The Lemmon Slave Case: The Southern Quest to Nationalize Slavery


Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Member of the Year
Feb 20, 2005
Ocala, FL (as of December, 2015).
To All,

Thought this article on the following website might be of some interest.

The Lemmon Slave Case: Courtroom Drama, Constitutional Crisis and the Southern Quest to Nationalize Slavery.

From the article:

"...The Lemmon slave case illustrates both the legal debate over slavery that transfixed the country during the decade of the 1850s and the persuasive emotional power of slave narratives in that decade. One of the ironies of the ongoing legal case was the willingness of some Southerners to allow property rights to supersede states' rights when the issue was the protection of slavery. If Governor Letcher had pursued the case, it would in all probability have become the next Dred Scott decision, as envisioned by Lincoln. Had Virginia pushed the case in 1860, as historian Paul Finkelman has observed, the "chances were good that some type of slavery would have been forced on the North." Had Governor John Letcher been as hot-blooded as Governor Wise, the names Jonathan and Juliet Lemon would be as familiar to us today as the name Dred Scott.

Equally important, the case illustrates the extent to which the actions of enslaved and free blacks created much of the legal ferment and constitutional litigation that exacerbated the growing sectional conflict over the Constitution's stance toward slavery and forced the courts to confront it. The escape to Canada, over several years, of at least four young black men from one family in Appalachian Virginia and the swift and competent dispatch to Canada of eight more of their relatives by New York abolitionists demonstrated for many slaveholders the necessity of a constitutional amendment to protect slavery in every state.

In the end, Virginia's pursuit of a constitutional remedy was derailed by the election of Lincoln. The rhetoric and editorials that the Lemmon case provoked in the South had done much to make that region believe that Lincoln's election meant the ultimate strangulation of slavery. The taking of the Lemon slaves contributed to the belief that the North was filled with abolitionists who, in their fanaticism, were willing to shamefully violate the basic tenets of the United States Constitution while, in the North, accounts of the escape, rescue, and reunion of the Lemon/Douglass slaves created sympathy for this, and other enslaved families. The story of Levi touched much of the North, while the plight of the Lemons outrages the South. Levi, the runaway slave, and Jonathan Lemon, the backcountry slaveholder of modest means, acted for their own reasons, but both played central roles in creating a political drama that helped spark a constitutional crisis and contributed to a civil war."

Looking forward to your comments on the above.

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Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Retired Moderator
Aug 17, 2011
Birmingham, Alabama
Looking briefly at the case, there are a lot of could bes including a federal transit law that said something like as long as the property was in transit, the State could not do anything. For example liquor and cigarettes can transit counties and states where they are illegal or regulated without local or State laws being involved. Monkeying with the State's right to regulate within its boarders would be a real can of worms.

As to the Privileges or Immunities Clause, if you carry liquor into a State where it is forbidden, it can be taken from you no matter what your state allows. In times past, some states did not recognize mixed marriages and folks could be arrested for being in the same hotel room with a member of a different races. There are other examples.

IMHO betting on Taney overriding State Rights is a poor bet.

Privileges and Immunities Clause
Joseph Story also addressed this Clause of the Constitution, in 1833:[3]

It is obvious, that, if the citizens of each state were to be deemed aliens to each other, they could not take, or hold real estate, or other privileges, except as other aliens. The intention of this clause was to confer on them, if one may so say, a general citizenship; and to communicate all the privileges and immunities, which the citizens of the same state would be entitled to under the like circumstances.

Thus, Story thought that this Clause of the Constitution was meant "only to provide temporary visitors with equality in certain rights with the citizens of the states they were visiting."[4] This Clause of the Constitution was also mentioned by the Supreme Court in the infamous Dred Scott case in 1856: Chief Justice Taney, speaking for the majority, said that this Clause gives state citizens, when in other states, the right to travel, the right to sojourn, the right to free speech, the right to assemble, and the right to keep and bear arms.[5] Justice McLean in his dissent speaks of the right to sue without expounding this Clause at length.[6] Justice Curtis asserts in his dissent that this Clause does not confer any rights other than rights that a visited state chooses to guarantee to its own citizens.[7]
You might maybe get a majority of the hypothetical SCOTUS to allow transit privileges, but that is not a given.

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