Gibbons v. Ogden (1824) [Full]


Gibbons v Ogden, 22 US. 1 was a U.S Supreme case that held that the power to regulate interstate commerce, Granted to Congress by the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution, encompassed the power to regulate navigation.

Timeline 1


In 1809 the Legislature of the State of New York allowed Robert Livingston and Robert Fulton to have exclusive navigation rights of the waters within the state of New York with steam and fire powered boats. With the hopes of monopolizing the waters of other states, they petitioned in other states and territory, but only the Orleans Territory accepted their petition and they were given a monopoly on the lower Mississippi. Competitors became aware of their attempt to monopolize traveling the oceans and argued that what Livingston and Fulton were doing was illegal under the commerce power of the federal government which trumped state laws. Livingston and Fulton tried to undercut their competitors by attempting to sell them franchises or buy their boats. Each choice benefited them because they would still have buyers working under them or they would own the ships that they purchased from sellers. Therefore all traveling rights would belong to them which creates a monopoly. This created an issue once the former Governor of New Jersey Aaron Ogden purchased a license from Livingston and Fulton and went into business with Thomas Gibbons. The issue arose when Gibbons operated another steamboat on Ogden’s route which was prohibited by the 1793 law regulating coasting trade.

Ogden won his suit and the injunction was placed on Gibbons. In response, Gibbons appealed because he believed that his steamships were licensed under the Act of Congress stating that “An act for enrolling and licensing ships and vessels to be employed in the coasting trade and fisheries, and for regulating the same.” Gibbons stated that an Act of Congress trumps the exclusive privilege provided by New York. Therefore he believe his license provided by Congress trumped his license provided by the state since federal law trumps state.

The injunction was upheld and the Chancellor held that the New York law was not in conflict with the Constitution and the laws of the United States, therefore the grants were indeed valid. Gibbons subsequently appealed the decision and it was affirmed by the Courts for the Trial of Impeachments and Correction of Errors, which is the highest court in New York. The Supreme Court granted certiorari, which allowed them to review the decision granted by the Courts for the Trial of Impeachments and Corrections of Error.


Procedural History

Aaron Ogden filed a complaint in the Court of Chancery of New York asking the court to restrict Thomas Gibbons from operating his steamboat on the waters between Elizabethtown and New York City.

Gibbons’ lawyer, Daniel Webster, argued that Congress had exclusive national power over interstate commerce according to Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution. Webster claimed that to argue otherwise would result in confusing and contradictory local regulatory policies. The Court of Chancery of New York and the Court of Errors of New York found in favor of Ogden and issued an injunction to restrict Gibbons from operating his boats.

Gibbons appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing as he did in New York that the monopoly conflicted with federal law.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Gibbons.


  1. May a state enact legislation regarding commerce, which confers a privilege that is inconsistent with federal law?
  2. Do states have the power to regulate the phases of commerce which, due to the necessity of national uniformity, need their regulation to be prescribed by a single authority?
  3. Does a state have the power to grant an exclusive right to the use of state waterways inconsistent with federal law?


Arguments by Petitioner (or Appellant or Plaintiff or Prosecution)

To be added

Arguments by Respondent (or Appellee or Defendant)

To be added


The case was heard at the U.S. Supreme Court on February 4, 1824 (Bates 2010 pg 438). After a month of deliberating, on March 2, 1824, the United States Supreme Court reversed the decision of the lower court and unanimously ruled in favor of Gibbons (Bates 2010 pg 438).

Majority Opinion (Marshall)

Chief Justice John Marshall ruled for Gibbons in the majority opinion. New York’s exclusive grant to Ogden violated the Federal Licensing Act of 1793. In the decision, the Court interpreted the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution for the first time. The clause states that “Congress shall have power to regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian tribes (McBride 2006).” The court concluded that the word “commerce” included not only articles in interstate trade, but also “intercourse” among the states, which includes navigation (McBride 2006). When the court examined the phrase, “commerce among the several States,” they concluded that the word “among” means “intermingled with (McBride 2006).” Congress’ power to regulate interstate commerce does not “stop at the external boundary line of each State, but may be introduced into the interior,” which means Congress may pass any law that regulates commerce as long as that commerce is not wholly confined within a single state, and its power to regulate such commerce is absolute (McBride 2006). In this interpretation of the Commerce Clause, Congress has the authority to regulate the commercial steamboat route between New York and New Jersey. It was assumed that this was legal in the Federal Licensing Act in 1793 and that New York law was in conflict with it. Therefore, the New York law was unconstitutional and was injunction against Gibbons was overturned. Gibbons was free to operate his steamships. Justice Marshall stated “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 (Bates 2010, pg  438).”

Concurring Opinion (Johnson)

Justice Johnson wrote a concurring opinion, in which he explained that he bases his opinion directly on the “application of the words” of the commerce clause. From this standpoint the judge argues a much more powerful commerce clause stance than what was explained in the majority opinion by Justice Marshall (Hall and Patrick 2006, 35). One particular rationale that Justice Johnson gives is the idea that the word commerce should have a broader definition than simply the exchange of goods. To support his rationale Johnson says that “Shipbuilding, the carrying trade, and propagation of seamen are such vital agents of commercial prosperity that the nation which could not legislate over these subjects would not possess power to regulate commerce”. This is an essence a much more aggressive interpretation of the commerce clause and the idea of what commerce itself is. In his opinion Johnson declared that the federal government, under the commerce clause, has exclusive power to regulate interstate commerce (Hall and Patrick 2006, 35). By asserting that the commerce clause gives congress that type of exclusive power Johnson makes a point to argue that even without the federal coasting act contradiction, the majority opinion cites is unnecessary in order to make reach the same conclusion. The opinion was essentially more nationalistic than the opinion presented by the majority and paid much more attention to the powers of congress itself( Hall and Patrick 2006, 35).

Full Text of Opinions

Decision Analysis

To be added

Significance / Impact

Gibbons v. Ogden (1824) was a landmark decision for three reasons. First, it reaffirmed that the laws of the federal government supercede state laws and that the federal government has the authority to regulate commerce. Secondly, the decision establishes that the federal government’s power to regulate commerce also encompasses the power to regulate navigation since the two are inextricably linked. Lastly, the decision in Gibbons v. Ogden established judicial precedent for numerous subsequent cases that concerned the nation’s economic well-being and, by extension, transportation. These cases include, but are not limited to, United States v. Darby Lumber Company (1941), Wickard v. Filburn (1942), Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States (1964), as well as Gonzalez v. Raich (2005). The decision in Gibbons v. Ogden as well as the reaffirmation and establishment of the constitutional provisions involved acted as a major pillar for the passage of the major body of legislation that is the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The reasoning behind it was that racial discrimination by public accommodations-related private businesses was deleterious to the nation’s economy, so the federal government had the authority to regulate it.

Timeline 2

Scholarly Commentary and Debate

To be added

Constitutional Provisions

Article 1, Section 8, Clause 3
[Congress shall have the power]
“To regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes.”

Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8
[Congress shall have the power]
“To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.”

Article 6, Clause 2
“This Constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the Constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding.”

Major Statute(s) Under Review

  1. The clause that grants Congress the authority to regulate commerce.
  2. The clause that grants Congress the right to promote science and the arts.

Important Precedents

Gibbons v. Ogden was the first  case of it’s kind to address the commerce clause of the Constitution and had no precedents.

Important Subsequent Cases

Through Gibbons v. Ogden, the SCOTUS re-established Congress’ power over interstate commerce and reinforced the Constitution as the supreme law of the land. The decision affirmed that even though both states and the federal government have delegated and specific powers enumerated in the U.S. Constitution, it is the power held by Congress that will be supreme.
Important Subsequent Cases

Web Resources

Academic Books, Articles and Law Reviews

Bates, Christopher G. The Early Republic and Antebellum America: An Encyclopedia of Social,
Political, Cultural, and Economic History. Armonk, NY: Sharpe, 2010.

COX, THOMAS H. “Contesting Commerce: Gibbons v. Ogden, Steam Power, and Social Change.” Journal Of Supreme Court History34, no. 1 (March 2009): 56-74. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed April 21, 2016). Available At :

  • This Article provides an in depth academic analysis of the case and the surrounding impact and what the decision meant for the commerce clause moving forward.

Hall, Kermit L., and John J. Patrick. The Pursuit of Justice: Supreme Court Decisions That Shaped America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. Available At:

  • This book is an analysis of major SCOTUS decisions throughout history with chapter 3 focusing on Gibbons v. Ogden exclusively. The chapter on Gibbons v. Ogden offers basic summaries of both the majority and concurring opinion.

VALAURI, JOHN. “REGULATE/MANDATE : TWO PERSPECTIVES.” Capital University Law Review 42, no. 1 (Winter2014 2014): 1.Publisher Provided Full Text Searching File, EBSCOhost (accessed April 21, 2016). Available At:

  • This academic article focuses on the commerce clause as it is used today and analyzes its meaning over time. The article pays special attention to how the terms regulate and mandate led to the National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius decision.



Spring 2016 : Lauren Head, Lynteria Chambers, Tokedrius Dunlap, Kinte Milbry, and Blaine Allen