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Elkison v. Deliesseline, (1823) [a case challenging the Negro-Seamen Act of 1822, a South Carolina state law] and Gibbons v. Ogden, (1824) [a case challenging a New York state transportation law] addressed the power struggle between nationalism and state sovereignty, when the states attempted to assert legal autonomy and reject the supremacy of federal law.

Both cases used the Interstate Commerce Clause (Article I, Section 8) and the Supremacy Clause (Article 6) of the Constitution as the basis for overturning state law, but with markedly different results.

Explanation

The Negro-Seamen Act of 1822 was a South Carolina state law that required free seamen of African descent working aboard foreign or domestic ships jailed and held prisoner when the ship entered any of South Carolina's harbors. Under the law, the person remained captive until the ship prepared to leave harbor, at which time a vessel's Captain could redeem the sailors' freedom by paying a $1,000 fine for each, or by agreeing to two months imprisonment. Unclaimed seamen were sold into slavery, even if they were foreign nationals.

This law arose in part from South Carolina's fear of an imminent slave rebellion, which it believed was partially instigated by free seamen who encouraged slaves to fight for their freedom.

The British were especially hard-hit by the new law, and complained to Stratford Canning, the British Minister in Washington, DC, about the expenses they were incurring as a result of the law. Canning discussed the matter with then-President John Quincy Adams, who agreed the practice should end and assigned US Attorney General Wirt to look into the matter.

Wirt concluded the state law was in violation of a treaty with the British, as well as an infringment on Congress' right to control commerce under the interstate commerce clause. Adams sent a copy of the British Consul's complaint, along with Wirt's opinion, to the Governor of South Carolina, who introduced them to the state legislature at its next session. The state legislature was unable to agree on a resolution, and was unwilling to repeal the law, believing the federal government had no right to interfere with state sovereignty.

A group of sea captains next applied for relief in US District Court, which referred them to the state court system. The South Carolina courts upheld their own law. With the state verdict behind them, the officers again applied for relief in District Court.

Henry Elkison, a British-Jamaican free citizen of African descent and captured sailor of the British ship Homer, was used as the plaintiff in a test case brought against Charleston sheriff Francis Deliesseline, demanding Elkison be released absolutely or allowed out on bail.

William Johnson, an Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court heard the case Elkison v. Deliesseline, 8 Fed. Cas. 493, no. 4,366 (C.C.D.S.C. 1823) while riding circuit in South Carolina. After hearing arguments, Johnson determined the Nego-Seamen Act was unconstitutional because it violated the power of Congress to regulate interstate commerce, which included navigable waters, and violated a treaty with Great Britain ensuring its right to engage in free trade with the United States. In his opinion, Johnson stated the law was the equivalent of a declaration of war on the British.

In the wake of Johnson's decision, South Carolina expelled from the state Samuel Hoar, a Massachusetts attorney interested in challenging South Carolina in the US Supreme Court, thus blocking the high court from ruling on the matter.

The Executive branch refused to enforce the Johnson's decision, tacitly approving South Carolina's actions and encouraging other Southern states to adopt similar exclusionary laws against people of African descent. The lack of meaningful federal intervention eventually empowered South Carolina to issue an Ordinance of Nullification, declaring federal law "utterly null and void," an act that foreshadowed the Civil War.

Although the Supreme Court was prevented from reviewing the constitutionality of the Negro-Seamen Act, Johnson's decision was validated the following year in Gibbons v. Ogden,(1824).

In Gibbons, the Court, acting in support of Congress, declared a Maryland state law allowing a private New York enterprise to hold a monopoly on steamboat licensing and exclude out-of-state vendors, unconstitutional under the Interstate Commerce Clause and Supremacy Clause. The Court held federal and constitutional law superseded state law, and affirm Congress' right to regulate trade between the states, including coastal and inland navigable waters. The decision furthered the United States' political agenda and was enforced, establishing a precedent that favored the federal government.

Case Citation:

Gibbons v. Ogden, 22 US 1 (1824)

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Q: What was the Negro-Seamen Act of 1822 and how was it related to the Gibbons v. Ogden case?
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