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In 1824 the idea of a United States of America was still very new. Perhaps the most important issue facing the nation was the relationship between the power of individual states and the federal government. While the most dramatic conflict between state and federal power would play itself out in the American Civil War, several Supreme Court decisions—including Gibbons vs. Ogden—slowly eroded power claims of individual states. Chief Justice John Marshall, the famous leader of the Supreme Court who established judicial review of congressional laws, was active at controlling the attempt by states to assert too much power.

At first glance, the case of Gibbons vs. Ogden seems like a simple dispute between two freewheeling steamboat operators at the advent of the U.S. Industrial Revolution. Steamboat ...

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