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Battle in the Courts: Gibbons vs. Ogden

The Decision:

Gibbons vs. Ogden:

Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution over States’ Rights

On March 2, 1824, the Supreme Court struck down the law of New York State that prevented out-of-state commercial steamboats from doing business on its waters. Justice Marshall’s opinion was considered to be a tremendous “knockout blow” against states’ rights, but it did much to establish federal power in matters of interstate commerce, opening the door for easy trade between the states and national economic growth. In his opinion, Marshall held that the Constitution, having granted Congress the power to regulate commerce, also meant for Congress to have the power to regulate navigation. He wrote that “the power to regulate commerce does not look to the principle by which boats were moved. That power was left to individual discretion. The act demonstrates the opinion of Congress that steamboats may be enrolled and licensed in common with vessels using sails. They are, of course, entitled to the same privileges and can no more be restrained from navigating waters and entering ports, which are free to such vessels, than if they were wafted on their voyage by the winds instead of being propelled by the agency of fire. The one element may be as legitimately used as the other, for every commercial purpose authorized by the laws of the river, and the act of a State inhibiting the use of either to any vessel, having a license under the act of Congress, comes, we think, in direct collision with that act.

“The acts of the Legislature of the State of New York, granting to Robert R. Livingston and Robert Fulton the exclusive navigation of all the waters within the jurisdiction of that State, with boats moved by fire or steam, for a term of years, are repugnant to that clause of the constitution of the United States, which authorizes Congress to regulate commerce, so far as the said acts prohibit vessels licensed, according to the laws of the United States, for carrying on the coasting trade, from navigating the said waters by means of fire or steam.”

Ogden vs. Gibbons (1824)

Aaron Ogden and Thomas Gibbons initially worked together ferrying people between New York City and New Jersey.

After the partnership between the two men dissolved, Ogden secured an injunction against Gibbons from Chancellor James Kent of New York on Oct. 21, 1818. Gibbons appealed but the injunction was upheld by Kent on Oct. 6, 1819 and by the state Court of Errors on April 27, 1820.

See: A steamboat named for Chief Justice Marshall