A website from the Massachusetts Historical Society; founded 1791.

The Amistad Captives


John Quincy Adams (JQA), former president, now congressman from Massachusetts, is about to represent the slaves from the ship Amistad before the Supreme Court. He uses his diary to begin his preparations for the trial. This timeline shows how the trial fits into his long history of public service; you can also view a list of all of Adams's diary entries related to the Amistad case. As Adams is preparing his case, this lithograph of Cinquez (or Cinqué) appears in The New York Sun.


Selection from the Massachusetts Historical Society: John Quincy Adams Diary Entry, 12 December 1840. (Start with the line "I thought it necessary to look into the case..." two-thirds of the way down the page, and read to the bottom.)
Selection from the Library of Congress: James or Isaac Sheffield, Joseph Cinquez, the brave Congolese Chief... New York: Moses Y. Beach, 1839.

Questions to Consider


  1. How does JQA describe his feelings when he reads about the Amistad case? What is his primary worry in presenting the case in court? What do you think he means by the last line, "Let me not forget my duty"?
  2. Who is Joseph Cinquez, and why is he imprisoned in New Haven, Connecticut?


  1. Research the history of the Amistad case and the history of John Quincy Adams's life. At what point does JQA become involved in the case and what is his role? Why does he agree to take it on?
  2. How does this situation and trial fit into the bigger picture of slavery? How might the outcome of the trial affect public opinion about slavery?


  1. By writing this part in his diary, what is JQA actually doing? Think about a time when you had to persuade someone of something you felt strongly about. How did you feel beforehand? How did you prepare?
  2. Why do you think this image and text appear in a New York paper? Who might have pays for the publication? Comment on the images created (by whom?) through this picture and text. How would you describe Cinquez after viewing this material? What sort of man was he (according to this portrayal)?


  1. For whom is JQA writing this? Do you think he knows his diary and thoughts will eventually be read?
  2. Would you consider this Cinquez piece persuasive? What is your evidence for your conclusion? What would your reaction be to seeing this in the newspaper? What reaction would the supporters of Cinquez wish for you to have?


  1. Write a memo to JQA to advise him about what he needs to consider when representing the Amistad slaves Kale and Kinna before the Supreme Court, based on his own observations from his diary entry and your observations of the Cinquez piece.