Ohio Civil War » Objects » Entries » Prigg v. Pennsylvania

Prigg v. Pennsylvania

March 1, 1842

In 1842, the United States Supreme Court affirmed the preeminence of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 when it declared a Pennsylvania statute unconstitutional in the case of Prigg v. Pennsylvania. While upholding the right of slave owners to reclaim fugitive slaves in the North, the court's decision had the unintended effect of prompting Northern states to enact personal liberty laws, which prohibited state officials from participating in the capture of runaways, thereby engendering additional sectional discord.

When delegates to the Constitutional Convention assembled in Philadelphia in 1787, one of the more daunting tasks that they faced was resolving sectional differences between the North and South centered on the issue of slavery. After weeks of debate proved futile, the delegates negotiated a series of compromises that enabled them to proceed with their primary assignment of forming "a more perfect Union" between the separate states. In the short term, the compromises regarding the status of slavery established in the Constitution facilitated the creation of the new republic (at the expense of blacks held in bondage), but they also sowed the seeds of turmoil that began coming to fruition during the coming decades.

Although the Founding Fathers did not use the words "slave" or "slavery" in the Constitution, they endorsed three provisions that either codified or protected the "peculiar institution."

1.;;;;;;;;;; Article I, Section 2 stated, "Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons" (emphasis added). "All other Persons," of course, meant slaves.

2.;;;;;;;;;; Article I, Section 9 declared that "The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person (emphasis added). "Such persons" was a more delicate euphemism for the word "slaves."

3.;;;;;;;;;; Article IV, Section 2 mandated that "No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due" (emphasis added). "Person held to Service or Labor" was yet another more diplomatic substitution for the term "slave."

Of these three oblique references to slavery in the Constitution, the last, often referred to as the Fugitive Slave Clause, proved to be the most ambiguous, and eventually the most contentious and divisive. Although the founders were clear about their intent that runaway slaves should be "delivered up" or returned to their masters, they were inexplicit about rules or regulations regarding enforcement of their device.

It was not long before it became apparent that ground rules needed to be established. In 1788, the Pennsylvania Abolition Society informed Governor Thomas Mifflin that three Virginians had kidnapped a free black resident of Pennsylvania named John Davis and sold him into bondage in Virginia. The Virginians were indicted in Pennsylvania but could not be tried because they had fled to their home state. In 1791, Mifflin appealed to Virginia Governor Beverly Randolph for the extradition of the kidnappers, but Randolph refused. Mifflin appealed to President Washington, who sent the matter on to Congress. The legal dispute prompted Congress to enact "An Act respecting fugitives from justice, and persons escaping from the service of their masters," more commonly known as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793.

Section 1 of the act seemed to favor the Pennsylvanians. It declared that upon being presented with an indictment, the governor of any state harboring a fugitive, charged with a crime in another state, was required to arrest and return the accused criminal to stand trial in the state in which he or she was accused.

Congress was not done, however. Section 3 of the act established special provisions for the return of runaway slaves. That section enabled slave owners or their agents to cross state lines to capture runaway slaves, take them before a federal or local magistrate, and upon presenting proof of ownership, receive authorization to return the fugitive to bondage. The law provided alleged fugitive slaves with no protection of habeas corpus, no right to trial by jury, and no right to testify on their own behalf. Section 4 of the act went on to make it a federal crime to aid fugitive slaves and established a penalty of $500 (a princely sum in those days) for doing so.

The Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 put real teeth into the Constitution's Fugitive Slave Clause, but it also opened the door to potential abuses by unscrupulous slave owners and their agents. Fearing that the law encouraged slave owners to capture free blacks and represent them as runaway slaves, some northern states enacted personal liberty laws that gave suspected fugitives judicial rights that the federal law denied them. Seemingly at odds with federal legislation, the enactment of these personal liberty laws set the stage for a legal showdown. In 1826, Pennsylvania passed a law making it a felony to kidnap fugitive slaves in that state. Events that transpired eleven years later made that law the focal point of the case of Prigg v. Pennsylvania, which was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1842.

In 1837, Edward Prigg, Nathan S. Bemis, Jacob Forward, and Stephen Lewis, Jr., acting as agents for Maryland slave owner, Margaret Ashmore, entered Pennsylvania in pursuit of Margaret Morgan, a slave owned by Ashmore. Although never formally emancipated, Morgan enjoyed considerably more freedom than most slaves while serving the Ashmore family. She married Jerry Morgan, a free black man, and started a family in Maryland. In 1832, Morgan and her family moved across the state line into Pennsylvania, without any known objection from Ashmore. On April 1, 1832, Prigg and his associates entered Pennsylvania, captured Morgan and her children and took them before a Pennsylvania justice of the peace to obtain a certificate of removal as required by the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. The magistrate refused to issue the necessary certificate, prompting the slave catchers to spirit Morgan and her children (one of whom was conceived and born in Pennsylvania) into Maryland, without the required legal authorization. Morgan and her children were sold farther south after being returned to Maryland and disappeared from the historical record. Her captors, however, were subject to prosecution in Pennsylvania, and the litigation that followed had a noteworthy impact on the sectional divisions inching the nation toward disunion.

Following the abduction of Morgan and her children, Pennsylvania officials indicted Ashmore's agents for violating the 1826 state law. The governor of Maryland consented to extradite Prigg, in return for Pennsylvania's agreement to expedite the court proceedings so that the matter could quickly be decided in federal court. Pennsylvania jurors swiftly found Prigg guilty of "having, with force and violence, taken and carried away from that county to the state of Maryland, a certain negro woman, named Margaret Morgan, with a design and intention of selling and disposing of, and keeping her as a slave or servant for life, contrary to a statute of Pennsylvania, passed on the 26th of March, 1826." Prigg promptly appealed his conviction to the United States Supreme Court on the grounds that the Pennsylvania law was unconstitutional and that federal law (the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793) supersedes state law (the Pennsylvania act of 1826) as articulated in the Supremacy Clause (article 6, clause 2) of the Constitution.

The court rendered its decision on March 1, 1842. An eight to one majority affirmed the preeminence of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 and declared the Pennsylvania statute unconstitutional, thus acquitting Prigg. The court's opinion, written by Justice Joseph Story, asserted that states could not enact legislation that interfered with the capture of fugitive slaves. However, the court went on to say that state officials were not bound to assist in the capture of runaways. In fact the court affirmed that "state magistrates may, if they choose, exercise the authority . . " conferred upon them by the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 "unless prohibited by state legislation." Not only were states not required to help enforce the federal statute, but the court's ruling introduced the potential for states to enact laws prohibiting state officials from participating in the capture of fugitive slaves in any manner. Pennsylvania and several other Northern states did just that. In 1847, the Keystone State enacted a law forbidding any state official from assisting in the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793.

The court's ruling proved to be unpopular on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. Northerners were upset that the justices reaffirmed the right of slave catchers to enter their states, abduct fugitive slaves, and return them to a life of bondage. Southerners believed, correctly as it turned out, that the court's decision, which opened the door for even more personal liberty laws, weakened their ability to recapture runaways in the North.

The Prigg decision undermined the intent of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, and the issue of runaway slaves continued to fester for another decade. Congress addressed it once again by enacting a harsher fugitive slave act in 1850, as part of the Compromise of 1850. The new statute enraged abolitionists, leading them to commit open acts of violence against federal officials attempting to enforce the law in Northern states. Yankee defiance of federal statutes convinced many Southerners that rule-of-law would never secure what they viewed as their constitutionally guaranteed property rights. By 1860, the inability to find a peaceful resolution to this issue proved to be a major factor in the decision of Southern states to secede from the Union, triggering the American Civil War.

Related Entries