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Gibbons v. Ogden, Law, and Society in the Early Republic

Thomas H. Cox

Publication Year: 2009

Gibbons v. Ogden, Law, and Society in the Early Republic examines a landmark decision in American jurisprudence, the first Supreme Court case to deal with the thorny legal issue of interstate commerce.  

Decided in 1824, Gibbons v. Ogden arose out of litigation between owners of rival steamboat lines over passenger and freight routes between the neighboring states of New York and New Jersey. But what began as a local dispute over the right to ferry the paying public from the New Jersey shore to New York City soon found its way into John Marshall’s court and constitutional history. The case is consistently ranked as one of the twenty most significant Supreme Court decisions and is still taught in constitutional law courses, cited in state and federal cases, and quoted in articles on constitutional, business, and technological history.

Gibbons v. Ogden initially attracted enormous public attention because it involved the development of a new and sensational form of technology. To early Americans, steamboats were floating symbols of progress—cheaper and quicker transportation that could bring goods to market and refinement to the backcountry. A product of the rough-and-tumble world of nascent capitalism and legal innovation, the case became a landmark decision that established the supremacy of federal regulation of interstate trade, curtailed states’ rights, and promoted a national market economy. The case has been invoked by prohibitionists, New Dealers, civil rights activists, and social conservatives alike in debates over federal regulation of issues ranging from labor standards to gun control. This lively study fills in the social and political context in which the case was decided—the colorful and fascinating personalities, the entrepreneurial spirit of the early republic, and the technological breakthroughs that brought modernity to the masses.

Published by: Ohio University Press


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pp. v

List of Illustrations

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pp. vii

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pp. ix-xiv

“THE GALLING SACKLES with which a few lordly monopolists have, for some years past, contrived to fetter our navigation and intercourse with our sister state, have been at length broken by the Ithuriel spear, whose-all-powerful touch makes every unrighteous decision to crumble into dust,” exclaimed an article in the Elizabethtown Gazette of Elizabethtown, New Jersey, on...

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pp. xv-xvi

IT IS WITH PLEASURE that I acknowledge the following individuals for their contributions to this book. I am particularly grateful to my doctoral dissertation adviser, Richard E. Ellis, whose sound advice and patience guided this project to completion. Michael H. Frisch, Tamara Plakins Thornton, and Donald M. Roper...

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1: Steam Power and Patent Law: Development in the Eighteenth Century

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pp. 1-16

ON MONDAY, AUGUST 20, 1987, a crowd gathered at the Front Street wharves on the banks of the Delaware River in Philadelphia. Curious, the people had come to watch John Fitch and Henry Voight launch their experimental steamboat, aptly named Perseverance. The inventors were an interesting pair. Fitch radiated detached impatience, whereas the jovial Voight...

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2: Origins of the Fulton-Livingston Monopoly

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pp. 17-29

“THE PRESENT MOMENT will long be remembered as an auspicious era in the history of our state. A new state of things is rising up,” declared the New York Columbian on January 26, 1820. Expounding on the greatness of the Empire State, the article boasted, “She is capable of unfolding her immense resources, in every noble improvement but connected with civil policy...

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3: Corporate Negotiations

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pp. 30-43

SHORTLY AFTER HIS triumphant return to New York City on August 20, 1807, Robert Fulton reported to Joel Barlow, “The power of propelling boats by steam is now fully proved.” The jubilant inventor also confided, “Although the prospect of personal emolument has been some inducement to me, yet I feel infinitely more pleasure in reflecting on the immense advantages that my country will draw...

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4: Defending the Monopoly

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pp. 44-62

IN 1810, ROBERT FULTON and Robert R. Livingston began an aggressive campaign to expand their steamboat operations across the nation. Their petitions to western state and territorial legislatures combined Livingston’s methods of courting local politicians for regional monopolies with Fulton’s ambitions of bringing steamboats to the Mississippi River valley. Fulton hoped that...

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5: Interstate Competition

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pp. 63-84

THROUGHOUT 1812, the profits of the North River Company continued to soar, and Fulton tenaciously pursued his dream of a steamboat franchise on the Mississippi River. Two new adversaries, however, quickly emerged to contest the New York monopoly—former New Jersey governor Aaron Ogden and former planter and Savannah mayor Thomas Gibbons. Both...

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6: Personal Rivalries and Lawsuits

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pp. 85-101

ON FEBRUARY 23, 1815, Jonathan Dayton reported the repeal of Ogden’s New Jersey steamboat monopoly to Thomas Gibbons. “When we took the vote, the disappointment of the Colonel was great, his mortification extreme,” gloated Dayton. As Ogden was “governed more by the spirit of prejudice than prescience,” he would now certainly negotiate with Gibbons...

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7: The Road to the U.S. Supreme Court

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pp. 102-132

CHANCELLOR KENT'S INJUNCTION provided Ogden with a sorely needed victory. But the spread of steamboats across the United States made the future of the New York monopoly ever more precarious. The steamboat Henrietta now plied the Cape Fear River between Fayetteville and Wilmington, North Carolina. Promoters launched the five-hundred-ton Western Enquirer, from...

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8: Strategies and Deliberations

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pp. 133-151

ON JUNE 4, 1822, Supreme Court justice Joseph Story wrote his colleague Brockholst Livingston, stating that it was a “matter of regret to me that the constitutionality of the Act of New York is about to come before the Supreme Court.” The Supreme Court’s reputation had already been maligned by states’ rights supporters for the justices’ nationalistic decisions in the...

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9: The Gibbons Decision and Popular Reaction

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pp. 152-167

THE ARGUMENTS IN Gibbons v. Ogden had been masterful and the drama intense. Charles Rhind stoically informed the Townsends, “The battle is begun and we must patiently await the result.”1 William Wirt took a different approach and optimistically informed his brother that “the Steam Boat cause is finished—and we are triumphant I hope—not as to the decision of the...

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10: The Decline of the New York Steamboat Monopoly

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pp. 168-180

IN THE WAKE of the Gibbons decision, the North River Steam Boat Company lost its most powerful weapon—the ability to legally enjoin out-of-state competitors from running steamboats in New York waters. Marshall, however, had primarily addressed congressional control of interstate commerce in his decision. Many monopoly supporters thus believed they might still control...

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Conclusion: Gibbons v. Ogden as Historical Precedent

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pp. 181-193

GIBBONS V. OGDEN was a conflict that bordered at times on melodrama. Nonetheless, it was not merely the story of powerful families, public campaigns, and private intrigue. The steamboat monopoly case found its origins in a new age of experimentation, in the efforts of John Fitch and James Rumsey to secure federal patents and state monopolies over new forms of steam...


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pp. 195-235


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pp. 237-252


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pp. 253-260

E-ISBN-13: 9780821443330
Print-ISBN-13: 9780821418468

Publication Year: 2009

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Gibbons, Thomas, 1757-1826 -- Trials, litigation, etc.
  • Fulton, Robert, 1765-1815 -- Trials, litigation, etc.
  • Ogden, Aaron, 1756-1839 -- Trials, litigation, etc.
  • Interstate commerce -- Law and legislation -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Inland navigation -- Law and legislation -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Steamboats -- Law and legislation -- Hudson River (N.Y. and N.J.) -- History -- 19th century.
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