Prigg v. Pennsylvania


Federal Law — Fugitive slave act of 1793 authorized the owner to seize a fugitive slave and bring him before a federal judge, or magistrate who was required to “certificate” the escaped slave, in which, under the laws of the state from where he fled, owe service, or labor to the person claiming him.

State Law —  Prigg was convicted under an 1826 Pennsylvania statute expressly designed to prevent self-help in the return of fugitive slaves.

Jerry Morgan (freed black) married Margaret Morgan, an allegedly freed slave (apparently, her parents owners freed her, upon her birth) – Prigg, captured, jerry and Margaret and the kids, brought them to the boarder of Pennsylvania, told jerry that he should come back in the morning, upon which, prig brought the wife and children into Maryland and prepared them to be traded and shipped to the south – due to Pennsylvanians uproar, pursuit was made, and they found the wife and children, arguments proceeded between the two states, and Maryland refused to give back the slaves – Prigg was found guilty in violation of the above state law – Supreme Court reversed the decision, and deemed the Pennsylvania law unconstitutional.


Can the state law, which passed an act designed to prevent self-help in the return of slaves be constitutional?




That under the virtue of the constitution, the owner of a slave is clothed with entire authority, in every state in the union, to seize and recapture his slave, whenever he can do it, without any breach of the peace or any illegal violence.

“ because the constitution pouints out fully all the modes of attainging those objects, …that the legislation of congress, if constitutional, must supersede all state legislation upon the same subject; and by necessary implication, prohibit it.”

Court reasoning

  • A slave, cannot be discharged in consequence of any state law or regulation which tries to interrupt, limit, delay or postpone the right of the owner to immediate possession (it goes against the constitution).

Article 4, Section 2, clause 2

  • This section, is in essence, and empty box, if it is not properly administered from the states that retain the runaway slaves, it is merely recognition that this right exists without being able to enforce such a right.
    • Purpose/text – this clause was adopted by the framers with the issue of slavery directly – southern states would not have adopted the constitution if this clause was not put in.
      • Plain meaning – this clause is to execute itself, and does not need any form of national legislation.
      • History – slave states retain the right to slaves which fled there state, and to be brought back to their rightful owners.
      • Values – slave state values must be upheld.
      • Prudential terms – to try and create harmony between the states.

Article 4, section 2, clause 2 – second part of the clause­- “but he shall be delivered up, on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due” – way for the federal government to enforce clause 2.

  • If the constitution guarantees the rights of slave owners laid down in clause 3, and it also requires the delivery upon the claim of the owner, the natural inference is that the national government is clothed with the responsibility, and appropriate authority and functions to enforce such a clause.
  • ****Story’s position, is very similar to his dissent in City of New York Case – in that, if congress has the exclusive power to regulate this area w/in the constitution, there cannot be a concurrent power from within the states to compliment the legislation from the congress, to prescribe additional regulations and what may seem to be auxiliary provisions for the same purpose**** this was not the intentions of the framers, when they had envisioned congress passing laws.
  • Argument, was shot down by story, that this power was not expressed in the constitution, so therefore, it cannot be implemented.
    • Implied Power Clause – Congress can exercise powers which were necessary and proper as means to carry into effect rights expressly given, and duties expressly enjoined thereby. The end is legitimate, and it flow from this argument, that the ends being required, it has been deemed a just and necessary implication, that the means to accomplish it are given also; or in other words that the power flows as a necessary means, to accomplish this end.
  • Reiterates that states still retain there own soverignity in regards to policing powers.
  • Precendtial terms – still have the power to police against, vagabonds, paupers, and misfits via law laid down in Mayor of City of New York.


The Pennsylvania act is unconstitutional if it purports to punish as a public offence against that state, the very act of seizing and removing a slave, by his master, which the constitution of the US was designed to justify and uphold.



Justice Taney – Concurring Pro State power

–          The power to enforce article 2, section 4, also remains w/the states and is not exclusive.

–          This is akin to his majority holding in mayor of city of new york and the idea of concurrent powers between the federal government, and states government acting at once.

–          States should not be prohibited from acting in line with the constitution – i.e. that the states have enjoined upon them as a duty, to protect and support its owner, when he is endeavoring to obtain his own property.

–          Laws cannot be passed by states that shall impair a congressional law, but should be able to have the power to pass laws to support and enforce the congressional laws that are necessarily implied therein. – must carry state laws in obedience of federal laws in good faith.

McClean – Dissenting

–          No power was given to the claimaint to personally take the run-away slave out of the state on his own means, by the federal act, he was supposed to take the run-away to a federal judge or magistrate — this is clashing with the constitution stating that the owner can take his slave, back to his state, as long as its peaceful and not illegal…

–          Two issues he brings up:

–          1. No power to remove a slave, is allowed w/out claim.

–          2. To interpret the remedy, w/out legislation, was intended to be interpreted as a peaceful solution.

The assumption of that state that the colored person is free may erroneous in fact, but cannot a slave master, when making a claim on a slave, be wrong as well? And if so, how shall this be enforced?

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