Justice story's Prigg decision and the defeat of freedom

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The essay compares the early anti-trafficking and antislavery rhetoric of United States Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story with his authorship of the 1842 Prigg decision returning a black woman, Margaret Morgan, and her children from Pennsylvania into slavery in Maryland. It argues that the contradiction between these two positions was muted due to judicial nationalism that bracketed personal and official opinions. There is an ideological line between Story's 1820 "Charge to the Maine Grand Jury" and the 1842 Prigg decision, one traced by the absence of active, cognizant black subjects. For Story, blacks represented a passive class without their own will, one requiring rescue from their enslaved situation by action of law. His concept of the rule of law provided a means to display white racial nobility while forging a constitutional vehicle for civilizational advance. In Story's nationalist jurisprudence, forceful assertion of federal authority, whether through suppression of piracy or slave-trading, was necessary to assure justice for the nation more than justice to individuals. Thus the refusal of witness and narratorial blindness at the heart of Prigg resulted from a fusing of sacrificial nationalism with a racial denial of citizenship and self-determining subjectivity for blacks.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 1 2007

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cultural Studies
  • History


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