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)
16 Pet. 539; 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
Chief Justice
Roger B. Taney
Associate Justices
Joseph Story · Smith Thompson
John McLean · Henry Baldwin
James M. Wayne · John Catron
John McKinley · Peter V. Daniel
Case opinions
Majority Story
Concurrence Taney, Thompson, Wayne, Daniel, McLean

Prigg v. Pennsylvania, 41 U.S. (16 Pet.) 539 (1842),[1] 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. The Court overturned the conviction of Edward Prigg as a result.[2]

Occurring under the presidency of John Tyler, Prigg v. Pennsylvania weakened the enforcement mechanisms of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 by allowing states to forbid their officials from cooperating in the return of fugitive slaves — but by asserting federal government authority and responsibility over the area of fugitive slave return, it set the stage for future more stringent laws which would bypass the states (such a law was later passed in 1850). Also, by refusing to take any judicial notice of the problem of the kidnapping of free blacks into slavery, the decision established an implicit precedent that blacks were entitled to fewer procedural protections than whites.[3]

Federal law[edit]

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)[4] on the legality of fleeing justice, creditors, owners, or other agencies across state borders and to escaped slaves but did not mention "slavery" directly:

  • "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,[5] 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."[6]

State law[edit]

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): "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:

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.[7]


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.[8] Ashmore's heirs eventually decided to claim her as a slave and hired slavecatcher Edward Prigg to recover her.

On April 1, 1837, 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 US Supreme Court on the grounds that the Pennsylvania law was not able to supersede federal law or the US Constitution; the Fugitive Slave Act and Article IV of the Constitution were in conflict with the Pennsylvania law of 1788. The case was Prigg v. Pennsylvania, 41 U. S. 539 (1842).[1]

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

  • First, because of the injunction in Article IV of the US Constitution: "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 12, 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 was 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.

Story ruled the Pennsylvania laws unconstitutional, but his opinion left the door open for the state to forbid state officials from cooperating in the return of fugitive slaves:

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.

However, state laws could not interfere with a slave-owner's right to go to another state and recapture a fugitive slave by private action, as long as no breach of the peace was committed.

Five of the seven Supreme Court justices (including Story) referred to the commonly-held view at the time that the southern states in the Constitutional Convention of 1787 would not have agreed to the U.S. Constitution if the Fugitive Slave Clause had not been included, though there is little historical evidence for this.[9]


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

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 liberty laws "rendered slave property utterly insecure" and constituted a "flagrant violation of the spirit of the U.S. Constitution".[10][full citation needed]

It was these laws that led to the Compromise of 1850: California could enter the Union as a free state, but the Northern states would have to allow federal officials to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act within their own borders. In avoiding one crisis, the Court had prepared the way for a greater one. By discouraging state cooperation in returning fugitives, the Prigg decision undercut the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, making the more stringent act of 1850 necessary in the eyes of slavery supporters.[citation needed]

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 the fact that many in the North would certainly be mobilized against it. In addition, people began to believe that the Court was uniquely qualified to soothe the growing agitation over slavery.[11]

At the other end of the political spectrum, the Liberty Party platform of 1843 (adopted in advance of the 1844 presidential election) condemned the Prigg v. Pennsylvania decision for nullifying habeas corpus for free blacks, and taking away their "whole legal security of personal freedom".[12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Prigg v. Pennsylvania, 41 U.S. (16 Pet.) 539 (1842).
  2. ^ Levinson, Sanford. 2006. "Prigg v. Pennsylvania." Federalism in America: An Encyclopedia.
  3. ^ Slavery, Law, and Politics: The Dred Scott Case in Historical Perspective by Don E. Fehrenbacher (1981, ISBN 0-19-502883-X), pp. 22-23.
  4. ^ Article IV | LII / Legal Information Institute
  5. ^ Thirteenth Amendment|LII / Legal Information Institute
  6. ^ Fugitive Slave Act of 1793
  7. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2009-02-07. Retrieved 2009-11-10.
  8. ^ Amar, Akhil Reed (2005). America's Constitution: A Biography. Random House. p. 262. ISBN 1-4000-6262-4.
  9. ^ Slavery, Law, and Politics: The Dred Scott Case in Historical Perspective by Don E. Fehrenbacher (1981, ISBN 0-19-502883-X), p. 21.
  10. ^ "Fugitive Slaves"
  11. ^ Paul Finkelman, ed. (2014). The Supreme Court: Controversies, Cases, and Characters from John Jay to John Roberts. ABC-CLIO. p. 241.
  12. ^ The National Conventions and Platforms of All Political Parties 1789-1905 by Thomas Hudson McKee (ISBN 0-403-00356-3), p. 54.

Further reading[edit]

  • 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[edit]