|Gibbons v. Ogden
100 U.S. 1
[ Marshall ]
[ Johnson ]
Gibbons v. Ogden
APPEAL FROM THE COURT FOR THE TRIAL OF IMPEACHMENTS AND CORRECTION OF ERRORS OF THE STATE OF NEW YORK
Mr. Justice JOHNSON.
The judgment entered by the Court in this cause, has my entire approbation, but, having adopted my conclusions on views [p223] of the subject materially different from those of my brethren, I feel it incumbent on me to exhibit those views. I have also another inducement: in questions of great importance and great delicacy, I feel my duty to the public best discharged by an effort to maintain my opinions in my own way.
In attempts to construe the Constitution, I have never found much benefit resulting from the inquiry whether the whole or any part of it is to be construed strictly or literally. The simple, classical, precise, yet comprehensive language in which it is couched leaves, at most, but very little latitude for construction, and when its intent and meaning is discovered, nothing remains but to execute the will of those who made it in the best manner to effect the purposes intended. The great and paramount purpose was to unite this mass of wealth and power, for the protection of the humblest individual, his rights, civil and political, his interests and prosperity, are the sole end; the rest are nothing but the means. But the principal of those means, one so essential as to approach nearer the characteristics of an end, was the independence and harmony of the States that they may the better subserve the purposes of cherishing and protecting the respective families of this great republic.
The strong sympathies, rather than the feeble government, which bound the States together during a common war dissolved on the return of peace, and the very principles which gave rise to the war of the revolution began to threaten the [p224] Confederacy with anarchy and ruin. The States had resisted a tax imposed by the parent State, and now reluctantly submitted to, or altogether rejected, the moderate demands of the Confederation. Everyone recollects the painful and threatening discussions which arose on the subject of the five percent. duty. Some States rejected it altogether; others insisted on collecting it themselves; scarcely any acquiesced without reservations, which deprived it altogether of the character of a national measure; and at length, some repealed the laws by which they had signified their acquiescence.
For a century, the States had submitted, with murmurs, to the commercial restrictions imposed by the parent State; and now, finding themselves in the unlimited possession of those powers over their own commerce which they had so long been deprived of and so earnestly coveted, that selfish principle which, well controlled, is so salutary, and which, unrestricted, is so unjust and tyrannical, guided by inexperience and jealousy, began to show itself in iniquitous laws and impolitic measures from which grew up a conflict of commercial regulations destructive to the harmony of the States and fatal to their commercial interests abroad.
This was the immediate cause that led to the forming of a convention.
As early as 1778, the subject had been pressed upon the attention of Congress by a memorial from the State of New Jersey, and in 1781, we find a resolution presented to that body by one of [p225] the most enlightened men of his day, Dr. Witherspoon, affirming that
it is indispensably necessary that the United States, in Congress assembled, should be vested with a right of superintending the commercial regulations of every State that none may take place that shall be partial or contrary to the common interests.
The resolution of Virginia, January 21, 1781, appointing her commissioners to meet commissioners from other States, expresses their purpose to be
to take into consideration the trade of the United States, to consider how far an uniform system in their commercial regulations may be necessary to their common interests and their permanent harmony.
And Mr. Madison's resolution, which led to that measure, is introduced by a preamble entirely explicit to this point:
Whereas, the relative situation of the United States has been found, on trial, to require uniformity in their commercial regulations as the only effectual policy for obtaining, in the ports of foreign nations, a stipulation of privileges reciprocal to those enjoyed by the subjects of such nations in the ports of the United States, for preventing animosities, which cannot fail to arise among the several States, from the interference of partial and separate regulations,
&c. "therefore, resolved," &c.
The history of the times will therefore sustain the opinion that the grant of power over commerce, if intended to be commensurate with the evils existing and the purpose of remedying those [p226] evils, could be only commensurate with the power of the States over the subject. And this opinion is supported by a very remarkable evidence of the general understanding of the whole American people when the grant was made.
There was not a State in the Union in which there did not at that time exist a variety of commercial regulations; concerning which it is too much to suppose that the whole ground covered by those regulations was immediately assumed by actual legislation under the authority of the Union. But where was the existing statute on this subject that a State attempted to execute? or by what State was it ever thought necessary to repeal those statutes? By common consent, those laws dropped lifeless from their statute books for want of the sustaining power that had been relinquished to Congress.
And the plain and direct import of the words of the grant is consistent with this general understanding.
The words of the Constitution are, "Congress shall have power to regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian tribes."
It is not material, in my view of the subject, to inquire whether the article a or the should be prefixed to the word "power." Either or neither will produce the same result: if either, it is clear that the article "the" would be the proper one, since the next preceding grant of power is certainly exclusive, to-wit: "to borrow money on the credit [p227] of the United States." But mere verbal criticism I reject.
My opinion is founded on the application of the words of the grant to the subject of it.
The "power to regulate commerce" here meant to be granted was that power to regulate commerce which previously existed in the States. But what was that power? The States were unquestionably supreme, and each possessed that power over commerce which is acknowledged to reside in every sovereign State. The definition and limits of that power are to be sought among the features of international law, and, as it was not only admitted but insisted on by both parties in argument that, "unaffected by a state of war, by treaties, or by municipal regulations, all commerce among independent States was legitimate," there is no necessity to appeal to the oracles of the jus commune for the correctness of that doctrine. The law of nations, regarding man as a social animal, pronounces all commerce legitimate in a state of peace until prohibited by positive law. The power of a sovereign state over commerce therefore amounts to nothing more than a power to limit and restrain it at pleasure. And since the power to prescribe the limits to its freedom necessarily implies the power to determine what shall remain unrestrained, it follows that the power must be exclusive; it can reside but in one potentate, and hence the grant of this power carries with it the whole subject, leaving nothing for the State to act upon.
And such has been the practical construction of [p228] the act. Were every law on the subject of commerce repealed tomorrow, all commerce would be lawful, and, in practice, merchants never inquire what is permitted, but what is forbidden commerce. Of all the endless variety of branches of foreign commerce now carried on to every quarter of the world, I know of no one that is permitted by act of Congress any otherwise than by not being forbidden. No statute of the United States that I know of was ever passed to permit a commerce unless in consequence of its having been prohibited by some previous statute.
I speak not here of the treaty-making power, for that is not exercised under the grant now under consideration. I confine my observation to laws properly so called. And even where freedom of commercial intercourse is made a subject of stipulation in a treaty, it is generally with a view to the removal of some previous restriction, or the introduction of some new privilege, most frequently, is identified with the return to a state of peace. But another view of the subject leads directly to the same conclusion. Power to regulate foreign commerce is given in the same words, and in the same breath, as it were, with that over the commerce of the States and with the Indian tribes. But the power to regulate foreign commerce is necessarily exclusive. The States are unknown to foreign nations, their sovereignty exists only with relation to each other and the General Government. Whatever regulations foreign commerce should be subjected to in the ports of the Union, the General Government would be [p229] held responsible for them, and all other regulations but those which Congress had imposed would be regarded by foreign nations as trespasses and violations of national faith and comity.
But the language which grants the power as to one description of commerce grants it as to all, and, in fact, if ever the exercise of a right or acquiescence in a construction could be inferred from contemporaneous and continued assent, it is that of the exclusive effect of this grant.
A right over the subject has never been pretended to in any instance except as incidental to the exercise of some other unquestionable power.
The present is an instance of the assertion of that kind, as incidental to a municipal power; that of superintending the internal concerns of a State, and particularly of extending protection and patronage, in the shape of a monopoly, to genius and enterprise.
The grant to Livingston and Fulton interferes with the freedom of intercourse, and on this principle, its constitutionality is contested.
When speaking of the power of Congress over navigation, I do not regard it as a power incidental to that of regulating commerce; I consider it as the thing itself, inseparable from it as vital motion is from vital existence.
Commerce, in its simplest signification, means an exchange of goods, but in the advancement of society, labour, transportation, intelligence, care, and various mediums of exchange become commodities, and enter into commerce, the subject, [p230] the vehicle, the agent, and their various operations become the objects of commercial regulation. Shipbuilding, the carrying trade, and propagation of seamen are such vital agents of commercial prosperity that the nation which could not legislate over these subjects would not possess power to regulate commerce.
That such was the understanding of the framers of the Constitution is conspicuous from provisions contained in that instrument.
The first clause of the 9th section not only considers the right of controlling personal ingress or migration, as implied in the powers previously vested in Congress over commerce, but acknowledges it as a legitimate subject of revenue. And, although the leading object of this section undoubtedly was the importation of slaves, yet the words are obviously calculated to comprise persons of all descriptions, and to recognise in Congress a power to prohibit where the States permit, although they cannot permit when the States prohibit. The treaty-making power undoubtedly goes further. So the fifth clause of the same section furnishes an exposition of the sense of the Convention as to the power of Congress over navigation: "nor shall vessels bound to or from one State be obliged to enter, clear, or pay duties in another."
But it is almost labouring to prove a self-evident proposition, since the sense of mankind, the practice of the world, the contemporaneous assumption and continued exercise of the power, and universal acquiescence, have so clearly established [p231] the right of Congress over navigation, and the transportation of both men and their goods, as not only incidental to, but actually of the essence of, the power to regulate commerce. As to the transportation of passengers, and passengers in a steamboat, I consider it as having been solemnly recognised by the State of New York as a subject both of commercial regulation and of revenue. She has imposed a transit duty upon steamboat passengers arriving at Albany, and unless this be done in the exercise of her control over personal intercourse, as incident to internal commerce, I know not on what principle the individual has been subjected to this tax. The subsequent imposition upon the steamboat itself appears to be but a commutation, and operates as an indirect, instead of a direct, tax upon the same subject. The passenger pays it at last.
It is impossible, with the views which I entertain of the principle on which the commercial privileges of the people of the United States among themselves rests, to concur in the view which this Court takes of the effect of the coasting license in this cause. I do not regard it as the foundation of the right set up in behalf of the appellant. If there was any one object riding over every other in the adoption of the Constitution, it was to keep the commercial intercourse among the States free from all invidious and partial restraints. And I cannot overcome the conviction that, if the licensing act was repealed tomorrow, the rights of the appellant to a reversal of the decision complained of would be as [p232] strong as it is under this license. One half the doubts in life arise from the defects of language, and if this instrument had been called an exemption instead of a license, it would have given a better idea of its character. Licensing acts, in fact, in legislation, are universally restraining acts, as, for example, acts licensing gaming houses, retailers of spiritous liquors, &c. The act in this instance is distinctly of that character, and forms part of an extensive system the object of which is to encourage American shipping and place them on an equal footing with the shipping of other nations. Almost every commercial nation reserves to its own subjects a monopoly of its coasting trade, and a countervailing privilege in favour of American shipping is contemplated in the whole legislation of the United States on this subject. It is not to give the vessel an American character that the license is granted; that effect has been correctly attributed to the act of her enrollment. But it is to confer on her American privileges, as contradistinguished from foreign, and to preserve the government from fraud by foreigners in surreptitiously intruding themselves into the American commercial marine, as well as frauds upon the revenue in the trade coastwise, that this whole system is projected. Many duties and formalities are necessarily imposed upon the American foreign commerce which would be burdensome in the active coasting trade of the States, and can be dispensed with. A higher rate of tonnage also is imposed, and this license entitles the vessels that take it to those exemptions, but to nothing more. [p233] A common register equally entitles vessels to carry on the coasting trade, although it does not exempt them from the forms of foreign commerce or from compliance with the 16th and 17th sections of the enrolling act. And even a foreign vessel may be employed coastwise upon complying with the requisitions of the 24th section. I consider the license therefore as nothing more than what it purports to be, according to the first section of this act, conferring on the licensed vessel certain privileges in that trade not conferred on other vessels; but the abstract right of commercial intercourse, stripped of those privileges, is common to all.
Yet there is one view in which the license may be allowed considerable influence in sustaining the decision of this Court.
It has been contended that the grants of power to the United States over any subject do not necessarily paralyze the arm of the States or deprive them of the capacity to act on the same subject. The this can be the effect only of prohibitory provisions in their own Constitutions, or in that of the General Government. The vis vitae of power is still existing in the States, if not extinguished by the Constitution of the United States. That, although as to all those grants of power which may be called aboriginal, with relation to the Government, brought into existence by the Constitution, they, of course, are out of the reach of State power, yet, as to all concessions of powers which previously existed in the States, it was otherwise. The practice of our Government certainly [p234] has been, on many subjects, to occupy so much only of the field opened to them as they think the public interests require. Witness the jurisdiction of the Circuit Courts, limited both as to cases and as to amount, and various other instances that might to cited. But the license furnishes a full answer to this objection, for, although one grant of power over commerce, should not be deemed a total relinquishment of power over the subject, but amounting only to a power to assume, still the power of the States must be at an end, so far as the United States have, by their legislative act, taken the subject under their immediate superintendence. So far as relates to the commerce coastwise, the act under which this license is granted contains a full expression of Congress on this subject. Vessels, from five tons upwards, carrying on the coasting trade are made the subject of regulation by that act. And this license proves that this vessel has complied with that act, and been regularly ingrafted into one class of the commercial marine of the country.
It remains, to consider the objections to this opinion, as presented by the counsel for the appellee. On those which had relation to the particular character of this boat, whether as a steamboat or a ferry boat, I have only to remark that, in both those characters, she is expressly recognised as an object of the provisions which relate to licenses.
The 12th section of the Act of 1793 has these words: "That when the master of any ship or vessel, ferry boats excepted, shall be changed," &c. And the act which exempts licensed steamboats [p235] from the provisions against alien interests shows such boats to be both objects of the licensing act and objects of that act when employed exclusively within our bays and rivers.
But the principal objections to these opinions arise,
1st. From the unavoidable action of some of the municipal powers of the States upon commercial subjects.
2d. From passages in the Constitution which are supposed to imply a concurrent power in the States in regulating commerce.
It is no objection to the existence of distinct, substantive powers that, in their application, they bear upon the same subject. The same bale of goods, the same cask of provisions, or the same ship that may be the subject of commercial regulation may also be the vehicle of disease. And the health laws that require them to be stopped and ventilated are no more intended as regulations on commerce than the laws which permit their importation are intended to innoculate the community with disease. Their different purposes mark the distinction between the powers brought into action, and while frankly exercised, they can produce no serious collision. As to laws affecting ferries, turnpike roads, and other subjects of the same class, so far from meriting the epithet of commercial regulations, they are, in fact, commercial facilities for which, by the consent of mankind, a compensation is paid upon the same principle that the whole commercial world submit to pay light money to the Danes. Inspection laws are of a more equivocal nature, and it is obvious that [p236] the Constitution has viewed that subject with much solicitude. But so far from sustaining an inference in favour of the power of the States over commerce, I cannot but think that the guarded provisions of the 10th section on this subject furnish a strong argument against that inference. It was obvious that inspection laws must combine municipal with commercial regulations, and, while the power over the subject is yielded to the States, for obvious reasons, an absolute control is given over State legislation on the subject, as far as that legislation may be exercised, so as to affect the commerce of the country. The inferences to be correctly drawn from this whole article appear to me to be altogether in favour of the exclusive grants to Congress of power over commerce, and the reverse of that which the appellee contends for.
This section contains the positive restrictions imposed by the Constitution upon State power. The first clause of it specifies those powers which the States are precluded from exercising, even though the Congress were to permit them. The second, those which the States may exercise with the consent of Congress. And here the sedulous attention to the subject of State exclusion from commercial power is strongly marked. Not satisfied with the express grant to the United States of the power over commerce, this clause negatives the exercise of that power to the States as to the only two objects which could ever tempt them to assume the exercise of that power, to-wit, the collection of a revenue from imposts and duties on imports and exports, or from a tonnage duty. As [p237] to imposts on imports or exports, such a revenue might have been aimed at directly, by express legislation, or indirectly, in the form of inspection laws, and it became necessary to guard against both. Hence, first, the consent of Congress to such imposts or duties is made necessary, and, as to inspection laws, it is limited to the minimum of expenses. Then the money so raised shall be paid into the Treasury of the United States, or may be sued for, since it is declared to be for their use. And lastly, all such laws may be modified or repealed by an act of Congress. It is impossible for a right to be more guarded. As to a tonnage duty that could be recovered in but one way, and a sum so raised, being obviously necessary for the execution of health laws and other unavoidable port expenses, it was intended that it should go into the State treasuries, and nothing more was required therefore than the consent of Congress. But this whole clause, as to these two subjects, appears to have been introduced ex abundanti cautela, to remove every temptation to an attempt to interfere with the powers of Congress over commerce, and to show how far Congress might consent to permit the States to exercise that power. Beyond those limits, even by the consent of Congress, they could not exercise it. And thus we have the whole effect of the clause. The inference which counsel would deduce from it is neither necessary nor consistent with the general purpose of the clause.
But instances have been insisted on with much confidence in argument in which, by municipal [p238] laws, particular regulations respecting their cargoes have been imposed upon shipping in the ports of the United States, and one in which forfeiture was made the penalty of disobedience.
Until such laws have been tested by exceptions to their constitutionality, the argument certainly wants much of the force attributed to it; but, admitting their constitutionality, they present only the familiar case of punishment inflicted by both governments upon the same individual. He who robs the mail may also steal the horse that carries it, and would unquestionably be subject to punishment at the same time under the laws of the State in which the crime is committed and under those of the United States. And these punishments may interfere, and one render it impossible to inflict the other, and yet the two governments would be acting under powers that have no claim to identity.
It would be in vain to deny the possibility of a clashing and collision between the measures of the two governments. The line cannot be drawn with sufficient distinctness between the municipal powers of the one and the commercial powers of the other. In some points, they meet and blend so as scarcely to admit of separation. Hitherto, the only remedy has been applied which the case admits of -- that of a frank and candid cooperation for the general good. Witness the laws of Congress requiring its officers to respect the inspection laws of the States and to aid in enforcing their health laws, that which surrenders to the States the superintendence of pilotage, and the [p239] many laws passed to permit a tonnage duty to be levied for the use of their ports. Other instances could be cited abundantly to prove that collision must be sought to be produced, and when it does arise, the question must be decided how far the powers of Congress are adequate to put it down. Wherever the powers of the respective governments are frankly exercised, with a distinct view to the ends of such powers, they may act upon the same object, or use the same means, and yet the powers be kept perfectly distinct. A resort to the same means therefore is no argument to prove the identity of their respective powers.
I have not touched upon the right of the States to grant patents for inventions or improvements generally, because it does not necessarily arise in this cause. It is enough for all the purposes of this decision if they cannot exercise it so as to restrain a free intercourse among the States.
DECREE. This cause came on to be heard on the transcript of the record of the Court for the Trial of Impeachments and Correction of Errors of the State of New York, and was argued by counsel. On consideration whereof, this Court is of opinion that the several licenses to the steamboats the Stoudinger and the Bellona to carry on the coasting trade, which are set up by the appellant Thomas Gibbons in his answer to the bill of the respondent, Aaron Ogden, filed in the Court of Chancery for the State of New York, which were granted under an act of Congress, passed in pursuance of the Constitution of the [p240] United States, gave full authority to those vessels to navigate the waters of the United States, by steam or otherwise, for the purpose of carrying on the coasting trade, any law of the State of New York to the contrary notwithstanding, and that so much of the several laws of the State of New York as prohibits vessels, licensed according to the laws of the United States, from navigating the waters of the State of New York by means of fire or steam is repugnant to the said Constitution, and void. This Court is therefore of opinion that the decree of the Court of New York for the Trial of Impeachments and the Correction of Errors affirming the decree of the Chancellor of that State, which perpetually enjoins the said Thomas Gibbons, the appellant, from navigating the waters of the State of New York with the steamboats the Stoudinger and the Bellona by steam or fire, is erroneous, and ought to be reversed, and the same is hereby reversed and annulled, and this Court doth further DIRECT, ORDER, and DECREE that the bill of the said Aaron Ogden be dismissed, and the same is hereby dismissed accordingly.