Within the first hundred years of the creation of the Supreme Court of the United States of America, many momentous and important cases were decided that set precedent for how cases are decided to this day. Among those cases in the first hundred years, Gibbons v. Ogden is specifically significant, in that it helped to define and expand the rights provided by the United States Constitution within the Commerce Clause. Not yet thoroughly tested in 1824 prior to the Gibbons decision, the Commerce clause carries much impact on how current-day business is conducted within the United States.
The groundwork for the case that became Gibbons v. Ogden was laid in the very earliest part of the nineteenth century and based on business rights granted in the late part of the eighteenth century. A businessman, Aaron Ogden, operated a steamboat operation in between ports in New York and New Jersey. His right to operate on New York and New Jersey waterways extended from an 1808 granting of a monopoly on the transportation conducted on interstate waterways. This monopoly was granted to another pair of businessmen named Robert Fulton and Robert Livingston, who in turn granted licenses to individual boat operators in order to run routes on certain waterways. The other party to this case, Thomas Gibbons, operated similar boats on similar routes, but instead of operating under the same Fulton-Livingston interstate licenses, he ran his business on the authority of a “federal coasting license, granted under a 1793 Act of Congress”. (Supreme Court Historical Society, 2002)
Upset over the competition posed by Gibbons and that lack of conformity in licensing or authorizing authorities, Ogden filed suit, asking for the activities of Gibbons to be restricted. Ogden, not simply a steamboat operator but also the former Governor of New Jersey as well as a former United States Senator (Wikipedia, 2007), sought to have the regulations over transportation through state waterways to be determined by the states, rather than by privileges granted by the Federal government. The issue of transportation evolved into a case interpreting a portion of the United States Constitution previously only interpreted as pertaining to commerce conducted on or by land, not water.
In the case heard in the State of New York, a judgment was rendered for Ogden, finding that businessmen could, in fact, operate under licenses granted by the state. An appeal to the Supreme Court of New York affirmed this decision, and Gibbons again appealed, this time to the United States Supreme Court. After hearing arguments, Chief Justice John Marshall wrote a decision for Gibbons, reversing the judgments of the lower court, and setting a landmark precedent for the conduct of commerce throughout the land. According to Alex McBride’s analysis of the case, found through a PBS website detailing landmark cases, several key phrases of the Commerce Clause were examined, dissected and interpreted.
First, according to Mr. McBride, the general wording of the Commerce Clause was analyzed: “Congress shall have power…to regulate commerce ... among the several States.” (McBride, 2006; U.S. Const., art. I, §8.) The interpretation of this very non-specific wording found that “‘commerce’ included not just articles in interstate trade but also the ‘intercourse’ among the states, including navigation.” (McBride, 2006) This meant that, unlike the Ogden argument that the states had the right to regulate interstate commerce, it was instead a right reserved by the Federal government. The impact of this interpretation on present-day commerce is that any crossing of land or water borders is subject to legislation by the United States and not by the neighboring states. This actually helps to provide continuity between the states, as a uniform set of regulations can be used to regulate all border crossings, which is especially key when two neighboring states have differing laws. So while the local law will prevail within individual states, there is no room for confusion on border crossings, as they are regulated separately.
Next, McBride discusses that the Supreme Court specifically focused on the word “among”, as it dealt with commerce conducted between states. The analysis of this particular word lead to the conclusion that “among” could be used interchangeably with the phrase “intermingled with”. (McBride, 2006) This analysis concluded that the Federal regulation of commerce did not have to end simply at state borders but could instead extend into a state, so long as the conduct of commerce affected parties both inside and outside of state borders. This conclusion supported Gibbons’ contention that the rights granted to him by the 1793 Act of Congress were superior to the rights granted Ogden in 1808 by a state-supported waterway monopoly. Beyond the immediate impact of this interpretation, the farther-reaching impact is the current oversight of the Federal government of nearly every imaginable aspect of commerce, such as minimum wage being regulated federally when goods from a factory contained entirely within one state are sold in another state.
Finally, the United States Supreme Court analyzed the reach of the power of the Federal government when reaching a decision in Gibbons v. Ogden. In the words written by Chief Justice Marshall, it is explained that:
“It is the power to regulate, that is, to prescribe the rule by which commerce is to be governed. This power, like all others vested in Congress, is complete in itself, may be exercised to its utmost extent, and acknowledges no limitations other than are prescribed in the Constitution.” (Gibbons v. Ogden, 1824)
This reach, then, is extensive and is only limited by the Constitution itself. Therefore, the support of the Fulton-Livingston monopoly on interstate waterways between New York and New Jersey would be considered unconstitutional, by simple virtue of the fact that it limited a power the Court found to be reserved exclusively to the Federal government.
In 2003, nearly 180 years after the decision in Gibbons v. Ogden, U.S. News and World Report compiled a list of what was termed the “100 Documents that Shaped America”. Because of its impact on the Commerce Clause, the decision rendered in Gibbons was included. In defining the reason for the inclusion of this court decision among these momentous documents, U.S. News stated that “Marshall’s decision sustained the nationalist definition of Federal power”, and that as a result, “the Federal Government… increasingly exercised its authority by legislation and judicial decision over the whole range of the nation’s economic life”. (U.S. News, 2003) While other early documents of the nation provided for limited intervention by the Federal government, Gibbons clearly expanded Federal rights in a way that continues to impact the United States today. This expansion is most significant in the debate of original intent of the Constitution in that the broadening of powers, most often found today when rationales other than original intent are employed, was clearly shown and relied upon by a contemporary of the framers of the Constitution, Chief Justice Marshall. As such, Gibbons v. Ogden remains an important decision today, reaching much farther than a simple steamboat route between two state coasts.
Background Summary & Questions (2002). The Supreme Court Historical Society.
Retrieved March 30, 2007 from http://www.landmarkcases.org/gibbons/home.html.
Gibbons v. Ogden. 22 U.S. 1 (1824).
Gibbons v. Ogden. (2007). Wikipedia. Retrieved March 30, 2007, from
McBride, A. (2006). The Supreme Court The First Hundred Years Landmark Cases Gibbons v.
Ogden. Retrieved March 30, 2007 from
U.S. News & World Report. (2003). The People’s Vote 100 Documents that Shaped America:
Gibbons v. Ogden (1824). Retrieved electronically March 30, 2007 from http://www.usnews.com/usnews/documents/docpages/document_page24.htm.
U.S. Const., art. I, §8.