Acts of Congress Prohibiting Commerce
Clause 3. The Congress shall have Power * * * To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes.
Foreign Commerce: Jefferson’s Embargo.—“Jefferson’s Embargo” of 1807–1808, which cut all trade with Europe, was attacked on the ground that the power to regulate commerce was the power to preserve it, not the power to destroy it. This argument was rejected by Judge Davis of the United States District Court for Massachusetts in the following words: “A national sovereignty is created [by the Constitution]. Not an unlimited sovereignty, but a sovereignty, as to the objects surrendered and specified, limited only by the qualification and restrictions, expressed in the Constitution. Commerce is one of those objects. The care, protection, management and control, 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. . . . 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? . . . The term does not necessarily include shipping or navigation; much less does it include the fisheries. Yet it never has contended, that they are not the proper objects of national regulation; and several acts of Congress have been made respecting them. . . . [Furthermore] 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. . . . Under the Confederation, . . . 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. . . . 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.”851
Foreign Commerce: Protective Tariffs.—Tariff laws have customarily contained prohibitory provisions, and such provisions have been sustained by the Court under Congress’s revenue powers and under its power to regulate foreign commerce. For the Court in Board of Trustees v. United States,852 in 1933, Chief Justice Hughes said: “The Congress may determine what articles may be imported into this country and the terms upon which importation is permitted. No one can be said to have a vested right to carry on foreign commerce with the United States. . . . It is true that the taxing power is a distinct power; that it is distinct from the power to regulate commerce. . . . It is also true that the taxing power embraces the power to lay duties. Art. I, § 8, par. 1. But because the taxing power is a distinct power and embraces the power to lay duties, it does not follow that duties may not be imposed in the exercise of the power to regulate commerce. The contrary is well established. Gibbons v. Ogden, supra, p. 202. ‘Under the power to regulate foreign commerce Congress impose duties on importations, give drawbacks, pass embargo and non-intercourse laws, and make all other regulations necessary to navigation, to the safety of passengers, and the protection of property.’ Groves v. Slaughter, 15 Pet. 449, 505. The laying of duties is ‘a common means of executing the power.’ 2 Story on the Constitution, 1088.”853
Foreign Commerce: Banned Articles.—The forerunners of more recent acts excluding objectionable commodities from interstate commerce are the laws forbidding the importation of like commodities from abroad. Congress has exercised this power since 1842, when it forbade the importation of obscene literature or pictures from abroad.854 Six years, later it passed an act “to prevent the importation of spurious and adulterated drugs” and to provide a system of inspection to make the prohibition effective.855 Such legislation guarding against the importation of noxiously adulterated foods, drugs, or liquor has been on the statute books ever since. In 1887, the importation by Chinese nationals of opium was prohibited,856 and subsequent statutes passed in 1909 and 1914 made it unlawful for anyone to import it.857 In 1897, Congress forbade the importation of any tea “inferior in purity, quality, and fitness for consumption” as compared with a legal standard.858 The Act was sustained in 1904, in Buttfield v. Stranahan.859 In “The Abby Dodge” an act excluding sponges taken by means of diving or diving apparatus from the waters of the Gulf of Mexico or Straits of Florida was sustained but construed as not applying to sponges taken from the territorial water of a state.860
In Weber v. Freed,861 the Court upheld an act prohibiting the importation and interstate transportation of prize-fight films or of pictorial representation of prize fights. Chief Justice White grounded his opinion for a unanimous Court on the complete and total control over foreign commerce possessed by Congress, in contrast implicitly to its lesser power over interstate commerce.862 And, in Brolan v. United States,863 the Court rejected as wholly inappropriate citation of cases dealing with interstate commerce on the question of Congress’s power to prohibit foreign commerce. It has been earlier noted, however, that the purported distinction is one that the Court both previously to and subsequent to these opinions has rejected.
Interstate Commerce: Power to Prohibit Questioned.—The question whether Congress’s power to regulate commerce “among the several States” embraced the power to prohibit it furnished the topic of one of the most protracted debates in the entire history of the Constitution’s interpretation, a debate the final resolution of which in favor of congressional power is an event of first importance for the future of American federalism. The issue was as early as 1841 brought forward by Henry Clay, in an argument before the Court in which he raised the specter of an act of Congress forbidding the interstate slave trade.864 The debate was concluded ninety-nine years later by the decision in United States v. Darby,865 which sustained the Fair Labor Standards Act.866
Interstate Commerce: National Prohibitions and State Police Power.—The earliest acts prohibiting commerce were in the nature of quarantine regulations and usually dealt solely with interstate transportation. In 1884, the exportation or shipment in interstate commerce of livestock having any infectious disease was forbidden.867 In 1903, power was conferred upon the Secretary of Agriculture to establish regulations to prevent the spread of such diseases through foreign or interstate commerce.868 In 1905, the same official was authorized to lay an absolute embargo or quarantine upon all shipments of cattle from one state to another when the public necessity might demand it.869 A statute passed in 1905 forbade the transportation in foreign and interstate commerce and the mails of certain varieties of moths, plant lice, and other insect pests injurious to plant crops, trees, and other vegetation.870 In 1912, a similar exclusion of diseased nursery stock was decreed,871 while by the same act and again by an act of 1917,872 the Secretary of Agriculture was invested with powers of quarantine on interstate commerce for the protection of plant life from disease similar to those above described for the prevention of the spread of animal disease. Although the Supreme Court originally held federal quarantine regulations of this sort to be constitutionally inapplicable to intrastate shipments of livestock, on the ground that federal authority extends only to foreign and interstate commerce,873 this view has today been abandoned.
The Lottery Case.—The first case to come before the Court in which the issues discussed above were canvassed at all thoroughly was Champion v. Ames,874 involving the act of 1895 “for the suppression of lotteries.”875 An earlier act excluding lottery tickets from the mails had been upheld in the case In re Rapier,876 on the proposition that Congress clearly had the power to see that the very facilities furnished by it were not put to bad use. But in the case of commerce, the facilities are not ordinarily furnished by the National Government, and the right to engage in foreign and interstate commerce comes from the Constitution itself or is anterior to it.
How difficult the Court found the question produced by the act of 1895, forbidding any person to bring within the United States or to cause to be “carried from one State to another” any lottery ticket, or an equivalent thereof, “for the purpose of disposing of the same,” was shown by the fact that the case was argued three times before the Court and the fact that the Court’s decision finally sustaining the act was a fivetofour decision. The opinion of the Court, on the other hand, prepared by Justice Harlan, marked an almost unqualified triumph at the time for the view that Congress’s power to regulate commerce among the States included the power to prohibit it, especially to supplement and support state legislation enacted under the police power. Early in the opinion, extensive quotation is made from Chief Justice Marshall’s opinion in Gibbons v. Ogden,877 with special stress upon the definition there given of the phrase “to regulate.” Justice Johnson’s assertion on the same occasion is also given: “The power of a sovereign State over commerce, . . . amounts to nothing more than a power to limit and restrain it at pleasure.” Further along is quoted with evident approval Justice Bradley’s statement in Brown v. Houston,878 that “[t]he power to regulate commerce among the several States is granted to Congress in terms as absolute as is the power to regulate commerce with foreign nations.”
Following the wake of the Lottery Case, Congress repeatedly brought its prohibitory powers over interstate commerce and communications to the support of certain local policies of the states in the exercise of their reserved powers, thereby aiding them in the repression of a variety of acts and deeds objectionable to public morality. The conception of the Federal System on which the Court based its validation of this legislation was stated by it in 1913 in sustaining the Mann “White Slave” Act in the following words: “Our dual form of government has its perplexities, State and Nation having different spheres of jurisdiction . . . but it must be kept in mind that we are one people; and the powers reserved to the States and those conferred on the Nation are adapted to be exercised, whether independently or concurrently, to promote the general welfare, material, and moral.”879 At the same time, the Court made it plain that in prohibiting commerce among the states, Congress was equally free to support state legislative policy or to devise a policy of its own. “Congress,” it said, “may exercise this authority in aid of the policy of the State, if it sees fit to do so. It is equally clear that the policy of Congress acting independently of the States may induce legislation without reference to the particular policy or law of any given State. Acting within the authority conferred by the Constitution it is for Congress to determine what legislation will attain its purpose. The control of Congress over interstate commerce is not to be limited by State laws.”880
In Brooks v. United States,881 the Court sustained the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act882 as a measure protective of owners of automobiles; that is, of interests in “the State of origin.” The statute was designed to repress automobile motor thefts, notwithstanding that such thefts antedate the interstate transportation of the article stolen. Speaking for the Court, Chief Justice Taft, at the outset, stated the general proposition that “Congress can certainly regulate interstate commerce to the extent of forbidding and punishing the use of such commerce as an agency to promote immorality, dishonesty, or the spread of any evil or harm to the people of other States from the State of origin.” Noting “the radical change in transportation” brought about by the automobile, and the rise of “[e]laborately organized conspiracies for the theft of automobiles . . . and their sale or other disposition” in another jurisdiction from the owner’s, the Court concluded that such activity “is a gross misuse of interstate commerce. Congress may properly punish such interstate transportation by anyone with knowledge of the theft, because of its harmful result and its defeat of the property rights of those whose machines against their will are taken into other jurisdictions.” The fact that stolen vehicles were “harmless” and did not spread harm to persons in other states on this occasion was not deemed to present any obstacle to the exercise of the regulatory power of Congress.883
The Darby Case.—In sustaining the Fair Labor Standards Act884 in 1941,885 the Court expressly overruled Hammer v. Dagenhart.886 “The distinction on which the [latter case] . . . was rested that Congressional power to prohibit interstate commerce is limited to articles which in themselves have some harmful or deleterious property—a distinction which was novel when made and unsupported by any provision of the Constitution—has long since been abandoned. . . . The thesis of the opinion that the motive of the prohibition or its effect to control in some measure the use or production within the States of the article thus excluded from the commerce can operate to deprive the regulation of its constitutional authority has long since ceased to have force. . . . The conclusion is inescapable that Hammer v. Dagenhart, was a departure from the principles which have prevailed in the interpretation of the Commerce Clause both before and since the decision and that such vitality, as a precedent, as it then had has long since been exhausted. It should be and now is overruled.”887
851 United States v. The William, 28 Fed. Cas. 614, 620–623 (No. 16,700) (D. Mass. 1808). See also Gibbons v. Ogden, 22 U.S. (9 Wheat.) 1, 191 (1824); United States v. Marigold, 50 U.S. (9 How.) 560 (1850).
852 289 U.S. 48 (1933).
853 289 U.S. at 57, 58.
854 Ch. 270, § 28, 5 Stat. 566.
855 9 Stat. 237 (1848).
856 24 Stat. 409.
857 35 Stat. 614; 38 Stat. 275.
858 29 Stat. 605.
859 192 U.S. 470 (1904).
860 223 U.S. 166 (1912); cf. United States v. California, 332 U.S. 19 (1947).
861 239 U.S. 325 (1915).
862 239 U.S. at 329.
863 236 U.S. 216 (1915).
864 Groves v. Slaughter, 40 U.S. (15 Pet.) 449, 488–89 (1841).
865 312 U.S. 100 (1941).
866 The judicial history of the argument may be examined in the majority and dissenting opinions in Hammer v. Dagenhart, 247 U.S. 251 (1918), a five-to-four decision, in which the majority held Congress not to be empowered to ban from the channels of interstate commerce goods made with child labor, since Congress’s power was to prescribe the rule by which commerce was to be carried on and not to prohibit it, except with regard to those things the character of which—diseased cattle, lottery tickets—was inherently evil. With the majority opinion, compare Justice Stone’s unanimous opinion in United States v. Darby, 312 U.S. 100, 112–24 (1941), overruling Hammer v. Dagenhart. See also Corwin, The Power of Congress to Prohibit Commerce, 3 Selected Essays On Constitutional Law 103 (1938).
867 23 Stat. 31.
868 32 Stat. 791.
869 33 Stat. 1264.
870 33 Stat. 1269.
871 37 Stat. 315.
872 39 Stat. 1165.
873 Illinois Central R.R. v. McKendree, 203 U.S. 514 (1906). See also United States v. DeWitt, 76 U.S. (9 Wall.) 41 (1870).
874 Lottery Case (Champion v. Ames), 188 U.S. 321 (1903).
875 28 Stat. 963.
876 143 U.S. 110 (1892).
877 22 U.S. (9 Wheat.) 1, 227 (1824).
878 114 U.S. 622, 630 (1885).
879 Hoke v. United States, 227 U.S. 308, 322 (1913).
880 United States v. Hill, 248 U.S. 420, 425 (1919).
881 267 U.S. 432 (1925).
882 41 Stat. 324 (1919), 18 U.S.C., §§ 2311–2313.
883 267 U.S. at 436–39. See also Kentucky Whip & Collar Co. v. Ill. Cent. R.R., 299 U.S. 334 (1937).
884 29 U.S.C. §§ 201–219.
885 United States v. Darby, 312 U.S. 100 (1941).
886 247 U.S. 251 (1918).
887 312 U.S. at 116–17.