The Steamboat’s Charter Of Freedom

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The famous case of Gibbons v. Ogden, decided on March 2, 1824, was, with its preceding litigation, ultimately concerned with a single question: the power of Congress to regulate interstate as well as foreign commerce. It produced a triumph for nationalism, in the most generous and constructive sense of that term, and its influence has been immense. Its immediate effect, however, was to release from monopoly, like a genie from a bottle, a sooty, romantic, and useful servant to the American people—the steamboat.

One cannot altogether understand this aspect of Gibbons v. Ogden without considering the origins and consequences of the Livingston-Fulton steamboat monopoly and the personalities involved in them: personalities of considerable determination and marked eccentricity, one of whom was brushed with genius.

The actual inaugurators of the American steamboat—John Fitch, James Rumsey, and perhaps Oliver Evans—were also its innocent victims; they could make it run, but they could not make it run economically, nor could they raise sufficient funds to enable them, by research and experiment, to overcome this problem. One still sees them, nobly (and in Fitch’s case somewhat drunkenly) silhouetted against the pale dawn of the age of steam, gesticulating in vain to the inattentive financier, the jocose and skeptical public. From their valiant dust springs Gibbons v. Ogden.

The great case may be taken back to March 27, 1798, when the New York legislature repealed an exclusive privilege to run steamboats on state waters, which it had conferred on John Fitch, and bestowed it instead upon Robert R. Livingston, chancellor of the state. Livingston had what Fitch conspicuously lacked—social status, political influence, wealth, credit. He resembled Fitch only in one respect: he was an enthusiast. An amateur scientist, he believed that nature might at any moment yield one of her tremendous secrets to some chance experiment or happy flash of insight. The building of gristmills on a novel principle to eliminate friction between the stones; the crossing of cows with the elk in his park at Clermont on the Hudson; the manufacture of paper out of river-weed locally known as frog’s spit—such schemes and fancies occupied his leisure hours.

His spirit, one might almost say, dwelt more and more apart on the farthest and most aery borders of rational speculation: almost but not quite. He was a progressive farmer, for example, whose work was of the first importance. And there was a hard, practical element in his singular composition—he was, after all, of Scottish and Dutch descent—which made it unlikely that he would throw good money after bad. To his great credit, he had perceived that the steamboat had a future: and although steamboat legislation, like Vulcan among the gods, excited the immortal laughter of the New York legislature, Livingston was quite impervious to mockery of this sort.

His experiments with John Stevens (one of the fathers of the railroad) and Nicholas J. Roosevelt proved abortive; and when he left for France in 1801, where as American minister he plunged into those complex and exasperating negotiations which ultimately led to the purchase of Louisiana, it was presumed that no more would be heard of the steamboat. But in Paris he met the one man who could give his schemes what they needed—precision, economy, practicability.

Robert Fulton, darkly handsome, supremely self-confident, the very embodiment of energy, had been raised as an artisan in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He had been a locksmith, a gunsmith, a draughtsman, a portrait painter; he had gone to England to study under Benjamin West; and in England he had first conceived what was to become a permanent preoccupation with submarines and submarine torpedoes. Of Fulton it might indeed be doubted whether his lifelong purpose was to put boats upon the water or to blow them out of it.

One thing, however, was certain. He had, supremely, the faculty of co-ordination. Other men’s original ideas, in the realm of steamboats, existed only to be borrowed: “All these things,” he said airily, “being governed by the laws of nature, the real invention is to find [such laws].” To him, it was all a matter of exact proportions, of nicely calculated relations. Where the steamboat was concerned, it was Fulton’s destiny, and his genius, to find a commotion and to turn it into a revolution.