The Amistad Case

Dennis Fox, James Heaney, David Kersey, Vicki Memminger, Fran Martino Smith

Lesson Plan | Narrative of Amistad Incident | Timeline of Abolitionism Document Essay

Instructional Objective and Rationale

Students should analyze the Amistad case, using primary materials to examine the manner in which the enslaved Africans were portrayed by both sides in attempt to curry popular favor.

Focus Question

Did the Amistad case help to undermine slavery in the United States?


How did some Americans try to justify singling out Africans to be held as life-long, hereditary slaves?

Anticipated Responses

The attitudes of white Americans toward black Americans were crucial in making possible life-long, hereditary slavery. These attitudes include the following:

  1. Africans are physically different from Europeans
  2. The black race is inferior to the white race
  3. The black race is incapable of bettering itself through formal education but needs white tutelage
  4. Black people lack character and nobility and are basically child-like
  5. Natural rights apply to white people not to black people
  6. Unless black people are kept under strict control, they pose a mortal threat to white people
  7. Any person with any visible African ancestry is considered black

How do you think these attitudes came about? How were they perpetuated?


How did each side in the Amistad case attempt to confirm or refute the above beliefs?

  1. Class will be divided into groups each having a recorder and presenter
  2. Each group will be given a document to read and analyze in terms of the Focus Question
  3. Each group will present its findings to the class
  4. A general teacher-led discussion will follow using pivotal questions
  5. A follow-up research assignment will be given to each group
Discussion Questions
  1. Why do the abolitionists stress Cinque’s noble appearance?
  2. Who is the Webster referred to in Document #1? Why is Cinque’s actions and manner compared to American heroes and the American Revolution itself in Document #2?
  3. In Document #4, what is the New York Morning Herald’s view of the enslaved Africans? Who is their principal source?
  4. In Document #5, the writer says Africans possess certain natural rights and should not be enslaved. But what is his attitude toward abolitionists and toward the Africans themselves? How can we reconcile both views?
  5. All of these newspaper articles are from New York. How might this debate have been different in Massachusetts or Georgia?
Board Outline

Using the documents, what are some of the arguments marshaled by pro- and anti-abolitionists in the Amistad case?

  1. Cinque’s noble appearance (it is wrong to enslave people such as he)
  2. Cinque’s actions are in the finest traditions of the American Revolution
  3. The liberated Africans show a proclivity for education and refinement
  4. Evils of the middle passage are highlighted
  1. Africans are savage and cruel,uncivilized
  2. Africans benefit from slavery
  3. Abolitionists are troublemakers and are not to be trusted or believed
Research questions assigned to each group to further inquire into the Focus
  1. What are the facts of the Amistad case?
  2. What are the legal principles involved in the case?
  3. What are the opposing arguments in the case?
  4. What were the court decisions in the Amistad ease?
  5. How did the case affect the abolitionist movement?
  6. Describe John Quincy Adams’ participation in the case.
Documents to be given to each group
Document #1

“On Cingues”, The Colored American, October 19, 1839.

Written by white abolitionists, it praises the noble appearance of Cinque, comparing him to Daniel Webster, defends his actions, and chides the pro-slavery people for their actions.

Document #2

Cinque and Heroes of the American Revolution”, The Colored American, March 27, 1841.

Cinque’s actions are compared to those who lead the American Revolution.

Document #3

Meetings of the Liberated Africans”, The Colored American, May 22, 1841.

A progress report is presented on how the liberated Africans are faring after nineteen months in the country. They are said to have learned English and are able to read from the New Testament. Their private behavior is said to reflect the highest standard of character. Their landing in America is said to have benefited America, Africa and all concerned.

Document #4

The Case of the Captured Negroes”, The New York Herald, September 9, 1839.

Attempts to refute the defense of Amistad Negroes by the “Journal of Commerce.” Describes Amistad Negroes as people who do little else other than eating and stealing. They are said to be basically cowards. The newspaper promises accurate information on the case in the future; fabrications are blamed on the abolitionists.

Document #5

The Captured Africans–Correspondence of the Herald”, The New York Morning Herald, September 18, 1839.

Written by a self-proclaimed opponent of slavery, the piece nevertheless derogates the Africans, casts doubts upon the honesty of abolitionists, and suggests that slavery may actually have a civilizing effect on the Africans.

Document #6

Narrative of the Africans”, New York Journal of Commerce, October 10, 1839

The horrors of the voyage are described by the captives and their yearnings to be free.

Reference documents to assist in student research assignments
  1. Brief Narrative of the Amistad Incident, by Steven Mintz, Professor of History at the University of Houston
  2. The Amistad Affair, a document essay by Steven Mintz and David Brion Davis, from The Boisterous Sea of Liberty, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp.419-28.
  3. Abolitionism Timeline
  4. Timeline of the Amistad Revolt, from the Amistad website at Mystic Seaport, CT.