Commerce Clause – Gibbon v. Ogden

Gibbon V Ogden

The New York State law permitted individuals to operate steamboats on waters within the jurisdiction as provided for by the constitution. This law was duplicated in other states and some of these states required foreign (out-of-state) boats to pay significant fees for navigation privileges. Thomas Gibbons filed a petition to challenge the monopoly of license that was granted to Aaron Ogden. Gibbons was a steamboat owner who did business between New Jersey and New York based on the federal coastal license granted to him by the federal government. The New York courts perpetually upheld the state monopoly. The question was, did New York State exercise power in a domain set exclusively to congress, the regulation of interstate commerce? (Chris, 2008).


A decision was made that found out that the New York licensing for out-of-state requirements was actually in contravention with the congressional act that regulates the coastal trade. The law was considered invalid by virtue of the supremacy clause that regulated the costal trade. Chief justice John Marshal in his opinion gave an explicit definition of commerce which among other things included navigation on the interstate waters. In addition, he defined the phrase “among several states’’ as provided in the commerce clause. The regulation of the steamboat navigators as well as those operating for purposes of interstate commerce was a mandate reserved and exercised by the congress. In a supporting opinion, Justice William Johnson made a much stronger argument; that the national government had express powers over interstate commerce, and therefore any law that interfered with the commerce law by the federal government was negated (Chris, 2008).

The court having declared as repugnant the laws that allows the congress to regulate interstate commerce, New York still maintains that these laws are constitutional. In regulating commerce, the congress does not only have powers within the jurisdictional boundaries of the several states within the United States but they also have a mandate to regulate commerce with other foreign nations (John, 2009). Commerce between the United States and other nations regardless of which state is involved is a function of the national government and the state laws on commerce must therefore be exercised in harmony with the federal laws on the same.

The interpretation of the powers of the congress on commerce as far as the term “among several states” is concerned, means intermingled with. Something that is among others is intermingled with them. Therefore commerce among other states is not restricted to the external boundaries of each state but can also be exercised within the interior of these states. The powers of the congress then extendto navigation and this is within the limits of every state in the country (John, 2009).


The controversies that arise as a result of the commerce law calls for a review of the law and proper definition of scope within which the law is supposed to be exercised. The state laws regulating commerce should be harmonized with the federal laws regulating the same so that they don’t override one another to avoid constitutional crises that arise from the same. While interstate commerce is at the best interest of the states involved in commerce and regulations on the same should be provided by the state laws, the federal government equally has a role to play in ensuring commerce is exercised in the best interest of the whole country.

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