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This is the 2nd post of a 45 post United States Supreme Court Series designed to provide short educational summaries of the 45 most significant Supreme Court decisions ever issued. I encourage you to share these posts with anyone you think might benefit from them.
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The case of Gibbons v. Ogden, decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1824, was a major step in the expansion of the power of the federal government to deal with challenges to U.S. domestic policy. The decision confirmed that the Commerce Clause of the Constitution granted Congress the power to regulate interstate commerce, including the commercial use of navigable waterways.
Fast Facts: Gibbons v. Ogden
- Case Argued: February 5—February 9, 1824
- Decision Issued: March 2, 1824
- Petitioner: Thomas Gibbons (appellant)
- Respondent: Aaron Ogden (appellee)
- Key Questions: Was it within New York State’s rights to issue laws regarding navigation within its jurisdiction, or does the Commerce Clause give Congress authority over interstate navigation?
- Unanimous Decision: Justices Marshall, Washington, Todd, Duvall, and Story (Justice Thompson abstained)
- Ruling: As interstate navigation fell under interstate commerce, New York could not interfere with it, and the law was therefore invalid.
Circumstances of Gibbons v. Ogden
In 1808, the state government of New York awarded a private transport company a virtual monopoly to operate its steamboats on the state’s rivers and lakes, including rivers that ran between New York and adjoining states.
This state-sanctioned steamboat company granted Aaron Ogden a license to operate steamboats between Elizabethtown Point in New Jersey and New York City. As one of Ogden’s business partners, Thomas Gibbons, operated his steamboats along the same route under a federal coasting license issued to him by an act of Congress.
The Gibbons-Ogden partnership ended in dispute when Ogden claimed that Gibbons was undercutting their business by unfairly competing with him.
Ogden filed a complaint in the New York Court of Errors seeking to stop Gibbons from operating his boats. Ogden argued that the license granted to him by the New York monopoly was valid and enforceable even though he operated his boats on shared, interstate waters. Gibbons disagreed arguing that the U.S. Constitution gave Congress the sole power over interstate commerce.
The Court of Errors sided with Ogden. After losing his case in another New York court, Gibbons appealed the case to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the Constitution grants the federal government the overriding power to regulate how interstate commerce is conducted.
Some of the Parties Involved
The case of Gibbons v. Ogden was argued and decided by some of the most iconic lawyers and jurists in U.S. history. Exiled Irish patriot Thomas Addis Emmet and Thomas J. Oakley represented Ogden, while U.S. Attorney General William Wirt and Daniel Webster argued for Gibbons.
The decision of the Supreme Court was written and delivered by America’s fourth Chief Justice John Marshall.
“. . . Rivers and bays, in many cases, form the divisions between States; and thence it was obvious, that if the States should make regulations for the navigation of these waters, and such regulations should be repugnant and hostile, embarrassment would necessarily happen to the general intercourse of the community. Such events had actually occurred, and had created the existing state of things.”— John Marshall — Gibbons v. Ogden, 1824
In its unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled that Congress alone had the power to regulate interstate and coastal trade.
The decision answered two pivotal questions about the Constitution’s Commerce Clause: First, exactly what constituted “commerce?” And, what did the term “among the several states” mean?
The Court held that “commerce” is the actual trade of commodities, including the commercial transportation of commodities using navigation. Also, the word “among” meant “intermingled with” or cases in which one or more states had an active interest in the commerce involved.
Siding with Gibbons, the decision read, in part:
“If, as has always been understood, the sovereignty of Congress, though limited to specified objects, is plenary as to those objects, the power over commerce with foreign nations and among the several states is vested in Congress as absolutely as it would be in a single government, having in its constitution the same restrictions on the exercise of the power as are found in the Constitution of the United States.”
The Significance of Gibbons v. Ogden
Decided 35 years after the ratification of the Constitution, the case of Gibbons v. Ogden represented a significant expansion of the power of the federal government to address issues involving U.S. domestic policy and the rights of the states.
The Articles of Confederation had left the national government virtually powerless to enact policies or regulations dealing with the actions of the states. In the Constitution, the framers included the Commerce Clause in the Constitution to address this problem.
Though the Commerce Clause gave Congress some power over commerce, it was unclear just how much. The Gibbons decision clarified some of these issues.
In the long run, Gibbons v. Ogden would be used to justify the future expansion of congressional power to control not only commercial activity but a vast range of activities previously thought to be under the exclusive control of the states. Gibbons v. Ogden gave Congress the preemptive power over the states to regulate any aspect of commerce involving the crossing of state lines. As a result of Gibbons, any state law regulating in-state commercial activities—such as the minimum wage paid to workers in an in-state factory—can be overturned by Congress if, for example, the factory’s products are also sold in other states. In this manner, Gibbons is often cited as justification for the enactment and enforcement of federal laws regulating the sale of firearms and ammunition.
Perhaps more than any case in the history of the Supreme Court, Gibbons v. Ogden set the stage for massive growth in the power of the federal government during the 20th century.
John Marshall’s Role
In his opinion, Chief Justice John Marshall provided a clear definition of the word “commerce” and the meaning of the term, “among the several states” in the Commerce Clause. Today, Marshall’s is regarded as the most influential opinions concerning this key clause.
“… Few things were better known, than the immediate causes which led to the adoption of the present constitution … that the prevailing motive was to regulate commerce; to rescue it from the embarrassing and destructive consequences, resulting from the legislation of so many different States, and to place it under the protection of a uniform law.”—John Marshall—Gibbons v. Ogden, 1824