Author Interview: Sarah Gronningsater

Author Interview: Sarah Gronningsater

In our June 2017 issue, Dr. Sarah Gronningsater published an article titled “‘On Behalf of His Race and the Lemmon Slaves’: Louis Napoleon, Northern Black Legal Culture, and the Politics of Sectional Crisis.” She is an assistant professor of history at CalTech in Pasadena, California, with an expertise in legal, political, and constitutional history, focusing particularly on slavery and abolition. Later this summer, she will join the history faculty at the University of Pennsylvania.

Here, we share some of her thoughts about her article and legal history more broadly. To access her article, please visit Project Muse or subscribe to the journal.


Thanks so much, Sarah, for participating in this interview. How did you come across this topic?

In 2011, I presented a paper titled “Thwarting the ‘Slave Empire’: The Lemmon Slave CaseTerritorial Expansion, and Everyday Legal Protest” at a University of Oxford graduate conference on the theme of “Building an American Empire, 1783-1861.” The truth is, before writing the paper, I hadn’t thought much about the Lemmon case. I was in the early days of writing my dissertation, which focused on black children’s legal, political, and social experiences during the era of northern gradual emancipation. I wanted to figure out how their childhood experiences shaped their adult involvement in antislavery law and politics, as well as their generational consciousness. It turned out—in ways I hadn’t anticipated when I started writing the paper—that the Lemmon case connected deeply to my dissertation research. Louis Napoleon, the black New Yorker who instigated the Lemmon case by petitioning for the writ of habeas corpus on behalf of the eight slaves from Virginia, was in fact just the sort of person I’d been thinking about in my research. He was born around 1800 in New York, right after the state passed its 1799 gradual emancipation law. He was a “child of gradual emancipation” who grew up to be an antislavery agitator. I became obsessed with learning everything I could about him.

In short, because I really wanted to attend this conference at Oxford, I wrote a paper with an “American Empire” theme, the Lemmon case fit the theme, and because Napoleon was a crucial figure in the Lemmon case, I started looking for every shred of archival evidence I could find. So, thank you to former Oxford graduate students, David Sim and Huw David, who organized the 2011 conference!

The Lemmon case is a fascinating example of resistance to the Slave Power. Can you share a little background on the case itself, as well as provide some context for how the black community in New York City was instrumental in this legal battle?

In 1810, the New York State legislature passed a law declaring that visiting slave masters could bring their slaves into the state for only nine months at a time. In 1827, by virtue of an 1817 state law, New York abolished slavery—but the nine-month exception remained on the books. Although black New Yorkers were certainly pleased with state abolition, they also wanted the legislature to repeal the “nine-month rule.” They knew that forbidding southern masters from bringing slaves into the state was one way to strike a political and symbolic blow against national slavery. In the 1830s, black New Yorkers and their white partners began petitioning the legislature to repeal the nine-month rule. In 1841, Governor William H. Seward signed the repeal law. Technically, New York was now free soil.

Fast-forward a decade. In 1852, a Virginia couple named Jonathan and Juliet Lemmon traveled by sea to New York with their children and their eight slaves. The Lemmons, who were moving to Texas, planned to make a quick ship connection in New York City. When the Lemmons arrived in port, a black steward sent word to Louis Napoleon that there were eight slaves on board who wanted their freedom. Napoleon successfully petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus from a local judge on behalf the slaves. John Jay, a well-known antislavery lawyer, agreed to represent them. In a dramatic turn of events, the New York City Superior Court emancipated the eight Lemmon slaves; in the court’s view, the 1841 repeal law meant that masters could not hold slaves anywhere within New York’s borders, even if they were in transit to somewhere else.

The Lemmon decision caused a national uproar. Virginia’s legislature agreed to fund an appeal in New York’s courts. In 1857, the First District of New York’s Supreme Court ruled against the Lemmons. The U.S. Supreme Court had just handed down the Dred Scott decision. Both cases involved, in part, the right of masters to travel wherever they wanted with their slaves. Virginia appealed the Lemmon decision once again, to New York State’s highest court.

In 1858, Louis Napoleon signed a petition, written by John Jay, to the Republican governor of New York asking for help getting the Lemmon appeal dismissed by New York’s Court of Appeals. The petition is a fascinating document. In it, we hear Napoleon speak of what the Dred Scott case meant to him as a black man. Contrary to Jay and Napoleon’s desires, however, both the governor and the legislature decided to support the Lemmon appeal because they wanted to send the message that New York would stand firm in defending its sovereignty and its antislavery state laws.

Ultimately, I argue that Louis Napoleon and black New Yorkers of his generation proved crucial in creating the legal and political circumstances that gave rise to important state and national conversations about slavery, territorial expansion, and the rights of slaveholders in the lead-up to the Civil War.

One theme in your article, and also in Michael Woods’s article in this same issue, is that Northerners sometimes appealed to states’ rights arguments—this strategy was not confined to Southerners. How did New Yorkers conceptualize federalism and the appropriate authority of the federal government?

This is a great question, which I began to answer in my previous response. By the late 1850s, Republicans in New York State were quite adamant that New York had the right to determine the status of people on their soil (although the majority also conceded that they had a constitutional obligation to return fugitive slaves to their owners).These Republicans, as your question suggests, stood behind the antislavery principles of the Lemmon case on their own version of “states’ rights” grounds. Some New York Democrats agreed with them on this issue.

Black New Yorkers like Napoleon, as well as the hundreds of other ordinary black New Yorkers who petitioned the legislature for antislavery laws and frequented court rooms to ensure the laws were followed, likewise believed that it was New York State’s right to determine the status of people on its soil. In addition, they were determined to thwart federal fugitive slave laws in whatever ways they could. In the famous 1850 case of the alleged runaway James Hamlet, for example, black New Yorkers raised money to buy Hamlet back from his Maryland owner after Hamlet was captured in New York City. In general, black New Yorkers both supported New York’s states’ rights when there were useful antislavery laws on the books, but also refused to comply with federal laws like the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, which they found unjust.

I hope that JCWE readers will find it interesting to see Woods’s article and my article in conversation with each other on this theme of northern states’ rights.

What is the most important lesson we can learn from this story, especially regarding the role of Northern blacks in legal activism?

There are two key take-aways from this story. The first is that we need to pay far more attention to what ordinary black northerners were doing in the early nineteenth-century legal and political system. If we dig deeply into local archival sources, we start finding “everyday” black northerners all over the place. And their actions made a big difference in the political and legal events of their day. The second is that involvement in formal law and politics matters. As a historian of the antislavery movement, I am interested in all of the ways that antislavery citizens and slaves advanced their cause outside of legislatures and courts, but at the time same time, I am very keen to keep discovering the ways that ordinary people used state and legal institutions on a daily basis in order to create changes that mattered to them. These small moments of advocacy and protest could lead to big moments—like the Lemmon case.

Do you have any recommendations for the best secondary sources on nineteenth century legal history? For beginners who are seeking to learn more about the antebellum legal system, where should they start?

Oh my, there are a number of great sources! Paul Finkelman’s An Imperfect Union: Slavery, Federalism, and Comity, William Wiecek’s The Sources of Antislavery Constitutionalism, Thomas Morris’s Free Men All, and Edlie Wong’s Neither Fugitive nor Free are fruitful places to start for those interested in the specific subjects of my article. The Fall 2006 Law and History Review forum on the Somerset case is also great, as is the Fall 2011 Law and History Review special issue on Law, Slavery, and Justice. Ariela Gross, Lea VanderVelde, and Al Brophy, among others, have written important books on southern legal history and slavery. Laura Edwards’s The People and Their Peace is particularly wonderful for demonstrating how historians can use local records to explore the legal experiences of ordinary people. Christopher Tomlins and Michael Grossberg’s edited Cambridge History of American Law is a goldmine of informative, expert chapters on a variety of legal history topics. Frederick Kempin Jr.’s Historical Introduction to Anglo-American Law is a useful primer for those who want to learn more about the rules and procedures of the early republican legal system.

Both Kate Masur and Martha Jones have books coming out on antebellum legal history that promise to be illuminating—I was lucky enough to see them present some of their new work at conferences. Lastly, I feel fortunate to be among a cohort of junior scholars who are doing exciting nineteenth-century legal history work—Allison Gorsuch, Gautham Rao, Michael Schoeppner, Kelly Kennington, Anne Twitty, Kimberly Welch, Scott Heerman, Aaron Hall, Rabia Belt, Jessica Lowe, Jim Gigantino, Honor Sachs, and Greg Ablavsky form an incomplete list. All of these young historians have recently published work on legal history and American slavery.

For readers who want to learn more about Louis Napoleon and the Underground Railroad, I heartily recommend Eric Foner’s Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad and Don Papson and Tom Calarco’s Secret Lives of the Underground Railroad: Sydney Howard Gay, Louis Napoleon and the Record of Fugitives.

I am already embarrassed in advance that I am leaving out important titles, but I hope this provides a helpful start for anyone looking to read more in this area!

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