Guest Essayist: Gennie Westbrook

In 1776, the Declaration of Independence asserted that “all men are created equal.” And yet, slavery was legal in all thirteen colonies at the time. Beginning with Pennsylvania in 1780, northern states moved toward the revolutionary ideal by enacting gradual abolition statutes. All children born in Pennsylvania after that time were free persons, though any child born to slaves was required to work for his/her mother’s master until age 28.

At the Philadelphia Convention of 1787, delegates from slaveholding states, concerned that northern states where slavery was outlawed would become safe havens for runaway slaves, insisted on the provision that “No person held to service or labor in one state, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall…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.” (Article 4, Section 2, Clause 3). This clause affirms the right of a slaveholder to reclaim his property in human beings, but it does not stipulate who is responsible for “delivering up” the runaway slave.

In 1793, the federal Fugitive Slave Act provided additional implementation details.  Slaveholders or their agents could cross state lines in order to reclaim runaway slaves. However, the law implemented no protection against slave catchers seeking to kidnap free African Americans and force them into slavery. There was no standard for proving the identity of a seized person accused of being a fugitive slave; the agent merely had to convince a local, state, or federal judge to provide a warrant allowing the removal of the accused fugitive.

In 1826, Pennsylvania enacted a personal liberty law. This statute did not interfere with the federal law for rendition of fugitive slaves, but provided protection against slave catchers who kidnapped free people. It required agents to show documentary evidence establishing the slaveholder’s ownership.

In the 1840s, amid increasingly intense debate over slavery, officials in northern states became less cooperative with the return of runaway slaves. Personal liberty laws in various states stipulated that the Fugitive Slave Act could be enforced only by federal officers. Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842) was the first Supreme Court case interpreting the Constitution’s fugitive slave clause and the 1793 Fugitive Slave Law when they conflicted with the personal liberty laws.

Some time before 1812, John Ashmore of Maryland allowed a married slave couple belonging to him to live as free individuals, though he never formally emancipated them. In 1832, Ashmore consented to their daughter, Margaret, marrying a free black man, Jerry Morgan. The young couple moved just across the state line from Maryland to Pennsylvania, and had children who were born free under Pennsylvania law. When Ashmore died without a will in about 1836, his heirs hired Edward Prigg to deliver Margaret Morgan, who had never lived as a slave, back to Maryland, intending to sell her to slave traders.

Edward Prigg was an attorney, justice of the peace, and part-time slave catcher. Along with three others, he entered Pennsylvania in 1837, and, though they had no title of ownership, obtained a warrant to reclaim Margaret Morgan. They seized the whole family in the night and forced them “into an open wagon in a cold sleety rain.”  (Hambly’s Argument, p. 8)  The captors released Jerry Morgan, assuring him they would settle the issue in the morning. When Jerry was out of sight, the slave catchers took Margaret Morgan and her children across the state line into Maryland, where they were immediately sold to a slave trader to be transported to the south.

Convicted of violating Pennsylvania’s 1826 anti-kidnapping statute, and facing a fine and prison sentence of 7 – 21 years at hard labor, Prigg maintained that the law violated both the fugitive slave clause of the U.S. Constitution and the 1793 law.

Arguing Pennsylvania’s case before the U.S. Supreme Court, Thomas Hambly asserted that his state’s law protected free individuals from being carried away without due process. He stressed that legislation regarding slavery had been a power of the states throughout our history.

In Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842), the Supreme Court had to decide two constitutional questions. Did the Pennsylvania law punishing the kidnapping of free people of color violate Article 4, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution and Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 as applied by the Supremacy Clause? Is the owner of a runaway slave, or his agent, entitled to pursue, capture, and carry away that slave, wherever he may be found?

Yes and yes. Justice Joseph Story wrote the Court’s majority opinion, ruling that the return of runaway slaves was governed only by federal law. The Court affirmed the right of slaveholders to pursue and reclaim alleged fugitive slaves regardless of state laws to the contrary where the capture may take place.

The Court issued seven separate opinions, and only that of Justice John McLean was a dissent. Historian Paul Finkelman, in “Sorting Out Prigg v. Pennsylvania,” (pp. 629 – 635), summarized the rulings. First, all of the justices agreed that states could not impose additional requirements to the federal law or interfere with the return of runaway slaves. Second, almost all of the justices agreed that the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 was constitutional, that the state officials should cooperate in the process of returning runaway slaves, and that fugitive slaves were not entitled to due process. Third, four justices agreed with Story that Pennsylvania’s personal liberty law was unconstitutional, Prigg’s conviction should be reversed, and slaveholders had a right to take matters into their own hands to retrieve runaway slaves.

Justice John McLean dissented on most of these points. He wrote that the states had the power to legislate to protect due process and other rights of free blacks. Without the personal liberty laws, there was nothing to prevent slave catchers from kidnapping free blacks to sell them into slavery.

The case illustrates the fragility of the lives of slaves and of free blacks at the time, in tragic events representing the brutality and injustice of slavery. After personally petitioning the governor of Pennsylvania to protect and return his family, Jerry Morgan died in a canal boat accident on his way home. The story of Margaret and her children after they were sold to a slave trader is lost to history. Edward Prigg returned to his comfortable life in Maryland.

The case had far-reaching significance in stirring the sectional controversy over slavery. Since the Supreme Court supported the side of slaveholders, free states were crippled in their ability to maintain rule of law as slave catchers grew bolder—and more prosperous. Increasing refusal of abolitionists in the free states to comply with the 1793 law and the ruling in Prigg prompted southern representatives to demand a stricter Fugitive Slave Act in the Compromise of 1850. The compromise soon broke down and within a decade a bloody Civil War was fought over the intractable issues related to slavery.

Prigg v. Pennsylvania, (1842) Supreme Court decision:

Gennie Westbrook, formerly a classroom teacher, is a Madison Fellow (2000 TX), and senior advisor for education at The Bill of Rights Institute.

Sources Consulted

David Armenti. Edward Prigg Biography, 2012. Maryland State Archives

Paul Finkelman. “Sorting Out Prigg v. Pennsylvania,” Rutgers Law Journal Vol. 24, Number 3, Spring 1993. Maryland State Archives

Thomas Carson Hambly. The Argument of Mr. Hambly, of York,  Pa. in the case of Edward Prigg, plaintiff in error, vs. the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, defendant in error, in the Supreme Court of the United States, Washington, D.C. 1842. Maryland State Archives

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