Gibbons v. Ogden: Summary, Decision & Impact

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  • 0:00 Background to the Case
  • 1:23 Supreme Court Arguments
  • 1:56 The Central Issue
  • 3:28 Decision
  • 4:10 Impact
  • 4:50 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stephen Benz

Stephen has taught history, journalism, sociology, and political science courses at multiple levels, including the middle school, high school and college levels.

Gibbons v. Ogden was a landmark case that examined how much the federal government could regulate interstate commerce. We'll look at the historical background, and then look at the arguments offered by both sides. Finally, we'll consider the impact of the decision.

Background of a Case

Have you ever made an agreement with someone only to get stabbed in the back? Believe it or not, this common dramatic situation was the cause of one of the landmark Supreme Court Cases, Gibbons v. Ogden in 1824.

The original problem started when steamships were first created by Robert Fulton and Robert Livingston. The state of New York gave the two inventors a monopoly over all navigation routes in New York. The two used their monopoly to sell franchise rights to other businessmen to operate certain routes. In other words, Fulton and Livingston would sell different businessmen papers that would give them the right to operate a route. And since Fulton and Livingston were granted a monopoly by the state of New York, it was all legal!

The old adage is to not mix business with friendship. And this is the case that happened in Gibbons v. Ogden. Originally, Gibbons and Ogden were business partners who bought a route between New York and Elizabethtown from Fulton and Livingston. But Gibbons betrayed Ogden by beginning to operate his own two ships on the same route. Ogden believed that he had the right to control the route because he had received the franchise from Fulton and Livingston. Gibbons, instead, justified his routes based on a separate federal license he obtained.

Ogden sued Gibbons in New York State Court to force him to stop operating his steamship route. The New York State court agreed and issued an injunction against Gibbons. An injunction is a court order to stop an action. Gibbons then appealed to the Supreme Court to help him keep operating his route.

Supreme Court Arguments

Gibbons was represented by one of the most famous lawyers of early America, Daniel Webster. Webster argued on behalf of Gibbons that the federal law was supreme above all state laws. Furthermore, the federal government's laws superseded state laws because of the Constitution's granting to Congress the right to control interstate commerce.

Ogden's attorneys argued that state laws and federal laws could coincide with one another. They argued that Congress only had the right to regulate commerce right at the borderline between two states. All other commerce within the state was the sole control of states.

Daniel Webster represented Gibbons in the case.
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The Central Issue

According to the Constitution, Congress has the ability to regulate interstate commerce. But a key problem that the Court had to consider is what, exactly, constitutes interstate commerce.

Interstate commerce is any activity that moves between two states. To flesh this out, imagine two states next to each other. One state, say Florida, produces a lot of oranges and the other, Georgia, produces a lot of peaches. If Floridians sell oranges to each other inside their own state, this is called intrastate commerce because it stays inside the state. But if Georgians begin trading their peaches for Florida oranges, commercial activity has occurred between the two states, which we would call interstate commerce. Borders are funny in that way -- when you cross one, you really don't feel like much has changed. But from a legal perspective, the crossing of a state border has broad implications.

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