Gibbons v. Ogden
22 U.S. 1 (1824)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Gibbons v. Ogden, 22 U.S. 9 Wheat. 1 1 (1824)

Gibbons v. Ogden

22 U.S. (9 Wheat.) 1

Syllabus

The laws of New York granting to Robert R. Livingston and Robert Fulton the exclusive right of navigating the waters of that State with steamboats are in collision with the acts of Congress regulating the coasting trade, which, being made in pursuance of the Constitution, are supreme, and the State laws must yield to that supremacy, even though enacted in pursuance of powers acknowledged to remain in the States.

The power of regulating commerce extends to the regulation of navigation.

The power to regulate commerce extends to every species of commercial intercourse between the United States and foreign nations, and among the several States. It does not stop at the external boundary of a State.

But it does not extend to a commerce which is completely internal.

The power to regulate commerce is general, and has no limitations but such as are prescribed in the Constitution itself.

The power to regulate commerce, so far as it extends, is exclusively bested in Congress, and no part of it can be exercised by a State.

A license under the acts of Congress for regulating the coasting trade gives a permission to carry on that trade.

State inspection laws, health laws, and laws for regulating the internal commerce of a State, and those which respect turnpike roads, ferries, &c. are not within the power granted to Congress.

The license is not merely intended to confer the national character.

The power of regulating commerce extends to navigation carried on by vessels exclusively employed in transporting passengers.

The power of regulating commerce extends to vessels propelled by steam or fire as well as to those navigated by the instrumentality of wind and sails.

Aaron Ogden filed his bill in the Court of Chancery of that State, against Thomas Gibbons, setting forth the several acts of the Legislature thereof, enacted for the purpose of securing to Robert R. Livingston and Robert Fulton the

Page 22 U. S. 2

exclusive navigation of all the waters within the jurisdiction of that State, with boats moved by fire or steam, for a term of years which has not yet expired, and authorizing the Chancellor to award an injunction restraining any person whatever from navigating those waters with boats of that description. The bill stated an assignment from Livingston and Fulton to one John R. Livingston, and from him to the complainant, Ogden, of the right to navigate the waters between Elizabethtown, and other places in New Jersey, and the City of New York, and that Gibbons, the defendant below, was in possession of two steamboats, called the Stoudinger and the Bellona, which were actually employed in running between New York and Elizabethtown, in violation of the exclusive privilege conferred on the complainant, and praying an injunction to restrain the said Gibbons from using the said boats, or any other propelled by fire or steam, in navigating the waters within the territory of New York. The injunction having been awarded, the answer of Gibbons was filed, in which he stated that the boats employed by him were duly enrolled and licensed to be employed in carrying on the coasting trade under the Act of Congress, passed the 18th of February, 1793, c. 3. entitled, "An act for enrolling and licensing ships and vessels to be employed in the coasting trade and fisheries, and for regulating the same." And the defendant insisted on his right, in virtue of such licenses, to navigate the waters between Elizabethtown and the City of New York, the said acts of the Legislature of the

Page 22 U. S. 3

State of New York to the contrary notwithstanding. At the hearing, the Chancellor perpetuated the injunction, being of the opinion that the said acts were not repugnant to the Constitution and laws of the United States, and were valid. This decree was affirmed in the Court for the Trial of Impeachments and Correction of Errors, which is the highest Court of law and equity in the State, before which the cause could be carried, and it was thereupon brought to this Court by appeal.

Page 22 U. S. 186

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Primary Holding

The Commerce Clause gives Congress authority over interstate navigation.

Facts

Seeking a monopoly over navigation on the waters throughout the U.S., Robert R. Livingston and Robert Fulton secured exclusive privileges to the waters in New York for a period of 20 years, as well as the lower Mississippi River. Aaron Ogden and other competitors tried to forestall the monopoly, but Livingston and Fulton largely succeeded in selling franchises or buying boats of competitors. Ogden formed a partnership with Thomas Gibbons, but this fell apart after three years when Gibbons operated another steamboat on a route in New York that belonged to Ogden.

When Ogden brought an action against Gibbons in New York state court, he received a permanent injunction. The court rejected an argument by famous lawyer Daniel Webster on behalf of Gibbons, which asserted that the U.S. Congress controlled interstate commerce. The case became one of several reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court that concerned the proper interpretation of the Commerce Clause in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution.

Attorneys

  • Daniel Webster (defendant)
  • Thomas Addis Emmet (plaintiff)
  • Thomas J. Oakley (plaintiff)
  • William Wirt (defendant)

Opinions

Majority

  • John Marshall (Author)
  • Bushrod Washington
  • Thomas Todd
  • Gabriel Duvall
  • Joseph Story

Reversing the state court's grant of a permanent injunction, Marshall agreed with Webster's argument that Congress held exclusive power to regulate commerce among the states. He believed that the definition of "commerce" should be interpreted broadly and that it included navigation. The Supremacy Clause may have guided Marshall's reasoning with regard to his statements that any federal license for navigation should trump any comparable license granted by a state.

Concurrence

  • William Johnson, Jr. (Author)

Recused

  • Smith Thompson (Author)

Case Commentary

This is one of the foundational cases on the broad Congressional powers under the Commerce Clause. Interstate navigation is clearly part of interstate commerce, so states cannot interfere with it by overly regulating the area and creating burdens not imposed by Congress. The case is also notable in that it featured a virtual all-star cast of 19th-century American lawyers, which showed how much was at stake beyond the private dispute.

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