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Prigg v. Pennsylvania

(This page was developed by a Berea College student as part of a course on Chesnutt)

Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney served 1836-1864

About the case:
In 1832, a slave, Margaret Morgan, escaped from her owner; she fled from Maryland to Pennsylvania. There she became and lived as a free woman for five years. Her former owner, Margaret Ashmore, employed Edward Prigg to find Morgan. Prigg found and captured her, using the Fugitive Slave Act as a way of justifying his actions.

From the case:
...Edward Prigg was indicted in York county, for having, with force and violence, taken and carried away from that county, to the state of Maryland, a negro woman, Margaret Morgan, with a design and intention of selling and disposing of, and keeping her as a slave or servant for life, coontrary to a statute of Pennsylvania [the Liberty Law] passed on the 26th of March 1826. Upon special verdict, the court...of York County adjudged that Prigg was guilty of the offense charged in the indictment. An appeal was brought to the supreme court of Pennsylvania, and the judgement was affirmed [upheld]. Then it was taken to the Supreme Court.

The decision:
...Upon these grounds, we are of opinion, that the act of Pennsylvania upon which this indictment is founded, is unconstitutinal and void. 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 United States was designed to justify and uphold. The special verdict finds this fact, and the state courts have rendered judgment against [Prigg] upon that verdict. That judgment must, therefore, be reversed, and the cause remanded [returned] to the supreme court of Pennsylvania, with directions to carry into effect the judgment of this court rendered upon the special verdict, in favor of [Prigg].

Judge Taney: [There are two clauses in the constitution upon the subject of fugitives, which stands 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 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."]

The concern in this case was the constitutionality of the Pennsylvania Personal Liberty Law. This law basically says that a slave can come to Pennsylvania and be a free person and not have to worry about being forced back into enslavement. And those who try to infringe upon the rights of the free black people that the Liberty Law gives, with be reprimanded.

The court used the Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850 to make their decision.


Reference: All information on this page was found in the book: Civil Rights Decisions of the United States Supreme Court: The 19th Century.

Editors: Maureen Harrison & Steve Gilbert
Excellent Books. San Diego, CA. 1994