“Incited by the Love of Liberty,” Part 2
The Amistad Captives and the Federal Courts
Spring 2003, Vol. 35, No. 1
By Bruce A. Ragsdale
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|In this document, U.S. Attorney William S. Holabird urged first that the captives should be returned under a U.S. treaty with Spain, but that if the court ruled for their freedom, they should be returned to their homeland. (Records of District Courts of the United States, RG 21)|
"The decision of the District Judge," reported Holabird to Attorney General Henry Gilpin, "has surprised every body and no one more than myself." Holabird was particularly surprised that Judson ordered the delivery of the Mende to the President since that count of the government's libel "was abandoned long before the trial, and originally filed only for the purpose of holding the negroes in custody for the time." Following instructions from Secretary of State Forsyth, Holabird appealed "every part of said decree except that part . . . in relation to the said slave Antonio."29
Holabird and Gilpin were confident that the circuit court would reverse the "untenable" decision of the district court, but Holabird feared the government again would be unable to prove the Mende were Spanish property. The evidence that the Mende had arrived recently in Cuba was so convincing that Holabird declined to argue otherwise. He asked Forsyth and Gilpin to obtain copies of laws in force in Cuba or any other documentation that might allow him to demonstrate that these recently transported Africans were slaves under Spanish law. At the same time, he requested instructions on an appeal from any circuit court decision that did not decree the restoration of slave property claimed by the Spanish.30
At the opening of the spring term of the circuit court in Hartford on April 29, Roger Sherman Baldwin and Seth Staples presented a motion for the Mende, asking the court to dismiss the government's appeal on the grounds that the United States claimed no right to the alleged slave property and had no authority to represent the claims of foreign citizens. Justice Smith Thompson rejected the motion for dismissal and affirmed the district court decision with a pro forma decree. Holabird, acting for the government "in pursuance of a demand made upon them by the duly Accredited Minister of Her Catholic Majesty the Queen of Spain," appealed the circuit court decree to the Supreme Court, which was scheduled to open its next session in January 1841.31
The abolitionists' committee convinced John Quincy Adams to join Baldwin in representing the Mende before the Supreme Court. The seventy-three-year-old former President was serving in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he had defended the abolitionists' right to petition Congress for an end to slavery in the District of Columbia. Once a noted advocate before the Supreme Court, he had not appeared before the bench in more than thirty years. Adams spent several months examining an extensive collection of government documents related to every aspect of the Amistad incident. In the fall he traveled to Connecticut to meet with Cinque and other captives, who remained in the custody of the marshal for the district of Connecticut, although they lived under far less restrictive confines in the village of Westville.32
Adams would face a Supreme Court of nine justices, five of whom were residents of southern slave states. The Court only occasionally had heard cases related to slavery or the slave trade, and although it had enforced the prohibition on the African slave trade, the Court also had decided that slave property must be protected whenever slavery was permitted by a nation's laws. Adams and Baldwin asked the Supreme Court to dismiss the case on the grounds that the United States had no interest in the matter and because recently released documents indicated that the Spanish government had requested delivery of the Mende for trial in Cuba and not as property under the 1795 treaty. In a surprising concession to the laws of slave property, Adams and Baldwin also asked for dismissal because none of the Africans, "if slaves," was valued at the two-thousand-dollar minimum required for appeals to the Supreme Court. The Court postponed consideration of the motion and scheduled arguments in the case.33
On February 22, 1841, Attorney General Henry Gilpin opened oral arguments with a statement of the government's long-standing position that the treaty with Spain required the return of all Spanish property, with no payments for salvage. Gilpin reminded the Court that the Spanish planters had produced documentation of ownership of the enslaved Mende, and he warned that if the federal courts questioned the legitimacy of documents issued by foreign governments, the flow of international commerce would be threatened. Roger Sherman Baldwin repeated his argument that the Mende, recently transported from Africa, were free under Spanish law and thus not subject to the terms of the treaty between the nations.
Adams then appeared before the crowded chamber on the ground floor of the Capitol. The drama of his nearly eight hours of argument was only heightened by an unexpected interruption of several days for the funeral of Justice Philip Pendleton Barbour, who died the night after Adams began his remarks. Adams devoted most of his argument to a rebuke of the lame-duck Van Buren administration, which he alleged was well aware that they would be returning the Mende to certain death in Cuba. Adams closed his remarks with an appeal to the natural rights of the Mende and asked that the Court extend to the Africans the rights described in the Declaration of Independence.34
On March 9, 1841, the Supreme Court finally granted the Mende their unconditional freedom. Responsibility for writing the Court's opinion fell to Justice Joseph Story, the senior justice on the bench and the nation's leading constitutional scholar. Story had little regard for the celebrated arguments of Adams, but his opinion validated the legal strategy that Baldwin had pursued from the earliest days of the case. The Court upheld the circuit court's affirmation of Judson's decision that the captives were recent arrivals in Cuba and under Spanish law could not be the legal property of Ruiz and Montes.
The Court, however, overturned the decree to deliver the Mende to the President for return to West Africa. Story noted that "when the Amistad arrived she was in possession of the negroes, asserting their freedom; and in no sense could they possibly intend to import themselves here, as slaves, or for sale as slaves." The Supreme Court then decreed that the circuit court in Connecticut release the Mende from federal custody.35
The Supreme Court decision affirmed the freedom that the Mende sought, but it left them with no means to return home. After release from federal custody in mid-March, the Mende lived in Farmington, Connecticut, with supporters of the abolitionists' committee. Antonio, still subject to the district court's decree that he be returned to slavery in Cuba, quickly left Connecticut and by late April had escaped to Canada and freedom. Lewis Tappan organized a series of fund-raising appearances at which a group of the Mende demonstrated their English-language skills, read from the Bible, and sang. At the largest gathering in New York City in May, Cinque offered a narrative of their ordeal since leaving the Mende country two years before. The proceeds allowed the abolitionists to charter a ship, and in November 1841 the thirty-five surviving Mende left New York in the company of American missionaries. They reached Sierra Leone two months later.36
After the decree to free the Mende, the federal courts had little related business except to distribute the salvage award out of the proceeds of the sale of the Amistad and its cargo. Diplomatic negotiations continued until the Civil War, as the Spanish government repeatedly presented demands for restoration of the full value of the ship, its cargo, and the enslaved Mende. Each presidential administration from Tyler's to Buchanan's asked Congress to appropriate the money. The requests reignited the Amistad debates in the context of increasingly bitter sectional crises over slavery, but Congress never passed any bill to satisfy the Spanish claims.37
The decisions of the three federal courts that ruled on the Amistad proceedings resulted in the personal freedom of the African captives, but the courts provided no precedent for legal challenges to the institution of slavery. Until the Civil War, the federal courts continued to protect slave property whenever it was supported by law. One year after the Amistad decision, Justice Story wrote the opinion in which the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Fugitive Slave Act that allowed slaveholders to reclaim their slaves who fled to free states, and in 1857 a majority of the Court, including three of the justices who had supported the Amistad decision, ruled in the Dred Scott case that African Americans, whether free or slave, held no rights as citizens under the federal Constitution.38
Outside the courts, the Amistad case had more lasting benefits for those who opposed slavery. The campaign to free the Mende offered abolitionists the opportunity to refine their strategy of mobilizing public opinion. The publication of personal narratives of enslavement cultivated antislavery support even among those who resisted the more radical demands of the abolitionists. Above all, the presence of the Mende in the courts and in the public mind ensured that the Amistad proceedings stimulated public debates about slavery and the federal government's support of the institution. Although the case demonstrated that the federal courts, like the Congress and the federal executive, were unlikely to challenge the foundations of slavery in the United States, it also provided a prominent forum that drew new attention to the still-active Atlantic slave trade and heightened awareness of the human tragedy of slavery, as well as the bravery of these enslaved persons.
Bruce A. Ragsdale is chief of the Federal Judicial History Office at the Federal Judicial Center in Washington, D.C. He formerly served as associate historian of the U.S. House of Representatives and is the author of A Planter's Republic: The Search for Economic Independence in Revolutionary Virginia (1996).
1 John W. Barber, History of the Amistad Captives: Being a Circumstantial Account of the Capture of the Spanish Schooner Amistad, by the Africans on Board; Their Voyage, and Capture near Long Island, New York; with Biographical Sketches of each of the Surviving Africans. Also, An account of the Trials had on their Case, Before the District and Circuit Courts of the United States, for the District of Connecticut. Compiled from Authentic Sources (1840), in The African Slave Trade and American Courts: The Pamphlet Literature, ed. Paul Finkelman (1988), pp. 198 - 200; New York Journal of Commerce, Aug. 30, 1839, "Exploring Amistad: Race and the Boundaries of Freedom in Antebellum Maritime America," a web site presented by Mystic Seaport, http://amistad.org; Howard Jones, Mutiny on the Amistad: The Saga of a Slave Revolt and its Impact on American Abolition, Law, and Diplomacy (1987), pp. 26 - 30.
2 U.S. Circuit Court, District of Connecticut, Docket Book, 1815 - 1843, Records of the U.S. District and Circuit Courts for the District of Connecticut: Documents Relating to the Various Cases Involving the Spanish Schooner Amistad (National Archives Microfilm Publication M1753), Records of District Courts of the United States, Record Group (RG) 21, National Archives and Records Administration.
3 Barber, History of the Amistad Captives, pp. 195 - 200.
4 Ibid., pp. 198 - 200; libel of Thomas R. Gedney, Aug. 29, 1839, Thomas R. Gedney &c. v. The Schooner Amistad, &c., case files, U.S. District Court, District of Connecticut, M1753.
5 For drafting of the Judiciary Act of 1789, see Documentary History of the Supreme Court of the United States, 1789 - 1800, vol. 4, Organizing the Federal Judiciary, ed. Maeva Marcus et al. (1992), pp. 22 - 107; Russell R. Wheeler and Cynthia Harrison, Creating the Federal Judicial System (2nd ed.,1994).
6 Final Records, Jan. 23, 1840, Gedney v. Amistad, M1753; certificate of Marshal Norris Willcox, Aug. 29, 1839; Andrew Judson order to Marshal to detain witnesses, Aug. 29, 1839, In the Matter of the Habeas Corpus for the three African girls, September 1839 term, U.S. Circuit Court, District of Connecticut, RG 21, NARA - Northeast; Information and Complaint and Warrant to Arrest, Aug. 29, 1839, Gedney v. Amistad, M1753.
7 Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Lewis Tappan and the Evangelical War Against Slavery (1969), 206; Jones, Mutiny on the Amistad, pp. 35 - 40; William S. Holabird to Henry D. Gilpin, Sept. 6, 1839, Letters Received from U.S. District Attorneys, Marshals, and Clerks of Court, 1801 - 1898, Records of the Solicitor of the Treasury, RG 206, in Appellate Case File No. 2161, United States v. The Amistad, 40 U.S. 518 (15 Peters 518), Decided March 9, 1841, and Related Lower Court and Department of Justice Records (National Archives Microfilm Publication M2012), General Records of the Department of Justice, RG 60, NARA.
8 John Forsyth to Martin Van Buren, Sept. 18, 1839, Martin Van Buren Papers, Library of Congress (LC), Washington, DC; Forsyth to Holabird, Sept. 11, 1839, Domestic Letters, 1838 - 1840, 30: 330 - 331, Domestic Letters of the Department of State, 1784 - 1906 (National Archives Microfilm Publication M40, roll 28), General Records of the Department of State, RG 59, NARA; Don E. Fehrenbacher, The Slaveholding Republic: An Account of the United States Government's Relations to Slavery, completed and edited by Ward M. McAfee (2001), pp. 104 - 107.
9 Opinion of Attorney General Felix Grundy, November 1839, Opinion Books of the Attorney General's Office, 1817 - 70, vol. E, pp. 280 - 285, M2012; Felix Grundy to Holabird and R. I. Ingersoll, Nov. 15, 1839, General Letter Books of the Attorney General's Office, 1818 - 1870, vol. B, M2012; Secretary of the Treasury Levi Woodbury already had suggested to President Van Buren that "perhaps nothing is lost in point of public policy by letting the Judiciary take all the responsibility . . . which they may choose to exercise." Levi Woodbury to Van Buren, Sept. 22, 1839, Martin Van Buren Papers, LC.
10 "Capture of the Spanish Schooner La Armastead," New York Morning Herald, Aug. 29, 1839, "The Captured Slaves - Their Curious Position," New York Morning Herald, Sep. 2, 1839, "Exploring Amistad," http://amistad.org; Bowery Theater playbill, Sept. 4, 1839, Harvard Theater Collection, Harvard University Library; [James or Isaac Sheffield] "Joseph Cinquez, the brave Congolese Chief . . . ," lithograph, 1839, LC; John Childs, "Joseph Cinquez Addressing His Compatriots on Board the Spanish Schooner, Amistad, 26th August 1839," lithograph, 1839, in the Charles F. Gunther Collection, Chicago Historical Society; Richard J. Powell, "Cinque: Antislavery Portraiture and Patronage in Jacksonian America," American Art 11 (Fall 1997): 48 - 73.
11 Early discussion of legal strategy in "The Africans of the Amistad," New York Journal of Commerce, Sept. 5, 1839, "Exploring Amistad," http://amistad.org; New York Morning Herald, Sept. 9, 1839, in ibid.; New York Morning Herald, Sept. 20, 1839, in ibid; marshal's fees, Jan. 7, 1840, Gedney v. Amistad, M1753.
12 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 (1839), in The African Slave Trade and American Courts, pp. 153 - 154; Holabird to Forsyth, Sept. 21, 1839, and Holabird to Forsyth, Sept. 9, 1839, Miscellaneous Letters, May - September 1839, Miscellaneous Letters of the Department of State, 1789 - 1906 (National Archives Microfilm Publication M179, roll 89), RG 59, NARA; indictment, U.S. v. Faquannah and others, September term 1839, U.S. Circuit Court, District of Connecticut, M1753; Holabird to Gilpin, Sept. 6, 1839, Letters Received from U.S. District Attorneys, Marshals, and Clerks of Court, 1801 - 1898, Records of the Solicitor of the Treasury, RG 206, M2012; "The Amistad Prisoners," New York Times and Commercial Intelligencer, Sept. 20, 1839, GLC 00416, the Gilder Lehrman Collection, on deposit at the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, NY; Notes on indictment, William S. Holabird Papers (Amistad Mutiny Archives), 1829 - 1853, GLC 5636, Gilder Lehrman Collection.
13 The African Captives, pp. 151 - 154; writ of habeas corpus, "In the matter of the Habeas Corpus for the three African Girls," U.S. Circuit Court, District of Connecticut, Sept. 18, 1839, M1753.
14 The African Captives, pp. 154 - 162, 166 - 174; The attorneys also submitted the deposition of a West African living in New York, who swore that the girls' language proved they were natives of West Africa. Answer and Reply by their Next friend & Guardian, Deposition of John Ferry, Affidavit of Bahoo, Sept. 20, 1839, "In the matter of the Habeas Corpus for the three African Girls," U.S. Circuit Court, District of Connecticut, M1753.
15 The African Captives, pp. 154, 165 - 166; Notes on grand jury finding, [Sept. 20, 1839], Holabird Papers, Gilder Lehrman Collection; answer and reply of Burnah, et al., September term, 1839, U.S. Circuit Court, District of Connecticut, M1753.
16 The African Captives, pp. 188 - 191.
17 Libel of José Ruiz, Sept. 18, 1839; libel of Pedro Montes, Sept. 18, 1839; libel of Henry Green, Peletiah Fordham, et al., Sept. 19, 1839; libel of Wm. S. Holabird, Sept. 19, 1839; Gedney v. Amistad, M1753; The African Captives, p. 191.
18 Wyatt-Brown, Lewis Tappan, p. 207; Jones, Mutiny on the Amistad, p. 43; The African Captives, pp. 147 - 149.
19 The several plea of Sinqua, Burnah, et al., Nov. 19, 1839, Gedney v. Amistad; on January 7, 1840, the lawyers submitted for the Mende a revised "separate answer of Sinqua, et al.," ibid., M1753.
20 Claim of Antonio G. Vega for Antonio, Nov. 19, 1839; libel of W. S. Holabird, Nov. 19, 1839; Gedney v. Amistad, M1753.
21 Capias for witness [n.d.] and Return of Marshal, Nov. 19, 1839, depositions and notes on testimony, Gedney v. Amistad, NARA - Northeast Region; Docket Book, 1816 - 1841, U.S. District Court, District of Connecticut, M1753; Notes on testimony, [Nov. 19, 1839], Holabird Papers, Gilder Lehrman Collection.
22 Douglas L. Stein, "The Amistad Judge: The Life and Trials of Andrew T. Judson, 1784 - 1853," Log of Mystic Seaport 49 (1998): 98 - 106; Andrew Judson's Remarks, to the Jury, on the trial of the Case, State v. P. Crandall, Superior Court, Oct. Term, 1833, Windham County, Ct. (1833), in Abolitionists in Northern Courts: The Pamphlet Literature, ed. Paul Finkelman (1988), pp. 79 - 101; Report of the Arguments of Counsel, in the case of Prudence Crandall, Before the Supreme Court of Errors, at their Session at Brooklyn, July Term, 1834, Boston, 1834, in ibid., pp. 187 - 194.
23 Forsyth to Holabird, Jan. 6, 1840, and Jan. 12, 1840, Domestic Letters, 1838 - 1840, 30: 519 - 520, M40, roll 28; Holabird to Forsyth, Jan. 11, 1840, Miscellaneous Letters, October 1839 - March 1840, M179, roll 90; Van Buren and Forsyth to [U.S. Marshal], Jan. 7, 1840, GLC 4295, Gilder Lehrman Collection; Forsyth to James K. Paulding, Jan. 7, 1840, Domestic Letters, 1838 - 1840, 30: 436 - 437, M40, roll 28.
24 Testimony of Cinque, Grabeau, and Fuliwa, Gedney v. Amistad, M1753; "African Testimony," New York Journal of Commerce, Jan. 10, 1840, "Exploring Amistad," http://amistad.org; New York Journal of Commerce, Jan. 15, 1840, in ibid.
25 Gedney et al. v. L'Amistad, 10 Fed. Cases 141 - 151.
26 Ibid., p. 146
27 Ibid., pp. 146 - 148.
28 Ibid., pp. 148 - 151.
29 Decree and appeals in Final Records, Jan. 23, 1840, Gedney v. Amistad, M1753; Forsyth to Holabird, Jan. 17, 1840, Domestic Letters, 1838 - 1840, 30: 446, M40, roll 28; Holabird to Forsyth, Jan. 28, 1840, Miscellaneous Letters, October 1839 - March 1840, M179, roll 90; Holabird to Gilpin, Feb. 3, 1840, Letters Received by the Attorney General's Office, 1809 - 1870, M2012. A representative of the merchant house that owned much of the cargo on the Amistad also appealed that portion of the decree granting Gedney and his crew a salvage award to be deducted from the proceeds of that cargo.
30 Holabird to Forsyth, Jan. 28, 1840, Miscellaneous Letters, October 1839 - March 1840, State Department, M179, roll 90; Holabird to Gilpin, Feb. 3, 1840, Letters Received by the Attorney General's Office, 1809 - 1870, Holabird to Gilpin, Mar. 9, 1840, General Letterbooks of the Attorney Generals Office, 1818 - 1870, v. A2, pp. 444 - 445, M2012.
31 Motion to dismiss appeal, United States v. Cinque, April term, 1840, U.S. Circuit Court, District of Connecticut, RG 21 [this item was misplaced in the original court records and placed with records of the circuit court criminal proceedings rather than the appeal of the district court decree], M1753; Holabird to Forsyth, May 2, 1840, Miscellaneous Letters, April - September 1840, M179, roll 91; Holabird to Gilpin, May 5, 1840, Holabird Papers, Gilder Lehrman Collection; decree and appeal of the U.S. Government, in U.S. Circuit Court, District of Connecticut, Final Record Book, 1831 - 43, 9: 459 - 460, M1753.
33 John T. Noonan, Jr., The Antelope: The Ordeal of the Recaptured Africans in the Administrations of James Monroe and John Quincy Adams (1977); Roger S. Baldwin to Gilpin, Nov. 21, 1840, Letters Received by the Attorney General's Office, 1809 - 1870, M2012; Motion to dismiss the appeal, Jan. 13, 1841, The United States v. The Amistad, Appellate Case No. 2161; Record of Proceedings in the case in the Minutes of the Supreme Court, 4277, 4280, Records of the Supreme Court of the United States, RG 267, M2012.
34 United States v. The Amistad, 40 U.S. 518, 539 - 549; Argument of Roger S. Baldwin, of New Haven, before the Supreme Court of the United States, in the case of the United States, appellants, vs. Cinque, and others, Africans of the Amistad (1841), in The African Slave Trade and American Courts, pp. 377 - 408; 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 (1841); in ibid., pp. 241 - 375.
35 R. Kent Newmyer, Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story: Statesman of the Old Republic (1985); United States v. The Amistad, 40 U.S. 518.
36 Jones, Mutiny on the Amistad, pp. 199 - 200, 204 - 205; Colored American, Apr. 10, 1841, "Exploring Amistad," http://amistad.org; "Exhibition of the Amistad Blacks," New York Morning Herald, May 15, 1841, "Exploring Amistad," http://amistad.org; Powell, "Cinque: Antislavery Portraiture and Patronage in Jacksonian America."
37 Final Record Book, 1831 - 43, vol. 9, pp. 469 - 472, U.S. Circuit Court, District of Connecticut, RG 21, NARA - Northeast Region; Andrew Judson to C.A. Ingersoll, May 1, 1841, Gedney v. Amistad, M1753; Jones, Mutiny on the Amistad, pp. 203 - 218;
38 Fehrenbacher, The Slaveholding Republic, pp. 219 - 225, 241 - 244; Don E. Fehrenbacher, The Dred Scott Case: Its Significance in American Law and Politics (1978), pp. 42 - 47; Prigg v. Pennsylvania, 41 U.S. 539; Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393.