Paralegal Guide: Amistad Case
In 1839, 53 Africans onboard the Spanish slave ship, La Amistad, led a successful revolt against the crew off the coast of Cuba. The schooner, without proper navigation, landed in Long Island where the Africans were taken captive by Thomas R. Gedney, an officer of the United States Revenue Cutter Service. Hoping to gain legal rights over the slaves, Gedney brought the Africans before a lower court in Connecticut, and shortly thereafter the first of two groundbreaking trials — one criminal and one civil — would result in a Supreme Court decision to free the slaves. The United States v. Amistad case would help popularize the abolitionist movement, solidify the federal government’s heightening intolerance for the slave trade, and exacerbate an already bitter political row between slave states and free states that would streamline much of the U.S.’s legal history until the 1860s.
This page, part of a larger legal resource collection, establishes the legislative background of the Amistad case, provides websites and documents important to the case itself, and connects legal students and law professionals to some information about the abolitionist victory’s ramifications in the years between 1841, when the freed slaves returned to Africa, and 1865, when the 13th Amendment finally abolished slavery. Actual texts of legal documents from the late 18th century to the mid-1800s are gathered here, as well a compilation of the more comprehensive educational and historical resources online. In each section some brief background is also provided, although the cited websites delve into greater detail.
Abolition Prior to 1839
Pennsylvania’s Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery was the first piece of legislation in the U.S. that brought slavery to an end in at least a limited capacity, creating a domino effect among Northern states as one after another abolished slavery in a short time period. The act proved more popular as a template for abolition than a law passed three years later in Massachusetts that provided slaves immediate freedom. The gradualness of the Pennsylvania act was that, while current slaves remained in captivity, their children would be born into freedom. Eight years later, the act was amended so that pregnant slaves could not be moved across state borders for the purpose of binding their children to servitude.
The political culture of abolition sparked in Pennsylvania led to two major national laws that moved the country closer to abolition: the Slave Trade Act of 1794 and the 1808 Act to Prohibit the Importation of Slaves. The latter ended the United States’ lawful participation in the international slave trade, following a precedent established by a similar act that was passed one year earlier by the British Parliament. However, slavery itself was still legal in the U.S. and the sale of slaves between states, particularly in the South, was still widespread. However, when the Amistad arrived off U.S. coasts, the 1808 act was crucial in the abolitionists’ legal defense of the Africans.
- 1788 Amendment to the 1780 Gradual Abolition Act, provided in full by the President’s House in Philadelphia, stipulated that slaves could not be removed from Pennsylvania so that their children could be born into slavery, and added further restrictions to Pennsylvanians for aiding the slave trade in any way. The website also provides the text of the original 1780 Act.
- The Abolition of the Slave Trade, a part of the New York Public Library, is an extensive collection of original texts, scholarly essays, photos and illustrations, and other resources. Of special note to legal scholars is the U.S. Constitution and Acts section with the full texts of original legislation from 1807 to the Act of 1820, wherein the maritime slave trade was deemed an act of piracy.
- Act to Prohibit the Importation of Slaves, from TeachingAmericanHistory.org, is all 10 sections of the 1808 legislation, signed by Thomas Jefferson, that was one of the first major strides in abolition. The domestic slave trade was still alive and well, but the slave trade in the Atlantic officially ended with this act.
The Amistad Case
The two main parties involved in the lower court trials that began the Amistad case were José Ruiz and Pedro Montez, the two survivors of the revolt, and a group of abolitionists from New York called the Amistad Committee who provided funding for the Africans’ defense. The Committee argued that the Africans had been kidnapped and were not part of any legitimate slave trade (Spain had outlawed the trade in the early 19th century). Although successful, the abolitionists’ efforts were overturned by President Martin van Buren because of his diplomatic ties with Spain and Amistad Committee’s subsequent appeal led the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Although attorney Roger Sherman Baldwin argued for the Africans’ freedom at first, their defense was eventually taken up by former president John Quincy Adams, at the time a member of the House of Representatives, who argued that van Buren’s jurisdiction did not apply to the courts and that the Africans should not be considered property, which was the primary argument of his opponent, Attorney General Henry D. Gilpin. The Supreme Court sided with Adams and determined that the Africans were victims of kidnapping. Shortly thereafter, the captives were freed and the Amistad Committee raised enough money for their return to Africa.
- The Argument of John Quincy Adams is the full text of the former president’s case before the U.S. Supreme Court, provided by HistoryCentral.com. The address was given in late February and early March in 1841.
- The Original Treaty of San Lorenzo, also known as Pinckney’s Treaty, was an agreement between Spain and the U.S. in 1795 that settled border and trade disputes. The treaty was cited by Gilpin in his argument that the Amistad Africans were property that belonged to the Spanish government, which Adams refuted. Images of the original are provided by EarlyAmerica.com
- Trials History of the Amistad Case, from the University of Missouri at Kansas City’s law school, is a comprehensive description of the two main trials, the criminal and civil, of the Amistad incident. The trial history is part of a larger resource on the topic with biographies of important participants, images of original documents, and full texts of letters and legal papers.
- Teaching with Documents: The Amistad Case, part of the National Archives, is foremost an educational resource but also focuses on providing the texts of original historical documents. Included here is an image of the original United States v. Amistad decision and documents associated with the initial lower court trials of the Amistad Africans.
- U.S. v. Amistad, from Cornell University Law School, is a compilation of historical documents pertaining to the Amistad Case divided into three sections: “Preliminary Material,” “Argument,” and “Opinion.” The documents include the Supreme Court opinion by Joseph Story, John Quincy Adams’s arguments, Justice Henry Baldwin’s dissention, and others papers.
- United States v. the Amistad is the full text of the 1841 Supreme Court decision from Justia US Supreme Court Center. Aside from providing the syllabus and opinion of the court, the document also gives background information about the circumstances of the Amistad’s arrival in the U.S.
The arguments of John Quincy Adams helped bring the clash of ideologies between abolitionists and slave states to the forefront of politics. For the next two decades the tension between North and South would only continue to increase as a legal tug-of-war. On the abolitionist side, the Webster-Ashburton Treaty made the Atlantic slave trade even more difficult than before as the U.S. and U.K. combined their efforts off the coast of Africa to stop slave traders like those who had brought the Amistad Africans to Cuba in the first place. Also, the same year that the Africans returned home, a revolt onboard the domestic slave ship, Creole, added yet another example cited by abolitionists in the ongoing debate about slavery’s legality. This one was headed by Representative John Reed Giddings of Ohio who created nine resolutions considered inflammatory by the House of Representatives.
However, the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act was a major setback to abolitionist efforts only nine years after the Amistad case. The law forced Northern states to be more active in helping Southern slaveholders reacquire runaways, a change in the status quo that had been established by the 1842 Prigg v. Pennsylvania decision in which Northern state governments had simply chosen not to interfere with escapees. With the passage of the act, however, authorities who failed to apprehend alleged slaves could be fined, as could citizens who harbored suspected runaways. Meanwhile the slaves themselves were not afforded due process. The unrest that followed this act and other divisive laws would ultimately be settled in the American Civil War and the 13th Amendment.
- The Fugitive Slave Act, provided here as a part of U.S. Constitution Online, was an 1850 law that required escaped slaves in the North to be returned to their owners in slave states. The act caused political turmoil that would eventually culminate in civil war.
- The Giddings Resolutions, which can be view as an image of the actual text from the Library of Congress archives, are the nine statements by Representative Giddings arguing for federal jurisdiction over the freedom of slaves who have crossed state borders. The resolutions were part of an ongoing dispute between Northern abolitionists and Southern slaveholders.
- Prigg v. Pennsylvania was a Supreme Court decision that ruled in favor of slave catcher who was put on trial in Pennsylvania for kidnapping a former slave. Due to a 1793 federal law, the rights of slaveholders reacquiring escapees were protected, although the wording of Associate Justice Joseph Story’s opinion set a precedent for many Northern states to take a passive approach to the federal law and simply avoid enforcing it until the stronger act of 1850.
- Transcript of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: Abolition of Slavery (1865), provided by OurDocuments, can be viewed in HTML format or as an image of the original handwritten text. The Amistad case brought to light the irreconcilability of slavery and constitutional rights that would ultimately be solved by slavery’s abolition.
- The Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842, although primarily a resolution of border disagreements between British colonies in modern day Canada and the U.S., solidified the U.S. and British suppression of the slave trade in the Atlantic Ocean. All 12 articles of the treaty are available from Yale Law School’s Lillian Goldman Law Library.
The following websites are a good jumping off point for gaining an understanding of the historical context of the Amistad trial. While they focus primarily on history, some are from legal sources, including David Menschel’s long article from Yale Law Journal and the list of broad legal questions provided by the Federal Judicial Center. Finally, anyone seeking a dramatic depiction of the trials can watch Steven Spielberg’s 1997 film, Amistad.
- Abolition without Deliverance, by David Menschel, is a long article that delves in the legal history of slavery in Connecticut from 1784 to 1848.The PDF is from a 2001 issue of Yale Law Journal. The Amistad Africans were held captive in Connecticut where they were first defended in U.S. District Court.
- The Amistad Case, from Yale University, is an educational resource with discussion questions and references to academic materials about the topic. The lesson centers on six documents contemporary to the Amistad case, all newspapers articles.
- Amistad: The Federal Courts and the Challenge to Slavery Legal Questions before the Federal Courts is a FAQ from the Federal Judicial Center that reviews the Amistad case from a strictly legal perspective. Some of the questions address the status of the captives as slaves or property, the jurisdiction of President van Buren, and some earlier federal cases involving escaped slaves.
- The Amistad Research Center maintains extensive archives of legal documents, original manuscripts, and books associated with African American history. Registration is required to access the documents. The organization’s origins are in the abolitionist movement that supported the Africans during the Amistad trials of the mid-1800s.