The Amistad Trial
IntroductionIn February 1841, John Quincy Adams appears before the United States Supreme Court to argue the defense of the Amistad captives. At issue: whether the African men, who had been illegally kidnapped from their homeland, sold as slaves in Cuba, and captured by an American vessel when they revolted against the Spanish traders holding them captive, could be considered property. If so, were they the property of the Spanish traders (and therefore the Spanish government) or property of the American captain who apprehended them as they mutinied? Adams and Joseph Story, Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, shed light on the legal issues under consideration in their writings.
Selection from the Massachusetts Historical Society: John Quincy Adams diary entry, 9 March 1841.
Selection from the Library of Congress: The Supreme Court opinion by Justice Joseph Story on the Amistad Case, January 1841.
Questions to Consider
- How does JQA describe Justice Story's opinion in the case against the Africans of the Amistad? What did JQA do after hearing the news? Whom did he inform about the decision? Why? How were those individuals connected to the Amistad case?
- On 7 January 1840, the jailed Africans filed a statement with the court concerning their status. What did it say? Why is the United States prosecuting the Africans? What is the "main controversy" of the case? (See pp. 7-8) According to the court, did the government prove that the Africans aboard the Amistad were the legal property of the Spaniards Ruiz and Montez?
- What was John Quincy Adams’s political position in 1841? Why did he decide to take the case of the Amistad Africans?
- On page 6, Story’s opinion notes that the circuit court declared that the Africans should be “transported to Africa, pursuant to the act of 3rd March, 1819.” To what act was the court referring? How did it affect slaves? Did the Supreme Court uphold this ruling?
- Why was the United States acting on behalf of the Spanish government in the Supreme Court trial?
- Make a timeline of the key events of the Amistad affair. When did the slaves onboard the Amistad first revolt? What happened next? When were they first brought to trial, and where? Visit the National Park Service's Amistad website for more information.
- Why did John Quincy Adams keep a diary? Why might anyone keep a diary? Who was JQA’s intended audience?
- What is the purpose of a Supreme Court opinion? Who reads them and why? What kind of information do you find in Justice Story’s opinion?
- What information does JQA include in his diary that he might not include in a more public document? Does JQA write anything else in his diaries about the Amistad case? When taken all together, what do the diary entries tell you about his participation in the case?
- Who was Justice Story? Was he involved in any other court cases related to slavery? What was his opinion in those cases?
- How did the Amistad trial and court ruling affect the status of other slaves in the United States?
- In general, were American courts likely to lean towards abolishing slavery or upholding slavery and slaveholders' rights in the early nineteenth century? Provide examples of court cases to defend your answer. (Visit the Library of Congress’s “Slaves and the Courts” exhibition to find materials that support your answer.)
- The men onboard the Amistad were not the first (or last) to plot a revolt against a slaveholder. Can you find other examples of slave revolts? How do those events compare to the events of the Amistad? (Visit the Library of Congress’s “African American Odyssey” exhibition to find materials that support your answer.)