Amistad~1839 - Stories


The First Amistad Case~Law of Salvage

    After sixty days at sea, the Amistad came aground at Montauk Point, on New York's Long Island; several of the slaves left the ship to get fresh water. The Spanish owners of the ship, Pedro Montez and Jose Ruiz, asked the officers of the United States survey ship Washington to help them recover control of the ship from the slaves.

    Thomas Gedney and Richard Meade, the Washington's officers, assisted Montez and Ruiz and re-captured the ship. Meanwhile, Henry Green and Pelatiah Fordham -- who had nothing to do with the Washington, separately captured the Africans who had come ashore for water.

    The ship was piloted to New London, Connecticut, for a trial concerning the rights and ownership of the ship and its cargo. The African slaves were placed in the custody of the U.S. marshalls until the end of the trial.

    A brief discussion of the law of salvage

    Admiralty law, which is the body of law that governs ships on the high seas, has a doctrine of salvage. Under the salvage doctrine, persons who secure ships which are sinking or out of control are entitled to a portion of the goods on that ship. (This rule was created to give people incentives to save sinking ships and other vessels in trouble.)

    Typically, a salvager sues in court to have his rights as a salvager declared. If he is successful, the court sets the dollar amount to which he is entitled, and orders a sale of the ship and its cargo.

    In 1841, both slavery and slave trade were legal in Spain, provided the slaves were of Spanish origin (or originated in Spanish overseas territories). Both Montez and Ruiz were Spanish citizens, the Amistad was a Spanish ship, and the slaves were bought and sold in Cuba, which was then a Spanish territory.

    However, under the law of the United States, slave trade was illegal in 1841. Accordingly, one important legal question was whether the Africans were Spanish citizens -- and therefore susceptible of "slave" status -- or of African or some other status, and therefore not slaves under U.S. or Spanish law.

    If the slaves were property, the law of salvage would apply to them, and they would be sold along with the cargo.

    Gedney and Meade sued in U.S. District Court, stating that since they had helped Ruiz and Montez, they were entitled to a portion of the value of the Amistad's cargo.

    Green and Fordham filed a response to Gedney and Meade's claim, stating that they (Green and Fordham) had helped rescue the cargo of the ship by capturing the Africans who had come ashore. Green and Fordham therefore claimed a portion of the value of the cargo as well.

    Ruiz and Montez sued separately in U.S. District Court, stating that the slaves were their private property. Under a U.S. treaty with Spain Ruiz and Montez claimed that the slaves could not be included in the salvage sale of the ship.

    The Spanish government also made a request. Spain argued that, since the Amistad was rescued by a U.S. government-owned armed ship, the United States was obligated under international treaty to return the ship and its cargo to the Spanish owners. An attorney for the United States government appeared before the court and presented this request. This attorney also argued that, if the Africans could not legally be returned to Ruiz and Montez, the court should order them sent back to Africa.

    The Africans also responded to the claim. They argued that, since they were free men in their native Africa, and since they had been kidnapped from Africa by the Spanish slave traders, and since slave trade was illegal in New York (where the Amistad had landed), they should be released from custody and set free.

    The district court rules for the Africans

    The district court judge ruled that the slaves were free men, and ordered them released from prison. He also ordered that the United States government transport them back to Africa. He then ordered that the salvage claims of Gedney and Meade be taken from the remaining cargo of the Amistad, and rejected all other salvage claims.

    The United States attorney appealed the court's decision, demanding that the United States be free to return the slaves to Spain, under its treaty obligations. The Circuit Court -- the next highest court -- affirmed the district court's decision and rejected the United States arguments. The United States then appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

    The Supreme Court hears the case

    The United States argued that its treaty with Spain required it to return ships and property seized by U.S. government vessels to their Spanish owners.

    The Supreme Court called the case "peculiar and embarrassing." It ruled for the Africans, accepting the argument that they were never citizens of Spain, and were illegally taken from Africa, where they were free men under the law.

    Sierra Leone

      Sierra Leone is the present-day country from whose territory the Amistad Africans were abducted. A country of roughly 4.7 million residents, Sierra Leone is situated on the west coast of Africa. Its neighbors are Liberia and Guinea, and its capital is Freetown.

      The population of Sierra Leone is almost entirely made up of 13 native African tribes. The major religion is animism, but there are also Christians and Muslim citizens. The constitutional language of Sierra Leone is English, though Mende (the language of the Amistad Africans), Temne, and Creole are also used.

      The primary economic resource of Sierra Leone is its large diamond deposits. Crops include cocoa and coffee.

      A troubled history and a troubled present

      During the slave trading period, Sierra Leone was a safe haven for freed slaves, founded by British philanthropists. For over two centuries it was a British colony. Sierra Leone gained independence in 1961, at the beginning of the African decolonization movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

      Since independence, Sierra Leone has been politically troubled. After seventeen years of political turmoil, it was reorganized as a one-party state in 1978. In 1985, President Siaka Stevens resigned, naming Gen. Joseph Momoh the new president.

      Momoh agreed to establish a multi-party democracy, and a new Constitution was ratified in 1991. However, before elections could be held, Major Valentin Strasser ousted Momoh in a military coup. His aide, Maada Bio ousted Strasser shortly thereafter.

      In 1996, elections finally occurred. On March 29, 1996, President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah took office. But in May 1997, he fled the country after another coup.

      The Libel of Lieutenant Thomas R. Gedney

        August 29, 1839, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut.

        Gedney’s libel initiated the federal judicial proceedings related to the

        and the Africans on board. A libel was the form used to submit a claim to the district court in an admiralty proceeding. Gedney’s libel asked the court to grant him and his crew a salvage award in recognition of their role in rescuing the

        an_d its cargo. (In a modern admiralty case, this form of action would be called a complaint.) In the typical form of a libel for salvage, this document listed the contents of the cargo and estimated the value of the ship and cargo at $40,000. Following the detailed list of the dry goods on board, Gedney also claimed salvage in all fifty-four slaves originally transported on the_

        with an estimated value of $25,000. In support of his claim, Gedney insisted that the

        and all its contents would have been lost at sea if the Navy crew had not intervened and brought the ship to New London.

        The libel included the standard request for the court to issue a monition, by which it would print a public notice of Gedney’s claim and advise any interested parties to submit their own libels when the district court held its next session. At the district court session that opened on September 19, 1839, the several owners of the

        and its cargo and the purchasers of the enslaved Africans submitted libels in opposition to the salvage claim. Gedney’s claim and these responses offered the lawyers for the Africans the opportunity to present their own claim that the captive Africans in fact were not slaves.

        Thomas R. Gedney &c. v. The Schooner Amistad, &c., Case files, U.S. District Court, District of Connecticut, RG 21, National Archives and Records Administratio

        <div>![](http://null/history/amistad.nsf/rule.jpg!OpenImageResource) </div>

        To the Honorable Andrew T. Judson Esq. Judge of the District Court of the United States in & for the District of Connecticut-

        The libel of Thomas R. Gedney Lieutenant in the United States Navy Commanding the United States Surveying Brig Washington employed in the service of the United States in the Coast Survey, And on behalf of Richard W. Meade a Lieutenant on board said Brig and the officers & Crew of said Brig Washington & all others interested or entitled - humbly Sheweth - that on the 26th day of August A.D. 1839 the said libellant being in and with said Brig, Surveying between Montauk Point & Gardiners Island in the State of New York discovered a Strange and Suspicious looking vessel off Culloden point near said Montauk point, that they took possession of said vessel which proved to be a Spanish Schooner called the Amistad of Havanna in the Island of Cuba of about 120 Tons burthen, and the said libellants found said Schooner was manned by forty five negroes some of whom had landed near said point for water, & there were also on board two Spanish Gentlemen who represented and as the libellants verily believe were part owners of the Cargo & of the Negroes on board who were Slaves belonging to said Spanish Gentlemen, That said Schooner Amistad sailed on the 28th day of June A.D. 1839 from the Port of Havanna bound to a port in the Province of Principe both in said Island of Cuba under the command of Raymen Ferrer as master thereof, that said Schooner had on board & was laden with a large & valuable Cargo Consisting of and Amounting to as the libellants believe to be 1 Box with 4 fowling pieces 1 Crate 11 Boxes Crockery & Glassware 200 Boxes vermacelli 15 ps. linen Stuff. 1 Case Sugar 25 Bags Beans 20 Boxes Raisins 50 Horse equipments 10 doz. Morocco skins 5 doz. Calf skins 5 Saddles 2 doz. Bits 200 feet Rods 20 sides Sole Leather 6 iron Drums for warehouse 8 crowns 1 Box with 200 wedges 3 Iron Kettles 14 packages common linen 4 packages Holland linen 4 doz. parasolls or umbrellas 30 pieces muslin 10 yds each 2 doz.1/2 Hose 3 doz.ovens 21 Ingots 10 ps. Silesia 2 ps. Victoria 9 ps. drilling 34 ps. Long lawn 54 ps. Calicoes 5 ps. Laces 14 ps. Muslins 67 pieces stripes 4 ps. stripes 148 ps. Ribbon 10 ps. linen Cambric 43 ps. Glazed linen 4 ps. Rouen Cassemire 1 Doz. Shawls, fans, Gloves, Shirts, Tapes thread towels umbrellas, 29 muslin Dress patterns 16 Woolen shawls 4 silkes 15 Rugs Buttons Saddles 75 ps. Stripes 48 ps. Silesia 30 ps. Long lawn 1 ps. Black HKffs 7 ps. French Linens 8 doz. linen cambric HKffs, umbrellas. 42 ps. Striped Ribbins 2 ps. Ribbins 6 coloured Mantles 40 ps. linen Cambric 800 yds Striped linen 2 ps. Merino 30 Dress patterns 6 Musquito netts 5 ps. Satin 18 Blankets 1 Box Hardware 12 doz. HKffs 18 ps. Coarse linen 60 vols Books 2 Boxes Books 70 sheets of Copper Hardware 50 Demijohns Olive Oil 20 Boxes Vermacilli 20 Quintals Jerked Beef 15 sides Sole Leather 6 kegs Olives 2 Quintals Hams 190 ps. muslins 26 ps. Stripes 3 ps. Brown Drilling 4 ps. linens 21 ps. Coloured & fine linens 11 Doz. ladies Hose 2 Doz. Belts 10 Doz. linen Cambric HKffs 12 common D[itt]o and a large quantity of Silks Linens, Hardware & provisions to the Amount in all of $ 40,000 Dollars - And also fifty four Slaves to wit, fifty one male Slaves & three young female Slaves who were worth twenty five thousand Dollars & while on said voyage from Havanna to Principie the said Slaves rose upon the Captain & Crew of said Schooner & Killed & murdered the Captain & one of said Crew & two more of said Crew escaped & got away from said Schooner, that the two Spaniards on board to wit, Pedro Montes and Jose Ruis, remained alive on board said Schooner after the murder of the Captain and after the said negroes had taken possession of said vessel & cargo that their lives were spared to assist in the sailing of said vessel & it was directed by said negroes that said Schooner should be navigated for the Coast of Africa, and said Pedro Montes & Jose Ruis did accordingly steer as thus directed & compelled by said negroes at the peril of their lives in the Day time and in the night altered their Course and steered for the American Shore, but after more than two months on the Ocean they succeeded in coming round Montauk point, then they were discovered & boarded by the libellants and the said two Spanish Gentlemen begged for & claimed the aid and protection of the libellants, that said Schooner was accordingly taken possession of & recaptured from the hands and possession of the said negroes who had taken the same as aforesaid & that said Schooner was brought into port of New London in the District aforesaid where she now is, and said Schooner would with great difficulty exposure and danger have been taken by the libellants but for the surprise upon the said Blacks who had possession thereof a part of whom were on Shore - and but for the aid assistance and services of the Libellants the said vessel & said Cargo would have been wholly lost to the respective owners thereof that said Cargo belongs to divers Spanish merchants & others resident in said Island of Cuba and to the said Pedro Montes & Jose Ruis, the latter owning most of said Slaves.

        Now inasmuch as the said Thomas R. Gedney & said officers and Crew have with so much difficulty & danger saved said Schooner Amistad and said Cargo and said Slaves which would otherwise in all human probability have been totally lost to the owners thereof respectively, will your Honor please to order the said vessel Cargo & Slaves now on board said vessel to be attached and taken by the process of this Honorable Court and that a Monition issue to all persons concerned to show cause if any they have why a reasonable Salvage should not be decreed thereon to the Libellants & all others entitled and that such further and other steps shall be taken as the course of this Honorable Court shall direct.

        William S. Holabird to John Forsyth

          The U.S. attorney’s advice on criminal prosecution
          William S. Holabird to John Forsyth, September 9, 1839

          The United States district attorney for Connecticut, William S. Holabird, relied on Secretary of State John Forsyth for instructions related to the

          cases. Holabird also served as an important source of information for Forsyth, who directed the Van Buren administration’s response to the Spanish government’s request for the return of all property from the Amistad. On September 5, Holabird told Forsyth that when the circuit court convened, “I suppose it will be my duty to bring them [the African captives] to trial, unless they are in some other way disposed of.” In this letter written five days later, Holabird cited several related cases and concluded that the federal courts could not exercise criminal jurisdiction over the captives from the Amistad. He also suggested that the abolitionists would be correct in arguing that the courts could not detain individuals who were not accused of a crime. Despite his doubts, Holabird presented an indictment of the captives on charges of murder and piracy, and when the court dismissed the criminal charges, Holabird presented the district court with the property claims of the Spanish government.

          <div>![](http://null/history/amistad.nsf/rule.jpg!OpenImageResource) </div>

          Hartford Ct. Sept. 9 1839

          I wrote you a few days since on the subject of the blacks taken on board the Spanish Schooner “Armistad,” since then I have made a further examination of the law on the subject of the Jurisdiction of our Courts, which has brought me fully to the conclusion, that the Courts of this, nor of any other district in the U.S. can take cog[n]izance of any offence they have committed, as the offence by them committed, was done, & committed on board a vessel, belonging exclusively to citizens of a foreign state, on the high seas, & on & against subjects of a foreign state, & they (the blacks) not being citizens of the U. States, the vessel having a national character at the time the offence committed, I refer you to the case of the U.S. v Palmer et al. 3 Wheat 610 — U.S. v Pirates 5 Wheat 195. & the more recent case of U.S. v Henry Kessler 1 Baldwins CC Rep 15.

          The abolitionists here & in the adjoining districts are getting up an excitement in favor of the negroes, it presents a case well calculated to awaken the sickly sympathies of that class of fanaticks. Our next Circuit Court sits at this place on the 17th Inst. I conjecture that the abolitionists will get out a writ of Habeus Corpus, should they do so, I do not see but the Court would be obliged to set them at liberty, they would of course, should the Court entertain the same view of the law that I do.

          I would respectfully inquire sir whether there is no treaty stipulations with the Govt of Spain, that would authorise our Govt to deliver them up to the Spanish Authorities. & If so, whether it could be done before our Court sits?

          The Libel of Jose Ruiz,

            The Libel of José Ruiz, September 18, 1839, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut

            T_he young planter José Ruiz submitted this libel in response to Lieutenant Thomas Gedney’s libel, in which Gedney claimed a right to a salvage award for bringing the_

            to safety. Ruiz wanted the district court to return to him all of his claimed property, including the men he had purchased as slaves in Havana, without any deduction for a salvage award. His libel asserted that the treaty between Spain and the United States obligated the United States to return all Spanish property.

            Although the lawyers for the African captives had not yet filed a challenge to the claims for slave property, Ruiz and his attorneys knew that the abolitionists intended to argue that the captives were never legally held as slaves in Cuba. The libel asserted that Ruiz legally purchased the slaves in a country where slavery was allowed by law. The Ruiz libel presented both the Spanish names applied to the African captives in the passes endorsed by Spanish officials and the African names by which they “are known at present.” The four deleted names in the libel refer to the Mende who died between the time the document was written and the date it was introduced in court. Pedro Montes, the planter who purchased the four young Mende on the

            submitted a similar libel requesting the return of the alleged slaves and his other property.

            Thom_as R. Gedney &c. v. The Schooner Amistad, &c., Case files, U.S. District Court, District of Connecticut, RG 21, National Archives and Records Administra_


            To the Honorable Andrew T. Judson Esquire, Judge of the District Court for said District.

            The libel and complaint of José Ruiz of Puerto Principe in the island of Cuba, a subject of her Majesty the Queen of Spain humbly shows that on the 28th day of June last past this libellant embarked on board of the Spanish Schooner Amistad, whereof one Ramon Ferrer was master, and shipped on board of said schooner, which sailed from Havana aforesaid to the port of Guanaja, another port in the island of Cuba, the following goods and merchandize and property belonging to and owned by this libellant viz. 10 dozens glass knobs, 39 and a half thousand needles, 48 rolls of wire, 45 bottles of essence, 45 maps of the city of Puerto Principe, 13 maps of the city of Puerto Principe, 6 mill rollers, 8 cogg wheels, 6 pieces of iron, one box of iron wedges, 3 large iron pots, 1 Case containing several pieces of iron, 25 bags of spanish beans, 25 boxes of raisins, 20 boxes of Castile Soap, 2 bags of rice, 3 bales containing 500 pounds of jerked beef, 50 pairs of shirts and pantaloons, 200 boxes of vermicelli, 1 box containing 4 percussion guns, 1 box containing books, 5 boxes containing ribbands, one package of quills and other small articles of merchandize, the whole being of the value of three thousand five hundred dollars – and likewise forty nine black male slaves, named and known in Havana aforesaid as follows Antonio, Simon, Lucas, Jose, Pedro, Martin, Manuel, Andres, Eduardo, Celedonio, Bartolono, Ramon, Agustin, Evaristo, Casimiro, Merchor, Gabriel, Santorion, Escolastico, Pascual, Estanislao, Desiderio, Nicolas, Estevan, Tomas, Cosme, Luis Bartolo, Julian, Federico, Salustiano, Ladislao, Celistino, Epifanio, Eduardo, Benancio, Felipe, Francisco Hipolito, Benito, Isidoro, Vicente, Dionisio, Apolonio, Esequies, Leon, Julio, Hipolito & Zenon - of whom several have died, as this deponent is informed and believes, and the survivors of them this libellant is informed are known at present by the names following viz. Cinque, Burnah 1st, Carpree, Dammah, Fourie 1st, Shumah, Wolwah, Touah, Conomah, Choolay, Burnah 2d, Baah, Cabbah, Poomah, Kimbo, Peea, Bang-ye-ah, Saah, Carlee, Parele, Morrah, Yahouie, Narquoi, Quarto, Sesse, Con, Fourrie 2d, Kennah, Lammane, Fahjarrah, Faah, Yahboy, Fahquannah, Berrie, Fawnee, Chockammaw & Gabbow, Casa and Faja, which said slaves were and are now the property of this libellant and are of the value of twenty-two thousand dollars;

            That on the first day of July last past, as they were proceeding in the voyage aforesaid, the aforesaid slaves arose upon the aforesaid captain, the crew, this libellant and one Pedro Montez, they murdered the Captain, and the Cook, took possession of the aforesaid schooner and compelled this libellant and the said Pedro Montez to steer towards Africa; but this libellant and the said Montes contrived to bring them to the Coast of the United States -- That after having been at sea about two months and on the 26th day of August last past when said schooner was at anchor off Culloden Point near Montauk Point, they were taken by the United States Surveying Brig Washington commanded by Lieutenant Thomas R. Gedney and brought into New London in the District aforesaid, where said Schooner now is;

            And this libellant further shows that a libel has been filed in this Honorable Court by the aforesaid Thomas R. Gedney, Lieutenant Richard W. Mead and others belonging to the aforesaid United States brig Washington;

            And this libellant further shows that all of the aforesaid slaves were by him legally purchased and owned in Havana aforesaid where slavery is tolerated and allowed by law as in all parts of the said island of Cuba;

            And this libellant humbly insists that the aforesaid slaves the property of this libellant and his other property above specified ought by the laws and usages of nations and of these United States of America and according to the treaties between Spain and these United States to be restored to this libellant, without diminution and entire;

            Wherefore your libellant prays that the said Gedney, Mead and others belonging to said Brig Washington may be subjected to answer this libel, with Costs and that process of attachment and proceedings may be issued against the aforesaid slaves & other property of these libellants, according to law, all this being within the jurisdiction of this Honorable Court; and that after proper process this Honorable Court should decree the aforesaid Slaves and other property of this libellant to be delivered to him or the representatives of Her Catholic Majesty in these United States, as may be most proper in the premises; And this libellant will ever pray &c.

            José Ruiz

            R.J. Ingersoll

            Wm. Hungerford

            J B Purroy

            District of Connecticut
            Special District Court at Hartford Sept. 18, 1839.
            Personally appears Jose Ruiz the signer of the foregoing libel & made Oath to the truth of the allegations set forth in sd libel according to his best knowledge & belief.
            Chas A. Ingersoll Clerk

            And said Court made an order theron in the words following to wit.
            District of Connecticut
            Special District Court at Hartford Sept. 18. 1839. This libel is allowed and the trial therof is directed to be held at Hartford within and for the District aforesaid on the 19th day of September 1839 at 10 O Clock A.M. and the Clerk of this Court is directed to issue a warrant of seizure and other process according to law.
            Chas. A. Ingersoll Clerk

            The Libel of William S. Holabird

              The Libel of William S. Holabird, U.S. Attorney, September 19, 1839, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut

              The U.S. government’s attorney entered the admiralty proceedings in the district court with this libel containing two alternate claims. Secretary of State John Forsyth had ordered Holabird to take whatever action was necessary to keep the Mende in the custody of the federal government. In the first part of the libel, Holabird presented the Spanish ambassador’s demand that the

              its cargo, and the alleged slaves be delivered to their Spanish owners. Holabird never endorsed this claim; he only requested that if the court found the Spanish demand to be legally valid, it should dispose of the claimed property in whatever manner was required by the 1795 treaty between Spain and the United States.

              Hola_bird suggested the alternative that if the court decided that the Mende captives were not slaves and had been transported illegally from Africa to the United States, it should provide for their return to the coast of Africa in accordance with the laws prohibiting the African slave trade. Judge Judson’s final decision in the district court granted this second claim of Holabird._

              In the first draft of this libel, Holabird initially described the Mende as being either slave or free. He then crossed out the words “free persons” and replaced the phrase with “negroes and persons of color.” Subsequent drafts of the libel used the latter phrase.


              Thomas R. Gedney &c.

              Schooner Amistad &c. Libel

              Be it remembered that on this the 19th day of September in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and thirty nine into the District Court aforsaid comes Wm. S. Holabird attorney for the United States for the district aforsaid, who for the United States gives this Court to understand that since the Libel aforsaid of Thomas R. Gedney and others was filed in this Court, to wit, within the present month of September in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and thirty nine, the duly accredited Minister to the United States, of her Catholic Majesty the Queen of Spain, has officially presented to the proper Department of the United States Government, a claim which is now pending upon the United States setting forth that the vessel aforsaid, called the Amistad, and her cargo aforsaid, together with certain slaves on board the same vessel, all of them being the same as described in the Libel aforsaid are the property of Spanish subjects and that said vessel cargo and slaves while so being the property of said Spanish subjects arrived within the jurisdictional limits of the United States, and were taken possession of by said public armed Brig of the United States under such circumstances as make it the duty of the United States, being the property of to cause the same vessel, cargo, and slaves, being the property of said Spanish subjects to be restored to the true proprietors and owners of the same without further hindrance or detention, as required by the treaty now subsisting between the United States and Spain. Now the Attorney aforsaid in behalf of the United States prays this Hon. Court on its being made legally to appear, that the claim aforsaid of the Spanish Minister aforsaid is well founded and is conformable to the treaty aforsaid that this Court may make such order for the disposal of the said vessel cargo, and slaves, as may best enable the United States in all respects to comply with their treaty stipulations, and pursue the public faith inviolate.

              But if it should be made to appear that the persons aforsaid described as slaves are free persons ^are negroes and persons of color^ who have been transported from Africa in violation of the laws of the United States and brought within the United States contrary to the same laws, the said Attorney in behalf of the United States claims that in such case this Hon. Court would will make such further order in the premises as may enable the United States if deemed expedient to remove such persons to the coast of Africa, to be delivered there to such agent or agents as may be authorised to receive and provide for them, pursuant to the laws of the United States in such case provided or to make any such other order as to this Hon. Court shall seem right & proper in the premises.

              W. S. Holabird U. S. Dist. Atty for the Dist. of Connecticut

              Justice Smith Thompsons Remarks in the U.S. Circuit Court

                Justice Smith Thompson’s Remarks in the U.S. Circuit Court, September 23, 1839.

                Justice Smith Thompson presided in the U.S. Circuit Court session that considered the habeas corpus petitions for the release of the Mende from federal custody. He recognized that some people thought the matter before the court “was a question of LIBERTY,” when in fact the judge was only ruling on the district court’s jurisdiction to detain the Mende while it considered claims that they were slave property. As Thompson delivered his order denying the release of the Mende, he also addressed public interest in the case by carefully explaining that he was offering no opinion on the legal right to hold these individuals in slavery and that he personally found slavery “abhorrent.” In the following remarks he suggested that public interest in the case imposed a special responsibility on the court. With no time to write a formal opinion, he urged the several reporters in the courtroom to be especially careful in recording his decision.

                The African Captives. Trial of the Prisoners of the Amistad on the Writ of Habeas Corpus, before the Circuit Court of the United States, for the District of Connecticut, At Hartford: Judges Thompson and Judson

                The African Slave Trade and American Courts: The Pamphlet Literature, ed. Paul Finkelman (New York: Garland Publishing, 1988).]

                <div>![](http://null/history/amistad.nsf/rule.jpg!OpenImageResource) </div>

                On the opening of the Circuit Court, Monday, September 23d, Judge Thompson gave his decision with respect to the application of the prisoners’ counsel, to have the Africans discharged under the writ of habeas corpus – and denied the motion. He said the question before the Court was simply as to the jurisdiction of the District Court over this subject matter. He regretted that the case had not been held up for further consideration, and that he had so little opportunity to examine the various important questions that are involved in it, with that thoroughness and deliberation that was desirable. He regretted this the more, as the case is a very peculiar and complicated one. It was one also difficult to be understood by the public. He could not be insensible to the fact, that the feelings of the community were deeply involved in the question, and he feared there might be misapprehensions of the real questions to be disposed of by the Court. It is possible, he said, that there may be some misrepresentation. He would therefore have preferred that time should have been allowed for him to give a written opinion. ...

                ... The Court said, that as they perceived there were note-takers present, they hoped they would be careful to make a true representation of the decision. The Court does not undertake to decide that these persons have no right to their freedom, but leave that matter in litigation in the District Court, subject to appeal. And for reasons assigned, deny this motion.

                The Several Plea of Cinque and the other Mende captives

                  The several plea of Cinque and the other Mende captives, November 19, 1839, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut.

                  The Mende held in federal custody formally entered the district court case as respondents in this plea submitted by their lawyers, Seth Staples and Roger Sherman Baldwin. The plea challenged the claims of Navy Lieutenant Gedney, U.S. attorney Holabird, and the two Spanish planters, all of which alleged that the Mende were the slave property of the planters. Drawing from their interviews with Cinque and other captives, the lawyers for the Mende argued that their clients had been born free and by every right were still free individuals. They maintained that the Mende had been kidnapped in Africa, illegally transported to Cuba, and sold as slaves in knowing violation of Spanish laws.

                  Staples and Baldwin also challenged the jurisdiction of the district court of Connecticut, since the Navy crew had “forcibly & unlawfully” removed the Mende from New York in order to file their salvage claim in Connecticut. The plea of the Mende included an assertion of their natural right to secure their own liberty and return to their families or to seek asylum in a state where slavery was illegal. Their request for immediate release from federal custody, however, relied on their insistence that the district court had no constitutional or legal authority to exercise jurisdiction over them. It was this argument that ultimately prevailed in the Supreme Court.

                  The deleted names in the plea refer to the Mende who died during the fall of 1839 while in federal custody.

                  Thomas R. Gedney &c. v. The Schooner Amistad, &c., Case files, U.S. District Court, District of Connecticut, Record Group 21, National Archives and Records Administration – Northeast Region (Boston).]

                  <div>![](http://null/history/amistad.nsf/rule.jpg!OpenImageResource) </div>

                  United States of America
                  District of Connecticut
                  To the Honorable Andrew T. Judson Esqr., Judge of the District Court of the United States for the District of Connecticut.

                  The several plea of Sinqua, Burnah 1st, Carpree, Dannah, Fourrie 1st, Shumah, Fouluah, Conoma, Chooley, Burnah 2nd, Baah, Cabbah, Poomah, Kimbo, Peeah, Bangyeah, Saah, Carlee, Parle, Morrah, Yahome, Nahquoi, Quato, Sesse, Con, Fourrie 2, Kennah, Lammame, Fajanah, Faah, Yahbey, Faquannah, Berrie, Fawnee, Chockamaw, Gabbo, Carre, Teme, Kene, Mahgra,--Africans now in the custody of the Marshal of said District under color of process issued from this Honorable Court on the 29th day of August A.D. 1839, against the Schooner Amistad and the articles of personal property on board of her, then lying in the harbor of New London in said District, on the libel of Thomas R. Gedney a Lieut. in the United States Navy, commanding the United States Brig Washington, in the service of the United States in the coast survey, & on behalf of Richard W. Meade, a Lieut. on board said Brig & the officers & crew & all others interested or entitled, claiming salvage to be awarded them by this Honorable Court as for a meritorious service in seizing and securing the respondents & holding them as slaves to certain Spaniards belonging to the Island of Cuba, named in said libel; And also under process of this Honorable Court issued and served at Hartford on the 18th day of September 1839, while the Respondents were in custody of the Marshal of said District as aforesaid, & within the body of the county of Hartford, & within said District & State of Connecticut, on the libel & claim of Wm S. Hollabird Esqr., District Attorney of the United States for the District of Connecticut, and on the libels respectively of Pedro Montes & Jose Ruis;

                  The said Respondents severally, by protestation, not confessing or acknowledging any of the matters and things in said Several libels to be true, as therein alleged, for plea thereto respectively say that they are severally natives of Africa and were born free, and ever since have been, and still of right are and ought to be free, and not slaves, as is in said several libels pretended or surmised; that they were never domiciled in the Island of Cuba, or the dominions of the Queen of Spain, or subject to the laws thereof; that on or about the 15th day of April 1839 they and each of them were, in the land of their nativity, unlawfully kidnapped & forcibly and wrongfully carried on board of a certain vessel, near the coast of Africa then & there unlawfully engaged in the slave trade, by certain persons to them unknown, and were thence in said vessel contrary to the will of the respondents, unlawfully transported to the Island of Cuba for the unlawful purpose of being there sold as slaves, and were there illegally landed for the purpose aforesaid:

                  That Jose Ruis, one of said libellants, well knowing all the premises, and confederating with the person by whom the Respondents were unlawfully held as aforesaid, and intending to deprive them of their liberty made a pretended purchase of the said Respondents, except the sd Carre, Teme, Kene, and Mahgra; and that the said Pedro Montes well knowing the premises and confederating in like manner with said persons, made a pretended purchase of the said Carre, Teme, Kene & Mahgra; that said pretended purchasers were made from persons who had no right whatever to the Respondents or any of them, and were null and void, and conferred no title on the said Ruis or Montes, or right of control over the respondents on either of them;

                  That afterwards on or about the 28th day of June 1839, the said Ruis and Montes, confederating with each other, and with one Raymon Ferrer, now deceased, Capt. of said Schooner Amistad, caused the respondents severally without law or right to be placed by force on board of said Schooner to be transported with said Ruis & Montes to some place unknown to these Respondents, and there severally enslaved for life;

                  That the respondents, being treated on board said vessel, by said Ruis & Montes, & the Capt. & crew thereof with great cruelty and oppression, and being of right free as aforesaid were incited by the love of liberty natural to all men, and by the desire of returning to their families and kindred, to take possession of said vessel, while navigating the high seas as aforesaid near said Island of Cuba, as they had right to do, with the intent to return therein to their native country, or to reach an asylum in some free State where Slavery did not exist, in order that they might enjoy their liberty under the protection of its government;

                  That the said Schooner, on or about the 26th day of August 1839, arrived in the possession of the Respondents at Culloden point near Montaug & was there anchored within about 3/4ths a mile of the shore and within the Territorial jurisdiction of the State of New York; that the respondents Jinqua, Carpree, Carlee, Dammah, Baboo, Morrah, Nahquoi, Qualto, Con, Fajanah, Berrie, Gabbo, Foola, & others, while said schooner lay out at anchor as aforesaid, went on shore within said State of New York to procure provisions and other necessaries, and while there, within the jurisdiction of a free state where slavery does not exist, and under the protection of its laws, the respondents were severally seized, as well those who were on shore aforesaid, as those who were on board of & in possession of said Schooner, and were by the said Lieutenant Gedney, his officers & crew of said United States Brig Washington, forcibly & unlawfully taken at the instance of said Spaniards Ruis & Montes with intent to keep & secure them as slaves for the said Ruis & Montes respectively & to obtain an award of salvage therefor from this Honorable Court, as a meritorious act; that for that purpose the said Respondents were by said Lieut. Gedney & his crew forcibly & unlawfully withdrawn from the jurisdictional limits of the State & District of New York where they were seized as aforesaid, & brought to the Port of New London in the District of Connecticut, where they were taken into the custody of the Marshal on process issuing on the Libel of sd Lieut. Gedney as aforesaid, & were by said Marshal confined in the gaol in the City of New Haven in said District, & subsequently in the gaol of the City of Hartford and were while so confined within the body of said District & State of Connecticut subjected to the further process of this Honorable Court on the several libels & claims subsequently filed as aforesaid.

                  Wherefore the respondents severally say that neither by the constitution or laws of the United States, or any Treaty pursuant thereto, nor by the laws of nations doth it pertain to this Honorable Court to exercise any jurisdiction over the persons of these respondents or any of them by reason of any of the proceedings aforesaid and they severally pray to be hence dismissed and suffered to be and remain as they of right ought to be free & at liberty from the process of this Honorable court under which, or under color of which they are holden as aforesaid.

                  Andrew Judson's Decision

                    Judge Andrew Judson’s decision (excerpts), U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut

                    On January 13, 1840, after five days of testimony in the district court, Judge Andrew Judson appeared before a crowded courtroom in New Haven to read his decision in the

                    case. When he declared that the Mende were free under Spanish law and could not be returned to Cuba, Judson surprised nearly everyone involved in the case. The many reporters in the courtroom quickly sent word of the dramatic decision to return the Mende to their homeland, and within two days newspapers in New York printed the full text of the decision for an eager public. The following excerpts include the most important parts of the decision and convey Judson’s awareness of the unusual responsibilities for a judge in this case.

                    Gedney et al. v. L'Amistad, 10 Fed. Cases 141-51.]


                    GEDNEY et al. v. L'AMISTAD.

                    Judson opened his decision with an acknowledgment of the importance of the case, an explanation of his management of the proceedings, and a defense of the treatment of the Mende held in custody. He also stated that a case of such significance should be reviewed by the Supreme Court.

                    In the discussion of this case have been involved numerous questions, of great importance, requiring, as we have seen, industrious examination and patient deliberation. It has been my endeavor to afford time for this investigation; and the ability with which these questions have been discussed at the bar must satisfy all, that everything which talent and learning could accomplish has been done. It devolved upon the court to dispose of these various and complicated questions, in such manner as will seem to be demanded by the laws of the land, and of this the responsibility rests on me. That responsibility will be met, and when discharged according to the dictates of my own conscience, I shall be relieved from its further perplexities. It will be a satisfaction, while doing this, that neither party or claimant can be prejudiced by my determination, because the laws secure an appeal to the highest tribunal in this country, where my decision may be reviewed, and if wrong corrected. It is then of little importance to the persons in interest, what may be the determination of this court, for a case like this will not and should not rest upon a single trial, without review before the supreme court, in whose decisions all would be satisfied. The case is not only important to those immediately interested, but there are involved principles important to the nation and the world. If a few months have elapsed since this cause has been pending, it has been owing to circumstances beyond my control, but this surely has produced no inconvenience or suffering to those in custody. They have all been humanely treated; liberally fed and clothed by the government, into whose hands they have been providentially cast. Whatever may be the final result of this case, so far it may be safely said that not one step has been taken which could have been avoided.

                    Judson declared that his court had proper jurisdiction over the

                    case and then proceeded to the salvage claim that originally brought the case to the federal courts. He awarded Gedney and his crew a salvage award of one-third the value of the schooner and the goods on board, but denied the claim for salvage in the alleged slaves. Without revealing his decision about the status of the Mende, he explained why he could not order their sale or determine their monetary value.

                    The next question is, can salvage be allowed upon the slaves? There are insuperable objections to this portion of the claim. There is no foundation here laid for a decree in personam. The decree, if at all, must operate in rem. That is, the salvage must be considered as a lien upon the slaves themselves, and the amount to be decreed must be raised out of them, as out of other property. Here, then, I find the claim hedged about by fixed and known laws, over which it would be impossible for me to leap. I have heretofore decided, in the very outset of this case, that these alleged slaves cannot be sold. There is no law of the United States nor of the state of Connecticut by which the title can be given to them under any decree of this court. I am still confirmed in that opinion. It is impossible. Can a decree be predicated upon a supposed valuation to be ascertained by an appraisal? There is no authority in this court to cause such an appraisal. Who can appoint the appraisers? Who can administer to them an oath? And above all, by what rule could their estimate be formed? Are they to be estimated by their value in the district of Connecticut? That is not one cent. The laws which I am bound to administer can recognize no value on them. Can the appraisers travel into other states or countries to seek their value? Surely not. If a decree should be framed, it would be wholly nugatory, inoperative and void. This the court is never called upon to do. When a decree is made, it always presupposes that the court making it, possesses the power of enforcing it. This part of the claim, therefore, will be passed over.

                    At the center of the

                    <i>]case was the issue of whether or not the Mende were the slave property of the planters, Ruiz and Montes. Here Judson recognized that the unique nature of the case and the source of public interest rested in the fact that the Africans themselves came into court to challenge that property claim.

                    The two great questions still remain to be settled. Shall these Africans, by a decree of this court, be delivered over to the government of Spain, upon the demand of her minister, as the property of Don Pedro Montez and Don Jose Ruez? But if not, what ultimate disposition shall the government of the United States make of them? The other questions, in importance, cannot be compared with these. Here we have her majesty, the queen of Spain, by her resident minister, at the court of the United States, unequivocally demanding for her subjects these Africans, as their property in the fulfillment, as he says, of treaty stipulations, solemnly entered into by this nation. These Africans come in person, as our law permits them to do, denying this right. They say, that they are not the slaves of Spanish subjects, and are not amenable to Spanish laws. We have also the humanity of our own laws, ready to embrace them, provided we are not compelled by these treaty stipulations to deliver them up.

                    Judson’s most important decision was that the Africans on board the Amistad were not slave property under the laws of Spain that were in force in Cuba. From this conclusion, Judson determined that the federal courts had no obligation or authority to return the Mende to Cuba.

                    I find, then, as a matter of fact, that in the month of June, 1839, the law of Spain did prohibit, under severe penalty, the importation into Cuba of negroes from Africa. These negroes were imported in violation of that law, and be it remembered that, by the same law of Spain, such imported negroes are declared to be free in Spain. …

                    … If, by their own laws, they cannot enslave them, then it follows, of necessity, they cannot be demanded. When these facts are known by the Spanish minister, he cannot but discover that the subjects of his queen have acquired no rights in these men. They are not the property of Spain. His demand must be withdrawn. The very essence of his demand consists in the supposed Spanish right of property in the thing demanded. That being removed, by his own law there can no longer be cause for complaint. At all events, this cannot be expected at my hands, because the supreme court have already refused to surrender property, unless there was proof of title in the claimants. The same rule applies equally to foreign and domestic claimants. Title must be shown in the property claimed, as belonging to the claimant, or it cannot be surrendered.

                    Judson agreed that the treaty of 1795 between Spain and the United States required the return of all legally held Spanish property included in the

                    claims, even if that property was a slave. Antonio was by his own admission, born into slavery in Spanish territory, and under Spanish law remained the property of his owner. Judson announced that he would order the return of Antonio to the heirs of Captain Ferrer, who had been killed on the

                    … and to show that I abide by the treaty, and that authority, I take another branch of this case. Antonio is demanded, and the proof from him is that he is a Creole, born, as he believes, in Spain. He was, at the time his master was murdered by Cinquez, a slave, so recognized and known by the laws of Spain. The property in him was in Raymond Ferrer, a Spanish subject, at the time of his death on board the schooner, and now is in his legal heirs. Here is both right and property in Spanish subjects. I shall decree a restoration of this slave, under the treaty of 1795.

                    Judson accepted the proposal of U.S. attorney William Holabird that the court order the return of the Mende to Africa under the terms of a congressional act of 1819. Judson acknowledged that the law did not apply precisely to the

                    case, but he asserted that the humanitarian goals of the act called for a broad interpretation of its provisions for return to Africa of victims of an illegal slave trade. In the most-widely quoted portion of the decision, Judson referred to two of the Mende by name and recognized their poignant desire to return home.

                    The question remains: What disposition shall be made of these negroes by the government of the United States? There is a law of congress, passed the 3d of March, 1819 [3 Stat. 532], which renders it essential that all such Africans as these should be transported, under the direction of the president of the United States, to Africa. The humane and excellent provisions of this act, characterize the period when it was adopted. Among the prominent provisions of congress to ameliorate the condition of Africans brought away from their homes in this traffic, which is spoken of and believed to be odious, is this act of 1819. Considering the object embraced within these provisions, the statute itself must receive the most liberal and generous construction. The technicalities of construction, which pertain to another class of acts, do not belong to this act. Those rules which govern courts in deciding on penal acts, are to find no place by the side of this statute. They must govern no mind employed in carrying out the noble intentions of the framers of this law. What is the spirit of that act? It is to return to the land of their nativity all such Africans as may have been brought from thence wrongfully. This being the spirit of that act, I stop not in the mere forms of legislation. I do not want to consider whether every letter and syllable of that act has been followed by the officers of the law. When the spirit of goodness is hovering over us, just descending to bless, it is immaterial in what garments we are clad to receive the blessing. I do not maintain this construction upon my own mere suggestion, but I shall be able to show, by a recent determination of the supreme court of the United States, that the door has already been opened, and the passage already provided, to send these men back to their own Africa. That if the aspirations of these unfortunate beings have been heard to rise for Sierra Leone, the law of that country into which they have been cast has provided the means, and already the supreme court have, in their profoundest wisdom, given a construction to that law which bids them Godspeed. …

                    Cinquez and Grabeau shall not sigh for Africa in vain. Bloody as may be their hands, they shall yet embrace their kindred. I shall put in form a decree of this court, that these Africans, excepting Antonio, be delivered to the president of the United States to be transported to Africa, there to be delivered to the agent, appointed to receive and conduct them home. To do it, we have ample authority, and ample means. What American can object to this decree? No one surely, when the case is correctly understood. It will indeed require the executive arm to carry out this decree. This may well be anticipated, because the facts which I have found and shall put upon record, will carry conviction to every mind. Antonio, falling clearly within the other principle, and in the presence of the court, expressing a strong wish to be returned, will be decreed to the government of Spain, with the vessel and goods, the vessel and goods being alone subject to the lien which necessity of the case has thrown upon them, for the salvage service and the cost.

                    The U.S. Attorney Responds to the District Court Decision

                      The U.S. attorney responds to the district court decision (two letters); January–February 1840

                      S_hortly after Judson’s decision in the district court case, U.S. Attorney William Holabird wrote to Secretary of State John Forsyth and Attorney General Henry Gilpin with his assessment of the decision and a discussion of plans for the appeal. Holabird was surprised Judson ordered the delivery of the captives to the president for return to Africa, since the government had dropped that motion when it resubmitted its libel in November. Although he expected the circuit court to reverse the decision, Holabird feared that he would be unable to demonstrate that the Spanish planters had the proof of property required by the treaty between Spain and the United States. From the secretary of state he requested further information on Spanish laws governing slave property, and from the attorney general he asked for copies of correspondence between the former ambassador to Great Britain and that country’s foreign minister. That exchange between Andrew Stevenson and Lord Palmerston regarded American claims for slaves granted freedom by British officials when the ships transporting them were driven by storms into British territory. Holabird also warned the attorney general that the abolitionists were trying to implicate President Van Buren in improper interference in the judicial process._

                      William S. Holabird to John Forsyth, January 28, 1840.



                      Your instructions in relation to the matter of the Amistad & negroes, of the 12th & 17th Inst, were duly recd, and in compliance of which, I have entered an appeal in all parts of the case, except that relating to the Slave Antonio. You remark that instructions will be forwarded me, designating the parties to whom he is to be delivered. I would suggest that Antonio’s testimony will be material on the trial before the Circuit Court, which will sit in April next. If it is necessary that he should go out of the country before that time, I should like to know it in time, to procure his deposition, his testimony in person would be much better than his deposition, he is rather an intelligent boy. I hope the Spanish Minister will consent to have him remain unless there is some serious objection to it.

                      I send you herewith at the request of the District Judge, his published opinion. I suppose Mr. Willcox the Marshal gave you a full explanation. That Count of the Libel, upon which the decision is founded, was abandoned long before the trial, and originally filed only, for the purpose of holding the negroes in custody for the time.

                      Under the 9th Article of the Spanish Treaty (which is the one under which I claimed the surrendry) proof of property is contemplated “and restore entires to the true proprietor, as soon as due & sufficient proof shall be made concerning the property thereof.” Now Sir I fear that the Circuit Judge may hold that he will go back to the Ships papers, & inquire into the title of Montes & Ruiz to the blacks, or rather, that the permit of the Capt. General to transport the negroes from Havana to Guanaja, is not “due” & sufft proof of property in them. I have no other evidence of property except those permits. (the same as sent to your department) If the Spanish Minister can furnish any other evidence I wish he would. I also wish he would furnish me with the Spanish Laws relating to this subject, the Edict prohibiting the importation of slaves from Africa, and whether it had ever been adopted in Cuba.

                      I am Sir most respectfully Your Obt Servant

                      William S. Holabird to Henry D. Gilpin, February 3, 1840


                      Dear Sir,

                      If you have a spare copy of the correspondence between Mr. Stevenson and Lord Palmers[t]on on the subject of the slaves set free at Bermuda you will much oblige me by sending me one.

                      The decision of the District Judge in case of the negroes of the Amistad I believe has surprised every body and no one more than myself. I do not believe that the Circuit Judge will sustain the decision, yet I have some fear he may hold, that there is not sufficient evidence of property in Ruiz & Montes to authorise a surrendry under the 9th Article of the Treaty with Spain.

                      The statement made in the “Emancipator” regarding the appeal of the case, “that it was made by the direction of the President, and [dictated?] by me” is entirely incorrect. I was fully aware that our New England abolitionists were anxious to place the President, in this matter, in an attitude, that they might attack him, and when I took the appeal, I stated to the Court, that the Spanish minister, through the Government took that appeal, and it was so announced in our papers. I should be very glad to have your views of the decision, which I presume you have seen before this.

                      I am Sir most respectfully Your Obedient Servant

                      Supreme Court Arguments of John Quincy Adams

                        Amistad: The Federal Courts and the Challenge to Slavery

                        Supreme Court arguments of John Quincy Adams (excerpts)

                        John Quincy Adams declined to include his arguments for the

                        case in the Supreme Court Reports and instead chose to publish them separately. The published arguments reached a large audience, just as Adams’ appearance in the Supreme Court attracted a large crowd of listeners. Justice Joseph Story said the arguments were notable for their sarcasm and for their disregard of the legal questions at hand, but Adams understood the source of public interest in the

                        case. The first excerpt emphasizes that the case was not just about property claims and treaty obligations, but would determine the fate of 36 individuals.

                        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, by Lieut. Gedney, delivered on the 24th of February and 1st of March, 1841, with a review of the case of the Antelope, reported in the 10th, 11th and 12th volumes of Wheaton’s Reports (New York: S.W. Benedict, 1841).]


                        And in a Court of Justice, where there are two parties present, justice demands that the rights of each party should be allowed to himself, as well as that each party has a right, to be secured and protected by the Court. This observation is important, because I appear here on the behalf of thirty-six individuals, the life and liberty of every one of whom depend on the decision of this Court. The Court, therefore, I trust, in deciding this case, will form no lumping judgment on these thirty-six individuals, but will act on the consideration that the life and the liberty of every one of them must be determined by its decision for himself alone.

                        They are here, individually, under very different circumstances, and in very different characters. Some are in one predicament, some in another. In some of the proceedings by which they have been brought into the custody and under the protection of this Court, thirty-two or three of them have been charged with the crime of murder. Three or four of them are female children, incapable, in the judgment of our laws, of the crime of murder or piracy, or, perhaps, of any other crime. Yet, from the day when the vessel was taken possession of by one of our naval officers, they have all been held as close prisoners, now for the period of eighteen long months, under custody and by authority of the Courts of the United States. I trust, therefore, that before the ultimate decision of this Court is established, its honorable members will pay due attention to the circumstances and condition of every individual concerned.

                        M__uch of Adams’ lengthy argument focused on the Van Buren administration and its support of the Spanish claims that the Mende were slave property. Here he charges the administration with preferring the interests of Spain over the demands of justice and strongly implies that the executive branch’s actions were based on racial prejudice.

                        It is, therefore, peculiarly painful to me, under present circumstances, to be under the necessity of arraigning before this Court and before the civilized world, the course of the existing Administration in this case. But I must do it. That Government is still in power, and thus, subject to the control of the Court, the lives and liberties of all my clients are in its hands. And if I should pass over the course it has pursued, those who have not had an opportunity to examine the case and perhaps the Court itself, might decide that nothing improper had been done, and that the parties I represent had not been wronged by the course pursued by the Executive. …

                        The charge I make against the present Executive administration is that in all their proceedings relating to these unfortunate men, instead of that Justice,_ w_hich they were bound not less than this honorable Court itself to observe, they have substituted Sympathy!_-s_ympathy with one of the parties in this conflict of justice, and _antipathy to t_he other. Sympathy with the white, antipathy to the black.

                        The laws of a slave society, by recognizing a slave as both private property and a willful individual, created many inconsistencies, and as Adams pointed out, absurdities. Story, with none of the sarcasm evident here, agreed that it was illogical to suggest the Mende had stolen themselves.

                        But my clients are claimed under the treaty as merchandise, rescued from pirates and robbers. Who were the merchandise, and who were the robbers? According to the construction of the Spanish minister, the merchandise were the robbers, and the robbers were the merchandise. The merchandise was rescued out of its own hands, and the robbers were rescued out of the hands of the robbers. Is this the meaning of the treaty? Will this Court adopt a rule of construction in regard to solemn treaties that will sanction such conclusions.… Is any thing more absurd than to say these forty Africans are robbers, out of whose hands they have themselves been rescued? Can a greater absurdity be imagined in construction than this, which applies the double character of robbers and of merchandise to human beings?

                        Pointing to the two copies of the Declaration of Independence which hung on the walls of the Supreme Court chamber, Adams briefly summarized his argument that the fate of the

                        ca_ptives should be decided on the basis of natural rights; the same natural rights that were the foundation of the American system of government. Because the Constitution protected slave property, Adams appealed to the principles of the Declaration, which he argued should guide the Court in interpreting the laws of the United States._

                        The moment you come, to the Declaration of Independence, that every man has a right to life and liberty, an inalienable right, this case is decided. I ask nothing more in behalf of these unfortunate men, than this Declaration.

                        Adams closed his two days of arguments with an emotional recollection of his earlier appearances before the Supreme Court and the great figures of the law during that era. History, he implied, would judge the actions of the current justices of the Court based on their determination of the


                        I said, when I began this plea, that my final reliance for success in this case was on this Court as a court of JUSTICE; and in the confidence this fact inspired, that, in the administration of justice, in a case of no less importance than the liberty and the life of a large number of persons, this Court would not decide but on a due consideration of all the rights, both natural and social, of every one of these individuals. I have endeavored to show that they are entitled to their liberty from this Court. I have avoided, purposely avoided, and this Court will do justice to the motive for which I have avoided, a recurrence to those first principles of liberty which might well have been invoked in the argument of this cause. I have shown that Ruiz and Montes, the only parties in interest here, for whose sole benefit this suit is carried on by the Government, were acting at the time in a way that is forbidden by the laws of Great Britain, of Spain, and of the United States, and that the mere signature of the Governor General of Cuba ought not to prevail over the ample evidence in the case that these Negroes were free and had a right to assert their liberty. I have shown that the papers in question are absolutely null and insufficient as passports for persons, and still more invalid to convey or prove a title to property. …

                        May it please your Honors: On the 7th of February, 1804, now more than thirty-seven years past, my name was entered, and yet stands recorded, on both the rolls, as one of the Attorneys and Counsellors of this Court. Five years later, in February and March, 1809, I appeared for the last time before this Court, in defence of the cause of justice, and of important rights, in which many of my fellow-citizens had property to a large amount at stake. Very shortly afterwards, I was called to the discharge of other duties-first in distant lands, and in later years, within our own country, but in different departments of her Government.

                        Little did I imagine that I should ever again be required to claim the right of appearing in the capacity of an officer of this Court; yet such has been the dictate of my destiny-and I appear again to plead the cause of justice, and now of liberty and life, in behalf of many of my fellow men, before that same Court, which in a former age I had addressed in support of rights of property I stand again, I trust for the last time, before the same Court- “hic caestus, artemque repono.” I stand before the same Court, but not before the same judges-nor aided by the same associates -nor resisted by the same opponents. As I cast my eyes along those seats of honor and of public trust, now occupied by you, they seek in vain for one of those honored and honorable persons whose indulgence listened then to my voice. Marshall – Cushing – Chase – Washington – Johnson – Livingston –Todd - Where are they? Where is that eloquent statesman and learned lawyer who was my associate counsel in the management of that cause, Robert Goodloe Harper? Where is that brilliant luminary, so long the pride of Maryland and of the American Bar, then my opposing counsel, Luther Martin? Where is the excellent clerk of that day, whose name has been inscribed on the shores of Africa, as a monument of his abhorrence of the African slave-trade, Elias B. Caldwell? Where is the marshal - where are the criers of the Court I Alas! where is one of the very judges of the Court, arbiters of life and death, before whom I commenced this anxious argument, even now prematurely closed? Where are they all? Gone! Gone! All gone! - Gone from the services which, in their day and generation, they faithfully rendered to their country. From the excellent characters which they sustained in life, so far as I have had the means of knowing, I humbly hope, and fondly trust, that they have gone to receive the rewards of blessedness on high. In taking, then, my final leave of this Bar, and of this Honorable Court, I can only ejaculate a fervent petition to Heaven, that every member of it may go to his final account with as little of earthly frailty to answer for as those illustrious dead, and that you may, every one, after the close of a long and virtuous career in this world, be received at the portals of the next with the approving sentence - “Well done, good and faithful servant; enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.”

                        Appeal to the Friends of Liberty

                          “Appeal to the Friends of Liberty.” New York Commercial Advertiser, September 5, 1839.

                          Lewis Tappan and other abolitionists organized a committee to support the Mende from the

                          and to hire lawyers to represent the captives in court. One of the committee’s first efforts was to publish this newspaper appeal that sought to publicize the plight of the Mende as well as raise funds for their protection. Another version of this appeal was circulated on broadsides for the public collection of signatures from those who pledged support for the Mende. Tappan’s committee emphasized both the injustice of the Africans’ detention and the need to care for their material and spiritual welfare.

                          <div>![](http://null/history/amistad.nsf/rule.jpg!OpenImageResource) </div>

                          Appeal to the Friends of Liberty. Thirty-eight fellow-men from Africa, after having been piratically kidnapped from their native land, transported across the seas, and subjected to atrocious cruelties, have been thrown upon our shores, and are now incarcerated in jail to await their trial for crimes alleged by their oppressors to have been committed by them. They are now ignorant of our language, of the usages of civilized society, and the obligations of christianity. Under these circumstances, several friends of human rights have met to consult upon the case of these unfortunate men, and have appointed the undersigned a committee to employ interpreters, able counsel, and take all the necessary means to secure the rights of the accused. It is intended to employ three legal gentlemen of distinguished abilities, and to incur other needful expenses. The poor prisoners being destitute of clothing, and several having scarcely a rag to cover them, immediate steps will be taken to provide what may be necessary. The undersigned, therefore, make this appeal to the friends of humanity to contribute for the above objects. Donations may be sent to either of the committee, who will acknowledge the same, and make a public report of all their disbursements.

                          Simeon S. Jocelyn, 34 Wall street.
                          Joshua Leavitt, 143 Nassau street.
                          Lewis Tappan, 122 Pearl street.
                          New York, Sept. 4, 1839.

                          Proctors for the Amistad Africans, January 7, 1840

                          ". . . each of them are natives of Africa and were born free, and ever since have been and still of right are and ought to be free and not slaves . . ."

                          S. Staples, R. Baldwin, and T. Sedgewick, Proctors for the Amistad Africans, January 7, 1840

                          In February of 1839, Portuguese slave hunters abducted a large group of Africans from Sierra Leone and shipped them to Havana, Cuba, a center for the slave trade. This abduction violated all of the treaties then in existence.

                          Fifty-three Africans were purchased by two Spanish planters and put aboard the Cuban schooner Amistad for shipment to a Caribbean plantation. On July 1, 1839, the Africans seized the ship, killed the captain and the cook, and ordered the planters to sail to Africa. On August 24, 1839, the Amistad was seized off Long Island, NY, by the U.S. brig Washington. The planters were freed and the Africans were imprisoned in New Haven, CT, on charges of murder. Although the murder charges were dismissed, the Africans continued to be held in confinement as the focus of the case turned to salvage claims and property rights. President Van Buren was in favor of extraditing the Africans to Cuba. However, abolitionists in the North opposed extradition and raised money to defend the Africans. Claims to the Africans by the planters, the government of Spain, and the captain of the brig led the case to trial in the Federal District Court in Connecticut. The court ruled that the case fell within Federal jurisdiction and that the claims to the Africans as property were not legitimate because they were illegally held as slaves. The case went to the Supreme Court in January 1841, and former President John Quincy Adams argued the defendants' case. Adams defended the right of the accused to fight to regain their freedom. The Supreme Court decided in favor of the Africans, and 35 of them were returned to their homeland. The others died at sea or in prison while awaiting trial.