“We understand now, we’ve been made to understand, and to embrace the understanding that who we are is who we were.”
On July 1, 1839, fifty-three Africans, recently kidnapped into slavery in Sierra Leone and sold at a Havana slave market, revolted on board the schooner Amistad. They killed the captain and other crew and ordered the two Spaniards who had purchased them to sail them back to Africa. Instead, the ship was seized off Long Island by a US revenue cutter on August 24, 1839. TheAmistad was then landed in New London, Connecticut, where the American cutter’s captain filed for salvage rights to the Amistad’s cargo of Africans. The two Spaniards claimed ownership themselves, while Spanish authorities demanded the Africans be extradited to Cuba and tried for murder.
Connecticut jailed the Africans and charged them with murder. The slave trade had been outlawed in the United States since 1808, but the institution of slavery itself thrived in the South. The Amistad case entered the federal courts and caught the nation’s attention. The murder charges against the Amistad captives were quickly dropped, but they remained in custody as the legal focus turned to the property rights claimed by various parties. President Martin Van Buren issued an order of extradition, per Spain’s wishes, but the New Haven federal court’s decision preempted the return of the captives to Cuba. The court ruled that no one owned the Africans because they had been illegally enslaved and transported to the New World. The Van Buren administration appealed the decision, and the case came before the US Supreme Court in January 1841.
Abolitionists enlisted former US President John Quincy Adams to represent the Amistad captives’ petition for freedom before the Supreme Court. Adams, then a 73-year-old US Congressman from Massachusetts, had in recent years fought tirelessly against Congress’s “gag rule” banning anti-slavery petitions. Here, Adams accepted the job of representing the Amistad captives, hoping he would “do justice to their cause.” Adams spoke before the Court for nine hours.
“This is no mere property case, gentlemen. I put it to you thus: This is the most important case ever to come before this court. Because what it, in fact, concerns is the very nature of man.
This is a publication of the Office of the President. It’s called the Executive Review, and I’m sure you all read it. It asserts that:
“There has never existed a civilized society in which one segment did not thrive upon the labor of another. As far back as one chooses to look — to ancient times, to biblical times — history bears this out. In Eden, where only two were created, even there one was pronounced subordinate to the other. Slavery has always been with us and is neither sinful nor immoral. Rather, as war and antagonism are the natural states of man, so, too, slavery, as natural as it is inevitable.”
Now, gentlemen, I must say I differ with the keen minds of the South, and with our president, who apparently shares their views, offering that the natural state of mankind is instead — and I know this is a controversial idea — is freedom. And the proof is the length to which a man, woman, or child will go to regain it, once taken. He will break loose his chains, He will decimate his enemies. He will try and try and try against all odds, against all prejudices, to get home.
The other night I was talking with my friend, Cinque. He was over at my place, and we were out in the greenhouse together. And he was explaining to me how when a member of the Mende — that’s his people — how when a member of the Mende encounters a situation where there appears no hope at all, he invokes his ancestors. It’s a tradition. See, the Mende believe that if one can summon the spirits of one’s ancestors, then they have never left, and the wisdom and strength they fathered and inspired will come to his aid.
James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, John Adams: We’ve long resisted asking you for guidance. Perhaps we have feared in doing so we might acknowledge that our individuality which we so, so revere is not entirely our own. Perhaps we’ve feared an appeal to you might be taken for weakness. But, we’ve come to understand, finally, that this is not so. We understand now, we’ve been made to understand, and to embrace the understanding that who we are is who we were.
Give us the courage to do what is right.”
Full transcript can be found here.
Adams was the first and only former president to argue before the Supreme Court. He returned to the Court because of the Amistad case in which he defended 49 illegally enslaved Mendeans. The Mendeans had rebelled on board the Spanish schooner, La Amistad while being transported to Cuban plantations and forced their former owners to sail for Africa. The schooner, however, was sailed up the coast of the United States until stopped by a U.S. revenue ship off Montauk Point, N.Y. Ensuing trials in Connecticut pitted the former owners, American revenue officers, Spanish officials and the U.S. government against the Amistad captives and abolitionists. Abolitionists sought to win freedom for the Mendeans and used the trials to publicize the evils of slavery. To everyone’s surprise, the District Court ruled that the Mendeans were free, could not be claimed as property, and must be returned to Africa. The U.S. government, under pressure from Spain, appealed to the Supreme Court where, with his co-counsel Baldwin, Adams argued for the Africans’ freedom. They won, in what historians call the most important legal case on slavery.
I am personally astounded to the state of being left speechless. I am just very honored to have witnessed such a great piece of history of mankind, and thankful that I shall always be reminded that men were created equal and they must remain equal until the end of times.