This month’s random pick is a particularly interesting one as it ties in well to the post on Captain Samuel Meeker (father of the sitter click here) who placed an add in the Weekly Advertiser (Philadelphia), for a runaway slave in the year 1763.
Then again, what small percentage of people in those times did this issue not touch?
Paid slavecatchers crossed state borders, used force and violence to capture runaway slaves, sometimes nabbing freed slaves as well. Federal law sanctioned the capturing & return of fugitives by the Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793, and later in 1850 these laws were reinforced. Increasingly the free states enacted laws to counter these federal laws; “personal-liberty laws” entitled slaves to a jury trial and the ‘underground railroad’ grew in opposition. By the 1840s slavery had become a national issue with passions raging hot on both sides, pitting slave states/owners against the non-slave states/abolitionists. It was only a matter of time before the consitutional laws, providing legal status to the capturing of slaves, ran head-on into state laws with the aim of protecting freed slaves.
On April 1 1837, Edward Prigg led an assault and abduction of a black woman named Margaret Morgan and her children. She had moved in 1832 from Maryland to Pennsylvania, in Maryland she had lived in freedom but had not been formally emancipated. The heirs of her former owner John Ashmore decided to claim her as a slave, and hired slavecatcher Prigg. But Pennsylvania had laws stating No negro or mulatto slave ...shall be removed out of this state, with the design and intention that the place of abode or residence of such slave or servant shall be thereby altered or changed and Prigg was arrested under kidnapping charges. Prigg pleaded not guilty, and argued that he had been duly appointed by John Ashmore to arrest and return Morgan to her owners in Maryland. However, in a ruling on May 22 1839, the Court of Quarter Sessions of York County convicted him. Prigg appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court on the grounds that the Pennsylvania law was not able to supersede federal law.
In 1842, US Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story wrote and issued the majority opinion in the case of Prigg v. Pennsylvania. It was a landmark decision in which the court upheld fugitive slave recaption as an historically necessary constitutional provision that had to be protected at all costs, even in the face of contradictive state law (ie reversed Prigg's conviction). Story was opposed to slavery on moral as well as policy grounds (in The Amistad 1841, he freed the Africans who had been sold into slavery by a narrow reading of the treaty with Spain), but tragically he was also firmly convinced of the primacy and importance of upholding the Constitution, the Law of the Land. The decision was crucial because it announced that slavery was a national issue that could not be challenged by state action, and that slavery was woven into the Constitution. The decision caused a powder-keg explosion and rippled across the country, eventually cascading along with other motivating forces... into civil war. Story was the Court's most aggressive champion of federal jurisdiction, and was most successful in expanding federal jurisdiction in the areas of maritime and commercial law. But this controversial case led to personal attacks and a professional bruising, ultimately tarnishing his legacy. Story served on the Supreme Court for thirty-three years. He died on September 10, 1845, at the age of sixty-five.