Appellants, vs. Cinque, and Others, Africans, Captured in the Schooner Amistad
Appellants, vs. Cinque, and Others, Africans, Captured in the Schooner Amistad
Argument Before the Supreme Court
Date: March 1, 1841
Source: Adams, John Quincy. 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 … New York: S. W. Benedict, 1841.
About the Author: John Quincy Adams (1767–1848) the sixth president of the United States and the son of the second president, spent most of his post-presidential career opposing the institution of slavery. As an attorney, he argued for the rights of Africans in the 1841 Amistad case before the U.S. Supreme Court.
On June 18, 1839, the Spanish ship Amistad sailed from Havana, Cuba, with a cargo of fifty-three illegally imported Africans belonging to José Ruiz and Pedro Montes. The Africans were to be sold as slaves in Puerto Principé in east-central Cuba. Four nights later, the Africans freed themselves from their chains, mutinied, killed the ship's captain and cook, sent two crewmen overboard, and instructed two surviving crewman to sail for Africa. The mutineers were led by Joseph Cinque (1811?–1852?), also known as Sing-gbe, a native of present-day Sierra Leone and member of the Mende tribe.
The Amistad landed at Long Island, New York on August 26, after being seized in the Atlantic by a U.S. Coast Guard brig under the command of Lieutenant Thomas Gedney. The U.S. State Department recommended that the Spanish minister take custody of the Amistad and its jailed cargo. When the Africans were indicted for piracy, Lewis Tappan and other abolitionists established the Amistad Committee to raise money for their defense. Meanwhile, the Spanish government claimed the Africans as its property and demanded their return. The case moved from district court to circuit court and arrived before the Supreme Court in late 1840.
Antislavery activists took an interest in the case and convinced Adams to defend the Africans. Adams had not practiced law in years. He hesitated to take such an emotional case in part because he feared that his anti-slavery zealotry would diminish his ability to provide a cool, rational defense. Nevertheless, Adams stood before the Supreme Court for over four hours on February 24, 1841, and again on March 1 to present arguments that ranged from the minute wording of shipping laws to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence. On March 9, 1841, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, a Maryland slave-owner who later decided the 1857 Dred Scott case, found the Africans innocent of murder and piracy. He ruled that they were free and should be allowed to return to Africa. The thirty-five surviving Africans, aided by the defense committee and Yale University's Divinity School, sailed for Sierra Leone in November 1841 to serve as Christian missionaries and positive examples of returned-to-Africa blacks for the American Colonization Society.
… 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…. 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….
The Constitution of the United States recognizes the slaves, held within some of the States of the Union, only in their capacity of persons—persons held to labor or service in a State under the laws thereof—persons constituting elements of representation in the popular branch of the National Legislature persons, the migration or importation of whom should not be prohibited by Congress prior to the year 1808. The Constitution no where recognizes them as property. The words slave and slavery are studiously excluded from the Constitution. Circumlocutions are the fig-leaves under which the parts of the body politic are decently concealed. Slaves, therefore, in the Constitution of the United States are persons, enjoying rights and held to the performance of duties.
… The persons aforesaid, described as slaves, are Negroes and persons of color, who have been transported from Africa in violation of the laws of the United States … The Court should enable the United States to send the Negroes home to Africa … in pursuance of the law of Congress passed March 3, 1829, entitled "An act in addition to the acts prohibiting the slave-trade."
… The President … signed [an] order for the delivery of MEN to the control of an officer of the navy to be carried beyond seas … The District Judge, contrary to all [the] anticipations of the Executive, decided that the thirty-six Negroes … brought before the Court … were FREEMEN; that they had been kidnapped in Africa; that they did not own … Spanish names;… that they were not correctly described in the passport, but were new Negroes bought by Ruiz in the depot of Havana, and fully entitled to their liberty.
… Well was it for the country—well was it for the President of the United States himself that he paused before stepping over this Rubicon!… The indignation of the freemen of Connecticut, might not tamely endure the sight, of thirty-six free persons, though Africans, fettered and manacled in their land of freedom, to be transported beyond the seas, to perpetual hereditary servitude or to death, by the servile submission of an American President to the insolent dictation of a foreign minister
[President Van Buren informed his subordinates that] if the decree of the Judge should be in our favor, and you can steal a march upon the Negroes by foreclosing their right of appeal, ship them off without mercy and without delay: and if the decree should be in their favor, fail not to enter an instantaneous appeal to the Supreme Court where the chances may be more hostile to self-emancipated slaves.
Was ever such a scene of Lilliputian trickery enacted by the rulers of a great, magnanimous, and Christian nation? Contrast it with that act of self-emancipation, by which the savage, heathen barbarians Cinque and Grabeau liberated themselves and their fellow suffering countrymen from Spanish slave traders, and which the Secretary of State … denominates lawless violence. Cinque and Graveau are uncouth and barbarous names. Call them Harmodius and Aristogiton, and go back for moral principle three thousand years to the fierce and glorious democracy of Athens. They too resorted to lawless violence, and slew the tyrant to redeem the freedom of their country….
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 everyone of these individuals…. I have avoided, purposely 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,… 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….
… 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…. 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 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?… Gone! Gone! All gone!… 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….
The Amistad case remained a contentious point in antebellum U.S.-Spanish relations. From 1844 until 1860, when Spain abandoned its claims in the Amistad case, every American president suggested that the United States should compensate Spain for the Africans and mentioned the event in his state-of-the-union address.
The subsequent lives of Cinque and the other Amistad survivors are not well-documented. Cinque is the best known of the Africans. Some accounts claim that he died barely a decade after his return to Africa, while other records indicate that he lived until 1879 and was buried on the grounds of the American Missionary Association compound in Sierra Leone.
Regardless of the ultimate fate of Cinque and his African companions, they remained important symbols for slaves in the United States because they seized their freedom. After the end of slavery, the Amistad mutineers continued to serve as examples of the will to persevere for justice against great odds.
Cable, Mary. Black Odyssey: The Case of the Slave Ship Amistad. New York: Viking Press, 1971.
Hoyt, Edwin. The Amistad Affair. New York: Abelard-Schuman, 1970.
Jones, Howard. Mutiny on the Amistad: The Saga of a Slave Revolt and Its Impact on American Abolition, Law, and Diplomacy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.