- “Prigg v. Pennsylvania”: Slavery, the Supreme Court, and the Ambivalent Constitution by H. Robert Baker
Most Americans are aware of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1857 decision in the Dred Scott case, in which Chief Justice Roger Taney infamously observed that “a black man has no rights which a white man is bound to respect.” Taney believed that his decision would peacefully resolve the burning issue of slavery in the territories. Of course, it did the opposite. Dred Scott dramatically increased the sectional tensions that eventually led to the Civil War.
Dred Scott, however, was not the Supreme Court’s first effort at settling the question of slavery. Fifteen years earlier, the court made a similar attempt in Prigg v. Pennsylvania. Decided in 1842, Prigg represented the culmination of decades of controversy over the recapture of fugitive slaves who had escaped to the North. Consistent with their views of human property, southerners believed that they had an unfettered right to pursue slaves into free states, as guaranteed by Article IV of the Constitution (the fugitive slave clause) and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. Other than a handful of abolitionists, northerners generally conceded the duty to apprehend runaways. Even so, many northerners insisted on their own state’s right to enact procedural requirements for the protection of free blacks from kidnapping. It was just such a dispute that led to the Prigg case.
Margaret Morgan was born a slave in Maryland, the property of a master named John Ashmore. Although she was never formally emancipated, Margaret evidently lived as a free woman beginning in the early 1820s. She married a free black man named Jerry Morgan, taking his name and bearing several children. The Morgans moved to Pennsylvania in 1832, where they had another child. In 1837, John Ashmore’s widow (Ashmore died in 1824) decided to assert a claim to her human property, sending several agents into Pennsylvania under the leadership of a neighbor named Edward Prigg. In violation of Pennsylvania’s Personal Liberty Law, Prigg and company dragged Margaret and her children—including her Pennsylvania-born child, who was free by any definition—back to Maryland. Jerry Morgan sought the help of Pennsylvania authorities to retrieve his abducted family, leading to the indictment of Prigg and the other slave catchers. As in Dred Scott, the Supreme Court case of Prigg v. [End Page 405] Pennsylvania was decided under the leadership of Chief Justice Taney—in an opinion written by Justice Joseph Story of Massachusetts.
H. Robert Baker’s excellent “Prigg v. Pennsylvania”: Slavery, the Supreme Court, and the Ambivalent Constitution is the first book-length treatment of this important decision. In a slender volume, Baker tells the poignant story of the Morgan family’s struggle for freedom, including Margaret’s attempt to regain her liberty in Maryland and Jerry’s heroic efforts to redeem his kidnapped wife and children.
In addition to bringing the principals to life, Baker provides readers with a meticulous history of fugitive slave rendition. In fact, the book could easily have been titled “The American Law of Slavery, 1787–1842,” as the early chapters detail the development of slave law leading to the Prigg case—including the drafting of the Constitution’s fugitive slave clause, the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1793, the development of “personal liberty” laws in the North in the 1820s and 1830s, and the controversy over the rights of free “Negro seamen” in southern ports. There is no better concise account of the cases and legislation that led to the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence on fugitive slaves.
The book’s one shortcoming was evidently imposed by the editors at the University Press of Kansas. As with other volumes in the valuable Landmark Law Cases and American Society series, Baker’s book was published without footnotes or endnotes in order to make it “more readable, inexpensive, and appealing for students and general readers” (181). This is a regrettable decision because Baker includes a tremendous...