Prigg v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania

views updated


PRIGG V. COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA, 41 U.S. 539 (1842). In 1837, a black woman named Margaret Morgan and her children, who were then living in Pennsylvania, were seized as fugitive slaves by Edward Prigg and three other men. The captors took the blacks back to Maryland without first obtaining a certificate of removal from a state judge, as required by an 1826 Pennsylvania personal liberty law. Prigg was subsequently convicted of kidnapping, but, in 1842, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction.

Writing for the Court, Justice Joseph Story concluded that 1) the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 was constitutional; 2) all state personal liberty laws were unconstitutional because no state could pass any law adding additional requirements to that law which could impede the return of fugitive slaves; 3) the U.S. Constitution provided a common law right of recaptiona right of self-helpwhich allowed a slave owner (or an owner's agent) to seize any fugitive slave anywhere and return that slave to the master without complying with the provisions of the federal Fugitive Slave Act; 4) state officials ought to, but could not be required to, enforce the federal law of 1793; and 5) no fugitive slave was entitled to any due process hearing or trial beyond a summary proceeding to determine if the person seized was the person described in the affidavit or other papers provided by the claimant.

By striking down the Pennsylvania law, and, by extension, all other personal liberty laws, Justice Story left the northern states without the weapons or the legal authority to prevent the kidnapping of blacks. Story further endangered blacks in the North by asserting that the Constitution gave a master a right of self-help "to seize and recapture his slave" anywhere in the nation, regardless of state or federal statutory law.

Justice John McLean (of Ohio) dissented, arguing that states had a right and duty to protect their free black citizens from kidnapping. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney concurred in the majority opinion, but objected to Story's assertion that the northern states could withdraw their support for the law and leave its enforcement entirely to the federal government. When many northern states did this, southerners demanded a new law, which led to the adoption of the punitive and draconian Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.


Finkelman, Paul. "Sorting Out Prigg v. Pennsylvania. " Rutgers Law Journal 24 (1993): 605665.

. "Story Telling on the Supreme Court: Prigg v. Pennsylvania and Justice Joseph Story's Judicial Nationalism." Supreme Court Review (1994): 247294.

Paul Finkelman

See also Fugitive Slave Acts .

About this article

Prigg v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania

Updated About content Print Article