Prigg v. Pennsylvania 16 Peters 539 (1842)

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PRIGG v. PENNSYLVANIA 16 Peters 539 (1842)

In 1839 Edward Prigg was convicted of kidnapping for removing an alleged fugitive slave from Pennsylvania without obtaining a warrant from a state judge as required by a Pennsylvania act of 1826. Prigg eventually appealed to the United States Supreme Court. Justice joseph story, speaking for the Court, overturned his conviction. Story determined: (1) The federal Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 was constitutional. This was the first Supreme Court decision on that issue. (2) All state laws interfering with the rendition of fugitive slaves were unconstitutional. (3) The Fugitive Slave clause of the United States Constitution (Article IV, section 2, clause 3) was in part self-executing, and a slaveowner or his agent could capture and return a runaway slave under a right of self-help, without relying on any statute or judicial procedure, as long as the capture did not breach the peace. (4) State jurists and officials ought to help enforce the federal act of 1793, but Congress could not compel them to do so. Chief Justice roger b. taney concurred in Story's decision, but not his reasoning. Taney distorted Story's opinion by erroneously asserting that Story had declared it was illegal for state officials to aid in the rendition of fugitive slaves. In fact, Story encouraged the states to aid in the rendition process, but he believed Congress could not compel state assistance. After the decision many free states enacted personal liberty laws which removed state support for the federal act of 1793. With few federal officials to help masters, the law went unenforced in much of the North. This situation helped lead to the passage of a new and harsher fugitive slave law in 1850.

Paul Finkelman


Finkelman, Paul 1979 Prigg v. Pennsylvania and Northern State Courts: Antislavery Use of a Proslavery Decision. Civil War History 25:5–35.

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Prigg v. Pennsylvania 16 Peters 539 (1842)

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