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.