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A picture of slavery, for youth. Jonathan Walker.

[Detail] A picture of slavery, for youth. Jonathan Walker

Introduction | The Slave Trade | Laws Regulating Slavery and Free Blacks | States' Rights and the Fugitive Slave Law | Abolitionists | The Dred Scott Case

States' Rights and the Fugitive Slave Law

Slaves and the Court, 1740-1860 focuses strongly on issues related to states’ rights and the fugitive slave laws, a controversial issue from as early as 1793. The Northern states argued that the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 was unconstitutional because it took away the states’ rights to legislate regarding fugitives from slavery; indeed, many of the Northern states passed "personal liberty" laws requiring trial by jury for blacks accused of being fugitive slaves and making the "recapture" of a fugitive slave a kidnapping offense. Southern states, on the other hand, argued that the Fugitive Slave Law was necessary to protect their property rights and that the law was "necessary and proper" to carry out the Constitution’s provisions regarding fugitives from labor. A number of cases and arguments relevant to these issues are presented in the collection.

An extensive accounting of the case that brought this issue before the Supreme Court in 1842 can be found in "Report of the Case of Edward Prigg against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania." In that case, the Court held:

. . . we hold the power of legislation on this subject to be exclusive in Congress. To guard, however, against any possible misconstruction of our views, it is proper to state, that we are by no means to be understood in any manner whatsoever to doubt or to interfere with the police power belonging to the states in virtue of their general sovereignty. That police power extends over all subjects within the territorial limits of the states; and has never been conceded to the United States. It is wholly distinguishable from the right and duty secured by the provision now under consideration; which is exclusively derived from and secured by the Constitution of the United States, and owes its whole efficacy thereto. We entertain no doubt whatsoever, that the states, in virtue of their general police power, possess full jurisdiction to arrest and restrain runaway slaves, and remove them from their borders, and otherwise to secure themselves against their depredations and evil example, as they certainly may do in cases of idlers, vagabonds, and paupers. The rights of the owners of fugitive slaves are in no just sense interfered with, or regulated by such a course; and in many cases, the operations of this police power, although designed essentially for other purposes, for the protection, safety, and peace of the state, may essentially promote and aid the interests of the owners. But such regulations can never be permitted to interfere with or to obstruct the just rights of the owner to reclaim his slave, derived from the Constitution of the United States; or with the remedies prescribed by Congress to aid and enforce the same.

(Page 91, "Report of the Case of Edward Prigg Against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania")


  • What were the constitutional issues raised by this case?
  • What arguments were made by the attorneys for Pennsylvania?
  • What arguments were made by the attorneys for Edward Prigg?
  • What was the Court’s reasoning in declaring the Pennsylvania law unconstitutional?
  • Search the collection for documents related to other fugitive slave cases, looking for use of the same or additional arguments for each side of this debate. Using the key words fugitive slaves to search the collection will produce a considerable list of documents, both preceding and following the Prigg case. Take care to note the dates of the documents and consider how arguments changed following the Prigg decision.

In the decade before the Civil War, fugitive slave cases remained common, but were then tried under the new law passed in 1850. This law, which was part of a package of bills known as the Compromise of 1850, created a new office, "federal commissioner." Slave owners could bring an alleged fugitive before this commissioner to prove ownership. If the commissioner ruled in the owner’s favor, the owner paid the commissioner $10; if the commissioner ruled in the fugitive’s favor, the owner paid the commissioner $5. In addition, the law required federal marshals to help slave owners in their efforts to capture fugitives and allowed the marshals to force citizens to help them as well. The latter provision led to treason charges being brought against Northerners who refused to assist in capturing alleged fugitives, as in a Pennsylvania incident known as the Cristiana case. Several documents related to this case are contained in the collection and can be located by searching using the terms Cristiana and Castner Hanway (a defendant).

The case that revived public furor over the fugitive slave issue was that of Anthony Burns. Anthony Burns was a fugitive slave living in Boston in 1854. His Virginia owner learned where he was living and came to Massachusetts to capture him. After Burns’s arrest, groups of black and white abolitionists attempted to free him, causing a riot and killing a deputy in the process. U.S. troops were called in and, when the federal commissioner ruled in favor of the slave owner, Burns was accompanied by hundreds of federal troops as he was marched to the wharf for his return to Virginia. The streets were lined by thousands of Bostonians; a month later, on July 4, William Lloyd Garrison burned a copy of the Constitution. Several Northern states subsequently passed new laws to undercut the fugitive slave law of 1850. Several documents about this case are included in the collection and can be located by searching using the keyword Anthony Burns.

In an interesting follow-up to the Burns case, a number of citizens tried to have Edward Greely Loring, the federal commissioner in this case, removed from his position as a probate judge. The arguments in this case, which can be found in the documents "Argument of Wendell Phillips, esq." and "Remarks of Richard H. Dana, Jr. Esq.," raise several interesting issues that could serve as the starting point for a classroom debate. Two especially interesting questions are:

  • Could overuse of the legislature’s impeachment power lead to an imbalance of power among the branches of government?
  • Should women, who could not vote, be allowed to sign petitions for a judge’s removal, especially for a probate judge whose work directly affected them?