One of the world’s first steamboats successfully completed a maiden voyage on the river Clyde in Scotland in 1798. That same year, Chancellor Robert R. Livingston proposed to the New York Legislature that he would develop a new form of public transportation, the steamboat ferry, in return for a monopoly on steam navigation in New York waters. Despite the Legislature’s skepticism that steamboat technology was viable, legislation granting Livingston the monopoly was enacted.
In 1802, Livingston met the inventor Robert Fulton and agreed to fund the construction of a steamboat that Fulton had recently designed. Known simply as “the North River steamboat,” the vessel completed its maiden voyage from the city of New York to Albany on Wednesday, August 19, 1807, and the Legislature enacted a statute (L. 1808, ch 225) extending the Livingston & Fulton monopoly for a further 30 years.
Any steamboat operating in New York waters was required to obtain a license from the Livingston & Fulton monopoly, and the penalty for failure to do so was the forfeiture of the unlicensed vessel to the monopoly.
Albany attorney James Van Ingen was part-owner of two steamboats, the Hope and the Perseverance, that provided ferry services on the Hudson River. Van Ingen did not obtain a license from the monopoly and Livingston & Fulton sought an injunction against him in the United States Circuit Court. Justice Brockholst Livingston held that the court lacked jurisdiction because (1) breach of patent rights was an action at law and (2) the Circuit Court of the United States, sitting as a court of equity, lacked jurisdiction where both parties were citizens of the same State (1 Paine 45 ).
Next, Livingston & Fulton demanded forfeiture of the Hope under the 1808 law and, when Van Ingen refused to hand over the boat, applied to the New York Court of Chancery for an injunction prohibiting the use of the Hope in New York waters. Chancellor Lansing delivered an opinion in which he referenced the Institutes of Justinian, principles of common law, and the Federal Constitution to support his decision that navigable rivers were open to all, and that an injunction should not be granted. This decision had nationwide importance in an era focused on the development of a transportation infrastructure.
Livingston and Fulton, represented by several prominent members of the bar, including Thomas Addis Emmet (the brother of Irish Republican martyr Robert Emmet), appealed to the New York Court for the Correction of Errors.
The case centered on how to interpret Article 1, Section 8, Clause 3 of the U.S. Constitution, otherwise known as the Commerce Clause. It states that Congress is specifically empowered “to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among several States, and with the Indian Tribes.”
More simply put, the Commerce Clause gives Congress exclusive authority over commercial activities among the states and with foreign countries and Indian tribes. Under this framework, the individual states can only regulate intrastate commerce that takes place exclusively within their borders.
In Livingston v. Van Ingen (9 Johns. R. 507 N.Y. 1812), the New York Court for the Correction of Errors upheld a New York statute authorizing a monopoly on steam boat transportation in New York waters.
In that landmark case argued before Chief Justice John Marshall, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated the New York statute authorizing the monopoly. More importantly, the Court held that the Constitution authorizes Congress to regulate any form of commerce that crosses state lines. During the oral arguments it was Daniel Webster who was credited with the winning argument, which broke the monopoly and opened the tide waters of all the states to free navigation.
In May, 2023, the Historical Society of the New York Courts hosted “200 Years of the Commerce Clause: Gibbons v. Ogden,” a program looking at the critical and often deadly role steamboats played on the Hudson River for almost two centuries.
This program examined how Gibbons led to the birth of the federal commerce clause doctrine, which, two hundred years later, continues to be at the center of cases testing the limits of federal and state regulation of interstate commerce, including current challenges to state laws governing recreational cannabis and animal welfare.
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