The Steamboat’s Charter Of Freedom

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In May, 1819, John R. Livingston of New York brought suit in the Chancery Court of that state against Aaron Ogden and Thomas Gibbons of New Jersey. Mr. Livingston, a younger brother of Robert R. Livingston, was a wealthy merchant who had dedicated his youth to making what he called “something clever” out of the Revolution and who had thereafter devoted his energies to the single-minded pursuit of material advantage. In 1808, for the extremely stiff price of one-sixth of his gross proceeds, he had purchased from his brother’s monopoly the exclusive right to navigate steamboats “from any place within the city of New York lying south of the State Prison to the Jersey shore and Staten Island, viz.: Staten Island, EIizabethtown Point, Amboy and the Raritan up to Brunswick, but to no place or point north of Powles Hook.” (The location of Powles, or Paulus, Hook may he determined by drawing a line from the southernmost tip of Manhattan Island due west to the Jersey shore.) He was certain to extract from this hard-bought concession whatever there was to be extracted—and thus arose his suit against Ogden and Gibbons.

Aaron Ogden, finding the New Jersey legislature unwilling to support him in his claim to run steamboats on his own, had reluctantly yielded to the monopoly in 1815, and had purchased from Mr. Livingston, its assignee, the right to run a steamboat ferry from Elizabethtown Point to New York. A Revolutionary soldier who had fought at Yorktown, a former governor of New Jersey, and one of the state’s leading lawyers and most prominent Federalists, Ogden was a man of impressive physique, craggy and truculent countenance, and character to match. He bore the monopoly no good will, and in the course of time he acquired in Thomas Gibbons a partner even more contentious than himself.

Gibbons was a wealthy lawyer from Georgia who had acquired a home in Elizabethtown, New Jersey, in 1811. He had been a Loyalist during the Revolution, thereby (since his brother and father were both patriots) saving the family plantation from both British vandalism and anti-Loyalist revenge. His was not exactly a happy record, but he had survived it, to acquire at length a reputation, notable even in Georgia, for some of the more opprobrious and quarrelsome forms of political meddling. “His soul,” said one enemy, “is faction and his life has been a scene of political corruption.”

The partnership between Ogden and Gibbons, instituted in 1817, was no doubt doomed from the start. In October, 1818, Ogden obtained an injunction against Gibbons in the New York Chancery Court, presumably because that oblique personage could not resist the temptation to cheat his partner by running a steamboat on his own account from Paulus Hook to New York. Nonetheless, when John R. Livingston brought suit against the pair in 1819, their partnership was still uneasily alive upon the following terms: Ogden ran passengers from New York to Elizabethtown Point in his steamboat Atalanta. At Elizabethtown Point, the passengers changed into Gibbons’ Bellona, for which (as for his smaller steamboat, the Stoudinger) Gibbons had taken out a United States coasting license. The passengers were then carried to New Brunswick, from whence they proceeded overland to Trenton and Philadelphia.

John R. Livingston, whose steamboat Olive Branch ran regularly from New York to New Brunswick, claimed that the Ogden-Gibbons partnership constituted a single voyage, in defiance of his exclusive right. He also showed that the partners had a common booking agent in New York, one William B. Jaques. Livingston sought an injunction restraining them from navigating their two boats, except from New York to Elizabethtown Point. This meant that in future the Atalanta would have to transfer her passengers, not into Gibbons’ Bellona, but into Livingston’s Olive Branch.

Both Gibbons and Ogden disclaimed any partnership or any knowledge of Mr. Jaques. Both insisted that the ports and harbors of Elizabethtown Point and New Brunswick were within the jurisdiction of New Jersey, as were the waters lying between them; and both asserted that the agreement between the monopoly and John R. Livingston gave the latter no right whatsoever to navigate between a port in New York and one in New Jersey. Gibbons had other arguments, but the chief of them—and this in time became the crux of the whole matter--was that under his national coasting license he had a perfect right to navigate between one point in New Jersey and another.

The reigning chancellor of New York was now none other than James Kent, who, as chief justice, had delivered the decisive opinion in the case of the Hope in 1812. That he would reverse in the Court of Chancery a decision he had delivered in the Court of Errors was not to be expected. In a complicated decision that adds nothing to his fame as a jurist, he held that Ogden could continue to steam between New York and Elizabethtown Point in the Atalanta, but that Gibbons’ Bellona could not operate between the Point and New Brunswick.