Prigg v. Pennsylvania

Author:Jeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps

Page 81

A pre?Civil War case, Prigg v. Pennsylvania, 41 U.S. (16 Pet.) 539, 10 L. Ed. 1060 (1842), declared unconstitutional all fugitive slave laws enacted by the states on the ground that the federal law provided the exclusive remedy for the return of runaway slaves.

The national debate over SLAVERY grew in intensity beginning in the 1840s. Many of the Northern states demonstrated their hostility to slavery by enacting laws that attempted to frustrate Southern slave owners who came North in search of runaway slaves. Slave owners were outraged at these laws, arguing that the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 gave them the right to reclaim their property without interference by state government. In 1842 the U.S. Supreme Court resolved the issue in Prigg v. Pennsylvania.

Edward Prigg, a professional slave catcher, seized Margaret Morgan, a runaway slave from Maryland living in Pennsylvania. Prigg applied to a state magistrate for certificates of removal under the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 and an 1826 Pennsylvania personal liberty law. Prigg needed the certificates to legally remove Morgan and her two children to Maryland. The Pennsylvania law had a higher standard of proof for demonstrating the slave owner applicant's title to the slaves. After the magistrate refused to issue the certificates, Prigg illegally returned the slaves to Maryland. Pennsylvania indicted Prigg for KIDNAPPING under the 1826 law and extradited him from Maryland. Following his conviction, Prigg appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

By an 8?1 vote, the Court reversed his conviction. Writing for the Court, Justice JOSEPH STORY concluded that the Pennsylvania law was unconstitutional because it conflicted with the federal act. He based his analysis on the Fugitive Slave Clause contained in Article IV, Section 2, of the U.S. Constitution. The clause directs the return of runaway slaves to the state from where they came.

Story claimed that the clause was a "fundamental article, without the adoption of which the Union could not have been formed." His historical analysis, however, was questionable. The clause was added late in the Constitutional Convention and was not debated. Nevertheless, Story concluded that the clause was a "practical necessity." Without it, every non-slaveholding state would have been at liberty to free all runaway slaves coming within its limits. This would have "created the most bitter animosities, and engendered...

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