Gibbons v. Ogden (1824)
Gibbons v. Ogden (1824) gave Chief Justice John Marshall his first opportunity to expound his broad interpretation of the Commerce Clause. The complicated legal proceedings that sparked the case began in 1798, when Chancellor Robert R. Livingston obtained a monopoly grant over steam travel in state waters from the New York State Legislature. While negotiating the Louisiana Purchase in Paris, France, in 1802, Livingston formed a partnership with inventor, scientist, and artist Robert Fulton. On August 17, 1807, Fulton and Livingston successfully piloted their North River Steam Boat from New York City to Albany.
Fulton and Livingston’s steamboat company prospered under the generous terms of the New York monopoly. Their success, however, brought public demands for cheaper steam travel and competition from rival steamboat operators. In 1814 former New Jersey Governor Aaron Ogden established a steamboat service from Elizabethtown, New Jersey, to New York City. After protracted litigation, Ogden bought a license from the Fulton-Livingston cartel in 1815.
In 1816 Ogden began a partnership with Thomas Gibbons, a wealthy Georgia businessman. After frequent squabbling, Ogden sued Gibbons in New York Chancery Court in 1818 for running an independent line of steamboats from New Jersey to New York City. In court, Gibbons produced a license granted under the Federal Coastal Licensing Act of 1793. Gibbons claimed that this permit conveyed navigation rights to the waters of any east coast state. When New York State Chancellor James Kent upheld Ogden’s monopoly rights, Gibbons appealed his case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Following a lengthy postponement, the Supreme Court finally heard arguments for Gibbons v. Ogden on February 4, 1824. Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster and U.S. Attorney General William Wirt served as counsel for Gibbons. They argued that their client’s coastal license rested on the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution and therefore invalidated the New York steamboat monopoly. Speaking for Ogden, former New York State Attorneys General Thomas Addis Emmet and Thomas Oakley responded that New York State retained concurrent jurisdiction over commerce within its borders. The New York monopoly did not directly interfere with the federal law and therefore remained legal.
In a unanimous ruling by the Supreme Court, Chief Justice John Marshall on March 2, 1824, broadly defined interstate commerce as any form of trade conducted across state borders and maintained that the U.S. Constitution’s Commerce Clause gave Congress final authority over such matters. The New York steamboat monopoly was therefore unconstitutional. Yet Marshall narrowly maintained that Gibbon’s federal license trumped Ogden’s state-based grant. Associate Justice William Johnson produced a concurring opinion, declaring that the authority of the Commerce Clause alone was enough to defeat the steamboat monopoly.
According to Marshall’s broad view of federal authority, the commerce power “may be exercised to its utmost extent, and acknowledges no limitations.” In the short run, Gibbons v. Ogden promoted steam travel and contributed to the rise of a national market economy. Since Marshall declined to provide specific guidelines for interstate commerce regulation in his decision, however, the Supreme Court continued to grapple with the issue. For instance, the Marshall Court upheld congressional commerce powers in Brown v. Maryland (1827) but reduced such authority in Willson v. Blackbird Marsh Creek Co. (1829). In the mid-1800s, the Taney Court used Gibbons v. Ogden to support state-based commercial regulation in New York v. Miln (1837), the License Cases (1847), and Cooley v. Board of Wardens (1852). During the Gilded Age and Progressive era, the Supreme Court cited Gibbons v. Ogden to augment federal commerce powers in Wabash Railway v. Illinois (1886) and Swift v. United States (1905).
In the 1930's, Supreme Court decisions such as Schechter Poultry Corporation v. United States (1935) and Butler v. United States (1936) struck down New Deal programs created by Congress under the authority of the Commerce Clause. Following President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1937 attempted court-packing plan, Supreme Court decisions over the next half century beginning with National Labor Relations Board v. Jones and Laughlin Steel Corporation (1937) often accepted a broad interpretation of the Commerce Clause. As such, the Gibbons decision became a precedent for cases involving antisegregation laws in Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. United States (1964). Yet in United States v. Lopez (1995) and United States v. Morrison (2000), the Supreme Court began providing stricter guidelines for Congress in using the Commerce Clause as a basis for federal laws in areas such as gun control and civil suit remedies for rape victims.
Maurice G. Baxter, The Steamboat Monopoly: Gibbons v. Ogden, 1824 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972); George Dangerfield, “The Steamboat Case,” in Quarrels That Have Shaped the Constitution, ed. John A Garraty, 49–61 (New York: Harper and Row, 1962); R. Kent Newmyer, John Marshall and the Heroic Age of the Supreme Court (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001); and G. Edward White, The Marshall Court and Cultural Change, 1815–1835 (New York: MacMillan Publishing, 1988).
Thomas H. Cox
Last updated: 2006