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Gibbons v. Ogden

Citation. 22 U.S. (9 Wheat) 1, 6 L.Ed. 23 (1824).
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Citation. 22 U.S. (9 Wheat) 1, 6 L.Ed. 23 (1824).

Brief Fact Summary.

New York granted an exclusive right to navigate its waters to Livingston and Fulton, who then granted Ogden to run his steamboat in the waters.  Gibbons had a federal license to travel U.S. waters and argued that the New York legislature’s decision to allow a monopoly over its waters was inconsistent with Congress’ powers under the Commerce Clause.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

Congress’ power to regulate commerce includes the power to regulate navigation, the power does not stop at state borders, and Congress has the sole power (no concurrent authority in states) to regulate interstate commerce.


New York granted an exclusive right to Livingston and Fulton to operate steamboats in New York’s waters for 35 years.  Livingston and Fulton granted Ogden the right to travel the waters between New Jersey and New York.  Ogden alleged that Gibbons was also running his steamboat in these waters, against the exclusive grant that Ogden had received from Livingston and Fulton.  Gibbons argued that he had a right to navigate these waters pursuant to his United States coasting license and that allowing a party to monopolize these waters violated that license.


(1) Does the power to regulate commerce include the power to regulate navigation?

(2) Does the power to regulate interstate commerce grant Congress authority to regulate commerce within a state?

(3) Whether New York’s legislature, by granting a monopoly over its waters, unconstitutionally infringed on Congress’ authority under the Commerce Clause.



(1)  Yes.  It would be hard to imagine a situation where Congress could regulate commerce between states and nations without being able to regulate navigation.

(2)  Yes.  While the law at issue here regulated only New York waters, the power to regulate interstate commerce would be useless if it would “stop at the jurisdictional lines of the several states.”

(3)  Yes.  The federal licensing scheme granted Gibbons the authority to sail through New York’s waters.  Because the New York legislature made that illegal, it infringed on Congress’ power under the Commerce Clause.


Justice Johnson

Gibbons was granted a coasting license through a congressional act, so any state law preventing him from doing that was void.


First, Justice Marshall reasoned that commerce necessarily includes navigation because limiting it to “buying and selling” would only include a fraction of the word’s common usage.  Congress has regulated navigation and American ships since America’s inception, and everyone understood this to be validly within Congress’ power under the Commerce Clause.

Second, Justice Marshall focused on the word “among” in the Commerce Clause, which he construed to mean “intermingled with.”  Because Congress was to regulate commerce “among the several states,” it needed to be able to reach within state boundaries.   The phrase “among the several states” prevents Congress from meddling with commerce that is strictly within one state, but it allows Congress to reach “those internal concerns which affect the states generally.”  It would be impossible to regulate commerce among the states if Congress did not have the ability to regulate commerce within a state.

Third, the Commerce Clause grants Congress the sole authority to regulate interstate commerce.  Unlike the power to tax, where states have concurrent authority, the Constitution grants Congress alone the power to regulate commerce among states.  States, however, retain the right to regulate the “completely internal commerce of [their] state.”  Further, inspection laws, which may impact commerce, may be enacted by states because they affect the articles before they enter interstate commerce.  Under the Commerce Clause, Congress’ power is limited only by voters who may choose to vote their elected representatives out of office if they disagree with congressional decisions.

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