Lemmon v. New York

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Lemmon v. New York (1852), a decision by the Superior Court of the City of New York, granted freedom to slaves who were brought into New York by their Virginia slave owners, while in transit to Texas.[1]


In November 1852, Jonathan Lemmon and his wife Juliet, who were residents of Virginia, took the steamer City of Richmond from Norfolk, Virginia to New York with eight slaves belonging to Mrs. Lemmon; for the purpose of catching a follow-on boat to Texas where they planned to reside. The slaves were Emiline (age 23); Nancy (age 20); Lewis, brother of Nancy (age 16); Edward, brother of Emiline (age 13); Lewis and Edward, sons of Nancy (age 7); Ann, daughter of Nancy (age 5); and Amanda, daughter of Emiline (age 2). While waiting for the boat the slaves were placed in a boarding house at No. 3 Carlisle Street, where they were discovered by another African American, Louis Napoleon. On 6 November 1852, Louis presented a petition to one of the Justices of the Superior Court of New York City, the Honorable Elijah Paine Jr, for a writ of Habeas corpus producing the slaves based on an 1817 New York law that stated

No person held as a slave shall be imported, introduced, or brought into this State on any pretense whatever. Every such person shall be free.

Lemmon's attorneys relied on the Supreme Court's ruling in Gibbons v. Ogden (1824) to argue that states had no right to regulate interstate commerce as that power lay in the hands of the federal government. The state's lawyers, including Chester Alan Arthur, Erastus D. Culver and John Jay argued that the U.S. Constitution granted limited powers to the federal government, and those powers not granted were reserved for the state. Under the provision of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 that required states to return fugitive slaves, the state argued that any requirement for states to return non-fugitive slaves was excluded. Using the term 'expressio unius exclusio alterius, meaning "the express mention of one thing excludes all others."


On November 13, 1852, Judge Paine of the Superior Court of the City of New York held that necessity did not require the travel of the Lemmons to Texas via New York. Thus, the slaves were free according to New York state law. Paine relied on the English precedent set in Somersett v. Stewart (1772), where the Court of King's Bench declared that only positive law could uphold slavery and that since England had no laws upholding slavery, slaves entering English territory became free.[2]

Lemmon then appealed to the New York Supreme Court, which affirmed Justice Paine in December 1857. Lemmon then appealed to the New York Court of Appeals (the state's highest appellate court). The Court of Appeals affirmed by a vote of 5-3 in March 1860, holding that the slaves were free.[3] The Lemmons assigned their rights to the State of Virginia, which had planned to appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States, but by then the American Civil War was under way and the case was never heard.[2]

See also[edit]