New York State Library
NYSL Facebook page NYSL Instagram account NYSL Twitter account

Battle in the Legislature: Using NYS Laws to Obtain a Monopoly

Laws of 1787, Chapter 57

Beginning in 1787, the New York State Legislature enacted several laws “to promote and encourage ... ingenuity” in the development of steamboats and to lock in the Fulton-Livingston monopoly. (The U.S. Patent Office did not come into being until 1790.)

Chapter 57 of the Laws of 1787 gave "John Fitch, the sole right and advantage of making and employing for a limited time, the steam boat by him lately invented. Passed the 19th of March, 1787."

The passage of this New York State law ignited the first Battle of the Booklets.

Double page view of Laws of 1787 with chapter 57 highlighted

Transcript of Laws of 1787, Chapter 57

[Laws of 1787] Chap[ter] 57

AN ACT for granting and securing to John Fitch, the sole right and advantage of making and employing for a limited time, the steam boat by him lately invented.

Passed the 19th of March, 1787

Preamble.

WHEREAS John Fitch of Bucks county in the State of Pennsylvania, hath represented to the legislature of this State, that he hath constructed an easy and expeditious method of impelling boats through the water by the force of steam, praying that an act may pass, granting to him, his executors, administrators and assigns, the sole and exclusive right of making, employing and navigating, all boats impelled by the force of steam or fire, within the jurisdiction of this State, for a limited time. Wherefore, in order to promote and encourage so useful an improvement and discovery, and as a reward for his ingenuity, application and diligence,

Sole right of navigation by steamboat given to John Fitch of Pennsylvania.

Be it enacted by the People of the State of New York, represented in Senate and Assembly, and it is hereby enacted by the authority of the same, That the said John Fitch, his heirs, executors, administrators and assigns, shall be, and they are hereby vested with the sole and exclusive right and privilege of constructing, making, using, employing, and navigating, all and every species or kind of boats or water craft, which may be urged or impelled through the water by the force of fire or steam, in all creeks, rivers, bays and waters whatsoever, within the territory and jurisdiction of this State, for and during the full end and term of fourteen years, from and after the present session of the legislature.

c

And be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid, That if any person or persons whomsoever, without being properly authorized, by him the said John Fitch, his heirs, executors or administrators, shall make, use, employ or navigate any boat or water craft, which shall or may be urged, impelled, forced or driven through the water, by the force, power or agency of fire or steam as aforesaid, within the territory or jurisdiction of this State, every person or persons so offending, against the tenor, true intent and meaning of this act, for each and every such offence, shall forfeit and pay unto the said John Fitch, his heirs, executors or administrators, or to such other person or persons as he the said John Fitch his heirs or assigns, shall authorize and empower for that purpose, the sum of one hundred pounds, to be recovered by action of debt in any court of record, within this State, wherein the same may be cognizable, with costs of suit; and shall also forfeit to him the said John Fitch, his heirs or assigns, all such boats or water craft, together with the steam engine, and all the appurtenances thereof, to be recovered in manner aforesaid, with costs of suit. Provided always,

Act to affect only boats propelled by steam.

And be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid, That neither this act, nor any clause, manner or thing therein contained, shall be taken, deemed or construed to prohibit or prevent any person or persons from making, using, employing or navigating, within this State, any kind of boats or water craft, heretofore invented, or hereafter to be invented, on any other principles construction or model, which may be urged, impelled, or driven along through the water, by any other power, force, agency or means, except fire or steam.


Laws of 1798, Chapter 55

Chapter 55 of the Laws of 1798, passed the 27th of March, 1798, took the monopoly away from John Fitch and gave it to Robert Livinston.

Double page view of Laws of New York 1798 with Chapter 55 highlighted

Transcript of Laws of 1798, Chapter 55

[Laws of 1798] Chap[ter] 55
AN ACT repealing an act entitled “An act for granting and securing to John Fitch the sole right and advantage of making and employing the steam boat by him lately invented,” and for other purposes.
Passed the 27th of March, 1798

Preamble.
WHEREAS it hath been suggested to the people of this State represented in senate and assembly that Robert R. Livingston is possessor of a mode of applying the steam engine to propel a boat on new and advantageous principles, but that he is deterred from carrying the same into effect by the existence of a law entitled “An act for granting and securing to John Fitch the sole right and advantage of making and employing the steam boat by him lately invented” passed the nineteenth day of March one thousand seven hundred and eighty seven, as well as by the uncertainty and hazard of a very expensive experiment unless he could be assured of the exclusive advantage of the same if on trial it should be found to succeed. And whereas it is further suggested that the said John Fitch is either dead or hath withdrawn himself from this State without having made any attempt in the space of more than ten years for executing the plan for which he so obtained an exclusive privilege, whereby the same I justly forfeited: Therefore

Act recited repealed.
Be it enacted by the People of the State of New York represented in Senate and Assembly, That the act aforesaid be and is hereby repealed. And to the end that Robert R. Livingston may be induced to proceed in an experiment which if successful promises important advantages to this State.

Privileges granted to Livingston.
Be it further enacted, That privileges similar to those granted to the said John Fitch in an by the before mentioned act be and they hereby are extended to the said Robert for the term of twenty years from the passing of this act. Provided nevertheless that the said Robert shall within twelve months from the passing of this act give such proof as shall satisfy the governor, the lieutenant governor and the surveyor general of this State, or a majority of them of his having built a boat of at least twenty ton’s [sic] capacity, which is propelled by steam, and the mean of whose progress through the water with and against the ordinary current of Hudson’s river taken together shall not be less than four miles an hour, and shall at no time omit for the space of one year to have a boat of such construction plying between the cities of New York and Albany.


Laws of 1803, Chapter 94

Clip of Laws of 1803 chapter 94 regarding steamboatsChapter 94 paragraph continued regarding steamboats

Transcript of the Laws of 1803, Chapter 94

Steam Boat.
[Laws of 1803], Chap[ter] XCIV [94]
AN ACT relative to a Steam boat.
Passed the April 5th, 1803

BE it enacted by the People of the State of New-York, represented in Senate and Assembly, That the rights, privileges and advantages granted to Robert R. Livingston, in and by the act entitled "An act repealing an act for granting and securing to John Fitch the sole right and advantage of making and employing the steam boat by him lately invented, and for other purposes," passed the twenty-seventh day of March, one thousand seven hundred and and [sic] ninety-eight, be extended to Robert R. Livingston and Robert Fulton, for the term of twenty years from the passing of this act; and that the term for giving the necessary proof of the practicability of a boat of twenty tons capacity, being propelled by steam through the water, with and against the ordinary current of Hudson river, taken together, four miles an hour, be and the same is hereby extended to two years from the passing of this act.

Passed the 27th of March, 1798


Laws of 1807, Chapter CLXV [165]

Chapter 165 of the Laws of 1807, passed April 6, 1807, extended Livingston's monopoly two years. Laws of 1807]

closeup of paragraph "An act Relative to a Steam Boat" continued An act Relative to a Steam Boat paragraph

Transcript of Laws of 1807, Chapter CLXV [165]

Chap[ter] CLXV [165]

AN ACT to revive an Act, entitled “An Act relative to a Steam Boat.

Passed April 6, 1807

Be it enacted by the People of the State of New-York, represented in Senate and Assembly, That the act, entitled “An act relative to a steam boat,” passed the fifth day of April, one thousand eight hundred and three, be and the same is hereby extended for the term of two years from the passing of this act, to exhibit the proofs therein required.


Laws of 1808, Chapter 225

Chapter 225 of the Laws of 1808, passed April 11, 1808, extended the steamboat monopoly in New York State awarded to Livingston, now in conjunction with Robert Fulton, and established penalties for anyone else who put steamboats in New York State waters or damaged Livingston-Fulton steamboats.

closeup of Laws 1808, chapter 225 for purposes of steamboats
continued paragraphs of Laws 1808, chapter 225 for purposes of steamboats

Transcript of Laws of 1808, Chapter 225

[Laws of 1808], Chap[ter] CCXXV [225]

AN ACT for the further Encouragement of Steam-Boats, on the Waters of this State, and for other Purposes.

Passed April 11th, 1808

I. BE it enacted by the People of the State of New-York, represented in Senate and Assembly, That whenever Robert R. Livingston and Robert Fulton, and such persons as they may associate with them, shall establish one or more steam-boats or vessels, other than that already established, they shall, for each and every such additional boat be entitled to five years prolongation of their grant or contract with this state: Provided nevertheless, That the whole term of their exclusive privileges shall not exceed thirty years, after the passage of this act.

II. And be it further enacted, That no person or persons, without the licence of the persons entitled to an exclusive right to navigate the waters of this state, with boats moved by steam or fire, or those holding a major part of the interest of such privilege, shall set in motion, or navigate upon the waters of this state, or within the jurisdiction thereof, any boat or vessel moved by steam or fire; and the said person or persons, so navigating with boats or vessels moved by steam or fire, in contravention of the exclusive right of the said Robert R. Livingston and Robert Fulton, and their associates, or legal representatives, shall forfeit such boat, or boats and vessels, together with the engine, tackle and apparel thereof, to the said Robert R. Livingston and Robert Fulton, and their associates.

III. And be it further enacted, That the penalties so incurred may be sued for and recovered within any court of record of this state, having cognizance thereof.

IV. And be it further enacted, That if any persons shall combine, for the purpose of injuring or destroying any boat, sloop or other vessel navigating the waters of this state; and if any person shall willfully, and with the express intention to destroy or injure such boat, sloop or other vessel, and thereby put in danger the lives of the passengers or people navigating such boat, sloop of other vessel; the persons so combining, or the person so willfully attempting to injure or destroy such boat, sloop or other vessel, shall respectively be considered guilty of a misdemeanor, and on conviction, shall be fined in a sum not exceeding two thousand dollars, or imprisonment for a time not exceeding twelve months, or both, in the discretion of the court before whom such conviction takes place.


Laws of 1811

Chapter 200 of the Laws of 1811, passed April 19, 1811, provided for the "more effectual inforcement [sic] of the provisions contained in" Chapter 225 of the Laws of 1808.

closeup of Laws 1808 Chapter 200 by Daniel D. Tompkins
continuation Laws 1808 Chapter 200 by Daniel D. Tompkins
continuation of Laws of New York 1811, 34th session

Transcript of Laws of 1811, Chapter 200

Laws of 1811], Chap[ter] CC [200]

AN ACT for the more effectual inforcement [sic] of the provisions contained in an act entitled “An act for the further encouragement of Steam Boats on the waters of this state, and for other purposes.”

Passed April 9th, 1811

At what time forfeitures of boats contravening provisions of former act deemed to accrue.

Remedy of R. Livingston and associates

I. Be it enacted by the People of the State of New-York, represented in Senate and Assembly, That the several forfeitures mentioned in the act entitled "An act for the further encouragement of steam boats on the waters of this state, and for other purposes," passed the eleventh day of April, one thousand eight hundred and eight, shall be deemed to accrue on the day on which any boat or boats moved by steam or fire, not navigating under the licence of Robert R. Livingston and Robert Fulton, their associates or assigns, shall navigate any of the waters of this state, or those within its jurisdiction, in contravention of the said act; and that Robert R. Livingston and Robert Fulton, their associates and assigns, shall and may be entitled to the same remedy, both in law and equity, for the recovery of the said boat and engine or boats and engines, tackle and apparel, as if the same had been to tortiously [sic] and wrongfully taken out of their possession.

Writs of injunction to issue.

II. And be it further enacted, That when any writ, suit or action is brought for the recovery of such forfeitures, the defendant or defendants to such writ, suit or action, the captain, mariners and others, employed in so navigating in contravention of the said law, shall be prohibited by writ of injunction from navigating with or employing the said  boat or boats, engine or engines, or from removing the same or any part thereof out of the jurisdiction of the court, or to any other place than that which shall be directed for their safe keeping by the court during the pendance of such suit or suits, action or actions, or after judgment shall be obtained, if such judgment shall be against the defendants, or the matter or thing forfeited.

Rules to be enjoined upon plaintiff to prevent delay
Certain boats excepted from the operations of this act

III. And be it further enacted, That when the plaintiffs shall elect to sue out an injunction, the court granting the same shall impose upon them such rules as may appear just and proper, to prevent unnecessary delays in bringing such suit to issue and trial: Provided always, That nothing in this act shall be deemed or construed to extend or apply to the two boats or vessels commonly called steam-boats, belonging to Hamilton Boyd, Isaiah Townsend, Robert R. Henry and associates, or to the captain, mariners and others employed in navigating the same, which boats or vessels were lately launched at the city of Albany, nor to the steam boat which during the last summer plied on Lake Champlain, and is said to belong to James Winants and his associates, or to the captain, mariners or others employed in navigating the same, but in regard to the said three boats or vessels the said Robert R. Livingston and Robert Fultoh [sic], and their associates and assigns, shall have and enjoy all the remedies heretofore provided in and by or resulting from any former law or laws of this state, and the relative rights and remedies of the respective parties in relation to the three boats or vessels above mentioned, shall be and remain as if this act had not been passed.

Last Updated: September 21, 2021