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Article 1, Section 8, Clause 3 (Commerce)



Document 12

United States v. The William

28 Fed. Cas. 614, no. 16,700 D.Mass. 1808

[Davis, District Judge.] It is contended, that congress is not invested with powers, by the constitution, to enact laws, so general and so unlimited, relative to commercial intercourse with foreign nations, as those now under consideration. It is well understood, that the depressed state of American commerce, and complete experience of the inefficacy of state regulations, to apply a remedy, were among the great, procuring causes of the federal constitution. It was manifest, that other objects, of equal importance, were exclusively proper for national jurisdiction; and that under national management and control, alone, could they be advantageously and efficaciously conducted. The constitution specifies those objects. A national sovereignty is created. Not an unlimited sovereignty, but a sovereignty, as to the objects surrendered and specified, limited only by the qualifications and restrictions, expressed in the constitution. Commerce is one of those objects. The care, protection, management and controul, of this great national concern, is, in my opinion, vested by the constitution, in the congress of the United States; and their power is sovereign, relative to commercial intercourse, qualified by the limitations and restrictions, expressed in that instrument, and by the treaty making power of the president and senate. "Congress shall have power to regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes." Such is the declaration in the constitution. Stress has been laid, in the argument, on the word "regulate," as implying, in itself, a limitation. Power to regulate, it is said, cannot be understood to give a power to annihilate. To this it may be replied, that the acts under consideration, though of very ample extent, do not operate as a prohibition of all foreign commerce. It will be admitted that partial prohibitions are authorized by the expression; and how shall the degree, or extent, of the prohibition be adjusted, but by the discretion of the national government, to whom the subject appears to be committed? Besides, if we insist on the exact and critical meaning of the word "regulate," we must, to be consistent, be equally critical with the substantial term, "commerce." The term does not necessarily include shipping or navigation; much less does it include the fisheries. Yet it never has been contended, that they are not the proper objects of national regulation; and several acts of congress have been made respecting them. It may be replied, that these are incidents to commerce, and intimately connected with it; and that congress, in legislating respecting them, act under the authority, given them by the constitution, to make all laws necessary and proper, for carrying into execution the enumerated powers. Let this be admitted; and are they not at liberty, also, to consider the present prohibitory system, as necessary and proper to an eventual beneficial regulation? I say nothing of the policy of the expedient. It is not within my province. But, on the abstract question of constitutional power, I see nothing to prohibit or restrain the measure.

Further, the power to regulate commerce is not to be confined to the adoption of measures, exclusively beneficial to commerce itself, or tending to its advancement; but, in our national system, as in all modern sovereignties, it is also to be considered as an instrument for other purposes of general policy and interest. The mode of its management is a consideration of great delicacy and importance; but, the national right, or power, under the constitution, to adapt regulations of commerce to other purposes, than the mere advancement of commerce, appears to me unquestionable. Great Britain is styled, eminently, a commercial nation; but commerce is, in fact, a subordinate branch of her national policy, compared with other objects. In ancient times, indeed, shipping and navigation were made subordinate to commerce, as then contemplated. The mart, or staple, of their principal productions, wool, leather and lead, was confined to certain great towns in the island, where foreigners might resort to purchase; and Englishmen were restrained from exporting those commodities, under heavy penalties. It was conceived, that trade thus conducted, would be more advantageous to the country, than if transacted by the English, on the continent. On this idea was made the statute of the staple. 27 Edw. III. (Vide Reeves' Hist. of English Law, 2, 393.) This may appear a strange regulation. It was evidently founded on erroneous views, and Selden, the learned commentator on Fortescue, remarks, "that all acts or attempts, which have been derogatory to trade, have ever been noted to be discouraged and short lived," in that nation. It is well known, how the views of their statesmen, and their commercial laws have changed, since that statute was enacted. The navigation system has long stood prominent. The interests of commerce are often made subservient to those of shipping and navigation. Maritime and naval strength is the great object of national solicitude; the grand and ultimate objects are the defence and security of the country. The situation of the United States, in ordinary times, might render legislative interferences, relative to commerce, less necessary; but the capacity and power of managing and directing it, for the advancement of great national purposes, seems an important ingredient of sovereignty. It was perceived, that, under the power of regulating commerce, congress would be authorized to abridge it, in favour of the great principles of humanity and justice. Hence the introduction of a clause, in the constitution, so framed, as to interdict a prohibition of the slave trade, until 1808. Massachusetts and New York proposed a stipulation, that should prevent the erection of commercial companies, with exclusive advantages. Virginia and North Carolina suggested an amendment, that "no navigation law, or law regulating commerce, should be passed, without the consent of two thirds of the members present, in both houses." These proposed amendments were not adopted, but they manifest the public conceptions, at the time, of the extent of the powers of congress, relative to commerce.

It has been said, in the argument, that the large commercial states, such as New York and Massachusetts, would never have consented to the grant of power, relative to commerce, if supposed capable of the extent now claimed. On this point, it is believed, there was no misunderstanding. The necessity of a competent national government was manifest. Its essential characteristics were considered and well understood; and all intelligent men perceived, that a power to advance and protect the national interests, necessarily involved a power, that might be abused. The Federalist, which was particularly addressed to the people of the state of New York, frankly avows the genuine operation of the powers, proposed to be vested in the general government. "If the circumstances of our country are such, as to demand a compound, instead of a simple, a confederate, instead of a sole, government, the essential point, which will remain to be adjusted, will be to discriminate the objects, as far as it can be done, which shall appertain to the different provinces, or departments, of power; allowing to each the most ample authority for fulfilling those, which may be committed to its charge. Shall the Union be constituted the guardian of the common safety? Are fleets, and armies, and revenues necessary for this purpose? The government of the Union must be empowered, to pass all laws, and to make all regulations which have relation to them. The same must be the case, in respect to commerce, and to every other matter, to which its jurisdiction is permitted to extend." Volume 1, No. 23, p. 146.

If it be admitted that national regulations relative to commerce, may apply it as an instrument, and are not necessarily confined to its direct aid and advancement, the sphere of legislative discretion is, of course, more widely extended; and, in time of war, or of great impending peril, it must take a still more expanded range. Congress has power to declare war. It, of course, has power to prepare for war; and the time, the manner, and the measure, in the application of constitutional means, seem to be left to its wisdom and discretion. Foreign intercourse becomes, in such times, a subject of peculiar interest, and its regulation forms an obvious and essential branch of the federal administration. In the year 1798, when aggressions from France became insupportable, a non-intercourse law, relative to that nation and her dependencies, was enacted; partial hostilities, for a time, prevailed; but no war was declared. I have never understood, that the power of congress to adopt that course of proceeding was questioned. It seems to have been admitted, in the argument, that state necessity might justify a limited embargo, or suspension of all foreign commerce; but if congress have the power, for purposes of safety, of preparation, or counteraction, to suspend commercial intercourse with foreign nations, where do we find them limited as to the duration, more than as to the manner and extent of the measure? Must we understand the nation as saying to their government: "We look to you for protection and security, against all foreign aggressions. For this purpose, we give you the controul of commerce; but, you shall always limit the time, during which this instrument is to be used. This shield of defence you may, on emergent occasions, employ; but you shall always announce to us and to the world, the moment when it shall drop from your hands."

It is apparent, that cases may occur, in which the indefinite character of a law, as to its termination, may be essential to its efficacious operation. In this connexion, I would notice the internal indications, exhibited by the acts themselves, relative to their duration. In addition to the authority given to the president to suspend the acts, upon the contingency of certain events, we have evidence, from the very nature of their provisions, that they cannot be designed to be perpetual. An entire prohibition of exportation, unaccompanied with any restriction on importations, could never be intended for a permanent system; though the laws, in a technical view, may be denominated perpetual, containing no specification of the time when they shall expire. In illustration of their argument, gentlemen have supposed a strong case; a prohibition of the future cultivation of corn, in the United States. It would not be admitted, I presume, that an act, so extravagant, would be constitutional, though not perpetual, but confined to a single season. And why? Because it would be, most manifestly, without the limits of the federal jurisdiction, and relative to an object, or concern, not committed to its management. If an embargo, or suspension of commerce, of any description, be within the powers of congress, the terms and modifications of the measure must also be within their discretion. If the measure be referred to state necessity, the body that is authorized to determine on the existence of such necessity, must, also, be competent so to modify the means, as to adapt them to the exigency. It is said, that such a law is in contravention of unalienable rights; and we have had quotations from elementary writers, and from the bills of rights of the state constitutions, in support of this position. The doctrines and declarations of those respectable writers, and in those venerable instruments, are not to be slighted; but we are to leave the wide field of general reasonings and abstract principles, and are to consider the construction and operation of an express compact, a government of convention. The general position is incontestible, that all that is not surrendered by the constitution, is retained. The amendment which expresses this, is for greater security; but such would have been the true construction, without the amendment. Still, it remains to be determined, and it is often a question of some difficulty, what is given? By the second article of the confederation, congress were prohibited the exercise of any power not expressly delegated. A similar qualification was suggested, in one of the amendments proposed by the state of New-Hampshire, to the new constitution. The phraseology, indeed, was strengthened; and congress were to be prohibited from the exercise of powers, not expressly and particularly delegated. Such expressions were not adopted. If they had been, as an intelligent writer justly observes, "Congress would be continually exposed, as their predecessors, under the confederation, were, to the alternative of construing the term, expressly, with so much rigour, as to disarm the government of all real authority whatever; or, with so much latitude, as to destroy, altogether the force of the restriction." It is wisely left as it is; and the true sense and meaning of the instrument is to be determined by just construction, guided and governed by good sense and honest intentions. Under the confederation, congress could have no agency relative to foreign commerce, but through the medium of treaties; and, by the ninth article, it was stipulated, that no treaty of commerce should be made, whereby the legislative power of the respective states, should be restrained, from imposing such imposts and duties on foreigners, as their own people were subjected to, "or from prohibiting the exportation of any species of goods or commodities whatsoever." Here we find an express reservation to the state legislatures of the power to pass prohibitory commercial laws, and, as respects exportations, without any limitations. Some of them exercised this power. In Massachusetts, it was carried to considerable extent, with marked determination, but to no sensible good effect. One of the prohibitory acts of that state, passed in 1786, was for the express "encouragement of the agriculture and manufactures in our own country." The other, which was a counteracting law, had no definite limitation, but was to continue in force, until congress should be vested with competent powers, and should have passed an ordinance for the regulation of the commerce of the states. Unless congress, by the constitution, possess the power in question, it still exists in the state legislatures--but this has never been claimed or pretended, since the adoption of the federal constitution; and the exercise of such a power by the states, would be manifestly inconsistent with the power, vested by the people in congress, "to regulate commerce." Hence I infer, that the power, reserved to the states by the articles of confederation, is surrendered to congress, by the constitution; unless we suppose, that, by some strange process, it has been merged or extinguished, and now exists no where.

The propriety of this power, on the present construction, may be further evinced, by contemplating the operation of specific limitations or restrictions, which it might be proposed to apply. Will it be said, that the amendment proposed by Virginia and North Carolina, would be an improvement in the instrument of government? Such a provision might prevent the adoption of exceptionable regulations; but, it would be equally operative in defeating those that would be salutary; and would disable that majority of the nation from deciding on the best means of advancing its prosperity. To avoid such a system, as is now in operation, shall the people expressly provide, as a limitation to the power of regulating commerce, that it shall not extend to a total prohibition; or but for a limited time? Nothing would be gained by such restrictions. A prohibition might still be so nearly total, or extend to such a length of time, without violation of the restriction, as to be equivalent, in practical effect, to the present arrangement. Or will it be said, that the judiciary should then be called upon to decide the law void, though not repugnant to the terms of the restriction, and to consider exceptions from the prohibition, as, in the common case of a fraudulent deed, to be merely colourable? Loose and general restrictions would be ineffective, or, at best, merely directory. If particular and precise, they would evince an indiscreet attempt to anticipate the immense extent and variety of national exigencies, and would not be suitable appendages to a power, which, in its exercise, must depend on contingencies, and, from its nature and object, must be general. A particular mischief or inconvenience, contemplated in framing such limitations, might be avoided; but they would also injuriously fetter the national councils, and prevent the application of adequate provisions for the publick safety and happiness, according to the ever varying emergencies of national affairs. Let us not insist on a security, which the nature of human concerns will not permit. More effectual guards against abuse, more complete security for civil and political liberty, and for private right, are not, perhaps, afforded to any nation than to the people of the United States. These views of the national powers are not new. I have only given a more distinct exhibition of habitual impressions, coeval, in my mind, with the constitution. Upon these considerations, I am bound to overrule the objections to the acts in question, which I shall proceed to apply to the cases before the court, believing them to be constitutional laws.

I lament the privations, the interruption of profitable pursuits and manly enterprize, to which it has been thought necessary to subject the citizens of this great community. I respect the merchant and his employment. The disconcerted mariner demands our sympathy. The sound of the axe, and of the hammer, would be grateful music. Ocean, in itself a dreary waste, by the swelling sail and floating steamer, becomes an exhilarating object; and it is painful to perceive, by force of any contingencies, the American stars and stripes vanishing from the scene. Commerce, indeed, merits all the eulogy, which we have heard so eloquently pronounced, at the bar. It is the welcome attendant of civilized man, in all his various stations. It is the nurse of arts; the genial friend of liberty, justice and order; the sure source of national wealth and greatness; the promoter of moral and intellectual improvement; of generous affections and enlarged philanthropy. Connecting seas, flowing rivers, and capacious havens, equally with the fertile bosom of the earth, suggest, to the reflecting mind, the purposes of a beneficent Deity, relative to the destination and employments of man. Let us not entertain the gloomy apprehension, that advantages, so precious, are altogether abandoned; that pursuits, so interesting and beneficial, are not to be resumed. Let us rather cherish a hope, that commercial activity and intercourse, with all their wholesome energies will be revived; and, that our merchants and our mariners will, again, be permitted to pursue their wonted employments, consistently with the national safety, honour and independence!


The Founders' Constitution
Volume 2, Article 1, Section 8, Clause 3 (Commerce), Document 12
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