The case of Gibbons v. Ogden (1824), decided 35
years after the ratification of the Constitution, was a key turning
point for the expansion of federal power to address national problems.
Under the Articles of Confederation, the national government was
virtually powerless to enact policies to rationalize the actions of
states. One problem that emerged during this time was the way in which
state policies tended to restrict commerce within and beyond their
borders, making market exchanges inefficient and costly. In the
Constitution, the framers included the Commerce Clause in Article I,
Section 8 to address this issue. The Commerce Clause states that
Congress has the power "[t]o regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and
among the several States. . . ." The hope was that giving Congress such
a power would help to unify commerce policies thereby making market
exchanges more efficient and less costly.
Though the clause clearly gave Congress some power over commerce, it
was unclear just how much. It was also unclear what constituted
commerce. The Gibbons case clarified some of these issues under a
decision issued by Chief Justice John Marshall, who had nationalist
In 1808, Robert Fulton and Robert Livingston acquired a monopoly from
the New York state legislature to operate steamboats on the state's
waters. This monopoly extended to interstate waterways, those areas of
water that stretch between states. Aaron Ogden held a Fulton-Livingston
license to operate steamboats under this monopoly. However, Thomas
Gibbons held a federal coasting license, granted under a 1793 Act of
Congress, and operated steamboats between New Jersey and New York that
competed with Ogden's.
Ogden filed a complaint in the Court of Chancery of New York asking
the court to restrain Gibbons from operating his boats. Ogden's lawyer
contended that states often passed laws on issues regarding interstate
matters and that states should have fully concurrent power with Congress
on matters concerning interstate commerce. The monopoly, therefore,
should be upheld.
Gibbons' lawyer, Daniel Webster, argued that Congress had
exclusive national power over interstate commerce according to Article
I, Section 8 of the Constitution and that to argue otherwise would
result in confusing and contradictory local regulatory policies.
The Court of Chancery of New York found in favor of Ogden and issued
an injunction to restrict Gibbons from operating his boats. Gibbons
appealed the case to the Court of Errors of New York, which affirmed the
decision. Gibbons appealed the case to the Supreme Court of the United
Questions to Consider
Under what authority, state or federal, did Ogden operate his steamboats? Gibbons?
What argument did Ogden use to support his license to operate steamboats? Gibbons?
The background information states that Gibbons relied on the Commerce
Clause of Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution to justify his
case. If Ogden wanted to use the U.S. Constitution to back up his case,
what section or amendment might he use?
The Commerce Clause was meant to clarify who had authority over
interstate commerce; however, like most of the U.S. Constitution, the
clause is stated in general terms that leaves open the possibility for
interpretation. For instance, in this case there was a question about
whether the transport of people constituted commerce. Try to think of
another circumstance where the application of this clause would be
This case appears to be a local dispute between two businessmen.
However, the decision in this case is one of the most important in
constitutional history. Please explain.