Resources and Context for the Introduction

An old painting of two white slave catchers holding a freed black woman and tearing up her freedom papers.
White slave catchers tear up the free papers of a freed enslaved person.

In the predawn hours of July 24, 1845, a group of slave catchers composed of six white men and a black man burst into the room where Catherine Payne and her three children were sleeping. At gunpoint, the men violently loaded Catherine and children into a wagon and made for the Mason-Dixon line about ten miles away. While they succeeded in getting their charges across the border, they touched off a legal battle that would span the better part of two years and created a trauma that would affect dozens of lives over the next two decades and even down through generations.

Such a kidnapping by slave catchers was tragically common—it was the work of a white landowner employing friends and a slave catcher to capture what he claimed was his. The Constitution and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 had enshrined in law that tensions that would follow.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 aimed to establish a legal framework for the capture and return of fugitive slaves who had escaped to other states.

Here are some key points about the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793:

  1. Purpose: The act was passed to address the issue of escaped slaves seeking freedom in states where slavery was abolished or not as prevalent. It aimed to ensure the return of these fugitive slaves to their owners.
  2. Legal Obligation: The act mandated that once a slaveholder or their agent provided sufficient evidence proving their ownership of a fugitive slave, the local authorities in the state where the slave was found were legally required to assist in their capture and return.
  3. Assistance and Penalties: The act compelled both federal and state officials and even ordinary citizens to aid in the apprehension of fugitive slaves. Refusal to assist could result in fines and potential legal consequences.
  4. Lack of Due Process: The act limited the rights of the accused by denying fugitive slaves the right to a jury trial or the ability to testify in their own defense. It placed the burden of proof on the accused rather than the claimant, making it easier for slaveholders to reclaim their escaped slaves.
  5. Opposition: The act faced opposition from abolitionists and individuals who opposed slavery. Critics argued that it violated principles of justice and undermined individual liberties.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, while an earlier attempt to address the issue of fugitive slaves, laid the groundwork for subsequent legislation and set the stage for the broader debates and conflicts surrounding slavery in the United States.

In the 1840s, tensions around slavery, slave catchers, and the Fugitive Slave Act roiled the country. Many northern states flatly refused to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, and some had even passed laws that countermanded its effects. Hence, in 1842, a case similar to Catherine’s, Prigg v. Pennsylvania, reached the Supreme Court.

The case arose when Edward Prigg, a slave catcher from Maryland, abducted Margaret Morgan, a woman claimed as a fugitive slave, in Pennsylvania.

Prigg was prosecuted in Pennsylvania for kidnapping under state law, as the state did not fully enforce the federal Fugitive Slave Act. The case ultimately reached the United States Supreme Court.

In its decision in 1842, the Supreme Court held that the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 overrode any state laws that might interfere with the capture and return of fugitive slaves. The Court ruled that individual states had no authority to obstruct the execution of federal slave laws, asserting that it was the responsibility of the federal government to enforce such laws.

The Court’s decision in Prigg v. Pennsylvania had significant implications. It further reinforced the power of the federal government over the issue of fugitive slaves and established that states could not impede the capture and return of fugitive slaves. The ruling provided slaveholders with greater legal protection and undermined the rights and freedoms of fugitive slaves.

However, it’s important to note that the Prigg decision also played a role in intensifying the abolitionist movement and galvanizing opposition to slavery. The case highlighted the inherent cruelty and injustices of the institution and fueled the growing anti-slavery sentiment in the United States.

Overall, the Prigg v. Pennsylvania case was a pivotal moment in the legal and political struggles surrounding slavery, contributing to the tensions between federal and state authority and shaping the discourse on slavery in the mid-19th century.

What complicated Catherine’s case was that she and her children had received manumission papers in both Virginia and Pennsylvania. These had been obtained by Mary Maddox who had received Catherine, her brothers, and her children through the estate of her deceased husband, Samuel. However, Samuel’s will was complicated, and his nephew (also named Samuel) claimed that Mary did not have legal right to set Catherine and family free. The incident drove multiple legal cases in Pennsylvania and Virginia, as the narrative will further show. It also involved a number of prominent legal professionals and supporters on the Underground Railroad in and around Gettysburg; further, it would play an influence in a murder just eight years later. The following excerpt from the August 28, 1846, edition of the Gettysburg Compiler gives critical facts of the case and the associated legal issues. Needless to say, none of these would have been salient to the mind of eight-year-old Eliza Jane Payne and her two younger siblings. All that would be seared in their memories were the terrors of being taken at gunpoint in the middle of the night from their new home.

Return to American Crucible: Introduction, or go to the Learning Activities for the Introduction.

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