Prigg v. Pennsylvania

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Prigg v. Pennsylvania
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Decided March 1, 1842
Full case name Edward Prigg v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania
Citations 41 U.S. 539 (more)
10 L. Ed. 1060; 1842 U.S. LEXIS 387
Prior history IN error to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.
Federal law is superior to state law, but states do not have to use their resources to enforce federal law.
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Story
Concurrence Taney, Thompson, Wayne, Daniel, McLean

Prigg v. Pennsylvania, 41 U.S. 539 (1842), was a United States Supreme Court case in which the court held that the Federal Fugitive Slave Act precluded a Pennsylvania state law that prohibited blacks from being taken out of Pennsylvania into slavery, and overturned the conviction of Edward Prigg as a result.

Occurring under the presidency of John Tyler, Prigg v. Pennsylvania is notable in the history of American civil rights for having further weakened the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 after much circumvention of it on the part of state jurisdictions.

Federal and State Laws

Federal law

In March 1789, the Constitution of the United States came into force, having been ratified by nine states. Article IV, Section 2 contained two clauses (the Extradition Clause and the Fugitive Slave Clause)[1] which did not use the term "slavery" directly but which related to the legality of fleeing justice, creditors, owners, or other agencies across state borders and to escaped slaves:

  • "A person charged in any state with treason, felony or other crime, who shall flee from justice, and be found in another state, shall, on demand of the executive authority of the state from which he fled, be delivered up, to be removed to the state having jurisdiction of the crime."
  • "No person held to service or labor 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 labor; but shall be delivered up, on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due." (This clause was superseded by the Thirteenth Amendment,[2] but that amendment came into force only 77 years later, on December 6, 1865.)

On February 12, 1793, the Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793, the long title of which was "An Act respecting fugitives from justice, and persons escaping from the service of their masters".[3]

Pennsylvania law

On March 29, 1788, the State of Pennsylvania passed an amendment to one of its laws (An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery, originally enacted March 1, 1780); this amendment stated that "No negro or mulatto slave ... shall be removed out of this state, with the design and intention that the place of abode or residence of such slave or servant shall be thereby altered or changed."

On March 25, 1826, the State of Pennsylvania passed a further law, which stated in part:

If any person or persons shall, from and after the passing of this act, by force and violence, take and carry away, or cause to be taken or carried away, and shall, by fraud or false pretense, seduce, or cause to be seduced, or shall attempt so to take, carry away or seduce, any negro or mulatto, from any part or parts of this commonwealth, to any other place or places whatsoever, out of this commonwealth, with a design and intention of selling and disposing of, or of causing to be sold, or of keeping and detaining, or of causing to be kept and detained, such negro or mulatto, as a slave or servant for life, or for any term whatsoever, every such person or persons, his or their aiders or abettors, shall on conviction thereof, in any court of this commonwealth having competent jurisdiction, be deemed guilty of a felony.[4]

Case background

In 1832, a black woman named Margaret Morgan moved to Pennsylvania from Maryland, where she had once been a slave to a man named John Ashmore. In Maryland, she had lived in virtual freedom but had never been formally emancipated.[5] Ashmore's heirs eventually decided to claim her as a slave and hired slavecatcher Edward Prigg to recover her.

On April 1, 1837, Edward Prigg led an assault and abduction on Morgan in York County, Pennsylvania. They took Morgan to Maryland, intending to sell her as a slave (her children, one of whom was born a free citizen in Pennsylvania, were also captured and sold). The four men involved in the abduction were arraigned under the 1826 act. Prigg pleaded not guilty, and argued that he had been duly appointed by John Ashmore to arrest and return Morgan to her owner in Maryland. However, in a ruling on May 22, 1839, the Court of Quarter Sessions of York County convicted him.

Prigg appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court on the grounds that the Pennsylvania law was not able to supersede federal law or the constitution; the Fugitive Slave Act and Article 4 of the constitution being in conflict with the Pennsylvania law of 1788. The case was Prigg v. Pennsylvania, 41 U. S. 539 (1842).[6]

The case

Prigg and his lawyer argued that the 1788 and 1826 Pennsylvania laws were unconstitutional:

  • First, because of the injunction in Article IV of the U.S. Constitution that "No person held to service or labor 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 labor; but shall be delivered up, on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due."
  • Second, because, the exercise of Federal legislation, such as that undertaken by Congress in passing the act of the February 12th 1793, supersedes any State law.

As a consequence, they argued, the 1788 Pennsylvania law, in all its provisions applicable to this case, should be voided. The question was whether Pennsylvania law violated the constitutional guarantee of fugitive slave return and the 1793 Act of Congress passed to implement it.

Writing for the Court, Justice Joseph Story reversed the conviction and held the Pennsylvania law unconstitutional as a denial of both the right of slaveholders to recover their slaves under Article IV and the Federal Fugitive Slave Law of 1793, which trumped the state law per the Supremacy Clause. Six justices wrote separate opinions.

Though Story ruled the Pennsylvania laws unconstitutional, his opinion left the door open for further such actions by the state in his writing:

As to the authority so conferred upon state magistrates [to deal with runaway slaves], while a difference of opinion has existed, and may exist still on the point, in different states, whether state magistrates are bound to act under it; none is entertained by this Court that state magistrates may, if they choose, exercise that authority, unless prohibited by state legislation.


Story's phrase "unless prohibited by state legislation" became the impetus for a number of personal liberty laws enacted by Pennsylvania and the other Northern states. These laws did as the Court had suggested: they prohibited state officials from interfering with runaway slaves in any capacity. Runaways could not be caught or incarcerated, cases could not be heard, and no assistance could be offered to those wishing to recapture slaves. The Fugitive Slave Act still stood, but only federal agents could enforce it.

Such an emphatic refusal to uphold the Fugitive Slave Act was viewed in the Southern states as a brazen violation of the federal compact. One letter to South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun stated that the new personal liberties laws "rendered slave property utterly insecure" and constituted a "flagrant violation of the spirit of the U.S. Constitution."[7]

It was these laws that led to The Compromise of 1850California could enter the Union as a free state, but the Northern states would have to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act within their own borders.

In avoiding one crisis, the Court prepared the way for a greater one. By discouraging state cooperation in returning fugitives, the Prigg decision undercut the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 and made necessary the more brutal one of 1850. The South had been forced to look to the federal government for a national solution, and the Court had pledged itself in advance to support such a solution, despite that fact that the North would certainly be mobilized against it. In addition, people began to believe that the Court, and only the Court, was uniquely qualified to soothe the growing agitation over slavery.

See also


Further reading

  • Burke, Joseph C. "What Did the Prigg Decision Really Decide?" Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 93, No. 1 (January, 1969), pp. 73–85 in JSTOR
  • Goldstein, Leslie Friedman, “A ‘Triumph of Freedom’ after All? Prigg v. Pennsylvania Re-examined,” Law and History Review, 29 (Aug. 2011), 763–96.
  • Nogee, Joseph. "The Prigg Case and Fugitive Slavery, 1842-1850," Journal of Negro History Vol. 39, No. 3 (July, 1954), pp. 185–205 in JSTOR

External links