Prigg v. Pennsylvania

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16 Pet. (41 U.S.) 539 (1842), argued and decided Jan. 1842 by vote of 8 to 1; Story for the Court, Taney, Thompson, Baldwin, Wayne, and Daniel concurring, McLean in dissent. In 1837, Edward Prigg, and three other Marylanders, seized Margaret Morgan, a runaway slave living in Pennsylvania. Prigg applied to a justice of the peace for certificates of removal under the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 and Pennsylvania's 1826 personal liberty law. The federal law authorized state magistrates to hear cases involving fugitive slaves. The justice of the peace refused Prigg's request for a certificate of removal. Without any legal authority, Prigg then removed to Maryland Morgan and her children, including one conceived and born in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania then indicted Prigg for kidnapping under the 1826 state law.

After protracted negotiations, Maryland agreed to extradite Prigg for trial, and Pennsylvania agreed to expedite proceedings so that the case could quickly go to the U.S. Supreme Court so that it might define the power of the states to legislate on the rendition of fugitive slaves.

Speaking for the Court, Justice Joseph Story held (1) that the federal Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 was constitutional; (2) that Pennsylvania's personal liberty law of 1826 (and by extension all similar laws) unconstitutionally added new requirements to the rendition process; (3) that the Constitution's Fugitive Slave Clause (Art. IV, sec. 2, cl. 3) implied a right of recaption, so that under the clause any slave-owner or his agent could capture a fugitive slave without complying with the federal law of 1793 if such a capture could be done without a breach of the peace; and (4) that all state judges and other officials ought to enforce the federal law but that the national government could not force them to do so because the federal government had no power to require state officials to act.

Story held that all state laws that interfered with the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act were unconstitutional. Story based much of his decision on an inaccurate analysis of the intentions of the Philadelphia framers, asserting “that it cannot be doubted that it [the Constitution's Fugitive Slave Clause] constituted a fundamental article, without the adoption of which the Union could not have been formed” (p. 611). In fact, the clause was added quite late in the Constitutional Convention, with almost no debate and little thought.

Chief Justice Roger B. Taney concurred in the result in Prigg, but objected to Story's conclusion that state judges did not have to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act. In his concurrence (which read more like a dissent), Taney misrepresented Story's opinion by claiming that it prohibited state officials from enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act, when in fact Story actually urged state officials to enforce the law but conceded that the federal government had no power to require them to do so. Taney also complained, again erroneously, that Story's opinion prohibited all supplemental legislation on the rendition of fugitive slaves. Story's opinion actually allowed states to enact legislation aiding the rendition process as long as they did not add requirements beyond what the federal law mandated. Taney complained that under Story's opinion fugitive slave rendition would be virtually impossible, because at the time there were so few federal judges to enforce the federal statute. Taney's complaint became a self-fulfilling prophecy, as some northern judges used his characterization of Story's opinion as a justification for not hearing fugitive slave cases, and some state legislatures also prohibited the use of state facilities for fugitive slave rendition.


Subjects: Law.

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