Napoleon V. Lemmon: Antebellum Black New Yorkers, Antislavery, and Law

By Davis, Thomas J. | Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, January 2009 | Go to article overview

Napoleon V. Lemmon: Antebellum Black New Yorkers, Antislavery, and Law


Davis, Thomas J., Afro-Americans in New York Life and History


In Lemmon v. the People (1860), New York's highest court declared that slaves traveling through the state with their holder were "free". (1) The decision further fueled an angry national debate on slavery, constitutional principles, and state powers. Already in its eighth year, the case was on its way to the U.S. Supreme Court when the Civil War erupted in April 1861 and made its issues somewhat moot. The case's career and consequences have been well fitted into the historiography of the coming of the war. (2) It has not, however, been so well fitted into New York's history. The origins of the episode exposed much about the politics of antislavery and race in antebellum New York and particularly in New York City, then confined to lower Manhattan Island. (3) The case's start also showed some of black New Yorkers' too often unnoticed contributions to antebellum antislavery.

The case arose beyond the state's oft-mentioned white elite who did invaluable work in the cause against slavery. Thus it contributed a view of antislavery beyond the more often told story of James G. Birney, Beriah Green, William Goodell, William Jay, Gerrit Smith, and the merchant brothers Arthur and Lewis Tappan, for example. (4) It offered a different view than that from spectacular and spontaneous events such as the 1851 rescue of the alleged fugitive slave William "Jerry" Henry in Syracuse. (5) A view of the case's origins opens more of the panorama of antebellum New York history.

Antislavery, after all, had a complex character in New York. It exhibited some of almost everything. It had religious abolitionists. It had anti-political action anti-slavers. It had its William Lloyd Garrison followers. It had its Liberty party people. It had its Barnburners and Free Soilers. (6) It also had some of the nation's foremost black abolitionists, and in New York City it had one of the foremost black antislavery communities. (7)

The 1852 origins of the case that began as The People exrel. Napoleon v. Lemmon revealed much about black life and development in New York. (8) It showed elements of blacks' grassroots, self-help organizing and operating. Blacks started the legal action. Indeed, the case arose as part of black New Yorkers' militant campaign against slavery that had escalated since the 1830s. (9) The too often unacknowledged extent of black antislavery activity in New York brought the case forward. It exhibited the reach of blacks' fighting slavery however, whenever, and wherever they could. Further, it showed blacks' sophisticated use of law to advance their cause. (10)

The fight against slavery in antebellum New York was no lockstep movement. Rather, it developed with intricate differences among its varied and shifting cast of performers. (11) While not often enough treated, blacks played prime roles in the daily and dramatic unfolding of antislavery. Making common cause against slavery with white neighbors and visitors, black New Yorkers also frequently found self-help their only immediate and effective avail. They alone had their own interests centered. For all too often they had to confront too-familiar white paternalism and ambivalence. (12) Even the incomparable black activist Frederick Douglass had to shove aside leading white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison's attitudes of control in a vision of acting for Douglass's and other blacks' own good. Blacks continually faced the notion that a Great White Father always knew best or that the best outcome awaited a Great White Savior. (13)

Many white foes of slavery were not necessarily friends of blacks. (14) Many believed blacks inferior. Many also preferred not simply to end slavery but to end blacks' presence; they preferred slaves and all other blacks shipped out of the United States. (15) The Free Soil Party born in New York in 1848 well illustrated the chasm between being against slavery and being for blacks' full emancipation. (16) The preeminent black abolitionist Frederick Douglass denounced the difference in commenting in January 1849 on the party's formation and platform. …

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