Gibbons v. Ogden

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Although the facts of the case may seem quaint and historical, the holding is still hotly debated to this day.  Two rival steamboat operators were vying to navigate their boats on the same stretch of the Hudson River. State law supported ones right to use the river; federal law supported the others.

The Court ruled in favor of the operator who had federal law on its side, broadly interpreting the power and scope of the Commerce Clause. The Court defined commerce expansively, saying it related to much more than the mere exchange of goods.  In the 1930s, this case would see a revival, as the Court interpreted it to justify virtually unlimited federal power over regulating the economy and stimulating its growth.


 Gibbons v. Ogden


22 U.S. (9 Wheat.) 1 (1824)


The laws of New York granting to Robert R. Livingston and Robert Fulton the exclusive right of navigating the waters of that State with steamboats are in collision with the acts of Congress regulating the coasting trade, which, being made in pursuance of the Constitution, are supreme, and the State laws must yield to that supremacy, even though enacted in pursuance of powers acknowledged to remain in the States.

The power of regulating commerce extends to the regulation of navigation.

The power to regulate commerce extends to every species of commercial intercourse between the United States and foreign nations, and among the several States. It does not stop at the external boundary of a State.

But it does not extend to a commerce which is completely internal.

The power to regulate commerce is general, and has no limitations but such as are prescribed in the Constitution itself.

The power to regulate commerce, so far as it extends, is exclusively bested in Congress, and no part of it can be exercised by a State.

A license under the acts of Congress for regulating the coasting trade gives a permission to carry on that trade.

State inspection laws, health laws, and laws for regulating the internal commerce of a State, and those which respect turnpike roads, ferries, &c. are not within the power granted to Congress.

The license is not merely intended to confer the national character.

The power of regulating commerce extends to navigation carried on by vessels exclusively employed in transporting passengers.

The power of regulating commerce extends to vessels propelled by steam or fire as well as to those navigated by the instrumentality of wind and sails.

To read the rest of the opinion in Gibbons v. Ogden, go to Nolos US Supreme Court Center.

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