Teaching With Documents:The Amistad Case
The following teaching activities correlate to the National Standards for History.
- Era 4 - Expansion and Reform (1801-1861)
- Standard 2D - Demonstrate understanding of the rapid growth of "the peculiar institution" [slavery] after 1800 and the varied experiences of African Americans under slavery.
- Standard 3B - Demonstrate understanding of how the debates over slavery influenced politics and sectionalism.
- Standard 4A - Demonstrate understanding of the abolitionist movement.
The teaching activities also correlate to the National Standards for Civics and Government.
- Standard II. B. 1. - Explain how certain characteristics, including a history of slavery, tend to distinguish American society from most other societies.
- Standard III. B. 1.- Evaluate, take, and defend positions on issues regarding the purposes, organization, and functions of the institutions of the national government.
- Standard III. D. 1.- Evaluate, take, and defend positions on the role and importance of law in the American political system.
- Standard V. B. 1.- Evaluate, take, and defend positions on issues regarding personal rights.
Share these exercises with your history, government, language arts, and drama colleagues.
1. Review with students the meanings of the following terms: schooner, brig, writ of habeas corpus, proctor, and libel. Terms are defined in the text of the online headnotes.
2. Divide students into five groups. Print out the featured documents and the Written Document Analysis Worksheet, and provide one document and a copy of the worksheet for each group. Ask each group to analyze their document. Using the jigsaw method, regroup the students to share the infomation. Lead the class in oral responses to the worksheet questions, and discuss how the documents relate to one another.
3. Ask students to complete a chart similar to the one below comparing the individuals involved in the Amistad case. Documents #1 and #2 provide adequate information to compare Thomas R. Gedney and the Africans. Additional research will provide information on President Van Buren, the Spanish Government, the Abolitionists, and the Spanish planters.
Africans Gedney Van Buren The Spanish Government AbolitionistsSpanish Planters What role did they play in the trial?(defendants)(financial & moral support for Africans) What was their motivation? (economic gain)(political gain) What were their arguments?(property rights) What was the basis for their arguments?(Pinckney's Treaty)
4. Ask students to write an article for an 1841 newspaper describing the decision of the Supreme Court in the Amistad case. Encourage them to research the provisions of the Congressional Act of March 19, 1819, for background information. To insure that students recognize the differences in sectional reactions to the case, assign students particular newspapers, some in the North and some in the South.
5. Encourage students to write a review of the Amistad movie, comparing the film version to the actual events as described in the documents. Ask for student volunteers to share their reviews with the class. Lead a class discussion about the value of preserving the historical integrity of the story and the value of changing that story for a screenplay.
6. Following analysis of the documents, divide students into groups of five. Instruct student groups to write and stage a one-act play about the events and personalities involved in the case. The acts might focus on the formation of the Amistad Committee by abolitionists Lewis Tappan, Joshua Levitt, and Symeon Jocelyn; the decision by John Quincy Adams to represent the Africans; the challenges of securing translators for the Africans; and Van Buren's concerns about the election of 1840. Encourage students to quote directly from the documents. Schedule a media specialist to videotape the final productions.
7. Ask student volunteers to research and make an oral presentation to the class comparing the Amistad case to other significant incidents related to slavery prior to the Civil War, including Nat Turner's rebellion (1831), the Creole revolt (1841), and the Dred Scott decision (1857). Use the following questions to prompt comparisons: To what extent did these incidents involve violence? What were their outcomes? How did they influence sectional differences?
For Further Reading:
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.
The Legal Information Institute at Cornell University has created a web site devoted to the legal issues surrounding the Amistad case.