The right to seize and retake fugitive slaves, and the duty to deliver them up, in whatever state of the Union they may be found, and of course the corresponding power in Congress to use the appropriate means to enforce the right and duty, derive their whole validity and obligation exclusively from the Constitution of the United States; and are there, for the first time, recognised and established in that peculiar character. The natural inference deducible from this consideration certainly is, in the absence of any positive delegation of power to the state legislatures, that it belongs to the legislative department of the national government, to which it owes its origin and establishment.
A woman and her children escaped from slavery in Maryland and resided in Pennsylvania. The woman gave birth to another child more than a year after her escape. Defendant forcibly seized the woman and all her children and took them to Maryland in violation of Pennsylvania law. The trial court convicted the defendant of having taken a woman and her children from Pennsylvania, with the intention of placing them into slavery in Maryland, contrary to a statute of Pennsylvania. The state supreme court affirmed and the defendant prosecuted a writ of error.
Was the Pennsylvania law valid?
The court reversed, holding that the Pennsylvania statute was unconstitutional and void. Maryland gave the slave holder the right to seize and repossess the slave, which Maryland conferred upon him as property, and this right was acknowledged in all the slaveholding states. No other state's law could in any way qualify, regulate, or restrain the slave holder's property rights. The court held that the right to seize and retake fugitive slaves, and the duty to deliver them up, in whatever state they were found, and the corresponding power in Congress to use the appropriate means to enforce the right and duty, derived their validity and obligation exclusively from the Constitution of the United States. In the absence of any positive delegation of power to the state legislatures, the power to enforce that right belonged to Congress.