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Majority Rules
Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842)

Drawing of a runaway slave.

Although the Court held that Pennsylvania had wrongly convicted Prigg, the justices did not reach their conclusions in the same way or for the same reasons. The majority opinion, written by Justice Joseph Story, held that because the Constitution gave the federal government exclusive power to legislate on fugitive slaves, the Pennsylvania law was inherently unconstitutional. However, Story also wrote that the federal government lacked the authority to compel the states to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. Justice Smith Thompson, who dissented in part, argued that Pennsylvania did, in fact, have the right to legislate on the matter of fugitive slaves, but that under the terms of the Supremacy Clause, its law was superseded by that of the federal government and so did not apply. Chief Justice Roger Taney -- best remembered for his later ruling in the 1857 case Dred Scott v. Sandford -- also dissented in part. States do not have the right to pass laws in contradiction to the federal Fugitive Slave Law, he insisted, but may adopt legislation to enforce or otherwise strengthen the 1793 law.

Both the majority opinion and the dissenting views in Prigg v. Pennsylvania ultimately favored federal over state law -- and upheld the rights of slave owners. The Court's decision provoked outrage across the North, inflaming abolitionists and spurring the creation of "personal liberty laws" -- forbidding state officials from participating in the return of fugitive slaves -- throughout Northern states. Without the cooperation of the North, the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act lost all efficacy. Within the decade, however, a new Fugitive Slave Act was adopted. Under the terms of the 1850 law, federal officials were stationed in non-slave holding states to enforce the return of runaway slaves.

Both the 1793 and the 1850 Fugitive Slave Acts reflected attempts by Congress to forge compromises between the North and the South. But as events leading up to and following Prigg v. Pennsylvania suggested, compromise was something neither side was willing to accept on the issue of slavery.

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