Document Essay: “The Amistad Affair”

Stephen Mintz and David Brion Davis. The Boisterous Sea of Liberty.New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. 419-28.

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


In June 1839, 52 African captives revolted as they were being transported on the Spanish schooner Amistad from Havana to Guanaja, Cuba. Led by Joseph Cinque, a Mende from the Sierra Leone region of West Africa, the rebels ordered two surviving Spaniards to sail the ship eastward to Africa. The crew sailed eastward during the day, but veered north-westward at night, hoping to encounter a British ship patrolling for vessels engaged in the illegal slave trade or to reach a friendly port.

Four months earlier, the Africans had been illegally shipped to Cuba; a third of the captives died along the way. During the 1830s, Cuba, the world’s leading sugar producer, imported over 180,000 slaves in violation of a law prohibiting the importation of slaves from Africa after 1820.

In late August, the U.S.S. Washington seized the Amistad near the Long Island coast. When the Amistad was captured, there were 39 African men and four children on board. A hearing was held in New London, Connecticut, and the Africans were charged with mutiny, murder, and piracy. They were then sent to New Haven, where the adults were placed in a jail cell, 20 by 30 feet in size. For 18 months, the Amistad rebels remained confined to their cell. Spectators paid 12 and a half cents to look at them.

Abolitionists quickly took up the cause of the Amistad rebels. They insisted that since the Africans had been illegally imported into Cuba and were free at the time that they entered U.S. waters, the rebels should be released from jail. The district court judge found on their behalf, but President Martin Van Buren (who came from a Dutch-American family that had once held slaves in New York and who was desperate to maintain southern support for his reelection bid) ordered the case appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Amistad Affair case raised critical issues of law and justice: whether captives had a right to rebel against their captors and whether American courts have jurisdiction over crimes committed outside this country. In September 1939 letter, William S. Holabird (1794?-1855), the U.S. district attorney in Connecticut and a staunch Jacksonian Democrat, informed the Van Buren administration that there was no legal basis for returning the Africans to Spanish authorities in Cuba. He argued that the United States had no right to try the Africans because their rebellion had taken place on a Spanish vessel on the open sea and involved only Spanish subjects.

Weakened by the disastrous economic Panic of 1837, President Van Buren feared that the Amistad case would shatter his support in the South. The administration rejected the district attorney’s argument and pressed ahead with the case.

In fact, Van Buren’s administration intentionally mistranslated Spanish documents in a desperate effort to mislead the court about whether it was legal to import slaves into Cuba. President Van Buren also ordered a ship to take the rebels to Cuba before the District Court could render its verdict. Both attempts to obstruct justice failed.

“However unjust…the slave trade may be, it is not contrary to the law of nations”

In the following legal brief, John Forsyth, Martin Van Buren’s Secretary of State, rejects the argument that since the Atlantic slave trade was illegal under U.S. and Spanish law, the Africans on the Amistad had been illegally held captive. If the courts had accepted Forsyth’s argument and returned the captives to Cuba, the rebels would almost certainly have been executed.

In a ruling that stunned the Van Buren administration, the District Court ruled that since the Amistad rebels had been born free, they could not be treated as property, and must be returned to Africa. The district attorney appealed the verdict to the Circuit Court, which upheld the District Court’s decision. The case then went to the U.S. Supreme Court.

John Forsyth, Secretary of State, 1839

“All we want is make us free”

The Amistad Affair took place at a critical moment in the history of the antislavery movement. By 1839, abolitionists had failed in their efforts to end slavery through moral suasion. Northern mobs, often instigated by “gentlemen of property and standing,” disrupted abolitionist meetings and destroyed antislavery printing presses. The House of Representatives had adopted the “gag rule,” automatically tabling antislavery petitions. The Amistad case offered a opportunity for abolitionists to dramatize the illegal violence in which slavery originated and the discrepancy between slavery and American ideals of natural rights. The affair helped shift the abolitionist movement away from moral suasion to new methods of political and legal agitation that would arouse thousands of Northerners against slavery’s immoralities. Among the Amistad captives were four African children. One, a boy named Kale, who was just eleven years old in 1841, learned English very quickly. When the rebels heard that John Quincy Adams would represent them before the Supreme Court, they selected Kale to write the following letter to the former president.

Kale to John Quincy Adams, January 4, 1841

“I appear…on…behalf of thirty-six individuals, the life and liberty of every one…depend on…this court”

Abolitionists persuaded former President John Quincy Adams to represent the Amistad rebels before the U.S. Supreme Court. Adams accepted the invitation, stating that “there is in my estimation no higher object upon earth…than to occupy that position.”

Adams, the son of one of America’s founders, was the only surviving statesman who had been on close terms with Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe. In a nine-hour closing argument extending over two days, the 74-year-old Adams contended that the Africans had “vindicated their own right of liberty” by executing “the justice of Heaven” upon a “private murder, their tyrant and oppressor.” He used the Amistad case to illustrate the federal government’s complicity with slavery and the discrepancy between slavery and American ideals of natural rights. Associate Justice Joseph Story, who wrote the majority opinion, described Adams’s summation as “an extraordinary argument…extraordinary…for its power, [and] for its bitter sarcasm….”

A majority of the Justices were Southerners, including Chief Justice Roger B. Taney. But one Southerner was too ill to participate in the case and another died of a heart attack during the trial. In the end, the Court ruled that the Africans had exercised the right of self-defense since they had been illegally transported as slaves from Africa to Cuba. As it turned out, private donors returned thirty-five surviving rebels to Sierra Leone almost a year after the Court ruling. While this outcome signified an extraordinary victory for black and white abolitionists, and for John Quincy Adams in particular, the Supreme Court made it clear that the Amistad case was highly exceptional and that slaves in general had no right to rebel or escape their bondage.

Cinque, the revolt’s leader, returned to his Mende homeland only to find his village destroyed as a result of a war with a neighboring people. Apparently his wife and children were sold into slavery during this conflict, and he never saw them again. He later worked as an interpreter for the American Missionary Association.

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, Delivered on February 04, and March 1, 1841

“No action of mine can…contribute…to the abolition of Slavery”

Five years after the Amistad affair, and a year after the House of Representatives ended the gag rule, John Quincy Adams expresses his resignation about the possibility of further actions against slavery, such as the abolition of slavery within the District of Columbia. Not until April 1862, long after Adams’s death, did Congress pass an act providing for compensated emancipation of “persons held to service or labor in the District of Columbia.”

In 1836 Adams had warned the South that if a war was fought in the South, the government would abolish slavery. “From the instant your slave-holding states become a theater of war–civil, senile, or foreign,” he predicted, “–from that instant the war powers of the Constitution extend interference with the institution of slavery in every way that it can be interfered with.”

In 1846, a year after he wrote the following letter, Adams suffered a paralytic stroke. He recovered sufficiently to return to Congress, but in February 1848, as he rose from his House desk to denounce the Mexican War, he suffered another stroke. As he collapsed, a fellow House member caught him. The stricken former president, too ill to be moved from the Capitol, was carried to the Speaker’s office, where he died two days later. The country’s last tangible political link with the world of the founders was gone.

John Quincy Adams to Arthur Tappan, July 15, 1845