Prigg v. Pennsylvania 1842

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Prigg v. Pennsylvania 1842

Appellant: Edward Prigg

Appellee: Commonwealth of Pennsylvania

Appellant's Claim: That the Pennsylvania law under which he was convicted for returning a runaway slave to her master was unconstitutional.

Chief Lawyers for Appellant: Messrs. Meredith and Nelson

Chief Lawyer for Appellee: Mr. Johnson, Attorney General of Pennsylvania

Justices for the Court: Henry Baldwin, John Catron, Peter Vivian Daniel, John McKinley, Joseph Story, Roger Brooke Taney, Smith Thompson, James Moore Wayne

Justices Dissenting: John McLean

Date of Decision: March 1, 1942

Decision: The Supreme Court struck down Pennsylvania's law and reversed Prigg's conviction.

Significance: On one level, Prigg strengthened the federal government's power and weakened state power. On another level, the decision was a victory for slavery, which would divide the country in a civil war nineteen years later.

Margaret Morgan was an African American slave in Maryland in 1832. That year, Morgan escaped from her owner, Margaret Ashmore, and fled to Pennsylvania, which had abolished slavery. Morgan spent the next couple years in Pennsylvania raising her children, one of whom was born a free person in Pennsylvania.

When the United States wrote the Constitution in 1787, the states that allowed slavery wanted to make sure slaves could not escape to the free states. In Article IV of the Constitution, the framers said escaped slaves must be returned to their owners on demand. Six years later, Congress passed the first Fugitive Slave Act. The law said a slave owner could demand return of an escaped slave by getting a warrant from a federal or state judge or magistrate. The owner needed no evidence except his own word to prove that he owned an escaped slave.

In February 1837, Margaret Ashmore appointed attorney Edward Prigg as her agent to return Margaret Morgan. That month, Prigg went to see Thomas Henderson, a justice of the peace in York county, Pennsylvania, where Morgan was living. Prigg asked Henderson to arrest Morgan for delivery back to Ashmore. Henderson had the constable arrest Morgan and her children but then declined to take any more action.


Prigg was determined to return Morgan to Ashmore. Using force and violence with help from three other men, Prigg captured Morgan on April 1, 1837 and took her to Maryland. There Morgan was forced back into slavery.

In March 1826, Pennsylvania had passed its own law about returning escaped slaves. The law made it a felony to kidnap a person and take her to captivity without following the proper procedures to prove she was a slave. To prove ownership, a slave owner had to present testimony from a neutral person. The purpose of the law was to make sure free people were not captured and taken to slavery in a Southern state on the strength of just the owner's word.

Pennsylvania arrested Prigg and charged him with violating the law by kidnapping Margaret Morgan. The trial court convicted Prigg and the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania affirmed. Prigg appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

At the time of Prigg's case, turmoil over slavery was just beginning to simmer in the United States. Northern states wanted the federal government to outlaw slavery in all new territories and states. Southern states did not think the federal government had such power. They believed each state should be free to decide for itself whether or not to allow slavery.

When Prigg appealed his case to the Supreme Court, he based his argument on the issue of federal versus state power. Prigg said the U.S. Consti-tution required Penn-sylvania to return escaped slaves to their owners by following federal law. Pennsylvania was not free to enact its own law with its own procedures for returning escaped slaves. That made Pennsylvania's law unconstitutional. Because Pennsylvania convicted Prigg under an unconstitutional law, Prigg said his conviction must be overturned.

Federal Government Reigns Supreme

With an 8–1 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Prigg. Justice Joseph Story wrote the Court's opinion. Justice Story said the Constitution clearly said states must return escaped slaves to their owners on demand. Congress, then, necessarily had the power to enact legislation to enforce that part of the Constitution. Under the Constitution, federal law is the "supreme Law of the land." States cannot interfere with federal law.

The ultimate question, then, was whether Congress and the states both could enact legislation on the subject. Story said only Congress could enact appropriate legislation. Otherwise different states might enact conflicting laws. That would make the process for returning escaped slaves different from state to state. It would allow some states to make it more difficult than others made it to return escaped slaves. The Court said that would be unworkable and unfair to the Southern states.


J oseph Story was born in Marblehead, Massachusetts, on September 18, 1779. He was a child of the American Revolution whose father participated in the Boston Tea Party in 1773. In 1798, Story graduated second in his class from Harvard University and went to study law in Marblehead and then Salem, Massachusetts. Story was admitted to the bar in 1801 and practiced law in Salem for the next few years.

Story served in the Massachusetts legislature from 1805 to 1808, when he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. A member of Jefferson's Republican-Democratic party, Story fell into disfavor with the party and ended up back in the Massachusetts legislature as speaker of the house in 1811. Later that year, President James Madison appointed Story to the U.S. Supreme Court.

As an associate justice for thirty-four years, Story supported a strong national government. During his service on the Court he also taught law at Harvard University. While at Harvard, Story wrote a famous series of treatises on American law. Story died on September 10, 1845, after a sudden illness.

Pennsylvania, then, had no power to enact the 1826 law under which it convicted Prigg. The Court overturned Prigg's conviction and set him free. Margaret Morgan remained in captivity in Maryland.


Prigg was a victory for the states that allowed slavery. It forced the free states to follow the federal procedure for returning escaped slaves. Prigg also was a victory for the federal government. It gave the federal government power to prevent the states from passing legislation in areas that the Constitution reserved for the federal government. Nineteen years later, the issues of federal power, state power, and slavery would divide the United States in the American Civil War.

Suggestions for further reading

Adams, Judith. The Tenth Amendment. Englewood Cliffs: Silver Burdett Press, 1991.

Batchelor, John E. States' Rights. New York: Franklin Watts, 1986.

Bourgoin, Suzanne Michele, and Paula Kay Byers, eds. Encyclopedia of World Biography. Detroit: Gale Research, 1998.

Goode, Stephen. The New Federalism: States' Rights in American History. New York: Watts, 1983.

Witt, Elder, ed. Congressional Quarterly's Guide to the U.S. Supreme Court. District of Columbia: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 1990.

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Prigg v. Pennsylvania 1842

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