Personal Liberty Laws

Personal liberty laws were extant in New England and in some other northern states prior to the Civil War to prevent runaway slaves from being kidnapped by slave catchers and taken back to southern bondage. These laws were also designed to frustrate the implementation of the fugitive slave clause of the Constitution, as well as the federal laws of 1793 and 1850 governing the return of runaway slaves. During the 1820s, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania all passed personal liberty laws designed to guarantee that free blacks would not be taken from the state and that fugitive slaves could not be removed without a fair hearing and clear evidence. In theory, many of these laws were declared unconstitutional in Prigg v. Pennsylvania, 41 U.S. (16 Pet.) 539 (1842), in which Justice Joseph Story declared that under the supremacy clause the federal fugitive slave laws took precedence over state personal liberty laws.

As part of the compromise of 1850, Congress enacted a new Fugitive Slave Act that gave Southerners and slave catchers even greater powers to seize runaway slaves. The act, condemned by the growing antislavery movement in the North, led to a variety of responses. All six of the New England states, as well as Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin, passed new personal liberty laws, making it difficult if not impossible to enforce the fugitive slave law. Massachusetts prohibited any lawyer in the state from representing a slave owner and, following Justice Story’s suggestion in Prigg, prohibited any state official from cooperating with slave catchers. Since many of the federal commissioners named to help enforce the act were also state office-holders and lawyers, they could lose their jobs or their law licenses if they cooperated. Many states also closed the use of their jails to slave catchers.

MELVIN I. UROFSKY

References and Further Reading

  • Morris, Thomas D. Free Men All: The Personal Liberty Laws of the North, 1780–1861. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Prigg v. Pennsylvania, 41 U.S. (16 Pet.) 539 (1842)

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