Ideas & Events: The Amistad

John Quincy Adams was 74 years old and nearly blind when he went before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1841 and argued on behalf of the Amistad captives in one of his last great acts of service to the nation. The 1839 revolt aboard the Amistad and the ensuing trial had inflamed pro-slavery forces, galvanized abolitionists, and drawn international attention. It also epitomized a seething national debate that would culminate in the American Civil War.

Not men, but salvage property

The rebellion involved Africans who had been illegally kidnapped by slave traders in Mendeland, near Sierra Leone, and taken to Cuba where they were sold as slaves. En route to a Cuban plantation aboard the Amistad, the captives mutinied, killed the captain, and ordered the crew to sail back to Africa. Instead, they navigated along the U.S. coast until the ship was seized by authorities. The U.S. government charged the Africans with murder and piracy, and the plantation owners who had bought the Mendeans claimed them as salvage property.

Politics thwarts justice, temporarily

Outraged by the injustice of these events, abolitionists mobilized support for the captives and arranged to pay their legal expenses. At trial, the defense argued that the revolt was justified because the Mendeans had been seized in violation of international antislavery laws. The judge agreed and ruled that the defendants were free to return to Africa. But President Martin Van Buren—who hoped to placate his pro-slavery supporters by turning the Mendeans over to Cuba—ordered an immediate appeal, and the case went to the Supreme Court.

John Quincy Adams was asked to assist the defense. As a former diplomat and Secretary of State, he had a deep knowledge of the many treaties and laws that applied to the case. He was also a staunch defender of the Constitution as evidenced by his battle against the gag rule, which stifled the expression of antislavery views in Congress.

The rule of law prevails

Addressing the court for more than seven hours over the course of two days, Adams argued that Van Buren’s actions violated the Declaration of Independence and Constitutional principles of due process and separation of powers. “Is it possible that a President of the United States should be ignorant that the right of personal liberty is individual?” he asked. If the president could hand over free men, women, and children to a foreign government, how could U.S. citizens be confident about their own freedoms?

Accepting Adams’s argument, the Supreme Court ruled that the Mendeans were not criminals, as the U.S. Attorney’s Office argued, but rather were “kidnapped Africans, who, by the laws of Spain itself were entitled to their freedom.” Set free, 35 Amistad survivors made plans to return to Africa in late 1841. Before sailing however, they sent Adams a Bible inscribed with words of gratitude: “The Mende People give you thanks for all your kindness to them. They will never forget your defence of their rights before the Great Court in Washington. They feel that they owe to you in a large measure, their delivery from the Spaniards, and from slavery or death. They will pray for you as long as you live, Mr. Adams. May God bless and reward you.”

A lasting impact

Beyond freeing the captives, the Amistad case helped unify the growing abolitionist movement, and it set an example for using the judicial system to advocate for civil liberties. The Mendi Bible became one of John Quincy Adams’s most treasured possessions. Now displayed at the Adams National Historical Park, it was used in 2007 and 2011 to administer the oath of office for Deval Patrick, the first African American to be elected governor of Massachusetts.