“Incited by the Love of Liberty”: The ‘Amistad’ Captives and the Courts


Oil painting of the Amistad off the coast of Long Island. / New Haven Museum

From the time that the Amistad captives arrived in the United States, their quest for freedom played out within the federal court system.


By Bruce A. Ragsdale, J.D.
Chief
Federal Judicial History Office
Federal Judicial Center


On August 29, 1839, a lone West African man named Sengbe Pieh stood in shackles before a special session of the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut. Judge Andrew Judson convened the court of inquiry on board a navy vessel in the harbor of New London, Connecticut.

There the court heard the testimony of two Spanish planters from Cuba. The planters referred to the young African man as Cinque and told the court how he had led a revolt of other enslaved Africans on board the schooner Amistad. Cinque was among a group of fifty-three enslaved individuals whom the planters, Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montes, purchased in Havana and then transported on the Amistad in the direction of plantations along the Cuban coast.

According to the planters, Cinque and his compatriots killed the ship’s captain and the cook, then coerced the Spaniards to sail toward the rising sun in hopes of retracing the voyage that had brought them from West Africa.

Cinque spoke neither English nor Spanish and could not testify at the court of inquiry, but his presence dominated the proceeding. In the few short days between being taken into custody by the navy and appearing before the district court, Cinque emerged in press accounts as the near-mythical leader of the revolt on the Amistad.

Sengbe Pieh (Cinque), leader of the revolt aboard the Amistad, in an 1839 portrait. / Library of Congress, Public Domain

A reporter who visited him before the court session wrote of Cinque’s “uncommon decision and coolness, with a composure characteristic of true courage.” The same reporter placed Cinque in a context more familiar to many in the United States by describing him as “a negro who would command in New Orleans, under the hammer, at least $1500.”[1]

When the U.S. attorney in Connecticut drafted an indictment of the captive Africans for murder and piracy, the case entered the docket books of the federal court as United States v. Cinque, et al. Although the criminal charges were soon dismissed, the case title, with its acknowledgment of the critical role of Cinque, signified the distinctive character of the ensuing judicial proceedings related to the Amistad and the enslaved people on board.[2]

The collection of suits and property claims that forced the federal courts to consider the legal foundations of slavery had come about because of the actions of enslaved individuals, and those individuals appeared in court, represented by lawyers demanding protection of their legal rights. The self-determining actions of the Amistad captives set the case apart from earlier federal cases involving slavery and captured the attention of a nation increasingly divided by debates on slavery and by the sectionalism that would eventually lead to the Civil War. The growth of the antislavery movement in the 1830s and slaveholders’ heightened fear of slave revolts gave the court case added import in both the North and the South.

From the time that the Amistad captives arrived in the United States, the drama of their quest for freedom played out within the federal court system.

For many of the Americans who followed the case in the press, the Amistad proceedings were an introduction to the organization and workings of the federal judiciary. The related cases moved through each of the three types of courts in the early federal system and presented issues related to the range of jurisdiction exercised by the federal courts. The progress of Amistad through the federal courts also revealed the paradoxes of a legal culture that simultaneously recognized enslaved persons as chattel and as accountable individuals.

The Amistad case entered the federal judiciary as a familiar type of admiralty proceeding. For several weeks in late summer of 1839, newspapers along the Atlantic coast reported sightings of a mysterious schooner, supposedly controlled by African pirates. The Spaniards’ deliberately circuitous navigation had carried the schooner through the Bahamas, along the coast of the United States, and, after nearly two months, into Long Island Sound in search of provisions. The officers and crew of the navy brig Washington confronted the landing party along the New York shore, took custody of the ship and the forty-two surviving Africans and one Cuban slave on board, and then towed the Amistad to New London. Lt. Thomas Gedney and the crew of the Washington contacted the U.S. marshal and requested a hearing in the U.S. district court, where they intended to file a claim of salvage, called a libel, in order to recover a reward for rescuing the badly damaged Amistad and its cargo, including the alleged slaves.[3]

After Ruiz and Montes testified at the initial court session on board the Washington, Judge Judson transferred the court to the Amistad itself. Antonio, a slave who had served as cabin boy to the slain captain of the schooner, described what he witnessed on the night of the revolt, and he identified the individuals who had led the uprising along with Cinque. Gedney and his crew presented the court with their libel for salvage, with a detailed list of “a large & valuable Cargo.” The invoice described such goods as “11 Boxes Crockery & Glassware,” “200 Boxes vermacelli,” and “800 yds Striped linen” worth, along with the schooner and its fittings, an estimated $40,000. Appended to the list of dry goods was the description of “fifty four Slaves to wit fifty one male slaves and three young female slaves who were worth twenty five Thousand Dollars.”[4]

Judge Andrew T. Judson / Library of Congress, Public Domain

Judson referred the potential criminal questions to the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Connecticut. The Judiciary Act of 1789 established the circuit courts to exercise jurisdiction over most federal crimes, over disputes between citizens of different states, and over all but the smallest cases in which the federal government was a party. They also heard some appeals from the district courts. Judson set a date for the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut to proceed with consideration of the salvage claim from the officers and crew of the Washington. The district courts were also trial courts with jurisdiction over questions involving maritime commerce and the trade laws of the new nation – the area of law known as admiralty – as well as minor criminal cases and small suits involving the government.[5]

At the close of the court of inquiry, Judge Judson ordered U.S. Marshal Norris Willcox to take custody of the Africans and to hold them in a New Haven jail pending the next sessions of the district and circuit courts.

Willcox took custody under authority of two warrants. A warrant of seizure, typical of an action in an admiralty case, allowed the government to hold all of the goods in which Gedney and his crew claimed salvage, including the alleged slaves. A warrant of arrest authorized the detention of the Africans who were named in the U.S. attorney’s information and complaint as the subjects of a likely criminal indictment.

The court also ordered the marshal to hold Antonio and the three African girls as witnesses in the criminal case. No one responded to the Spanish names Willcox read from the official passes, “it being the names given them at Havanna for the purpose of shipment.” The marshal then recorded the names to which they did respond, presumably assisted by Bahoo, the one captive who spoke a very little English.[6]

The Amistad case almost immediately became the subject of a national debate on slavery and the law. In New York, a group of abolitionists led by Lewis Tappan recognized that the arrest of the Africans presented them with the case they had been seeking in order to challenge the laws of slavery in federal court. Tappan, from a wealthy merchant family, had been an organizing member of the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833. He joined with Joshua Leavitt and Simeon Jocelyn to form a committee that would raise money for the legal representation of the Amistad captives and for their education while in custody. Roger Sherman Baldwin, scion of a prominent Connecticut political family, would lead the legal team with the assistance of Seth Staples and Theodore Sedgwick. In reputation, if not in numbers, they appeared to the U.S. attorney as “an army of counsel.”[7]

In Washington, Secretary of State John Forsyth consulted with the available cabinet members, who agreed that treaty obligations required the United States to deliver the property, including the alleged slaves, claimed by the Spanish government. Forsyth directed the Van Buren administration’s response to what he feared might escalate into a diplomatic or political crisis, and he urged the U.S. attorney in Connecticut to do whatever was necessary to keep the captives in federal custody and ready for transportation to Cuba.

The restitution of the claimed slaves would deny a precedent for Great Britain, which in recent years had asserted the right to intercept suspected slave traders in international waters and to free illegally transported Africans. British officials in Bermuda and the Bahamas also had granted freedom to American slaves on board ships that were driven off course during storms. The return of Spanish-claimed slaves was essential if the administration were to assuage southern slaveholders incensed by the British actions.[8] Attorney General Felix Grundy drafted an opinion stating that the President had authority to order the marshal to deliver all of the property and the Africans to a representative of the Spanish government. By November, however, when Grundy delivered the opinion, the opening of the trial and the swelling of public interest gave the administration little choice but to follow the judicial process.

“The course of the Executive is decided on,” Grundy explained to U.S. attorney William S. Holabird, “but it is deemed expedient to make no communication of it, to any one, until the property is free from all Judicial action, he will then act promptly, in carrying out the opinion of the Attorney General.”[9]

Never before had a federal trial prompted the kind of popular fascination that surrounded the Amistad proceedings. Newspapers detailed the seizure of the Africans and speculated about the role of the charismatic Cinque. A theater on the Bowery in New York City presented a melodrama about “The Black Schooner” and the heroism of “the gallant tars” who rescued the Spanish planters. Inexpensive mass-produced prints celebrated Cinque as “the brave Congolese chief who prefers death to slavery” or as the noble leader who inspired his compatriots.

Model of the Amistad

As the case progressed through the federal courts, traveling exhibits fixed in the public mind a strong visual image of the people and events on the Amistad. A New Haven artist created life-size wax models of twenty-nine of the captives, placed them on a reconstructed deck of the Amistad, and exhibited the display in major cities of the northeastern United States. Another exhibit toured New England with a 135-foot mural depicting the revolt.[10]

Tappan understood the importance of public opinion and made sure that sympathetic newspapers frequently reported on the condition of the captives and the efforts to instruct them. Racist newspapers devoted just as much attention to the case, with frequent articles mocking the abolitionists and describing the Africans as uncivilized brutes. When the marshal transported most of the captives to Hartford for the sessions of the two federal courts in mid-September, the city was “crowded with strangers, and alive with excitement.” “Abolitionists are here, and anti-Abolitionists are here also” to see how the federal courts would deal with the Africans alleged to be both criminals and property.[11]

The U.S. Circuit Court convened on September 17, 1839, and presented a grand jury with U.S. attorney Holabird’s indictment of the adult captives on charges of murder and piracy. With no authorized judgeships of their own, the U.S. circuit courts were presided over by the district court judge and a justice of the Supreme Court. Each justice was assigned to a regional circuit and spent much of the year traveling to the biannual circuit court sessions in the judicial districts; a practice known as “circuit riding.”

Justice Smith Thompson of New York, whom James Monroe appointed to the Supreme Court in 1823, joined Judson to preside over the circuit court in Connecticut. Holabird privately doubted the federal court’s jurisdiction over an alleged crime that took place on a foreign vessel at sea and thought the evidence insufficient for conviction, but Thompson insisted that the grand jury report a finding of facts before the court would address the question of jurisdiction.[12] In the meantime, the abolitionist lawyers challenged the district court’s authority to hold the young African girls in custody. Roger Sherman Baldwin, along with Seth Staples and Theodore Sedgwick, secured a writ of habeas corpus and brought the girls before the circuit court to ask for their release on the grounds that the district court lacked authority to detain individuals against whom no criminal charge was made.[13]

The attorneys argued that to hold these girls under a warrant to seize property, which the marshal cited as his authority, was to force into slavery individuals who arrived in the United States as free persons. In what would be their most important argument throughout the judicial proceedings, Baldwin and his colleagues insisted that the girls, like all of the Africans on the Amistad, were recently and illegally transported to Cuba and never had been held legally as slaves in Spanish territory. Just as the laws of the United States prohibited the slave trade from Africa, so did the treaties and laws of Spain forbid that traffic and declare illegally transported Africans to be free upon arrival in Spanish territory. The captive Bahoo testified in an affidavit that these girls were born in his home village of Bandaboo and had been on the same ship that transported him from West Africa to Cuba the previous spring.[14]

While Thompson and Judson heard arguments on the habeas writ, the grand jury returned with its finding that the captives had killed the captain and cook on the Amistad and stolen merchandise from the vessel. As most observers expected, Justice Thompson declared that the federal courts had no jurisdiction over any alleged crimes that occurred on the Amistad while at sea. With all criminal charges dismissed by the court, the habeas proceedings took on greater significance.

A second writ brought the adult captives before the court on the same claim that the federal government could not deprive the liberty of individuals who never had been held legally in slavery and who were not charged with criminal activity. The formal answer and reply of the captives asserted that they had been transported and enslaved “contrary to the laws of nature, and of nations, and also contrary to the laws, Treaties and ordinances of Spain.” The marshal’s return was “insufficient in the law to warrant the caption & detention of them.”[15]

Thompson prefaced his ruling on the habeas writs with unusually personal remarks about his abhorrence of slavery. He said his duty, however, was to determine the proper jurisdiction of the federal courts in this case. He reminded Baldwin and the other lawyers that the Constitution, federal statutes, and decisions of the Supreme Court all recognized the right of one person to control the labor of others and that the federal courts had accepted other foreign claims for slave property.

Judge Smith Thompson / Wikimedia Commons

Thompson denied the request for the Africans’ release since they were the subject of legitimate property claims properly submitted to the U.S. district court. The only remaining question of jurisdiction regarded which district court had authority in the case. Thompson declared that it was the responsibility of the district court in Connecticut to determine where the Amistad had been seized and thereby establish which court held jurisdiction in the admiralty proceedings.[16]

The district court, also meeting in the Connecticut State House in Hartford, convened on September 19, and Judge Judson accepted additional libels filed in response to the salvage libel of Gedney and his crew. Ruiz and Montes each submitted libels asking for the return of all their property, including the alleged slaves, with no deduction for salvage. A group of New York residents who had offered supplies and assistance to the Africans along the Long Island shore filed their own libel for salvage.

U.S. attorney Holabird submitted a libel with alternate requests. He asked the court to consider the Spanish ambassador’s claim that the Africans were the slave property of Ruiz and Montes and that the treaty of 1795 between Spain and the United States required the return of all Spanish property in the custody of the courts. If, on the other hand, the court determined that the Africans were not the legal slaves of Spanish planters, Holabird requested that the court order the delivery of the captives to the President for return to their homeland under the terms of an act for the enforcement of the prohibition on the African slave trade.

Holabird’s first draft of the libel reveals that he initially defined the court’s choice as a question of whether the Africans were slave or free, but he deleted the word “free” and substituted for it the phrase “negroes and persons of colour,” equating the Africans’ racial identity with some ill-defined status short of freedom. After accepting these libels and ordering an investigation to determine the location where the Amistad was seized, Judge Judson set a trial date for November.[17]

The fate of the African captives now depended on one judge’s decision in an admiralty proceeding. Lewis Tappan understood that if the Africans of the Amistad were to be something other than the objects of competing property claims, they must enter the case as an independent party and testify in the district court.

To enable them to testify, Tappan contacted Yale linguistics professor Josiah Gibbs to study the language of the Africans and recruited Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, the pioneer educator of the deaf, to attempt communication by sign language. Gibbs learned to count in the captives’ tongue and set out to find a translator among the many African sailors who worked in the transatlantic trade.

By late September, Gibbs located James Covey and Charles Pratt on a British navy ship in New York. These sailors were from West Africa’s Mende region, which the abolitionists then learned was home to the captives from the Amistad. The British commanding officer granted them leave, and the arrival of Covey and Pratt in New Haven allowed the abolitionists to learn the details of the captives’ enslavement and to publicize their personal stories.[18]

The Mende captives formally entered the district court proceedings as respondents during the November session in Hartford. The “several plea” of Cinque and the others challenged the various libels that alleged they were slave property. The plea, submitted by Baldwin and Staples, asserted that the Mende were free-born Africans who in the spring of 1839 had been kidnapped in their native land and illegally sold as slaves in Cuba. “Incited by the love of liberty natural to all men, and by the desire of returning to their families and kindred,” the plea explained, they had taken control of the Amistad and later arrived in New York, “a place where Slavery did not exist, in order that they might enjoy their liberty under the protection of its government.” The plea maintained that the district court had no authority to detain the Mende, who arrived as free persons in a free state; therefore the captives should “be hence dismissed and suffered to be and remain as they of right ought to be free & at liberty from the process of this Honorable court.”[19]

Spanish officials, with a very different intent, also challenged the authority of the district court to keep the enslaved people from the Amistad in custody. The Spanish consul from Boston submitted his request to take possession of Antonio so that he might be returned to the Cuban heirs of the Amistad captain. U.S. attorney Holabird filed “a separate libel and claim” reaffirming the government’s request that the court consider the Spanish ambassador’s demand for the restoration of all Spanish property, including “certain slaves.” In this libel, Holabird omitted the claim that the Mende might by delivered to the President for return to West Africa.[20]

In the first testimony of the trial, Judson heard from witnesses who described their encounters with the Mende on the shore of Long Island and others involved in the seizure of the schooner and the Mende. Lawyers for the officers and crew of the Washington tried to establish that the schooner was taken in open seas and that the vessel was so severely damaged that it surely would have been lost if not brought into harbor. The abolitionist lawyers questioned witnesses about the languages spoken by the captives at the initial contact and secured testimony that Ruiz admitted the captives were recently arrived from Africa. Six of the Mende, along with Antonio, were transported to Hartford by the marshal, but they were unable to testify because of the illness of their principal translator, James Covey. After three days, Judge Judson postponed the trial until January 7, when the district court would convene in New Haven and the Mende would be able to present their story.[21]

Most observers of the proceedings expected that Andrew Judson would not be a sympathetic judge for the Mende. Judson had been appointed to the federal bench by President Andrew Jackson in 1836 and had never ruled on a case related to slavery, but his views on race and slavery were well known in Connecticut.

In 1833, Judson was one of the leaders of a successful campaign to shut down a school established for the education of African American girls in his hometown of Canterbury. He argued that African Americans were not entitled to rights as citizens under the Constitution and publicly stated that African Americans should either be transported out of the country or “kept as they were.” He quickly earned the enmity of New England abolitionists, including some members of the Amistad committee.[22]

Secretary of State John Forsyth / Department of State, Wikimedia Commons

Secretary of State Forsyth was so confident that Judson would grant the Spanish demands that he took steps to ensure that the Mende would be on their way to Cuba before the abolitionists would have time to file an appeal. Before the trial reopened in January, Forsyth instructed marshal Norris Willcox to deliver the Mende to a navy ship as soon as the judge decreed their return to Cuba. President Van Buren ordered the U.S.S. Grampus to Connecticut for the purpose, and this vessel, which usually patrolled the coast of Africa to intercept piratical American slave traders, waited off New Haven as the trial progressed.[23]

On the second day of the January session, Cinque and two other Mende, Grabeau and Fuliwa, testified, and the brief notes in the court records give only a vague sense of the enormous excitement occasioned by their appearance. Speaking through James Covey but punctuating his remarks with powerful gestures and expressions, Cinque described his abduction in Africa, the deadly passage across the Atlantic, and the sale of the captive Mende in Havana.

Following instructions from the judge, who announced he already was convinced the captives were African natives, the attorneys for the Mende focused their examination on the events along the Long Island shore in an effort to answer questions related to jurisdiction and salvage. Lawyers for Gedney raised seemingly irrelevant questions about the captives’ lives in Africa and their role in the revolt. In response, Cinque was able to deny the newspaper accounts that he had participated in the slave trade and that he had multiple wives. When the lawyers for the Mende spoke, the crowd “hung upon their lips spell bound,” according to the Rev. Henry Ludlow. “At times the feelings of the audience were inexpressible, and they showed their sympathy by external demonstrations of pleasure.”[24]

After five days of testimony and arguments, Judson delivered his decision before a crowded courtroom on January 13, 1840. He first established that his court had proper jurisdiction over the admiralty case, since the Amistad was seized within an area fitting the legal definition of the high seas. He then turned to the salvage questions that had prompted the federal court proceedings. Gedney and the crew of the Washington were entitled to a salvage award for rescuing the Amistad and the merchandise on board, since all would have been lost had the ship continued at sea.

The treaty with Spain allowed charges for “reasonable rates” in returning property, and Judson found that a salvage award of one-third the appraised value of the property was reasonable. Without revealing any decision about the status of the Mende or Antonio as property, Judson denied any salvage award for the enslaved persons on board, since he had no authority to order a sale that would determine a monetary value.[25]

Judson proceeded to the “great questions” regarding the Spanish insistence on their right to recover the African captives as slave property. The judge acknowledged the unique character of the case when he reminded his listeners that “these Africans come in person, as our law permits them to do, denying this right.” The abolitionists’ decision to introduce the Mende as parties in the case forced Judson to go beyond the questions of treaties and salvage laws to decide if the Mende were property under Spanish law and, if so, whether Ruiz and Montes held title to that property.[26]

Judson determined that the planters had no claim to the Africans and, more important, that the Mende were not slave property under Spanish law. The evidence was overwhelming that the Mende arrived recently in Cuba, and under Spanish law any Africans introduced into Spanish territory after 1820 were considered free. Judson refused to order the return of the Mende as demanded by the Spanish. “If, by their own laws, they cannot enslave them,” Judson explained, “then it follows, of necessity, they cannot be demanded.” At the same time, Judson recognized the authority of the treaty and the right of the Spanish to recover legally held slave property. The judge ordered that Antonio, the legal slave of the Amistad captain, must be returned to the captain’s heirs in Cuba.[27]

Judson’s decision that the Mende were free in Spanish territory released the captives from the threat of enslavement, but it did not free them from federal custody. The judge accepted William Holabird’s suggestion that the captives be delivered to the President for return to West Africa. Judson acknowledged that the act granting such authority to the President did not apply precisely to the Mende, who were not transported to the United States as slaves, but rather arrived in control of their vessel.

The humanitarian intent of the act, however, was sufficient authority in Judson’s mind to decree their delivery to the executive. His moving description of the plight of the Mende gave no indication that he ever considered freeing them immediately or allowing them any opportunity to remain in the country. In the most widely quoted words of the decision, Judson assured his courtroom audience that “Cinquez and Grabeau shall not sigh for Africa in vain. Bloody as may be their hands, they shall yet embrace their kindred.”[28]

In this document, U.S. Attorney William S. Holabird urged first that the captives should be returned under a U.S. treaty with Spain, but that if the court ruled for their freedom, they should be returned to their homeland. / Records of District Courts of the United States, Public Domain

“The decision of the District Judge,” reported Holabird to Attorney General Henry Gilpin, “has surprised every body and no one more than myself.” Holabird was particularly surprised that Judson ordered the delivery of the Mende to the President since that count of the government’s libel “was abandoned long before the trial, and originally filed only for the purpose of holding the negroes in custody for the time.” Following instructions from Secretary of State Forsyth, Holabird appealed “every part of said decree except that part . . . in relation to the said slave Antonio.”[29]

Holabird and Gilpin were confident that the circuit court would reverse the “untenable” decision of the district court, but Holabird feared the government again would be unable to prove the Mende were Spanish property. The evidence that the Mende had arrived recently in Cuba was so convincing that Holabird declined to argue otherwise. He asked Forsyth and Gilpin to obtain copies of laws in force in Cuba or any other documentation that might allow him to demonstrate that these recently transported Africans were slaves under Spanish law. At the same time, he requested instructions on an appeal from any circuit court decision that did not decree the restoration of slave property claimed by the Spanish.[30]

At the opening of the spring term of the circuit court in Hartford on April 29, Roger Sherman Baldwin and Seth Staples presented a motion for the Mende, asking the court to dismiss the government’s appeal on the grounds that the United States claimed no right to the alleged slave property and had no authority to represent the claims of foreign citizens. Justice Smith Thompson rejected the motion for dismissal and affirmed the district court decision with a pro forma decree. Holabird, acting for the government “in pursuance of a demand made upon them by the duly Accredited Minister of Her Catholic Majesty the Queen of Spain,” appealed the circuit court decree to the Supreme Court, which was scheduled to open its next session in January 1841.[31]

The abolitionists’ committee convinced John Quincy Adams to join Baldwin in representing the Mende before the Supreme Court. The seventy-three-year-old former President was serving in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he had defended the abolitionists’ right to petition Congress for an end to slavery in the District of Columbia. Once a noted advocate before the Supreme Court, he had not appeared before the bench in more than thirty years. Adams spent several months examining an extensive collection of government documents related to every aspect of the Amistad incident. In the fall he traveled to Connecticut to meet with Cinque and other captives, who remained in the custody of the marshal for the district of Connecticut, although they lived under far less restrictive confines in the village of Westville.[32]

Adams would face a Supreme Court of nine justices, five of whom were residents of southern slave states. The Court only occasionally had heard cases related to slavery or the slave trade, and although it had enforced the prohibition on the African slave trade, the Court also had decided that slave property must be protected whenever slavery was permitted by a nation’s laws. Adams and Baldwin asked the Supreme Court to dismiss the case on the grounds that the United States had no interest in the matter and because recently released documents indicated that the Spanish government had requested delivery of the Mende for trial in Cuba and not as property under the 1795 treaty. In a surprising concession to the laws of slave property, Adams and Baldwin also asked for dismissal because none of the Africans, “if slaves,” was valued at the two-thousand-dollar minimum required for appeals to the Supreme Court. The Court postponed consideration of the motion and scheduled arguments in the case.[33]

On February 22, 1841, Attorney General Henry Gilpin opened oral arguments with a statement of the government’s long-standing position that the treaty with Spain required the return of all Spanish property, with no payments for salvage. Gilpin reminded the Court that the Spanish planters had produced documentation of ownership of the enslaved Mende, and he warned that if the federal courts questioned the legitimacy of documents issued by foreign governments, the flow of international commerce would be threatened. Roger Sherman Baldwin repeated his argument that the Mende, recently transported from Africa, were free under Spanish law and thus not subject to the terms of the treaty between the nations.

Adams then appeared before the crowded chamber on the ground floor of the Capitol. The drama of his nearly eight hours of argument was only heightened by an unexpected interruption of several days for the funeral of Justice Philip Pendleton Barbour, who died the night after Adams began his remarks. Adams devoted most of his argument to a rebuke of the lame-duck Van Buren administration, which he alleged was well aware that they would be returning the Mende to certain death in Cuba. Adams closed his remarks with an appeal to the natural rights of the Mende and asked that the Court extend to the Africans the rights described in the Declaration of Independence.[34]

Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story / Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

On March 9, 1841, the Supreme Court finally granted the Mende their unconditional freedom. Responsibility for writing the Court’s opinion fell to Justice Joseph Story, the senior justice on the bench and the nation’s leading constitutional scholar. Story had little regard for the celebrated arguments of Adams, but his opinion validated the legal strategy that Baldwin had pursued from the earliest days of the case. The Court upheld the circuit court’s affirmation of Judson’s decision that the captives were recent arrivals in Cuba and under Spanish law could not be the legal property of Ruiz and Montes.

The Court, however, overturned the decree to deliver the Mende to the President for return to West Africa. Story noted that “when the Amistad arrived she was in possession of the negroes, asserting their freedom; and in no sense could they possibly intend to import themselves here, as slaves, or for sale as slaves.” The Supreme Court then decreed that the circuit court in Connecticut release the Mende from federal custody.[35]

The Supreme Court decision affirmed the freedom that the Mende sought, but it left them with no means to return home. After release from federal custody in mid-March, the Mende lived in Farmington, Connecticut, with supporters of the abolitionists’ committee. Antonio, still subject to the district court’s decree that he be returned to slavery in Cuba, quickly left Connecticut and by late April had escaped to Canada and freedom. Lewis Tappan organized a series of fund-raising appearances at which a group of the Mende demonstrated their English-language skills, read from the Bible, and sang. At the largest gathering in New York City in May, Cinque offered a narrative of their ordeal since leaving the Mende country two years before. The proceeds allowed the abolitionists to charter a ship, and in November 1841 the thirty-five surviving Mende left New York in the company of American missionaries. They reached Sierra Leone two months later.[36]

After the decree to free the Mende, the federal courts had little related business except to distribute the salvage award out of the proceeds of the sale of the Amistad and its cargo. Diplomatic negotiations continued until the Civil War, as the Spanish government repeatedly presented demands for restoration of the full value of the ship, its cargo, and the enslaved Mende. Each presidential administration from Tyler’s to Buchanan’s asked Congress to appropriate the money. The requests reignited the Amistad debates in the context of increasingly bitter sectional crises over slavery, but Congress never passed any bill to satisfy the Spanish claims.[37]

The decisions of the three federal courts that ruled on the Amistad proceedings resulted in the personal freedom of the African captives, but the courts provided no precedent for legal challenges to the institution of slavery. Until the Civil War, the federal courts continued to protect slave property whenever it was supported by law. One year after the Amistad decision, Justice Story wrote the opinion in which the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Fugitive Slave Act that allowed slaveholders to reclaim their slaves who fled to free states, and in 1857 a majority of the Court, including three of the justices who had supported the Amistad decision, ruled in the Dred Scott case that African Americans, whether free or slave, held no rights as citizens under the federal Constitution.[38]

Outside the courts, the Amistad case had more lasting benefits for those who opposed slavery. The campaign to free the Mende offered abolitionists the opportunity to refine their strategy of mobilizing public opinion. The publication of personal narratives of enslavement cultivated antislavery support even among those who resisted the more radical demands of the abolitionists. Above all, the presence of the Mende in the courts and in the public mind ensured that the Amistad proceedings stimulated public debates about slavery and the federal government’s support of the institution. Although the case demonstrated that the federal courts, like the Congress and the federal executive, were unlikely to challenge the foundations of slavery in the United States, it also provided a prominent forum that drew new attention to the still-active Atlantic slave trade and heightened awareness of the human tragedy of slavery, as well as the bravery of these enslaved persons.

Endnotes

  1. John W. Barber, History of the Amistad Captives: Being a Circumstantial Account of the Capture of the Spanish Schooner Amistad, by the Africans on Board; Their Voyage, and Capture near Long Island, New York; with Biographical Sketches of each of the Surviving Africans. Also, An account of the Trials had on their Case, Before the District and Circuit Courts of the United States, for the District of Connecticut. Compiled from Authentic Sources (1840), in The African Slave Trade and American Courts: The Pamphlet Literature, ed. Paul Finkelman (1988), pp. 198 – 200; New York Journal of Commerce, Aug. 30, 1839, “Exploring Amistad: Race and the Boundaries of Freedom in Antebellum Maritime America,” a web site presented by Mystic Seaport, http://amistad.org ; Howard Jones, Mutiny on the Amistad: The Saga of a Slave Revolt and its Impact on American Abolition, Law, and Diplomacy (1987), pp. 26 – 30.
  2. U.S. Circuit Court, District of Connecticut, Docket Book, 1815 – 1843, Records of the U.S. District and Circuit Courts for the District of Connecticut: Documents Relating to the Various Cases Involving the Spanish Schooner Amistad (National Archives Microfilm Publication M1753), Records of District Courts of the United States, Record Group (RG) 21, National Archives and Records Administration.
  3. Barber, History of the Amistad Captives, pp. 195 – 200.
  4. Ibid., pp. 198 – 200; libel of Thomas R. Gedney, Aug. 29, 1839, Thomas R. Gedney &c. v. The Schooner Amistad, &c., case files, U.S. District Court, District of Connecticut, M1753.
  5. For drafting of the Judiciary Act of 1789, see Documentary History of the Supreme Court of the United States, 1789 – 1800, vol. 4, Organizing the Federal Judiciary, ed. Maeva Marcus et al. (1992), pp. 22 – 107; Russell R. Wheeler and Cynthia Harrison, Creating the Federal Judicial System (2nd ed.,1994).
  6. Final Records, Jan. 23, 1840, Gedney v. Amistad, M1753; certificate of Marshal Norris Willcox, Aug. 29, 1839; Andrew Judson order to Marshal to detain witnesses, Aug. 29, 1839, In the Matter of the Habeas Corpus for the three African girls, September 1839 term, U.S. Circuit Court, District of Connecticut, RG 21, NARA – Northeast; Information and Complaint and Warrant to Arrest, Aug. 29, 1839, Gedney v. Amistad, M1753.
  7. Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Lewis Tappan and the Evangelical War Against Slavery (1969), 206; Jones, Mutiny on the Amistad, pp. 35 – 40; William S. Holabird to Henry D. Gilpin, Sept. 6, 1839, Letters Received from U.S. District Attorneys, Marshals, and Clerks of Court, 1801 – 1898, Records of the Solicitor of the Treasury, RG 206, in Appellate Case File No. 2161, United States v. The Amistad, 40 U.S. 518 (15 Peters 518), Decided March 9, 1841, and Related Lower Court and Department of Justice Records (National Archives Microfilm Publication M2012), General Records of the Department of Justice, RG 60, NARA.
  8. John Forsyth to Martin Van Buren, Sept. 18, 1839, Martin Van Buren Papers, Library of Congress (LC), Washington, DC; Forsyth to Holabird, Sept. 11, 1839, Domestic Letters, 1838 – 1840, 30: 330 – 331, Domestic Letters of the Department of State, 1784 – 1906 (National Archives Microfilm Publication M40, roll 28), General Records of the Department of State, RG 59, NARA; Don E. Fehrenbacher, The Slaveholding Republic: An Account of the United States Government’s Relations to Slavery, completed and edited by Ward M. McAfee (2001), pp. 104 – 107.
  9. Opinion of Attorney General Felix Grundy, November 1839, Opinion Books of the Attorney General’s Office, 1817 – 70, vol. E, pp. 280 – 285, M2012; Felix Grundy to Holabird and R. I. Ingersoll, Nov. 15, 1839, General Letter Books of the Attorney General’s Office, 1818 – 1870, vol. B, M2012; Secretary of the Treasury Levi Woodbury already had suggested to President Van Buren that “perhaps nothing is lost in point of public policy by letting the Judiciary take all the responsibility . . . which they may choose to exercise.” Levi Woodbury to Van Buren, Sept. 22, 1839, Martin Van Buren Papers, LC.
  10. “Capture of the Spanish Schooner La Armastead,” New York Morning Herald, Aug. 29, 1839, “The Captured Slaves – Their Curious Position,” New York Morning Herald, Sep. 2, 1839, “Exploring Amistad,” http://amistad.org ; Bowery Theater playbill, Sept. 4, 1839, Harvard Theater Collection, Harvard University Library; [James or Isaac Sheffield] “Joseph Cinquez, the brave Congolese Chief . . . ,” lithograph, 1839, LC; John Childs, “Joseph Cinquez Addressing His Compatriots on Board the Spanish Schooner, Amistad, 26th August 1839,” lithograph, 1839, in the Charles F. Gunther Collection, Chicago Historical Society; Richard J. Powell, “Cinque: Antislavery Portraiture and Patronage in Jacksonian America,” American Art 11 (Fall 1997): 48 – 73.
  11. Early discussion of legal strategy in “The Africans of the Amistad,” New York Journal of Commerce, Sept. 5, 1839, “Exploring Amistad,” http://amistad.org ; New York Morning Herald, Sept. 9, 1839, in ibid.; New York Morning Herald, Sept. 20, 1839, in ibid; marshal’s fees, Jan. 7, 1840, Gedney v. Amistad, M1753.
  12. The African Captives. Trial of the Prisoners of the Amistad on the Writ of Habeas Corpus, before the Circuit Court of the United States, for the District of Connecticut, At Hartford: Judges Thompson and Judson (1839), in The African Slave Trade and American Courts, pp. 153 – 154; Holabird to Forsyth, Sept. 21, 1839, and Holabird to Forsyth, Sept. 9, 1839, Miscellaneous Letters, May – September 1839, Miscellaneous Letters of the Department of State, 1789 – 1906 (National Archives Microfilm Publication M179, roll 89), RG 59, NARA; indictment, U.S. v. Faquannah and others, September term 1839, U.S. Circuit Court, District of Connecticut, M1753; Holabird to Gilpin, Sept. 6, 1839, Letters Received from U.S. District Attorneys, Marshals, and Clerks of Court, 1801 – 1898, Records of the Solicitor of the Treasury, RG 206, M2012; “The Amistad Prisoners,” New York Times and Commercial Intelligencer, Sept. 20, 1839, GLC 00416, the Gilder Lehrman Collection, on deposit at the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, NY; Notes on indictment, William S. Holabird Papers (Amistad Mutiny Archives), 1829 – 1853, GLC 5636, Gilder Lehrman Collection.
  13. The African Captives, pp. 151 – 154; writ of habeas corpus, “In the matter of the Habeas Corpus for the three African Girls,” U.S. Circuit Court, District of Connecticut, Sept. 18, 1839, M1753.
  14. The African Captives, pp. 154 – 162, 166 – 174; The attorneys also submitted the deposition of a West African living in New York, who swore that the girls’ language proved they were natives of West Africa. Answer and Reply by their Next friend & Guardian, Deposition of John Ferry, Affidavit of Bahoo, Sept. 20, 1839, “In the matter of the Habeas Corpus for the three African Girls,” U.S. Circuit Court, District of Connecticut, M1753.
  15. The African Captives, pp. 154, 165 – 166; Notes on grand jury finding, [Sept. 20, 1839], Holabird Papers, Gilder Lehrman Collection; answer and reply of Burnah, et al., September term, 1839, U.S. Circuit Court, District of Connecticut, M1753.
  16. The African Captives, pp. 188 – 191.
  17. Libel of José Ruiz, Sept. 18, 1839; libel of Pedro Montes, Sept. 18, 1839; libel of Henry Green, Peletiah Fordham, et al., Sept. 19, 1839; libel of Wm. S. Holabird, Sept. 19, 1839; Gedney v. Amistad, M1753; The African Captives, p. 191.
  18. Wyatt-Brown, Lewis Tappan, p. 207; Jones, Mutiny on the Amistad, p. 43; The African Captives, pp. 147 – 149.
  19. The several plea of Sinqua, Burnah, et al., Nov. 19, 1839, Gedney v. Amistad; on January 7, 1840, the lawyers submitted for the Mende a revised “separate answer of Sinqua, et al.,” ibid., M1753.
  20. Claim of Antonio G. Vega for Antonio, Nov. 19, 1839; libel of W. S. Holabird, Nov. 19, 1839; Gedney v. Amistad, M1753.
  21. Capias for witness [n.d.] and Return of Marshal, Nov. 19, 1839, depositions and notes on testimony, Gedney v. Amistad, NARA – Northeast Region; Docket Book, 1816 – 1841, U.S. District Court, District of Connecticut, M1753; Notes on testimony, [Nov. 19, 1839], Holabird Papers, Gilder Lehrman Collection.
  22. Douglas L. Stein, “The Amistad Judge: The Life and Trials of Andrew T. Judson, 1784 – 1853,” Log of Mystic Seaport 49 (1998): 98 – 106; Andrew Judson’s Remarks, to the Jury, on the trial of the Case, State v. P. Crandall, Superior Court, Oct. Term, 1833, Windham County, Ct. (1833), in Abolitionists in Northern Courts: The Pamphlet Literature, ed. Paul Finkelman (1988), pp. 79 – 101; Report of the Arguments of Counsel, in the case of Prudence Crandall, Before the Supreme Court of Errors, at their Session at Brooklyn, July Term, 1834, Boston, 1834, in ibid., pp. 187 – 194.
  23. Forsyth to Holabird, Jan. 6, 1840, and Jan. 12, 1840, Domestic Letters, 1838 – 1840, 30: 519 – 520, M40, roll 28; Holabird to Forsyth, Jan. 11, 1840, Miscellaneous Letters, October 1839 – March 1840, M179, roll 90; Van Buren and Forsyth to [U.S. Marshal], Jan. 7, 1840, GLC 4295, Gilder Lehrman Collection; Forsyth to James K. Paulding, Jan. 7, 1840, Domestic Letters, 1838 – 1840, 30: 436 – 437, M40, roll 28.
  24. Testimony of Cinque, Grabeau, and Fuliwa, Gedney v. Amistad, M1753; “African Testimony,” New York Journal of Commerce, Jan. 10, 1840, “Exploring Amistad,” http://amistad.org ; New York Journal of Commerce, Jan. 15, 1840, in ibid.
  25. Gedney et al. v. L’Amistad, 10 Fed. Cases 141 – 151.
  26. Ibid., p. 146
  27. Ibid., pp. 146 – 148.
  28. Ibid., pp. 148 – 151.
  29. Decree and appeals in Final Records, Jan. 23, 1840, Gedney v. Amistad, M1753; Forsyth to Holabird, Jan. 17, 1840, Domestic Letters, 1838 – 1840, 30: 446, M40, roll 28; Holabird to Forsyth, Jan. 28, 1840, Miscellaneous Letters, October 1839 – March 1840, M179, roll 90; Holabird to Gilpin, Feb. 3, 1840, Letters Received by the Attorney General’s Office, 1809 – 1870, M2012. A representative of the merchant house that owned much of the cargo on the Amistad also appealed that portion of the decree granting Gedney and his crew a salvage award to be deducted from the proceeds of that cargo.
  30. Holabird to Forsyth, Jan. 28, 1840, Miscellaneous Letters, October 1839 – March 1840, State Department, M179, roll 90; Holabird to Gilpin, Feb. 3, 1840, Letters Received by the Attorney General’s Office, 1809 – 1870, Holabird to Gilpin, Mar. 9, 1840, General Letterbooks of the Attorney Generals Office, 1818 – 1870, v. A2, pp. 444 – 445, M2012.
  31. Motion to dismiss appeal, United States v. Cinque, April term, 1840, U.S. Circuit Court, District of Connecticut, RG 21 [this item was misplaced in the original court records and placed with records of the circuit court criminal proceedings rather than the appeal of the district court decree], M1753; Holabird to Forsyth, May 2, 1840, Miscellaneous Letters, April – September 1840, M179, roll 91; Holabird to Gilpin, May 5, 1840, Holabird Papers, Gilder Lehrman Collection; decree and appeal of the U.S. Government, in U.S. Circuit Court, District of Connecticut, Final Record Book, 1831 – 43, 9: 459 – 460, M1753.
  32. Samuel Flagg Bemis, John Quincy Adams and the Union (1956), pp. 399 – 403; “The Amistad Captives,” Colored American, Nov. 14, 1840, “Exploring Amistad,” http://amistad.org .
  33. John T. Noonan, Jr., The Antelope: The Ordeal of the Recaptured Africans in the Administrations of James Monroe and John Quincy Adams (1977); Roger S. Baldwin to Gilpin, Nov. 21, 1840, Letters Received by the Attorney General’s Office, 1809 – 1870, M2012; Motion to dismiss the appeal, Jan. 13, 1841, The United States v. The Amistad, Appellate Case No. 2161; Record of Proceedings in the case in the Minutes of the Supreme Court, 4277, 4280, Records of the Supreme Court of the United States, RG 267, M2012.
  34. United States v. The Amistad, 40 U.S. 518, 539 – 549; Argument of Roger S. Baldwin, of New Haven, before the Supreme Court of the United States, in the case of the United States, appellants, vs. Cinque, and others, Africans of the Amistad (1841), in The African Slave Trade and American Courts, pp. 377 – 408; Argument of John Quincy Adams, before the Supreme Court of the United States, in the case of the United States, appellants, vs. Cinque, and others, Africans, captured in the schooner Amistad, by Lieut. Gedney, delivered on the 24th of February and 1st of March, 1841, with a review of the case of the Antelope, reported in the 10th, 11th and 12th volumes of Wheaton’s Reports (1841); in ibid., pp. 241 – 375.
  35. R. Kent Newmyer, Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story: Statesman of the Old Republic (1985); United States v. The Amistad, 40 U.S. 518.
  36. Jones, Mutiny on the Amistad, pp. 199 – 200, 204 – 205; Colored American, Apr. 10, 1841, “Exploring Amistad,” http://amistad.org ; “Exhibition of the Amistad Blacks,” New York Morning Herald, May 15, 1841, “Exploring Amistad,” http://amistad.org ; Powell, “Cinque: Antislavery Portraiture and Patronage in Jacksonian America.”
  37. Final Record Book, 1831 – 43, vol. 9, pp. 469 – 472, U.S. Circuit Court, District of Connecticut, RG 21, NARA – Northeast Region; Andrew Judson to C.A. Ingersoll, May 1, 1841, Gedney v. Amistad, M1753; Jones, Mutiny on the Amistad, pp. 203 – 218;
  38. Fehrenbacher, The Slaveholding Republic, pp. 219 – 225, 241 – 244; Don E. Fehrenbacher, The Dred Scott Case: Its Significance in American Law and Politics (1978), pp. 42 – 47; Prigg v. Pennsylvania, 41 U.S. 539; Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393.

Originally published by Prologue 35:1 (Spring 2003), the United States National Archives and Records Administration, to the public domain.

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