Gibbons v. Ogden

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

Quick Summary

Gibbons (defendant) possessed a federal license authorizing the operation of steamboats in New York waters. In contrast, Ogden (plaintiff) asserted his entitlement to exclusive rights bestowed by the state for the same purpose.

The core issue was whether New York State could grant exclusive navigation rights in conflict with federal regulation of interstate commerce. The Supreme Court concluded that federal law takes precedence, thus siding with Gibbons and invalidating Ogden’s state-granted monopoly.

Facts of the Case

Thomas Gibbons (defendant) operated steamboats in New York waters based on a federal coasting license. Aaron Ogden (plaintiff) held an exclusive license granted by the state of New York, which he claimed gave him sole authority over steamboat navigation on certain routes within New York state waters.

Gibbons challenged the state-granted monopoly by running his steamboats on the same routes as Ogden, leading to a legal dispute over the scope of federal versus state power to regulate interstate commerce.

The clash centered on whether the federal government’s power to regulate interstate commerce granted by the Constitution superseded New York State’s laws granting exclusive navigation rights to Ogden. The case was a significant test of the balance between state and federal authority over commercial activities.

Procedural Posture and History

  1. Ogden filed a lawsuit in the New York Court of Chancery seeking to enjoin Gibbons from operating his boats in New York waters.
  2. The New York Court of Chancery issued an injunction in favor of Ogden.
  3. Gibbons appealed to the Court of Errors of New York, which affirmed the lower court’s decision.
  4. Gibbons then appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

I.R.A.C. Format


Whether the State of New York’s grant of an exclusive license for steamboat operations within its waters is constitutional given Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce.

Rule of Law

The power to regulate interstate commerce is vested in Congress and is comprehensive, including the regulation of navigation within the scope of commerce among states.

Reasoning and Analysis

The Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice John Marshall, reasoned that the term ‘commerce’ as used in the Constitution encompasses not just buying and selling but all forms of commercial intercourse, including navigation. Since navigation is a form of commerce, the power to regulate interstate navigation falls under Congress’s authority to regulate commerce among the states.

The Court also distinguished between commerce that is purely internal to a state, which the state can regulate, and commerce among states or with foreign nations, which falls under federal jurisdiction. Since Gibbons operated under a federal coasting license, his activities were protected under Congress’s constitutional authority to regulate commerce, making New York’s exclusive license invalid when it conflicted with federal law.


The Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Court of Errors of New York, ruling that the federal license granted to Gibbons under Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce trumped the state-granted monopoly license held by Ogden.

Key Takeaways

  1. The Supreme Court held that the power to regulate interstate commerce granted to Congress is comprehensive and includes navigation.
  2. States cannot grant exclusive rights that conflict with federal laws regulating interstate commerce.
  3. The decision reinforced the supremacy of federal law over state law in matters of interstate commerce.

Relevant FAQs of this case

What determines whether commerce is considered interstate versus intrastate?

The key factor in determining whether commerce is interstate or intrastate is the nature of the economic activity. For commerce to be considered interstate, it must cross state borders or otherwise connect more than one state. Conversely, intrastate commerce is contained entirely within a single state’s borders and does not affect other states.

  • For example: A trucking company that transports goods from New York to New Jersey engages in interstate commerce, while a local grocery store selling locally grown produce to residents of the same city is involved in intrastate commerce.

Can a state law regulating commerce be pre-empted by federal law, and under what circumstances?

State laws regulating commerce can be pre-empted by federal laws when there is a direct conflict between the two, or when Congress clearly expresses an intent to exercise exclusive control over a particular area of commerce. This principle is grounded in the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which establishes that federal law takes precedence over state law.

  • For example: If the federal government enacts legislation regulating pharmaceutical sales nationwide, a separate state law imposing additional obligations on pharmaceutical companies would be pre-empted because it interferes with the federal regulatory scheme.

What is the extent of Congress's power to regulate activities under the Commerce Clause?

Congress has extensive power to regulate activities under the Commerce Clause. This includes not only the power to regulate transactions and goods moving across state lines but also any activities that have a substantial impact on interstate commerce, even if they are local in nature.

  • For example: Congress can regulate local restaurants and hotels under its Commerce Clause authority, as these establishments serve out-of-state customers and influence the flow of interstate travel and commerce.


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