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Inaugural Brian Simpson Lecture: The Intrigue of Gibbons v. Ogden

Inaugural Brian Simpson Lecture: The Intrigue of Gibbons v. Ogden

By Bibeane Metsch-Garcia
March 19, 2015

More interesting than the Commerce Clause's role in the landmark case Gibbons v. Ogden is the family intrigue—inheritance claims, divorce settlements, libels—that surrounded the case.

So said legal historian Hendrik Hartog at the first Brian Simpson Lecture in Legal History on March 13 at Michigan Law. Hartog said his goal was "to bring to life a tired chestnut of the law to show how it was rooted in the political and legal theory of the time," and he asked listeners to put aside the Commerce Clause as more or less irrelevant to the litigants.

The story of Gibbons and Ogden presents an opportunity to focus on the role of the states as jurisdictions that offer varying levels of resources to litigants, said Hartog, the Class of 1921 Bicentennial Professor in the History of American Law and Liberty and director of the Program in American Studies at Princeton University. At the time, New York was monopolizing legal talent, jurisdictional authority, and steamboat technology, and litigants and federal courts tried to manage the enormous power of New York legal talent, he said.

The issue in the early 1800s was not the Commerce Clause, he said, but rather the patentable steamboat technology and who controlled what. Additionally, New Jersey and New York bitterly contested what their borders were with respect to their steamboat franchises, said Hartog, whose scholarship focuses on the social history of American law.

Plaintiff Thomas Gibbons was one of the richest men in the early republic, had been the mayor of Savannah, Georgia, and had rice plantations in South Carolina where he owned many slaves, Hartog told the audience. Around 1800, he moved to Elizabethtown, New Jersey, possibly to create an informal separation from his wife. "He was a real libertine," Hartog said.

Aaron Ogden, meanwhile, was a revolutionary war hero from a prominent but not wealthy New Jersey family. He was a successful lawyer in the 1790s and rose rapidly as a Federalist, going on to become a senator and to serve one term as governor of New Jersey. He headed many charitable organizations in New Jersey and was a slave owner into the 1820s.

Gibbons owned a port in Elizabethtown that was leased by Ogden, who owned the New Jersey steamboat franchise. The terms of the lease were confused and Gibbons was always distrustful of Ogden, Hartog said. Gibbons set up a trust for the children of his daughter, the core of which was the location of Ogden's steamboat operation. Gibbons wanted to renegotiate the lease into a partnership, and Ogden was putting him off.

Hartog recounted how Gibbons's penniless son-in-law, John M. Trumbull, fought with Gibbons—who apparently believed Trumbull had seduced Gibbons's daughter Ann to gain access to his resources. John and Ann visited Gibbons one day, asking for the Elizabethtownport trust that Gibbons had set up for their children. Gibbons refused. Trumbull then went to Savannah to get Gibbons's wife so she could get a formal separation. She lived with her daughter and son-in-law while seeking a divorce—in which Ogden decided to represent her. Hartog called Ogden's representation of Gibbons's wife a "life-changing decision."

Researching and cobbling together the story behind these enmeshed characters, Hartog said, requires keeping track of the litigation. Gibbons dedicated the rest of his life to destroying Ogden. He soon went to Saratoga Springs to draft a pamphlet with the intent of terrorizing his wife into moving back in with him. The content of the pamphlet led Trumbull to sue Gibbons in New York City for $100,000 for libel; he was awarded $15,000.

The saga of Gibbons v. Ogden and the events that preceded it highlight "the sheer growing importance of New York City." Hartog emphasized that "to understand federalism, one must pierce the constitutional veil of the equality of the states and appreciate the immense seductive quality of New York City from 1815 to 1825."

Gibbons v. Ogden would go on to be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1824. Commonly known as the "steamboat case," Gibbons held that Congress has the power to regulate interstate commerce, including navigation, through the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The biennial Brian Simpson Lectures in Legal History bring distinguished scholars to campus and reinforce the longstanding ties between Michigan Law School and the Department of History. The new series honors the late Professor Brian Simpson, a Michigan Law faculty member (1987-2011) who was internationally recognized as one of the most gifted and wide-ranging historians of the English Common Law. The Brian Simpson Lectures are made possible by the generous support of the Thomas and Ruth Green Legal History Endowment.

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