The personal liberty laws
were a series of laws
passed by several U.S. states
in the North
in response to the Fugitive Slave Act
The laws were designed to protect free blacks
, and fugitive slaves
by effectively nullifying the Fugitive Slave Law without actually invoking the doctrine of nullification
, which is unconstitutional
. This was done through provisions such as forbidding the use of state jails
to imprison alleged fugitives, to prevent state officials from enforcing the strict law, and compelling slave bounty hunters
to furnish corroborative proof that his captive was a fugitive, as well as according the accused the rights to trial by jury
. Laws in some states made it easier to extradite
a runaway if slave status were confirmed.
In Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842), the U.S. Supreme Court determined that personal liberty laws were unconstitutional. The court held that the laws interfered with the Fugitive Slave Act and that while states were not compelled to enforce the federal law, they could not override it with other enactments.
The Prigg decision caused several Northern states to amend their laws, which specified that law enforcement officials and jurists refrain from doing anything about runaway slaves. The only other option left to slave catchers was to kidnap runaways, and then either return them to their owners, or force them to appear them before federal judges who were not held to state statutes.
During the American Civil War
, some of the Northern states agreed to repeal these bills if it meant that all Confederate
states would rejoin the Union