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]


Jonathan Lemmon and his wife Juliet, who were residents of Virginia, decided to emigrate to Texas. In November 1852, the Lemmons travelled by the steamship City of Richmond from Norfolk, Virginia to New York City, where they were to embark on another steamship to Texas. They had with them eight slaves belonging to Mrs. Lemmon. These 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 the Lemmons awaited the ship to Texas, their slaves were placed in a boarding house at No. 3 Carlisle Street. Louis Napoleon, an African American resident of New York, found them there. On 6 November 1852, Louis Napoleon presented a petition to Justice Elijah Paine Jr of the Superior Court of New York City for a writ of Habeas corpus that would effectively emancipate the slaves. The petition was 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.

Mr. Lemmon's attorneys objected. They asserted that the Lemmons were transporting their slaves from Virginia to Texas, which was interstate commerce, and cited the Supreme Court's ruling in Gibbons v. Ogden (1824) that states had no power to regulate interstate commerce, as that power was granted to the federal government. The state of New York designated lawyers to appear in support of the petition, including John Jay, Erastus D. Culver, and Chester Alan Arthur. They argued that the U.S. Constitution granted limited powers to the federal government, and those powers not granted were reserved for the states. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 required states to return fugitive slaves. New York argued that this explicit requirement implicitly excluded any requirement for states to return non-fugitive slaves, by the principle expressio unius exclusio alterius ("the express mention of one thing excludes others").


On November 13, 1852, Justice Paine held that necessity did not require the Lemmons to travel 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]

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