Prigg V Pennsylvania: Slavery And The Constitution Of The United States Critical Thinkings Example
The case of Prigg V Pennsylvania occurred at a point when the United States was on the verge of ending slavery in the first few decades of independence. The case had various implications on the rights of slaveholders in the free states, the legal position of free blacks and the conflict between state and federal government and their authorities concerning the matter. Robert, H. Baker presents a coherent and thorough narrative of the background of the parties and gives an insight into the situations and the realities at the time when the incident occurred. The purpose of this paper is to critically evaluate the issues relating to the conflict between the courts in relation to slavery at that time. This will include the examination of the issue of slavery in the position of the constitution as well as the delivery of justice in the country through the writings of Robert H. Baker.
Constitutional Issues in Prigg V Pennsylvania
Baker commences his narrative by showing that the nature of the status of Margaret Morgan, who was born in Maryland to parents who were slaves of John and Margaret Ashmore. Baker identifies that Margaret’s status was unclear because her parents were allowed to live as free people. However, her status was not clarified as slave or no slave. Since John was the legal owner and representative of the family, he had the right to make claim to Margaret Mason as a child of his slave. However, he did not enforce that in his lifetime. Margaret grew and married and moved from Maryland to Pennsylvania with her free black husband and children.
The conflict began when John Ashmore died and did not leave any specific instruction about Margaret Morgan. From the nature of the narrative, it is only logical to infer that John Ashmore’s widow, Margaret Ashmore initiated action against Margaret Morgan to recover her as a slave. Either ways, it is apparent that John Ashmore’s estate sued to claim Margaret Morgan under the federal law, Fugitive Slave Law, which was passed by the US Congress in 1793 allowing states to return slaves to their masters if they escaped from what was then lawful labor and lawful duty as a slave to their masters. Baker shows that this law was somewhat necessary to keep the federal system of the new and fragile USA going.
At this point in the history of the United States, there was some kind of tension and friction in the way and manner through which states interacted with the federal authority, which was sovereign. Therefore, at the time the case occurred, southerners and other states that upheld slavery believed that they had the right to pursue runaway slaves into free states. This position was consistent with Article IV of the federal constitution which guaranteed that the public acts, records and judicial proceedings of every state will be respected by all other states (Section 1). This included the obligation of states to return persons fleeing justice from one state to another (Section 2). Also, there is a guarantee of a republican form of government for all states in Section 4.
Pennyslvania State Law and the Implementation of the Federal Laws
Baker continued his narration by stating that the Prigg was hired by the estate of John Ashmore to recover Margaret as part of his properties. Therefore Prigg proceeded to the local justice of peace, presented his case and facts and obtained a warrant for the arrest of Margaret and her children. On the arrest, Jerry Morgan, the husband of Margaret Morgan protested that he was a free black man. This raised two legal questions.
The first legal question that came up was whether Margaret could plead against the arrest on the grounds that Pennsylvania’s Act of Gradual Abolition of Slavery could cover her. This is because she had lived in the state for log enough to raise such a defense because she could technically be considered a resident of the state of Pennsylvania.
The second legal question was whether Jerry’s children could be considered slaves or not. This is because Prigg captured Margaret alongside Jerry’s children who one would assume to be half-free in the least. However, in spite of Jerry’s protests, Margaret and their children were prepared to be sent to Maryland the same night of their arrest. Jerry and a group of people intervened and Prigg was arrested and charged with kidnapping under Pennsylvanian law. This created a gridlock between the laws of Maryland which permitted the recapture of a runaway slave and the laws of Pennsylvania that prohibited the return of such a runaway slave. The case was sent to the Supreme Court.
Federalism & Justice
In the second half of the book, Baker presents a strong case for slavery and how it had to be preserved to keep the federalized USA going. This is because the abolition of slavery at the federal level in the first half of the 1800s was going to be a danger to the United States’ very existence. Therefore, the US Supreme Court had to take that policy position into consideration in drafting any laws or making any submissions.
On the other hand, the facts of his narrations showed that the kidnapping of Margaret and her children was against the fundamental principles of liberty and the rights of Americans that was to be protected as part of the ideals of the American Revolution. However, a ruling that showed that the rights of Black people in America was upheld was going to put the rights of Black people at par with the White Americans. This was going to have a major economic impact and it was going to change the fundamental premise on which the nation was founded. Therefore, there was the need for a broader consideration and a broader scope to be utilized by the Supreme Court justices.
Baker also presents the facts as it occurred on the ground. This is because the country was openly divided by the time it got to the Supreme Court. Abolitionists were arguing for tough action against the case and on the other hand, the slave catchers and supporters of slavery were tightening their grips on runaway slaves. This Supreme Court took a safer path and upheld the federal law allowing slaves to be caught when they escaped to other states. However, to avoid the tensions between states, the only group that could do this was the federal authorities, not state authorities as this was going to divide the country further.
In conclusion, Baker breaks down a major case and issue that occurred 150 years ago to the average American reader. The tensions between states and the federal authority is outlined and Baker draws parallels with modern issues and debates that are of significance in the country today.
Baker, Robert H. Prigg V. Pennsylvania: Slavery, the Supreme Court, and the Ambivalent Constitution. Kansas City: University Press of Kansas, 2012.