known as the "supremacy clause," is a fundamental pillar of constitutional law. Essentially, it means that (in most cases) if a federal law conflicts with state law, the federal law "wins."
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What Does Article VI Say?
All Debts contracted and Engagements entered into, before the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be as valid against the United States under this Constitution, as under the Confederation.
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, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.
The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be Required as a Qualification To any Office or public Trust under the United States.
The Supremacy Clause
The supremacy clause was a significant change from the Articles of Confederation. Under the Articles, state laws superseded federal law. However, the supremacy clause declares the opposite: that the Constitution is the law of the land, and federal laws take priority over state laws. James Madison argued that this change was needed to balance power between the state and federal governments. He believed that since states were given all powers not explicitly granted to the federal government by Article I and Article II, the country needed a strong federal government to keep the states in check.
Oaths of Office
Article VI requires both state and federal officials to take an oath where they promise to uphold the United States Constitution. That includes state legislators, judges, and magistrates. However, Article VI also bans the use of religious tests or oaths for government office - keeping in line with the Framers' desire to separate church and state.