Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Prigg v. Pennsylvania case brief summary

Prigg v. Pennsylvania case brief summary 
41 U.S. 539 (1842) 

A dispute arose as to a conflict between the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 and a Pennsylvania statute. 

Nathan Bemis had technically gained through inheritance the ownership of a slave, Margaret Morgan. By the time the inheritance took effect, however, Morgan had become, for all practical purposes, a free woman. Although Morgan had been a slave in Maryland, her owner had informally set her free shortly before his death. Morgan then married a free black man; the couple moved to the free state of Pennsylvania, where they started a family. Bemis, evidently intent on repossessing Morgan, engaged Prigg and several others to capture Morgan and her family in accordance with the Fugitive Slave Act. Although the initial capture was successful, there arose some question as to whether the local Pennsylvania court had jurisdiction over the question of Morgan’s status. While the is- sue was still being resolved, Morgan and her children were sold as slaves. The sale en- gendered public outrage in Pennsylvania, which demanded that Prigg be tried for violating Pennsylvania law.

May Pennsylvania impose regulations of slavery in addition to those provided by the Fugitive Slave Act?

Pennsylvania may not impose such additional regulations. 


Story, J. The Fugitive Slave Clause expressly requires each state to deliver fugitive slaves to their owners. The Clause therefore plainly authorizes Prigg to engage in the sort of self-help currently under question. Moreover, the Clause implicitly requires states to refrain from interfering with the capture of escaped slaves, such as through the Pennsylvania law. The power to regulate the handling of fugitive slaves rests with Congress alone; the states may not enact additional legislation to supplement what Congress has decided. The history of the Constitution supports this construction since it is scarcely conceivable that the slave states would have allowed free states the power to interfere with property rights in slaves through state-level legislation. 

Taney, C.J., concurring. The states should be allowed to aid owners in recovering fugitive slaves. The Fugitive Slave Act merely prohibits states from passing any law interfering with the recapture of slaves. It says nothing about legislation to designed to actively aid slave owners. Indeed, it is the duty of the states to provide such aid. 

McLean, J., dissenting. The issue here is not whether an owner may recover his slave from another; it is whether the owner may remove the slave from that state without a judicial determination of his rights over the slave. Pennsylvania, being a free state, acts on the assumption that every person of color is free. This assumption should receive deference; a purported slave owner should not be allowed to remove a purported slave from the state until the courts have determined that it is indeed proper to do so.

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