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Prigg v. Pennsylvania

Federal Supremacy

Justice Story, writing for the Court, noted, "Few questions which have ever come before this Court involve more delicate and important considerations." In describing the Fugitive Clause of the Constitution, Story wrote "that the object of this clause was to secure to the citizens of the slave-holding states the complete right and title of ownership in their slaves, as property, in every state in the Union into which they might escape." Story added that without the clause, each non-slave state could "have declared free all runaway slaves coming within its limits . . . and . . . created the most bitter animosities." Story found the "clause 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." Regarding the supremacy of the 1793 federal fugitive law, Story found that Congress had acted "within the scope of the constitutional authority" and that if state laws on the same subject, particularly those contrary to the intent of the federal law, were allowed to stand "confusion . . . would be endless." Story found that since the right of owners to retrieve fugitive slaves was provided in the Constitution, it was "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." Therefore, Story repeated the words of Chief Justice John Marshall in a previous case by stating "the subject is as completely taken from the state legislatures, as if they had been forbidden to act."

In conclusion, Story wrote that "the inherent and sovereign power of a state, to protect its jurisdiction and the peace of its citizens . . . shall not conflict with a defined power of the federal government." The federal law was clearly constitutionally valid and the Pennsylvania law was unconstitutional and void as argued by Prigg and Maryland. Edward Prigg was found not guilty and the case remanded back to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1833 to 1882Prigg v. Pennsylvania - Significance, Owing Service, Federal Supremacy, Impact, Further Readings