Gibbons v. Ogden

John Marshall, Steamboats, and the Commerce Clause

Herbert A. Johnson

What began as a standoff between competing steamship entrepreneurs ended as one of the Supreme Court's most significant cases. Gibbons v. Ogden in 1824 brought into sharp relief the ongoing tug-of-war for power between individual states and the federal government. By applying the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, the Court set a key precedent for federal authority. But, behind the scenes, the "Steamboat Case" also demonstrated Chief Justice John Marshall's instrumental role as mediator on the bench.

Untangling the issues and the arguments in Gibbons, Herbert Johnson reveals the lasting impact of this landmark case on both commerce in the Early Republic and the understanding and growth of federal power during the last 200 years. Johnson brings the case's protagonists—including Marshall and Daniel Webster—vividly to life and deftly illuminates its key aspects: the ambiguity of the Court's judgment; Justice William Johnson's nationalist-oriented concurring opinion; Marshall's avoidance of such key issues as the role of the dormant commerce clause and the relationship of foreign trade, interstate commerce, and diplomatic relations; and Marshall's failure to address patents and state monopolies. Perhaps most significant, the author challenges the traditional view that Gibbons established that the Constitution bestowed upon Congress an exclusive power to regulate interstate commerce.

“An original and authoritative study of the ‘steamboat monopoly case’ by a master historian that should be required reading for all serious students of American constitutional law.”

—Charles F. Hobson, author of The Great Chief Justice: John Marshall and the Rule of Law

“Johnson brings the case alive. What had been a canonical citation becomes a drama of fascinating characters, changing technology, fortunes to be made, and, most of all, power. A substantial achievement.”

—Paul Kahn, author of The Reign of Law: Marbury v. Madison and the Construction of America
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Drawing on recent research into the early Court, Johnson shows how Gibbons provides a salient example of Marshall's ability to gain agreement despite severe differences among his colleagues. No longer surrounded by fellow Federalists on the bench, Marshall mustered all of his managerial skills to achieve consensus, and his opinion for the Court reflected the concessions and agreements that he engineered to achieve near unanimity in a decision that favored federal power without establishing a definitive endorsement of it.

Johnson shows that the outcome of this case was a key moment in the economic history of the nation, heralding the expansion of entrepreneurship and technology while justifying federal primacy in the regulation of commerce. Concise and ideally suited for the classroom, his study not only provides new insight into this landmark case but also attests to its significance in the working of the early Court.

About the Author

Herbert A. Johnson, Distinguished Professor of Law Emeritus at the University of South Carolina, is author of The Chief Justiceship of John Marshall, former editor of the multivolume Papers of John Marshall, and coauthor of The Foundations of Power: John Marshall, 1801-1815, volume 2 in the Oliver Wendell Holmes Devise History of the Supreme Court.

Additional Titles in the Landmark Law Cases and American Society Series