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Friday, February 12, 2016

New Rare Titles on U.S. Constitutional Law

A replica of Fulton's steamer Clermont (Courtesy of the Library of Congress) 

Recently we acquired several interesting works related to 19th-century U.S. constitutional law. The earliest of these, "The Right of a State to Grant Exclusive Privileges" (New York, 1811), by iconic inventor Robert Fulton and his partner Robert Livingston, is a rare and impassioned defense of their state-granted steamboat monopoly on the Hudson River in New York, which had been challenged by boat operators in Albany.

Several years after Fulton's pamphlet, steamboat operator Aaron Ogden - granted the same exclusive rights of navigation between New York and New Jersey - squared off in court against his former business partner Thomas Gibbons. At stake was the great question of whether Congress or the states could regulate interstate commerce. A historic 1824 Supreme Court decision, led by John Marshall and based on the Constitution's Commerce Clause, settled the issue in favor of Congress and paved the way for expanded federal regulation. The pamphlet of Fulton and Livingston provides excellent context for the issue, including arguments on concurrent jurisdiction, the Commerce Clause and states' rights.

Another pamphlet related to monopolies, "The Opinion of Mess. Binney and Chauncey, on the Acts of the Legislature of New-Jersey" (Trenton, 1834), defends the right of a legislature to extend exclusive corporate privileges by contract, and to restrict a subsequent legislature's ability to rescind those rights. Three years later, the noted Charles River Bridge case (1837) was settled by the Supreme Court, which rejected asserted monopoly rights in a charter granted to the Charles River Bridge Company for their Massachusetts bridge. The New Jersey pamphlet provides contemporary background for these early constitutional issues.
Abraham Lincoln, by Abraham Byers (1858)

Two others are also notable. "The Decision of Chief Justice Taney, in the Merryman Case" (1862), contains Taney's opinion on the controversy over Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War. Merryman, a Maryland militia member, had been arrested and imprisoned for treason, and his writ of habeas corpus was rejected by his Union army jailers. US Supreme Court Justice Taney, then sitting as a federal circuit court judge, declared that only Congress could suspend habeas corpus. Lincoln replied publicly that the Constitution was silent on whether Congress or the President had the authority to suspend habeas corpus in times of rebellion or invasion, and that with Congress in recess, he was compelled to act.

Finally, Samuel Bassett's 1854 pamphlet, "An Address Made to the People," on the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, advocates state nullification of the Act and demands jury trials for alleged runaway slaves. Failure to fulfill that constitutional guarantee rendered the Act unconstitutional and void. The pamphlet was a particularly special find because there is only one other recorded copy in libraries.

   - Ryan Greenwood, Curator of Rare Books and Special Collections    

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