In the 19th century, Northern states passed “gradual abolition” laws to end slavery within their borders, and enslaved people in the South began to flee to the North in search of freedom. In response, the South pressured federal officials to pass laws empowering slave owners to reclaim their “runaway property” and to require Northerners to help in their recapture and return.
The resulting Fugitive Slave Acts left Northern Black people vulnerable to being seized and “returned” to enslavement, even if they had a legal claim to freedom. Many written accounts from the era describe how slave traders used this low-risk practice to maximize profits and meet growing demand for enslaved labor in the South. In some cases, even the nation’s highest court offered little protection.
When a white slaveowner named John Ashmore died in Maryland, his will seemed to free Margaret Morgan, a Black woman he had enslaved. She married a free Black man, moved to the free state of Pennsylvania, and started a family. But Ashmore’s descendants claimed she was not legally free and demanded her return. In 1837, a white attorney named Edward Prigg traveled to Pennsylvania, seized Margaret Morgan and her six children, and returned them to Maryland, where a court declared them enslaved.
Prigg violated Pennsylvania law, which required him to prove Ms. Morgan’s enslavement before taking her from the state, and was convicted under a state anti-kidnapping statute. But when Prigg appealed, the United States Supreme Court held that the Pennsylvania statute was unconstitutional. The Court overturned Prigg’s conviction and released him to freedom while Margaret Morgan and her children remained in bondage.