• Last updated on November 10, 2022

“When a State proceeds to regulate commerce with foreign nations, or among the several States, it is exercising the very power that is granted to Congress, and is doing the very thing which Congress is authorized to do.”

Summary Overview

The decision by Chief Justice John Marshall in the 1824 Supreme Court case of Gibbons v. Ogden was a landmark ruling that ended the steamboat navigation monopoly originally granted to Robert R. Livingston and Robert Fulton by the New York State legislature. The Livingston-Fulton monopoly controlled all steamboat traffic between New York City and Albany along the Hudson River. Their successful manufacture and operation of steamboats on the Hudson River revolutionized the speed and efficiency, not to mention the cost, at which goods and passengers could be transported regionally. A crucial channel for interstate trade and travel, the New York monopoly prevented any outside steam-powered vessel from entering New York waterways. The monopoly held by Livingston and Fulton, therefore, was widely reviled and after years of litigation defending the steamboat monopoly, the Gibbons v. Ogden decision declared the state-granted monopoly to be in conflict with Congress’s right to regulate commerce. The Gibbons decision abolished the right of any state to protect transportation monopolies that affected interstate commerce.

Defining Moment

In 1808, American engineer Robert Fulton succeeded in launching the Clermont, a steamboat able to move upriver faster than five miles per hour. The Clermont made it possible to travel from New York City to Albany on the Hudson River within thirty-two hours. The New York legislature, impressed by the success of this joint venture by Fulton and his business partner Robert Livingston, not only provided them with a monopoly on state steamboat transportation, but included provisions in the monopoly that expanded their entitlement for thirty years and dictated that any steamboat entering New York waters without the consent of Livingston and Fulton be seized by the state. The monopoly kept out other entrepreneurial steamboat ventures that sought navigational routes in New York waterways and forced peripheral routes to pay significant licensing fees to operate. The Livingston-Fulton monopoly was deeply unpopular with regional business and the public alike, and the monopoly endured a significant number of legal challenges while in effect. The strong familial and political connections of Robert Livingston in the New York legislature and court system, however, secured the injunction’s legacy until challenged in the Supreme Court in 1824. Though Livingston and Fulton were often the direct targets of cases challenging their exclusive navigation rights, the case that ultimately reached the Supreme Court and dismantled these exclusive rights involved neither of the men so famously associated with the monopoly.

The complainant in the critical constitutional case was Aaron Ogden, a former governor of New Jersey, who held the majority interest in a steamboat line between New York City and Elizabethtown, New Jersey. Although he had at one point been an aggressive challenger of the Livingston-Fulton monopoly, Ogden was unsuccessful in his efforts and instead joined the monopoly as a licensed operator. Thomas Gibbons had moved from Georgia to Elizabethtown, New Jersey, and entered into a business venture with Ogden upon his arrival. The contentious relationship that developed between Ogden and Gibbons, however, had as much to do with personal animosity as with business matters. Gibbons had long been involved in a family conflict over matters of inheritance with his daughter and her husband. Ogden, at one point, inserted himself into the Gibbons’ family matter, taking the side of Gibbons’s daughter against Gibbons himself. After this event, the two men’s relationship devolved quickly. The following year, Gibbons began a steamboat operation that ran the same route Ogden had claimed under the Livingston-Fulton monopoly. Ogden took Gibbons to court for violating the dictates of the monopoly, and the two men pursued their case all the way to the Supreme Court. The decision handed down in Gibbons v. Ogden presented a broad interpretation of what constituted interstate commerce, and ultimately reserved for the Supreme Court the right to determine when state law was in violation of congressional power to regulate interstate commerce. Marshall’s majority opinion in the case employed his well-known use of narrow constitutional interpretation, which worked to strengthen the authority of the federal government without dismantling the rights of the states.

Author Biography

John Marshall, the fourth chief justice of the US Supreme Court, was born in 1755 and grew up in the developing counties of Virginia’s frontier territories. Marshall’s formative years were spent engaged in the political challenges and physical battles of the Revolutionary War. He became an officer in the Continental army in his early twenties and experienced firsthand the challenges and hardships that accompanied fighting a war in a new country that had yet to form a central government authoritative enough to draw military provisions and resources from its states to relieve suffering troops. Despite the organizational challenges, Marshall was profoundly influenced by the nationalistic goals of the Revolutionary War.

Marshall’s only formal training in the legal profession came from George Wythe, a prominent Virginia judge. The future Supreme Court justice attended a brief course taught by Wythe in Williamsburg, Virginia, while he was on leave from his duties with the army. Though aspiring for a career in law, the disruption of the Revolutionary War prevented Marshall from starting his own law practice. Instead, Marshall joined the Virginia legislature. Though unsatisfied with the slow process of the legislature, Marshall spent a good portion of his career in and out of office in Virginia. Marshall’s experiences with the Revolutionary War, both positive and negative, as well as his familiarity with the important but often inefficient function of state legislatures profoundly influenced Marshall’s conviction in the need for a federalist system supported by a strong, centralized government.

Marshall held positions in both legislative and legal institutions for twenty years in the state of Virginia. In 1799, however, Marshall embarked on a national political career. Marshall served in the House of Representatives and as President John Adams’s secretary of state. Marshall retained that position for only one year, however, before he was appointed by Adams to the position of chief justice of the Supreme Court in 1801. Over the course of his career, Marshall wrote the deciding opinions for several landmark Supreme Court cases. Marshall’s legacy as chief justice has proven to be one of the most enduring and significant in the history of the Supreme Court. The Marshall Court advanced foundational court opinions that continue to shape constitutional law through the present.

Document Analysis

The Gibbons v. Ogden opinion, considered to be one of the most important Supreme Court decisions in the nation’s history, allowed Chief Justice John Marshall to affirm the government’s authority over interstate commerce by asserting a broad definition of commerce while also providing a narrow legal basis for his decision, which endeavored to preserved the equilibrium between state and federal power. The opinion delivered by Marshall in the Gibbons v. Ogden case clearly demonstrates Marshall’s tendency toward making measured and narrow decisions in controversial cases. Certainly, the chief justice was a proponent of a strong central government and a defender of the Supreme Court’s role in judicial review, which allowed the Supreme Court to nullify the actions of the executive and judiciary branches as well as state laws deemed to be unconstitutional. Understanding the delicate balance of power in a federalist system that granted simultaneous sovereignties to both the state and federal governments, Marshall was careful in writing the Gibbons opinion to assert the primacy of federal law while also managing to avoid establishing a legal precedent that would make significant restrictions on states’ rights. As such, Marshall’s opinion in the Gibbons case avoided making any sweeping claims about the commerce clause’s ability to grant absolute exclusivity to Congress in implementing laws concerning commerce and trade. Instead, Marshall’s decision rested on the conflict between the New York steamboat law and the federal Coasting Act of 1793. The Coasting Act was a congressional act that enrolled and licensed seafaring vessels engaged in trade and fishing along the coast. Marshall’s opinion rested on the conflict between the New York monopoly and the federal government’s authority to regulate the vessels involved in transportation and trade according to the Coasting Act. The supremacy of the federal law lay in Congress’s power to regulate commerce. Granted by the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, Congress holds the power “to regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian Tribes” (Section I, Article 8, Clause 3).

In framing the court decision, Marshall directly addressed the arguments advanced by the attorneys for both Thomas Gibbons and Aaron Ogden. Gibbons was represented by Daniel Webster and William Wirt, who argued for Gibbons’s right to run his steamboats freely due to the unconstitutional nature of the New York monopoly. They argued for the exclusive right of Congress to regulate interstate commerce under the Commerce Clause. To support their argument for federal exclusivity, they sought to make a clear distinction between the powers of the state, which regulated the health, safety, and well-being of its residents, and the powers of the federal government, which were put in place to regulate national concerns such as commerce. Webster and Wirt also contended that the New York monopoly violated the federal Coasting Act of 1793, which required all vessels involved in coastal trade to register with the federal government. The attorneys argued that the Coasting Act provided ship captains with right of entry to all American ports. Ogden’s lawyers, Thomas J. Oakley and Thomas A. Emmet, provided a counterargument that defended states’ rights by claiming that the state and federal governments held concurrent power over regulating commerce. In other words, the states had the right to regulate commerce within their borders as they saw fit, as long as their commerce laws did not conflict with federal regulations. They also sought to portray the legislature’s allowance of a steamboat monopoly not as a commercial statute, but instead as a navigation law, permissible under the powers reserved for the states. Additionally, Ogden’s lawyers sought to define commerce narrowly, to be applied only to the transport and sale of merchandise.

When examining Marshall’s decision, the opinion clearly shows the influence of both arguments submitted before the Court. Chief Justice Marshall appeared to integrate into his opinion both the concept of concurrent state and federal power over commerce presented by Ogden’s attorneys, as well as the argument that the state of New York’s monopoly was in violation of the federal Coasting Act of 1793, as presented by Gibbons’s lawyers. The narrowly defined decision by Marshall allowed him to assert the supremacy of federal over state law by upholding the Coasting Act while avoiding making any constitutional claims to the federal exclusivity over commerce law.

Concurrent Commerce Power

In tackling the issues brought to bear in the Gibbons v. Ogden case, Marshall carefully addressed the relationship between the federal government and state governments on the issue of commerce law. Chief Justice Marshall delineated the way in which state and federal law were to operate in relation to one another. Marshall took pains to outline the idea that each states was free to make laws concerning its own operation and well-being, even if the laws the state enacted were “of the same character with one which Congress may adopt.” If, however, the state adopted a law that came into conflict with laws passed by Congress under the authority of the Constitution, the state law “must yield to the law of Congress, and the decision sustaining the privilege they confer against a right given by a law of the Union must be erroneous.” In the Gibbons case, ruled Marshall, the New York steamboat monopoly directly conflicted with the federal Coasting Act of 1793 and was therefore in violation of a federal law regulating commerce. The state law, therefore, had to yield to the supremacy of the federal law.

What Marshall failed to touch on in his opinion, however, was whether or not state laws regulating interstate commerce were automatically in violation of Congress’s power to regulate commerce, even if Congress had passed no contradictory law. His affirmation of the states’ ability to pass laws “of the same character with one which Congress may adopt” seemed to indicate that as long as Congress adopted no conflicting law, the states were free to regulate commerce as their needs dictated. The Supreme Court, therefore, did not rule in Gibbons v. Ogden that the power to regulate commerce was exclusive to Congress, but instead that the federal government and the states held concurrent powers. Marshall preserved, in his decision, a sense of balance between the authority of states and the federal government over the issue of commerce, and tasked the Court with deciding on a case-by-case basis whether a state law infringed on the congressional authority over regulating commerce. Knowing the limits to the federal government’s ability to address the individual needs of the states in regulating transportation, communication, and trade—especially as the nation expanded further west—Marshall’s decision made room for the states to control unique problems that might arise related to matters of commerce. Despite this careful balance struck by Marshall in the Gibbons case, in avoiding addressing the nature of the commerce clause, his opinion left open the possibility that, in the future, the Supreme Court could rule that Congress retained a discrete right to regulate commerce and that states were prohibited from enacting any laws of that nature.

Expanding the Meaning of “Commerce”

Marshall’s opinion in Gibbons is most widely known for the legal longevity of his broad definition of commerce. Ogden’s attorneys appealed to a narrow understanding of commerce, which encompassed only the movement and sale of goods. As steamboats were a system of navigation and not goods themselves, and as they most often transported passengers and not just goods, Ogden’s attorneys argued that the regulation of steamboat routes was outside the purview of federal regulation of commerce. Marshall rejected this line of reasoning and instead defined commerce in expansive terms. Marshall noted firmly in his opinion that “the mind can scarcely conceive a system for regulating commerce between nations which shall exclude all laws concerning navigation.” This statement by the chief justice worked to establish the authority of the federal government to regulate navigational routes that traversed state boundaries. Nodding to the popular interest in the case, as well as the legitimacy of his assessment, Marshall stated definitively that “all America understands, and has uniformly understood, the word commerce to comprehend navigation.” The restricted use of steamboats on waterways was not only an issue of navigation, Marshall acknowledged, but also an issue of the expanding uses of technology.

The basis on which New York restricted boats entering it waters was based solely on the technology used to propel it, as sail boats were not restricted from New York waterways under the steamboat monopoly. If the actions of New York state, in granting Livingston—and, by proxy, Ogden—a monopoly on the use of steamboat technology, became the standard in all states, the possibility of restricting advancing transportation technology across the nation was a genuine possibility. If every state were able to grant exclusive rights over transportation to different parties in every state, the conflict between states would only grow as means of transportation expanded. Marshall’s opinion served to diminish these potential conflicts, but also managed to expand the reach of the federal government beyond the limits of technological advancements. Marshall’s expansion of the constitutional definition of commerce beyond trade and subsequently even beyond navigation can be seen in the passage which asserts that, “commerce, undoubtedly, is traffic, but it is something more—it is intercourse. It describes the commercial intercourse between nations, and parts of nations, in all its branches, and is regulated by prescribing rules for carrying on that intercourse.” The use of the vague and sweeping term “intercourse” provided an incomparably wide category under which myriad forms of interstate dealings could be regulated by the federal government. This far-reaching definition of commerce provided the possibility for the government to expand its regulatory authority over the advancing transportation and communication technology that was rapidly emerging just as the nation was about to begin its westward expansion.

Though careful to preserve the legal balance between state and federal authority, Marshall concluded his majority opinion by leveling an impassioned warning against the excessive advocacy of state authority in matters clearly under the purview of the federal government. Chief Justice Marshall cautioned those within the nation’s legal institutions to avoid trying to find ways to diminish the powers that the Constitution bestows to Congress. Always a commanding advocate for a strong central government, Marshall took to task those who would reduce federal powers into “the narrowest possible compass” while finding “any possible construction” through which states may assert their regulatory rights. For Marshall, a continual expansion of regulatory rights retained by the states could “explain away the Constitution of our country and leave it a magnificent structure indeed to look at, but totally unfit for use.” Marshall’s call for preservation of fundamental constitutional principles and the acknowledgement of the federal government’s primary authority in broadly defined matters of commerce resulted in one of the most important and influential Supreme Court decisions on federal power in the nation’s history.

Essential Themes

The immediate aftermath of the Gibbons v. Ogden decision resulted in widespread popular support for the decision. The cost of using steamboat transportation fell significantly as the number of active steamboats between Baltimore and New York City increased from four to forty-three in just one year. Commerce in Hudson River ports expanded measurably in the wake of opening the waterway to significant growth in the number of steamboat lines. Beyond the immediate benefits, however, Marshall’s broad interpretation of interstate commerce in the Gibbons decision had a lasting impact on the government’s ability to regulate the rapidly expanding transportation and communication technology facilitating the swift national expansion into western territory. The Gibbons decision also had incredible longevity in providing the constitutional authority to expand the regulatory powers of government. The Great Depression and the subsequent implementation of the New Deal by the Roosevelt administration created new legal importance for the Gibbons v. Ogden decision. The broad reading of commerce allowed the federal government to expand its regulatory powers to national labor, industry, agricultural, and banking issues. Considered one of the most important cases in constitutional history, the Gibbons v. Ogden decision reinforced the primacy of federal laws that conflicted with those implemented by the states, assisted the rapid expansion of national transportation and communication, and paved the way for an expanding definition of what constituted commerce under the regulatory power of the federal government.

  • Baxter, Maurice G. The Steamboat Monopoly: Gibbons V. Ogden, 1824. New York: Knopf, 1972. Print.
  • Cooke, Fred’k H. “The Gibbons v. Ogden Fetish.” Michigan Law Review 9.4 (1911): 324–33. Print.
  • Cox, Thomas H. Gibbons v. Ogden, Law, and Society in the Early Republic. Athens: Ohio UP, 2009. Print.
  • Johnson, Herbert A. Gibbons v. Ogden: John Marshall, Steamboats, and the Commerce Clause. Lawrence: UP of Kansas, 2010. Print.
  • Mendelson, Wallace. “New Light on Fletcher v. Peck and Gibbons v. Ogden.” Yale Law Journal 58.4 (1949): 567–73. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Coenen, Dan T. Constitutional Law: The Commerce Clause. New York: Foundation, 2004. Print.
  • Fribourg, Marjorie G. The Supreme Court in American History: Ten Great Decisions; the People, the Times and the Issues. Philadelphia: Macrae, 1965. Print.
  • May, Christopher N, and Allan Ides. Constitutional Law, National Power and Federalism: Examples and Explanations. New York: Aspen, 2007. Print.
  • Paskoff, Paul F. Troubled Waters: Steamboat Disasters, River Improvements, and American Public Policy, 1821–1860. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 2007. Print.
  • “Steamboats on the Hudson: An American Saga: Two Bobs, Three Johns, Three Jims, a Nick, an Aaron, a Tom and a Boat.” New York State Library Database. New York State Library, 2012. Web. 29 Oct. 2012.

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