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  • "On Behalf of His Race and the Lemmon Slaves"Louis Napoleon, Northern Black Legal Culture, and the Politics of Sectional Crisis
  • Sarah L. H. Gronningsater (bio)

In the fall of 1852, a free black New Yorker named Louis Napoleon upended the plans of a Virginia couple, Jonathan and Juliet Lemmon, who were hoping to move to Texas with their seven children and eight slaves. The household had sailed to New York City in order to make a steamship connection to New Orleans—at the time, this was one of the fastest routes to the Southwest. Their itinerary, however, presented a problem: New York was technically free soil. The state legislature had made this assertion of territorial sovereignty explicit in an 1841 statute. A strict reading of this law forbade the Lemmons from holding slaves within New York's borders, even for a few hours. Napoleon, a black laborer, wanted a local court to free the Lemmon slaves in accordance with the statute's emancipatory implications.1

The morning after the Lemmons' ship docked in New York, Napoleon petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus from Judge Elijah Paine of the city's Superior Court. Paine granted the request, summoning Jonathan Lemmon and the eight slaves to his bench. Three days later, a contentious trial was underway. The slaves were represented by Napoleon's long-time ally, the prominent abolitionist John Jay, grandson of the founding father, and Erastus D. Culver, a former Whig congressman. As Jay and Culver sparred with opposing counsel, dozens of black men, women, and children gathered in the courtroom to watch. On November 13—a week after the Lemmons' arrival—Paine discharged the slaves. "The laws of the State of New York," he explained, "render it impossible that such property should exist within those limits."2 The black audience was elated. The New-York Tribune reported that "the eight persons were placed in coaches by Louis Napoleon" and "driven off amid great cheering." In December, with the quiet assistance of regional abolitionists, the freed slaves moved to Canada. Members of New York's merchant community raised $5,000 to compensate the Lemmons for their lost property, which the couple accepted.3 [End Page 206]

Widely publicized, the Lemmon case quickly achieved national significance. When the Lemmons appealed Paine's decision to the First District of New York's Supreme Court—the state's intermediate appellate court—Virginia governor Joseph Johnson convinced his legislature to fund the costs. New York's legislature responded in kind, asserting the state's right to determine the status of people on its soil.4 In 1857, the First District reviewed the case. The timing was fraught: not only was Bleeding Kansas fresh in the public's mind, but the U.S. Supreme Court had just issued its ruling in Dred Scott, a decision that bolstered the rights of slaveholders and injured those of black Americans. The Lemmons' lawyers, eager to exploit the connections between the cases, argued that slaves were property protected by "the federal constitution" and that the doctrines of Dred Scott "must be maintained."5 The First District disagreed, affirming the original ruling. The Lemmons, with Virginia's support, appealed again, hoping that New York's highest court—the Court of Appeals—would concede a master's constitutional right to travel nationally with his slaves.6

By petitioning for the writ of habeas corpus, Napoleon had triggered the emancipation of eight slaves, precipitated a series of controversial court cases, and provoked interstate political battles. Yet by the winter of 1857–58, Napoleon agreed with Jay that it was in the best interest of the antislavery movement to shut Lemmon down; the two allies wanted the Court of Appeals to dismiss the case. In January, Jay sent New York's Republican governor, John A. King, a petition he had written in Napoleon's name, titled "The Memorial of Louis Napoleon." Jay explained in a cover letter why both he and his client were so anxious for New York to cease backing the Lemmon case; they feared it would ultimately land in the U.S. Supreme Court. The Dred Scott majority might then seize on Lemmon as a chance to reintroduce...