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In regulating commerce with foreign nations, the power of Congress does not stop at the jurisdictional lines of the several states. It would be a very useless power, if it could not pass those lines. The commerce of the United States with foreign nations, is that of the whole United States. Every district has a right to participate in it. The deep streams which penetrate the country in every direction, pass through the interior of almost every state in the Union, and furnish the means of exercising this right. If Congress has the power to regulate it, that power must be exercised whenever the subject exists. If it exists within the states, if a foreign voyage may commence or terminate at a port within a state, then the power of Congress may be exercised within a state.
A state act gave an exclusive right to certain individuals to use steam navigation in all the waters of New York for 30 years from 1808. An injunction was issued restraining defendants from navigating steamboats in the waters within the state because of this exclusive privilege, which defendants violated. Defendants contended that the privilege violated an act of Congress which regulated the licensing of ships and vessels in the coasting trade and fisheries and was repugnant to the Constitution and laws of the United States. The state court found in favor of the plaintiff, and defendants appealed.
Can state legislation go against the Commerce Clause?
The Court held that the act of Congress gave full authority to defendants' vessels to navigate the waters of the United States. The law of the state of New York, prohibiting the vessels from navigating the waters of the state, was repugnant to the Constitution and void.
The subject to be regulated is commerce; and our constitution being, as was aptly said at the bar, one of enumeration, and not of definition, to ascertain the extent of the power, it becomes necessary to settle the meaning of the word. The counsel for the appellee would limit it to traffic, to buying and selling, or the interchange of commodities, and do not admit that it comprehends navigation. This would restrict a general term, applicable to many objects, to one of its significations. The mind can scarcely conceive a system for regulating commerce between nations, which shall exclude all laws concerning navigation, which shall be silent on the admission of the vessels of the one nation into the ports of the other, and be confined to prescribing rules for the conduct of individuals, in the actual employment of buying and selling, or of barter.