Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Lemmon v. People of the State of New York

In Lemmon v. People, 20 N.Y. 562 (1860), the New York Court of Appeals, the highest court in the state, ruled that slaves brought temporarily into the state from slaveholding states were free. For a time, Republicans feared that Lemmon would be reviewed by the United States Supreme Court and that that Court would use the case to issue a ruling holding that non-slave states could not bar citizens of slave states from bringing their slaves into non-slave states.

Lemmon is fascinating and worth close study for a number of reasons. First, it inadvertently tells a story about interstate travel and slavery in the 1850s. Second, it is, in effect, a snapshot of a range of opinions held by eight educated white men in New York in March 1860 about slavery, blacks and relations between the states. Finally, as noted, by serving as a focus for Republican fears and outcry about the "next" Dred Scott decision, the case itself influenced events.

In this and future posts, I am going to discuss Lemmon and, ultimately, assess whether Republicans' fears appear to have been reasonable.

All cases begin with the facts, and so shall I.

Juliet Lemmon was a citizen and resident of the state of Virginia. Her age is not disclosed. As of early November 1852, she had been "for several years" the owner of at least eight black slaves, "who appeared to be known only by their christian names as Emeline, Robert, Lewis, Amanda, Nancy, Ann, Lewis and Edward." Of the eight, one was a man, two women and five children. The opinion does not distinguish them by name or decribe their relationships to one another.

Mrs. Lemmon was then married to Jonathan Lemmon. Mrs. Lemmon and her husband decided to move permanently from the state of Virginia to the state of Texas. In order to do so, Mr. and Mrs. Lemmon took passage, together with the eight slaves, on the steamship "City of Richmond," departing from the port of Norfolk, Virginia and bound for New York City.

Later, after the suit was filed, Mrs. Lemmon argued that she was compelled by "necessity or accident" to land in New York City. However, that did not mean that the ship had been blown off course or arrived at New York by chance. Rather, what Mrs. Lemmon seems to have meant was that, in order to travel from Viriginia to Texas, she was forced, as a practical matter, to take one ship to New York and then transfer to a second, southbound ship.

The steamship "City of Richmond" arrived in New York harbor on November 5, 1852. That evening, Mr. and Mrs. Lemmon and the slaves, disembarked and spent the night at 3 Carlisle Street, presumably to await a southbound vessel.

The very next day, November 6, 1852, "Louis Napoleon, a colored citizen of this State, made application" for a writ of habeas corpus directed to Mr. Lemmon (apparently misnamed "Lemmings" in the original papers) and the (unnamed) owner of the house at 3 Carlysle Street. Essentially, the writ required the respondents to show cause why the slaves were not unlawfully restrained.

That same day, Mr. Justice Paine of the Superior Court of the City of New York issued the writ, "and on the same day one of the constables of the city of New York brought up the eight colored persons." In due course, Mr. Lemmon responded to the writ under oath, asserting "that the eight persons named were the slaves and property of" his wife; and that the slaves were in New York only temporarily and were in transit from Virginia to Texas. Accordingly, Mr. Lemmon denied that the slaves were illegally detained and sought dismissal of the writ.

On November 13, 1852, Mr. Justice Paine issued a decision in which "he discharged the colored Virginians." In other words, he decided the slaves were free.

Mr. Lemmon appealed to the New York Supreme Court (which was superior to the Superior Court of the City of New York, but inferior to the New York Court of Appeals). In December 1857, that court affirmed the ruling of Mr. Justice Paine. (Apparently the wheels of justice turned slowly 150 years ago!)

Mr. Lemmon then appealed again, this time to the New York Court of Appeals, the highest court in the state. That court issued its decision in March 1860. A majority of the eight voting judges affirmed the decisions of the lower courts, ruling that the slaves were free. Three dissenting judges disagreed.


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  3. Anonymous1:16 PM

    His name was Elijah Paine who was a a Justice of the Superior Court of the City of New York , not Mr. Justice Paine


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