John Jay II (1817-1894), son of early abolitionist William Jay, had been exposed to staunch anti-slavery sentiments from an early age. As an attorney, he dedicated a significant portion of his career to arguing against pro-slavery legislation in court, often, securing the freedom of formerly enslaved people who had made their escape north. One case that gained national attention and became a landmark case in the legal battle against slavery is widely referred to as the “Lemmon Slave Case,” in which John argued against the application of the barbaric Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.
In 1852, slave-owning residents of Virginia Johnathan and Juliet Lemmon stopped in New York City for a number of days while moving to Texas. Traveling with them were a total of 8 enslaved people, from two separate family groups, belonging to Mrs. Lemmon. The first family included Emiline (age 23), Edward (her brother, age 13), and Amanda (Emiline’s daughter, age 2). The second were Nancy (age 20), Lewis (her brother, age 16), Lewis and Edward (Sons of Nancy, both age 7), and Ann (Daughter of Nancy, age 5).
Upon their arrival in New York, the Lemmons placed their enslaved people in a boarding house on Carlisle St. in lower Manhattan while they stayed in a separate hotel. An African American porter working at the boarding house reported their presence to activist Louis Napoleon, who promptly brought a writ of habeas corpus before Judge Elijah Paine Jr. Napoleon asserted that the Lemmons’ enslaved people were to be set free based on an 1841 New York law that essentially stated that the any person who is enslaved in another state is automatically freed upon entry into New York. Napoleon was an ardent activist who played a key role in mid-19th century abolitionist efforts in New York. As one of only a few African American members of the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery society (an organization William Jay co-founded), he used his position and society connections to help free numerous enslaved persons who had made their way to New York via the Underground Railroad.
The Lemmons’ attorney, Henry Lapaugh, argued that the transportation of these slaves was an act of interstate commerce and based on the 1824 decision in supreme court case Gibbons v. Ogden, only the Federal government has the right to regulate interstate commerce. He also argued that the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 overruled the New York law, since it allowed any enslaver to capture a person who escaped their custody, even if the fugitive made it to a free state.
New York State’s legal team, which consisted of Jay, Erastus D. Culver, and Chester A. Arthur (who would go on to be the 21st President of the United States in 1881) argued that the power to regulate the slave trade was explicitly given to the states, not the federal government, making it an exception to the Gibbons v. Ogden ruling. Furthermore, they argued that the Fugitive Slave Act did not apply in this case. The Lemmons brought their slaves to New York voluntarily, and therefore the State was under no obligation to return them to the Lemmons, as there was no requirement in the law for the return of non-fugitive slaves. Jay wisely cited the legal principle expression unius exclusion alterius “the express mention of one thing excludes others.” Meaning that the law cannot be applied the same for fugitive, and non-fugitive enslaved persons.
Ultimately, Judge Paine ruled in favor of the State of New York, and all 8 persons were granted their freedom. Letters from John Jay II in the Homestead’s collection also indicate that Jay, and at least two other attorneys set up a “Lemmon slave fund” to assist the families in their travels to Canada. Jay wanted to ensure their future comfort and well-being as they were starting a completely new life, in a new place.
In 1860, the State of Virginia attempted to appeal this decision, without the Lemmons’ involvement, as the victory by John Jay II and New York State’s legal team in this case was damaging to the institution of slavery, and its supporters in congress. The appeal did not make it through the New York courts a second time. Though not directly involved in the case the second time around, John Jay II did appear before the court as an amicus curiae, or advisor to the court, to present an argument that the decision should be upheld because “the State of Virginia sought to prosecute the appeal by her own counsel, not to restore to Mr. Lemmon the possession of his slaves, whom he had already emancipated…. But with the hope of reversing the judgment and establishing an opposing rule of law, with reference to its future operation upon the rights of other persons.” An appeal of the decision in Lemmon v. New York in order to establish a new precedent would simply be a waste of the court’s time according to Jay, since they would not actually be arguing that decision, but rather a broader legal philosophy having nothing to do with the specific facts of the original case.