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Gibbons v. Ogden

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Significance: In this watershed ruling, the Supreme Court supported the federal license of a steamboat operator over a state monopoly license holder, thus expanding federal control through the Constitution's commerce clause.


Aaron Ogden had a New York license giving him the exclusive right to operate a steamship between New Jersey and the port of New York City. The license had been purchased from Robert Fulton and Robert Livingston, who had earlier been awarded a monopoly to operate steamships on New York waterways. However, Thomas Gibbons began operating a competing steamship under a federal license. Ogden sued Gibbons to keep him out of New York waters, and the New York state courts accepted the validity of Ogden's monopolistic license. In 1824, the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court. In representing Gibbons, Daniel Webster argued that the New York license interfered with Congress's exclusive prerogative to regulate interstate commerce. Ogden's lawyer countered that navigation was not covered by the commerce clause and that it had traditionally been regulated by the states. In the Court's first serious attempt to interpret the meaning of the commerce clause, the justices unanimously overturned the New York courts and ruled in favor of Gibbons. Writing the opinion for the Court, Chief Justice John Marshall held that a federal license necessarily took precedence over a state license. Commerce, moreover, included more than buying and selling merchandise; it referred to “every species of commercial intercourse,” including travel and navigation on interstate waterways. Marshall went on to assert that Congress had plenary powers over its delegated functions in the Constitution. Probably because of the increasing controversy over regulation of the slave trade, he did not declare that Congress's authority over interstate commerce was exclusive. In a concurring opinion, however, William Johnson, a southern justice with strong nationalist convictions, argued that Congress possessed exclusive powers in this domain, meaning that the states were prohibited from placing any restraints on “the free intercourse among the states,” even in the absence of a federal statute. The issues of commerce raised by this steamboat ruling would become increasingly controversial during the next quarter century. After several inconclusive attempts to formulate an approach acceptable to various interests, the Court would finally arrive at an enduring compromise in Cooley v. Port Wardens of Philadelphia (1852), affirming the doctrine of selective exclusiveness, based on the view that some aspects of commerce required uniform national regulation while others were best left up to the states.



Further Reading

  • Maurice G. Baxter, The Steamboat Monopoly: Gibbons v. Ogden. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1972.
  • Levinson, Isabel Simone. “Gibbons v. Ogden”: Controlling Trade Between States. Springfield, N.J.: Enslow Publishers, 1999.