Context

Prigg covers two major questions in its decision: the right of slave owners and the distinction between state and federal law. Prigg’s focus on federalism was centralized over whether or not the Pennsylvania law contradicted the Fugitive Slave Act passed by the U.S. Congress in 1793, which allowed for the extradition of slaves to their owners in other states. Justice Joseph Story, the writer for the majority opinion, pointed out a flaw--the federal government lacked the appropriate authority to regulate the extradition of slaves between states because only federal agents could carry out the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. Story noted that states differ in opinion over how to deal with fugitive slaves and that states are not compelled to extradite fugitive slaves within their borders. Justice Story wrote that state officials could act in accordance of the Fugitive Slave Clause and Act and cooperate in extraditing a slave “unless prohibited by state legislation,” which prompted many northern states and those who favored abolition to pass legislation prohibiting state officials from extraditing slaves. That being said, the states cannot protect a fugitive slave from being picked up and brought back to a different state by or on behalf of their owner. Besides slavery, this case dealt with an issue of federalism as well. Could Pennsylvania pass legislation in direct conflict with federal legislation? No. The supremacy clause clearly outlines that federal matters are superior to states’. Rumor has it that 5 out of the 7 sitting Justices believed that the Constitution would not have been ratified by the southern states if the Fugitive Slave Clause had not been added. While that has no significant historical backing, the Justices’ ideologies support the maintenance of slavery in the United States, despite their refusal to uphold the Fugitive Slave Act. The case was received poorly in both the northern and southern states, albeit for different reasons. Northerners, while pleased by the suggestion to outlaw state officials from helping runaway slaves, were frustrated by the court’s reversal of Prigg’s conviction and their support of legislation that protected the slave owner’s rights. Southern states were frustrated with the court’s lack of support for the federal Fugitive Slave Act. Senator John C. Calhoun (SC) was particularly outraged by the court. In response to this decision and the subsequent state legislation passed, the Congress passed a new Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. The 1850 Act served as a compromise between the North and the South and stationed federal officers in non-slave-holding states to catch runaway slaves and return them. This piece of legislation was part of the Compromise of 1850 that allowed for California to enter the Union as a free state. This case is also significant in the sense that public opinion of the role of the Supreme Court shifted with this decision. The court was now seen as a legitimate body to help mediate the heated debate over slavery, although it would take many years and many more events for the debate to truly end.

Prigg v. Pennsylvania

41 U.S. 539 (1842)

(Fugitive Slave Act)


Facts:

The plaintiff in error was indicted in the Court of Oyer and Terminer for York county, for having, with force and violence, taken and carried away from that county to the state of Maryland, a certain negro woman, named Margaret Morgan, with a design and intention of selling and disposing of, and keeping her as a slave or servant for life, contrary to a statute of Pennsylvania, passed on the 26th of March, 1826. That statute in the first section, in substance, provides, that if any person or persons shall from and after the passing of the act, by force and violence take and carry away, or cause to be taken and carried away, and shall by fraud or false pretence, seduce, or cause to be seduced, or shall attempt to take, carry away, or seduce any negro or mulatto from any part of that commonwealth, with a design and intention of selling and disposing of, or causing to be sold, or of keeping and detaining, or of causing to be kept and detained, such negro or mulatto as a slave or servant for life, or for any term whatsoever; every such person or persons, his or their aiders or abettors, shall, on conviction thereof, be deemed guilty of a felony, and shall forfeit and pay a sum not less than five hundred, nor more than one thousand dollars; and moreover, shall be sentenced to undergo a servitude for any term or terms of years, not less than seven years nor exceeding twenty-one years; and shall be confined and kept to hard labour, &c.

The jury found a special verdict, which, in substance, states, that the negro woman, Margaret Morgan, was a slave for life, and held to labour and service under and according to the laws of Maryland, to a certain Margaret Ashmore, a citizen of Maryland; that the slave escaped and fled from Maryland into Pennsylvania in 1832; that the plaintiff in error, being legally constituted the agent and attorney of the said Margaret Ashmore, in 1837, caused the said negro woman to be taken and apprehended as a fugitive from labour by a state constable, under a warrant from a Pennsylvania magistrate; that the said negro woman was thereupon brought before the said magistrate, who refused to take further cognisance of the case; and thereupon the plaintiff in error did remove, take, and carry away the said negro woman and her children out of Pennsylvania into Maryland, and did deliver the said negro woman and her children into the custody and possession of the said Margaret Ashmore. The special verdict further finds, that one of the children was born in Pennsylvania, more than a year after the said negro woman had fled and escaped from Maryland.

Prigg v. Pennsylvania, 41 U.S. 539 (1842)

Prigg v. Pennsylvania, 41 U.S. 539 (1842)

Prigg v. Pennsylvania, 41 U.S. 539 (1842)

Prigg v. Pennsylvania, 41 U.S. 539 (1842)

Issue:

Whether the statute of Pennsylvania is constitutional. (implied)

Reasoning:

There are two clauses in the Constitution upon the subject of fugitives, which stand in juxtaposition with each other, and have been thought mutually to illustrate each other. They are both contained in the second section of the fourth article and are in the following words: "A person charged in any state with treason, felony, or other crime, who shall flee from justice, and be found in another state, shall, on demand of the executive authority of the state from which he fled, be delivered up, to be removed to the state having jurisdiction of the crime."

"No person held to service or labour 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 labour; but shall be delivered up, on claim of the party to whom such service or labour may be due."

The last clause is that the true interpretation whereof is directly in judgment before us. Historically, it is well known, that the object of this clause was to secure to the citizens of the slaveholding states the complete right and title of ownership in their slaves, as property, in every state in the Union into which they might escape from the state where they were held in servitude. The full recognition of this right and title was indispensable to the security of this species of property in all the slaveholding states; and, indeed, was so vital to the preservation of their domestic interests and institutions, that it cannot be doubted that it constituted a fundamental article, without the adoption of which the Union could not have been formed. Its true design was to guard against the doctrines and principles prevalent in the non-slaveholding states, by preventing them from intermeddling with, or obstructing, or abolishing the rights of the owners of slaves.

By the general law of nations, no nation is bound to recognise the state of slavery, as to foreign slaves found within its territorial dominions, when it is in opposition to its own policy and institutions, in favour of the subjects of other nations where slavery is recognised. If it does it, it is as a matter of comity, and not as a matter of international right. The state of slavery is deemed to be a mere municipal regulation, founded upon and limited to the range of the territorial laws. It is manifest from this consideration, that if the Constitution had not contained this clause, every non-slave-holding state in the Union would have been at liberty to have declared free all runaway slaves coming within its limits, and to have given them entire immunity and protection against the claims of their masters; a course which would have created the most bitter animosities and engendered perpetual strife between the different states. The clause was of the last importance to the safety and security of the southern states, and could not have been surrendered by them without endangering their whole property in slaves. The clause was accordingly adopted into the Constitution by the unanimous consent of the framers of it; a proof at once of its intrinsic and practical necessity.

No Court of justice can be authorized so to construe any clause of the Constitution as to defeat its obvious ends, when another construction, equally accordant with the words and sense thereof, will enforce and protect them.

If indeed, the Constitution guarantees the right, and if it requires the delivery upon the claim of the owner, (as cannot well be doubted,) the natural inference certainly is, that the national government is clothed with the appropriate authority and functions to enforce it. The fundamental principle applicable to all cases of this sort would seem to be, that where the end is required, the means are given; and where the duty is enjoined, the ability to perform it is contemplated to exist on the part of the functionaries to whom it is entrusted. The clause is found in the national Constitution, and not in that of any state. It does not point out any state functionaries, or any state action to carry its provisions into effect. The states cannot be compelled to enforce them; and it might well be deemed an unconstitutional exercise of the power of interpretation, to insist that the states are bound to provide means to carry into effect the duties of the national government, nowhere delegated or intrusted to them by the Constitution. On the contrary, the natural, if not the necessary conclusion is, that the national government, in the absence of all positive provisions to the contrary, is bound, through its own proper departments, legislative, judicial, or executive, as the case may require, to carry into effect all the rights and duties imposed upon it by the Constitution.

it has been argued, that the act of Congress is unconstitutional because it does not fall within the scope of any of the enumerated powers of legislation confided to that body; and therefore, it is void. Stripped of its artificial and technical structure, the argument comes to this, that although rights are exclusively secured by, or duties are exclusively imposed upon the national government, yet, unless the power to enforce these rights, or to execute these duties can be found among the express powers of legislation enumerated in the Constitution, they remain without any means of giving them effect by any act of Congress; and they must operate solely proprio vigore, however, defective may be their operation; nay, even although, in a practical sense, they may become a nullity from the want of a proper remedy to enforce them, or to provide against their violation. If this be the true interpretation of the Constitution, it must, in a great measure, fail to attain many of its avowed and positive objects as a security of rights and a recognition of duties. Such a limited construction of the Constitution has never yet been adopted as correct, either in theory or practice. No one has ever supposed that Congress could, constitutionally, by its legislation, exercise powers, or enact laws beyond the powers delegated to it by the Constitution; but it has, on various occasions, exercised powers which were necessary and proper as means to carry into effect rights expressly given, and outies expressly enjoined thereby. The end 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 the end.

Thus, for example, although the Constitution has declared that representatives shall be apportioned among the states according to their respective federal numbers; and, for this purpose, it has expressly authorized Congress, by law, to provide for an enumeration of the population every ten years; yet the power to apportion representatives after this enumeration is made, is nowhere found among the express powers given to Congress, but it has always been acted upon as irresistibly flowing from the duty positively enjoined by the Constitution. Treaties made between the United States and foreign powers, often contain special provisions, which do not execute themselves but require the interposition of Congress to carry them into effect, and Congress has constantly, in such cases, legislated on the subject; yet, although the power is given to the executive, with the consent of the senate, to make treaties, the power is nowhere in positive terms conferred upon Congress to make laws to carry the stipulations of treaties into effect. It has been supposed to result from the duty of the national government to fulfil all the obligations of treaties.

We entertain no doubt whatsoever, that the states, in virtue of their general police power, possess full jurisdiction to arrest and restrain runaway slaves, and remove them from their borders, and otherwise to secure themselves against their depredations and evil example, as they certainly may do in cases of idlers, vagabonds, and paupers. The rights of the owners of fugitive slaves are in no just sense interfered with or regulated by such a course; and in many cases, the operations of this police power, although designed essentially for other purposes, for the protection, safety, and peace of the state, may essentially promote and aid the interests of the owners. But such regulations can never be permitted to interfere with or to obstruct the just rights of the owner to reclaim his slave, derived from the Constitution of the United States; or with the remedies prescribed by Congress to aid and enforce the same.

Justice Story decides Prigg v. Pennsylvania

Holding:

Under and in 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.

It is the opinion of this Court, that the act of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, upon which the indictment, in this case, is founded, is repugnant to the Constitution and laws of the United States, and, therefore, void; and that the judgment of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania upon the special verdict found in the case, ought to have been that the said Edward Prigg was not guilty. It is ordered and adjudged by this Court, that the judgment of the said Supreme Court of Pennsylvania be, and the same is, hereby, reversed. And this Court, proceeding to render such judgment in the premises as the said Supreme Court of Pennsylvania ought to have rendered, do hereby order and adjudge that judgment upon the special verdict aforesaid be here entered, that the said Edward Prigg is not guilty in manner and form as is charged against him in the said indictment, and that he go thereof quit without day

Court Syllabus:

A writ of error to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, brought under the twenty-fifth section of the judiciary act of 1789, to revise the judgment of that Court, on a case involving the construction of the Constitution and laws of the United States.

Edward Prigg, a citizen of the state of Maryland, was indicted, for kidnapping, in the Court of Oyer and Terminer of York county, Pennsylvania, for having forcibly taken and carried away, from that county, to the state of Maryland, a negro woman, named Margaret Morgan, with the design and intention of her being held, sold, and disposed of as a slave for life, contrary to a statute of Pennsylvania, passed on the twenty-sixth day of March, 1826. Edward Prigg pleaded not guilty, and the jury found a special verdict, on which judgment was rendered for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The case was removed to the Supreme Court of the state, and the judgment of the Court of Oyer and Terminer was, pro forma, affirmed: and the case was carried to the Supreme Court of the United States; the constitutionality of the law, under which the indictment was found, being denied by the counsel of the state of Maryland; which state had undertaken the defence for Edward Prigg, and prosecuted the writ of error. The cause was brought to the Supreme Court, with the sanction of both the states of Maryland and Pennsylvania, with a view to have the questions in the case settled. Margaret Morgan was the slave for life, under the laws of Maryland, of Margaret Ashmore, a citizen of that state. In 1832 she escaped and fled from the state, into Pennsylvania. Edward Prigg, having been duly appointed the agent and attorney of Margaret Ashmore, and having obtained a warrant from a justice of the peace of York county, caused Margaret Morgan to be taken, as a fugitive from labour, by a constable of the state of Pennsylvania, before the magistrate, who refused to take cognisance of the ease: and thereupon Edward Prigg carried her and her children into Maryland, and delivered them to Margaret Ashmore. The children were born in Pennsylvania; one of them, more than a year after Margaret Morgan had fled and escaped from Maryland.

By the first section of the act of Assembly of Pennsylvania of 25th March 1826, it is provided, that if any person shall by force and violence take and carry away, or shall by fraud or false pretence attempt to take, carry away, or seduce any negro or mulatto from any part of the commonwealth, with a design or intention of selling and disposing of, or keeping or detaining such negro or mulatto as a slave or servant for life, or for any other term whatsoever, such person, and all persons aiding and abetting him, shall, on conviction thereof, be deemed guilty of a felony, and shall forfeit and pay a sum not less than five hundred nor more than three thousand dollars, and shall be sentenced to undergo a servitude for any term or terms of years, not less than seven years, nor exceeding twenty-one years; and shall be confined and kept at hard labour, &c. Other provisions are contained in the act; and it was passed in 1826, as declared in its title, to aid in carrying into effect the Constitution and laws of the United States, relating to fugitives from labour; and on the application to the legislature, by commissioners from the state of Maryland, with a view to meet the supposed wishes of the state of Maryland on the subject of fugitive slaves; but it had failed to produce the good effects intended.

By the Court:

It will, probably, be found, when we look to the character of the Constitution of the United States itself, the objects which it seeks to attain, the powers which it confers, the duties which it enjoins, and the rights which it secures; as well as to the known historical fact that many of its provisions were matters of compromise of opposing interests and opinions; that no uniform rule of interpretation can be applied, which may not allow, even if it does not positively demand, many modifications in its actual application to particular clauses. Perhaps the safest rule of interpretation, after all, will be found to be to look to the nature and objects of the particular powers, duties, and rights, with all the light and aids of contemporary history; and to give to the words of each just such operation and force, consistent with their legitimate meaning, as may fairly secure and attain the ends proposed.

It is historically well known, that the object of the clause in the Constitution of the United States, relating to persons owing service and labour in one state escaping into other states, was to secure to the citizens of the slaveholding states the complete right and title of ownership in their slaves, as property, in every state in the Union, into which they might escape from the state where they were held in servitude. The full recognition of this right and title, was indispensable to the security of this species of property in all the slaveholding states; and indeed, was so vital to the preservation of their domestic interests and institutions, that it cannot be doubted that it constituted a fundamental article, without the adoption of which the Union could not have been formed. Its true design was to guard against the doctrines and principles prevailing in the non-slaveholding states, by preventing them from intermeddling with or obstructing or abolishing the rights of the owners of slaves.

By the general law of nations, no nation is bound to recognise the state of slavery as to foreign slaves within its territorial dominions, when it is opposed to its own policy and institutions, in favour of the subjects of other nations where slavery is recognised. If it does it, it is as a matter of comity, and not as a matter of international right. The state of slavery is deemed to be a mere municipal regulation; founded upon and limited to the range of the territorial laws.

The clause in the Constitution of the United States, relating to fugitives from labour, manifestly contemplates the existence of a positive, unqualified right, on the part of the owner of the slave, which no state law or regulation can in any way qualify, regulate, control, or restrain. Any state law or regulation, which interrupts, limits, delays, or postpones the rights of the owner to the immediate command of his service or labour, operates, pro tanto, a discharge of the slave therefrom. The question can never be, how much he is discharged from, but whether he is discharged from any, by the natural or necessary operation of the state laws, or state regulations. The question is not one of quantity or degree, but of withholding or controlling the incidents of a positive right.

The owner of a fugitive slave has the same right to seize and take him in a state to which he has escaped or fled, that he had in the state from which he escaped: and it is well known that this right to seizure or recapture is universally acknowledged in all the slaveholding states. The Court have not the slightest hesitation in holding, that under and in virtue of the Constitution, the owner of the slave is clothed with the authority in every state of the Union, to seize and recapture his slave; wherever he can do it without any breach of the peace, or illegal violence. In this sense, and to this extent, this clause in the Constitution may properly be said to execute itself and to require no aid from legislation, state or national.

The Constitution does not stop at a mere annunciation of the rights of the owner to seize his absconding or fugitive slave, in the state to which he may have fled. If it had done so, it would have left the owner of the slave, in many cases, utterly without any adequate redress.

The Constitution declares that the fugitive slave shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom service or labour may be due. It is exceedingly difficult, if not impracticable, to read this language, and not to feel that it contemplated some further remedial redress than that which might be administered at the hand of the owner himself. "A claim" is to be made.

"A claim," in a just juridical sense, is a demand of some matter as of right, made by one person upon another to do or to forbear to do some act or thing, as a matter of duty.

It cannot well be doubted, that the Constitution requires the delivery of the fugitive on the claim of the master: and the natural inference certainly is, that the national government is clothed with the appropriate authority and functions to enforce it. The fundamental principle applicable to all cases of this sort would seem to be, that where the end is required, the means are given; and where the duty is enjoined, the ability to perform it is contemplated to exist on the part of the functionaries to whom it is intrusted.

The clause relating to fugitive slaves is found in the national Constitution, and not in that of any state. It might well be deemed an unconstitutional exercise of the power of interpretation, to insist that the states are bound to provide means to carry into effect the duties of the national government; nowhere delegated or intrusted to them by the Constitution. On the contrary, the natural, if not the necessary conclusion is, that the national government, in the absence of all positive provisions to the contrary, is bound, through its own proper departments, legislative, executive, or judiciary, as the case may require, to carry into effect all the right and duties imposed upon it by the Constitution.

A claim to a fugitive slave is a controversy in a case "arising under the Constitution of the United States," under the express delegation of judicial power given by that instrument. Congress, then, may call that power into activity, for the very purpose of giving effect to the right; and if so, then it may prescribe the mode and extent to which it shall be applied; and how and under what circumstances the proceedings shall afford a complete protection and guaranty of the right.

The provisions of the sections of the act of Congress of 12th February, 1793, on the subject of fugitive slaves, as well as relative to fugitives from justice, cover both the subjects; not because they exhaust the remedies, which may be applied by Congress to enforce the rights, if the provisions shall be found, in practice, not to attain the objects of the Constitution: but because they point out all the modes of attaining those objects which Congress have as yet deemed expedient and proper. If this is so, it would seem upon just principles of construction, that the legislation of Congress, if constitutional, must supersede all state legislation upon the same subject; and by necessary implication prohibit it. For if Congress have a constitutional power to regulate a particular subject, and they do actually regulate it in a given manner, and in a certain form; it cannot be that the state legislatures have a right to interfere. This doctrine was fully recognised in the case of Houston v. Moore. Where Congress have exclusive power over a subject, it is not competent for state legislation to add to the provisions of Congress on that subject.

Congress have, on various occasions, exercised powers which were necessary and proper, as means to carry into effect rights expressly given, and duties expressly enjoined by the Constitution. The end 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 the ends.

The constitutionality of the act of Congress relating to fugitives from labour has been affirmed by the adjudications of the state tribunals, and by those of the Courts of the United States. If the question of the constitutionality of the law were one of doubtful construction, such long acquiescence in it, such contemporaneous expositions of it; and such extensive and uniform recognitions, would, in the judgment of the Court, entitle the question to be considered at rest. Congress, the executive, and the judiciary have, upon various occasions, acted upon this as a sound and reasonable doctrine.

The provisions of the act of 12th February 1793, relative to fugitive slaves, is clearly constitutional in all its leading provisions; and, indeed, with the exception of that part which confers authority on state magistrates, is free from reasonable doubt or difficulty. As to the authority so conferred on state magistrates, while a difference of opinion exists, and may exist on this point in different states, whether state magistrates are bound to act under it, none is entertained by the Court, that state magistrates, may, if they choose, exercise the authority, unless prohibited by state legislation.

The power of legislation in relation to fugitives from labour is exclusive in the national legislature.

The right to seize and retake fugitive slaves, and the duty to deliver them up, in whatever state of the Union they may be found, is under the Constitution recognised as an absolute positive right and duty, pervading the whole Union with an equal and supreme force, uncontrolled and uncontrollable by state sovereignty, or state legislation.

The right and duty are coextensive and uniform in remedy and operation throughout the whole Union. The owner has the same security, and the same remedial justice, and the same exemption from state regulations and control, through however many states he may pass with the fugitive slave in his possession, in transit, to his domicile.

The Court are by no means to be understood, in any manner whatever, to doubt or to interfere with the police power belonging to the states, in virtue of their general sovereignty. That police power extends over all subjects within the territorial limits of the states and has never been conceded to the United States. It is wholly distinguishable from the right and duty secured by the provision of the Constitution relating to fugitive slaves; which is exclusively derived from the Constitution and obtains its whole efficiency therefrom.

The Court entertain no doubt whatsoever, that the states, in virtue of their general police power, possess full jurisdiction to arrest and restrain run-away slaves, and to remove them from their borders, and otherwise to secure themselves against their depredations, and evil example, as they certainly may do in cases of idlers, vagabonds, and paupers. The rights of the owners of fugitive slaves are in no just sense interfered with or regulated by such a course; and in many cases, they may be promoted by the exercise of the police power. Such regulations can never be permitted to interfere with or obstruct the just rights of the owner to reclaim his slave derived from the Constitution of the United States, or with the remedies prescribed by Congress to aid and enforce the same.

The act of the legislature of Pennsylvania upon which the indictment against Edward Prigg is founded is unconstitutional and void. It purports to punish as a public offence against the state, the very act of seizing and removing a slave by his master, which the Constitution of the United States was designed to justify and uphold.

 
 

Key Takeaway

1.     The Pennsylvania statute was unconstitutional and void.

2.     Maryland gave the slave holder the right to seize and repossess the slave, which Maryland conferred upon him as property, and this right was acknowledged in all the slaveholding states.

3.     No other state's law could in any way qualify, regulate, or restrain the slave holder's property rights. The right to seize and retake fugitive slaves, and the duty to deliver them up, in whatever state they were found, and the corresponding power in Congress to use the appropriate means to enforce the right and duty, derived their validity and obligation exclusively from the Constitution of the United States.

4.     In the absence of any positive delegation of power to the state legislatures, the power to enforce that right belonged to Congress.


How the Justices Voted

Majority: Story

Concurrence: Taney, Thompson, Wayne, Daniel, McLean

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