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Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842)


In the early decades of the 19th century, slavery remained an integral part of the economy and culture of Southern states. In Northern states, however, the practice was in the process of being eradicated, as several states outlawed slavery and others -- including Pennsylvania -- enacted laws of gradual emancipation. Many Southern slaves attempted to escape to freedom in the North. However, Congress had passed the 1793 Fugitive Slave Law, which gave slave owners the right to cross state lines in order to reclaim runaways. Intended to protect the rights of slave owners, the law had the secondary effect of threatening the liberty of free African Americans, who were sometimes seized by slave catchers and forced into bondage. In 1826, Pennsylvania passed anti-kidnapping laws, making it more difficult for African Americans to be removed from the state under false pretenses.

Image of a poster offering a $200 reward for the capture of a runaway slave.
In 1837, Edward Prigg entered the state of Pennsylvania as the agent of Margaret Ashmore, a slave owner from Maryland, on a mission to find Ashmore's escaped slave Margaret Morgan. According to Pennsylvania law, in order to remove Morgan from the state Prigg had to acquire certain documents from local authorities. After officials told him that he lacked sufficient evidence of ownership to legally remove Morgan and her two children, Prigg took matters into his own hands and seized the family without state permission. Convicted under Pennsylvania's anti-kidnapping statute, Prigg appealed his case on the grounds that the law was unconstitutional. Pennsylvania's anti-kidnapping statute, he argued, violated both Article IV of the Constitution -- which states, in part, "No Person held to Service or Labor in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, 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" -- and the federal Fugitive Slave Law of 1793.


At its core, Prigg v. Pennsylvania concerned not only individual rights, but also sectional conflict, the fragility of the antebellum Union, and the constitutional powers of the federal government versus those of states. The case raised a number of questions, among them: Do states have the right to pass legislation concerning fugitive slaves or can only the federal government legislate this issue?

What did the majority rule in this case?