Lemmon v. New York

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Lemmon v. New York
Seal of the New York Court of Appeals.svg
Court New York Court of Appeals
Decided March 1860
Citation(s) 20 N.Y. 562 (1860)
Court membership
Judge(s) sitting Hiram Denio, William B. Wright, Clerke, George F. Comstock, Samuel Lee Selden
Case opinions
Decision by Denio
Concurrence Wright
Dissent Clerke, Comstock, Selden

Lemmon v. New York, or Lemmon v. The People,[1] popularly known as the Lemmon Slave Case, was a proceeding initiated in 1852 by a petition for a writ of habeas corpus, which was granted by the Superior Court in New York City and eventually affirmed by the New York Court of Appeals in 1860 on the eve of the Civil War.[2] The result of issuing the writ was the release of eight slaves including six children, who were brought into New York by their Virginia slave owners, while in transit during relocation to Texas.[3] John Jay (namesake of his grandfather, the diplomat for the Continental Congress and again during the Washington Administration, former Governor of New York and first Chief Justice of the United States) was the guiding spirit behind the litigation. The attorney for the state on appeal (prosecuting for the release of the slaves) was Chester A. Arthur (future president of the United States). Counsel to him were William M. Evarts, Joseph Blunt and Erastus D. Culver.


At the decade before the Civil War, the banking and shipping industries of New York City had become closely tied to the sugar and cotton trades, and therefore much of the commercial interests of the city were tied to slavery. On the other pole there was an organization feeding the informal escape routes known as the Underground Railroad. These efforts were supported by prominent abolitionists, such as John Jay, who had become the city's leading lawyer in fugitive slave cases.[4] Louis Napoleon, an illiterate former slave and afterwards a furniture polisher and porter, was active in aiding slaves' efforts to escape as well as feeding cases to John Jay. It was Napoleon who signed the petition for writ of habeas corpus in the Lemmon case.

Jonathan Lemmon and his wife Juliet, who were residents of Virginia, decided to migrate to Texas. In November 1852, the Lemmons travelled by steamship City of Richmond from Norfolk, Virginia to New York City, where they were to embark on another steamship to Texas.

They had brought with them eight slaves belonging to Mrs. Lemmon. They made up two family groups, each headed by a young woman: the first was Emiline (age 23); Amanda (age 2), daughter of Emiline; and Edward (age 13), brother of Emiline; the second was Nancy (age 20); Lewis (age 16), brother of Nancy; Lewis and Edward (age 7), sons of Nancy; and Ann (age 5), daughter of Nancy. While the Lemmons awaited the ship to Texas, they placed their slaves in a boarding house at No. 3 Carlisle Street and booked another hotel for themselves.

Louis Napoleon, a free African-American resident of New York and activist with the Underground Railroad, was alerted by a black porter about the slaves. Free blacks in New York aided slaves brought to the city in achieving freedom, as New York was a free state and had abolished slavery. On 6 November 1852, 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 pretence whatever ... . Every such person shall be free. ...[5]

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 United States 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, Judge Paine held that necessity did not require the Lemmons to travel to Texas via New York. They chose to bring their slaves to New York, a free state. Thus, the slaves were free according to New York state law forbidding bringing slaves in transit into the state. 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.[6]

After his decision Judge Paine headed up a subscription and the full value of the slaves was returned to Lemmon. When the case reached the New York Court of Appeals, John Jay II, submitted an amicus curiae brief arguing that inasmuch as Lemmon suffered no loss, he had no justiciable controversy.[7]

The State of Virginia assisted Lemmon in his appeal and the New York Supreme Court granted certiorari[7] The court affirmed Justice Paine in December 1857 with one dissent. Lemmon appealed again, 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.

The Lemmons assigned their rights to the State of Virginia, which had planned to appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States. By then the American Civil War had begun and the case was never heard.[8]


The New York Times shortly after reporting the decision of the Court of Appeals published an opinion noting how the country's polarization on the slavery was bringing about "judicial corruption" and that "judges are gradually giving way to the pressure of one side or other, and ceasing even to pretend to administer the law as they find it, or to stand by the old rules of interpretation in any case in which the interests of slaveholders are involved." Although the piece noted in the North "the evil has been less apparent," decisions based on the Fugitive Slave Law "have at least rarely been illustrations of judicial wisdom, moderation, and impartiality." In the Lemmon case the opinion trained its scorn for the opinion of two Judges, Chief Judge Comstock and Judge Selden, both of whom expressly noted in their opinion that they had not the time to devote to a through consideration, but nevertheless dissented, concluding that the New York statute was unconstitutional based on a nebulous concept of "the rules of justice and comity". The Times warned that under this approach the judges had overstepped their bounds: "If this rule does not arm judges with legislative power, we should like to hear of some other plan which does it more effectually."[9]

While Lemmon was still pending, United States Supreme Court Justice Samuel Nelson, from New York, "had hinted at constitutional restraints upon State power over slavery"[10] in his concurrence to Scott v. Sandford: "A question has been alluded to, on the argument, namely: the right of the master with his slave of transit into or through a free State, on business or commercial pursuits, or in the exercise of a Federal right, or the discharge of a Federal duty, being a citizen of the United States, which is not before us. This question depends upon different considerations and principles from the one in hand, and turns upon the rights and privileges secured to a common citizen of the republic under the Constitution of the United States. When that question arises, we shall be prepared to decide it."[11] This hint threatened that Lemmon might become a second Dred Scott Case, bringing slavery into free States.[12]

Lincoln's House Divided Speech outlined this threat: "The nearest approach to the point of declarating the power of a state over slavery, is made by Judge Nelson. He approaches it more than once, using the precise idea, and almost the language too, of the Nebraska Act. On one occasion, his exact language is 'except in cases where the power is restrained by the Constitution of the United States, the law of the State is supreme over the subject of slavery within its jurisdiction.' In what cases the power of the states is so restrained by the U.S. Constitution, is left an open question, precisely as the question as to the power of the territories was left open in the Nebraska Act. Put that and that together, and we have a nice little niche, which we may, ere long, see filled with another Supreme Court decision, declaring that the Constitution of the United States does not permit a state to exclude slavery from its limits."[13]

Years later Chester A. Arthur's campaign literature would give him the largest share of the credit for his participation in the case, although his work was not any more important than that of John Jay (who sponsored the case and designed the strategy) and William M. Evarts who argued it in the Court of Appeals.[14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Don E. Fehrenbacher (1978), The Dred Scott Case: Its Significance in American Law and Politics, 2001 reprint, New York: Oxford, Part 1, "Out of the Past", Ch. 3, "The Pursuit of Freedom", p. 60, ISBN 978-0-19-514588-5 .
  2. ^ 20 N.Y. 562 (1860)
  3. ^ Heidler, David Stephen; Heidler, Jeanne T.; Coles, David J. (2002). Encyclopedia of the American Civil War: a political, social, and military. W.W. Norton & Co. pp. Page 1174. ISBN 978-0-393-04758-5.
  4. ^ Stone, Anrea (January 20, 2015). "The Little-Known History of the Underground Railroad in New York". Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved March 18, 2016.
  5. ^ Laws of 1817, 136, §9; 20 N.Y., 601; 5 S.S.C., 681; 26 B., 272. See Statutes at Large (as of July 1, 1862) edited by John W. Edmonds (Albany, N.Y.: Weare C. Little, 1863), volume 1, Revised Statutes, Part II (Rights of Person and Property), chapter XX (Of the Internal Police of this State), Title 7VII (Of the Importation into this State of Persons Held in Slaverm ...), §1.
  6. ^ Gordan 2006, pp. 11–12
  7. ^ a b "Law Intelligence: Decision in the Lemmon Slave Case". New York Times. April 18, 1860. Retrieved March 18, 2016.
  8. ^ Gordan 2006, p. 12
  9. ^ "The Lemmon Slave Case". New York Times. April 26, 1860. Retrieved March 18, 2016.
  10. ^ Allan Nevins (1950), Ordeal of the Union, Vol. 3, The Emergence of Lincoln: Douglas, Buchanan, and Party Chaos, New York: Scribner's, Ch. 13, "Douglas under Challenge", p. 362.
  11. ^ Scott v. Sandford, 468.
  12. ^ Don E. Fehrenbacher (1978), The Dred Scott Case: Its Significance in American Law and Politics, 2001 reprint, New York: Oxford, Part 2, "A Decade of Litigation", Ch. 17, "Concurrence and Dissent", p. 394, ISBN 978-0-19-514588-5 .
  13. ^ Abraham Lincoln, at the Illinois State Capitol, Springfield, IL, June 16, 1858. [Lincoln's emphases].
  14. ^ Reeves, Thomas C. (1975). Gentleman Boss: The Life of Chester A. Arthur. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. p. 16. ISBN 978-0-394-46095-6.

Sources and further reading[edit]