Guest Essayist: Joerg Knipprath

On June 19, 1846, the Rochester, New York, Democrat newspaper reported that over 4,000 people assembled to witness the launch of a new steamship (then often called a “propeller” due to the novel screw propulsion mechanism), the Genesee Chief. She was described as “faultless in her model and appointments.” At 144 feet long, with 20 state rooms, and berths for 75 cabin and 100 steerage passengers, with room for more, she was to be the start of regular steamship service between Rochester and Chicago.

Less than a year later, on May 6, 1847, on Lake Ontario, the Genesee Chief collided with the schooner Cuba, a sailing vessel laden with nearly 6,000 bushels of wheat. The Cuba sank. The cargo was lost. The owners of the Cuba thereupon sought a libel (claim) in admiralty law in federal court for their damages. They based their claim on an 1845 statute of Congress. The Genesee Chief’s owners challenged that court’s jurisdiction, averring that the federal court lacked diversity jurisdiction over the case because owners of both ships were from New York State. Further, they claimed that the court lacked federal question jurisdiction because admiralty law only applied on the high seas or adjacent waterways, while this incident occurred on a portion of a lake within the territorial waters of New York State. The federal statute that had given the federal court jurisdiction over this claim therefore must be unconstitutional.

The matter proceeded to the Supreme Court for decision in 1851. The Court’s opinion, by Chief Justice Roger Taney, roiled the waters of American jurisprudence. The opinion upheld the trial court’s jurisdiction as well as its decision on the merits. In doing so, the Court touched on three areas of controversy. Viewed from the narrowest perspective, the Court abandoned long-standing English (and more recent American) precedents about application of admiralty law. In addition, the Court carefully trod a narrow path between powers of the general government and reserved powers of the states. Finally, the Court gave enhanced jurisdiction and power to the federal courts.

As to the first, English law traditionally limited the powers of admiralty courts to matters that occurred on the high seas or tidewater areas, that is, those places that, though inland, were nevertheless subject to the ebb and flow of tides. These were deemed navigable waters. That definition worked well because, as the Court maintained, in England there were no public navigable waters beyond the tidal influence. However, a large country as the United States, encompassing a number of large navigable rivers and inland lakes far from ocean tides, had to adjust its law to different conditions.

What made the matter more ticklish for Taney was that Chief Justice John Marshall, in The Thomas Jefferson case in 1825, had applied the English approach. Since then, commercial navigation on rivers and lakes had expanded, made even more efficient by the canal-building programs of the early 19th century. Business interests needed relief from potentially overlapping, and even conflicting, application of state property law by competing state courts. Congress responded to their concerns about The Thomas Jefferson case by enacting the 1845 statute that opened the federal courts to litigants in tort and contract disputes involving navigation and commerce on lakes and navigable waters between states and territories. Since that case also formed the basis for the argument of the Genesee Chief’s owners about the federal statute’s unconstitutionality, Taney distinguished and, effectively, overruled it.

Taney pointed out that there was nothing inherent to connect navigation to the ebb and flow of tides. That system had been of practical effect in England and in the early states. As the Chief Justice noted, “In the old thirteen states, the far greater part of the navigable waters are tidewater.” Moreover, the decision in The Thomas Jefferson was made “when the commerce on the rivers of the west and on the lakes was in its infancy and of little importance and but little regarded compared with that of the present day.” In addition to these geographic and demographic changes, there had occurred a technological revolution: “Until the discovery of steamboats, there could be nothing like foreign commerce upon waters with an unchanging current resisting the upward passage.” Taney reasoned that Congress simply reacted to these changes through its new statute, and that the Court must follow suit.

While the result was a victory for the practical commercial nationalism of the rising business interests, Taney was very grudging in his constitutional nationalism. The Jacksonian Democrat in him gave as little ground as possible to Congress at the expense of the states’ reserved powers. Congress made Taney’s constitutional path easier by not clarifying its view of the statute’s constitutional roots.

Counsel for the Cuba argued that the statute was a proper exercise of Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce. They could point, among other precedent, to John Marshall’s opinion in Gibbons v. Ogden that the commerce power could reach navigation. Taney demurred. The commerce power does not distinguish between commerce on land and on water. However, that commerce must take place between, not within, states. Were the Court to find that this statute was based on Congress’s commerce power, Congress then could extend admiralty jurisdiction to contracts and torts that arose on land. On the other hand, Congress could extend such power only to matters occurring between states, not those arising on navigable waters within a state. That, in turn, would undermine the statute’s constitutionality in cases such as this, where many of the parties on both sides were from New York. Conversely, if the Court upheld this statute under the commerce power, that clause could be read as permitting Congress to reach commerce internal to a state. Safer from all points, therefore, to rest the decision on the express constitutional power of Congress to define the jurisdiction of the federal courts under Article III of the Constitution, including the placing of admiralty jurisdiction.

The reasoning in the Genesee Chief case was consistent with Taney’s jurisprudence of dual federalism. It had been basically a self-evident truth to Andrew Jackson and his ideological fellows that the Marshall Court’s judicial nationalism stood in service to an enhanced and dangerous national government. Marshall’s broad interpretations of the necessary and proper clause in McCulloch v. Maryland and of the commerce power in Gibbons v. Ogden demonstrated the need for a constitutional change of course. Taney, Jackson believed, was just the man for the task. While matters rarely turn out as well as one hopes, and the Taney Court was no exception, Taney did strike a balance that was potentially friendlier to the states’ local police powers.

Taney the jurist may have been willing to clip the potential excesses of the Marshall Court’s nationalism in regards to Congressional powers. Taney the judicial politician, however, was not so quick to discard the Court’s own institutional nationalism and the increased power and stature that would come with it. If Congress wanted, as here, to expand the power of the federal judiciary at the expense of state courts, who was he to object?

In other cases, as well, Taney saw the federal judiciary as a nationalizing institution responsible for creating a national body of law. One example was the 1842 decision in Swift v. Tyson that sought to develop a federal commercial common law. To reach that result, the Court even had to override the Marshall Court’s cases to the contrary. If the states were constitutionally disabled from doing so, and if Congress could not or would not, the courts were the logical source for such a uniform corpus of national commercial law, akin to what the English courts had done with the law merchant. His opinion in The Genesee Chief is in line with Taney’s judicial nationalism.

Propeller Genesee Chief v. Fitzhugh (1851) Supreme Court decision:

An expert on constitutional law, and member of the Southwestern Law School faculty, Professor Joerg W. Knipprath has been interviewed by print and broadcast media on a number of related topics ranging from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to presidential succession. He has written opinion pieces and articles on business and securities law as well as constitutional issues, and has focused his more recent research on the effect of judicial review on the evolution of constitutional law. He has also spoken on business law and contemporary constitutional issues before professional and community forums, and serves as a Constituting America Fellow. Read more from Professor Knipprath at:

3 replies
  1. Barb Zack
    Barb Zack says:

    I guess I’m a bit confused.. Was the decision in this case a move towards a more legislating Court, or was this decision more clarification of existing Constitutional powers?

    I do see that even from the beginning, The Court was trying to establish a bit of power base and was very protective of that power.

  2. Publius Senex Dassault
    Publius Senex Dassault says:

    Very interesting case. Even with the superb explanation and 166 years it still appears to me that the Federal court did not have jurisdiction on the commerce that occurred where two companies were both doing business in New York state. Thus, as proffered, the decision appears primarily to be expansion of Federal court powers at the expense of States rights as intended under the Constitution. Ole P. Henry [Senex] must have been shouting, “See, See. I knew the Federal government would expand its authority.”

    The other thing I found interesting is, “the decision in ‘The Thomas Jefferson was made “when the commerce on the rivers of the west and on the lakes was in its infancy and of little importance and but little regarded compared with that of the present day.’” This statement implies that when ruling on Thomas Jefferson 26 years earlier, the court did not or could not envision expansion of navigation to inland rivers/lakes. Certainly there are many things and circumstances the court can’t imagine: internet, travel by plane, cyber whatever. But to claim that the court had and could not envision inland navigation seems cynical.

    One of my favorite quotes, “There are men in all ages who mean to govern well, but they mean to govern. They promise to be good masters, but they mean to be masters” Daniel Webster



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