Expanding the commerce clause to regulate interstate commerce by the Congress and promote national welfare began with the precedent 1824 Steamboat Case.
The period following the end of the War of 1812 was referred to as the “Era of Good Feeling.” It was a time of innovation and invention as Americans began a process of early industrialization. Congress was debating the so-called “American System,” supported by Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun. Within this frenzy of rapid change, Robert Fulton’s steamboat, first successfully tested in 1807, significantly improved navigational capabilities. One of Fulton’s business beneficiaries was Aaron Ogden, who obtained an exclusive right to operate between New York and New Jersey. Thomas Gibbons, another steamboat operator, received a license to operate from the U.S. Congress. The competition led to the famous “steamboat” case, Gibbons v Ogden (1824)
Two Issues facing the Supreme Court
Ogden took his complaint to the New York courts, arguing an exclusive right to operate. Ogden’s petition was decided in his favor, prompting Gibbons to appeal the state decision to the Supreme Court. Gibbons also had the support of public opinion: monopolies were not popular with everyday Americans.
The Marshall Court was faced with deciding two issues. What does the commerce clause in the Constitution mean? To what extent may Congress regulate trade between states? Is Congressional regulatory power exclusive or concurrent with the states? The second issue was whether the commerce clause should be construed broadly or strictly. A broad interpretation would be based on national welfare considerations while a strict interpretation would limit Congress under the Constitutional police powers reserved to the states.
The Supreme Court Ruling
In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court defined commerce as intercourse and not just “traffic.” Within this broad definition, commerce reflected all kinds of business “between nations and parts of nations.” This definition included navigation. As a precedent case, future cases built upon this principle so that today practically any traffic between states is subject to Congressional regulation under the commerce clause.
The court also ruled that commerce could be construed broadly to ensure the national welfare. Not only did this promote national unity, but the decision further defined national supremacy. Federal control was expanded under the premise that the Constitution was an “ordinance” of the people and not a contract made between sovereign states. As in the case of McCulloch v Maryland (1819), Gibbons v Ogden strengthened and more closely defined the power of the central government.
Commerce not Addressed by the Court
Gibbons v Ogden did not settle the issue of concurrent regulation. Additionally, the ruling did not address the issue of whether states could regulate commerce not specified by congressional regulation and restrictions. However, as a precedent, Gibbons v Ogden opened the door to future questions that would ultimately be resolved by other cases vastly expanding congressional regulatory powers.
Gibbons v Ogden had the effect of further enabling the growing commercial enterprises in the years following the War of 1812. By asserting national supremacy over commercial intercourse, business competition was expanded without the fear of state regulations that favored exclusive treatment.
- Alfred H. Kelly and Winfred A. Harbison, The American Constitution: Its Origins & Development, Fifth Edition (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1976)
- John J. Patrick and Richard C. Remy, Lessons on the Constitution (Social Science Education Consortium, Inc., and the American Historical Association, 1986)