Chief Justice John Marshall delivered the unanimous decision of the Court.
. . . 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.
By the law of New-York, no one can navigate the bay of New-York, the
North River, the Sound, the lakes, or any of the waters of that State,
by steam vessels, without a license from the grantees of New-York, under penalty of forfeiture of the vessel.
By the law of the neighbouring State of Connecticut, no one can enter her waters with a steam vessel having such license.
By the law of New-Jersey, if any citizen of that State shall be restrained,
under the New-York law, from using steam boats between the ancient
shores of New-Jersey and New-York, he shall be entitled to an action for
damages, in New-Jersey, with treble costs against the party who thus restrains or impedes him under the law of New-York!
It would hardly be contended, that all these acts were consistent
with the laws and constitution of the United States. If there were no
power in the general government, to control this extreme belligerent
legislation of the States, the powers of the government were essentially
deficient. . . .
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.
. . . The entire purpose for which the delegates assembled at
Annapolis, was to devise means for the uniform regulation of trade. They
found no means, but in a general government.
We do not find, in the history of the formation and adoption of the constitution, that any man speaks of a general concurrent power,
in the regulation of foreign and domestic trade, as still residing in
the States. The very object intended, more than any other, was to take
away such power. If it had not so provided, the constitution would not
have been worth accepting.
. . . What is it that is to be regulated? Not the commerce of the
several States, respectively, but the commerce of the United States.
Henceforth, the commerce of the States was to be an unit; and the
system by which it was to exist and be governed, must necessarily be
complete, entire, and uniform. Its character was to be described in the
flag which waved over it, E PLURIBUS UNUM.
The subject to be regulated is commerce; . . . it becomes necessary
to settle the meaning of the word. The counsel for the appellee would
limit it to traffic, to buying and selling, or the interchange of
commodities, and do not admit that it comprehends navigation. . . .
Commerce, undoubtedly, is traffic, but it is something more: it is
intercourse. . . . The mind can scarcely conceive a system for
regulating commerce between nations, which shall exclude all laws
concerning navigation. . . .
The subject to which the power is . . . applied, is to commerce
"among the several States." The word "among" means intermingled with. A
thing which is among others, is intermingled with them. Commerce among
the States, cannot stop at the external boundary line of each State, but
may be introduced into the interior.
It is not intended to say that these words comprehend that commerce,
which is completely internal, which is carried on between man and man in
a State, or between different parts of the same State, and which does
not extend to or affect other States. Such a power would be
inconvenient, and is certainly unnecessary.
Comprehensive as the word among is, it may very properly be
restricted to that commerce which concerns more States than one. The
phrase is not one which would probably have been selected to indicate
the completely interior traffic of a State, because it is not an apt
phrase for that purpose. . . . The genius and character of the whole
government seem to be, that its action is to be applied to all the
external concerns of the nation, and to those internal concerns which
affect the States generally; but not to those which are completely
within a particular State, which do not affect other States, and with
which it is not necessary to interfere, for the purpose of executing
some of the general powers of the government. The completely internal
commerce of a State, then, may be considered as reserved for the State
Questions to Consider
According to Chief Justice John Marshall, what was the main motive for adopting a new constitution in the United States?
What does the Latin phrase e pluribus unum have to do with Marshall's argument?
How does Marshall define "among the States?" Why is this definition
important for the case? What limits does he place on the definition?
In the last sentence of the excerpt, Chief Justice Marshall states,
"The completely internal commerce of a State, then, may be considered as
reserved for the State itself." Try to imagine an example of completely
internal commerce within a state. In modern times, how much commerce do
you think is completely internal to a state? What implications might
this have for the powers granted to Congress through the Commerce
Some people believe that the decision in Gibbons v. Ogden
did more to pull the American people into a nation than any other event
in the country's history except war. Explain this assertion.
How could the logic used in Chief Justice Marshall's opinion be used
to explain why nations have found it advantageous to form economic
unions like the European Union or the North American Free Trade