The closing argument in the Amistad case by John Quincy Adams as represented in the movie Amistad. This is a greatly condensed version of course, as Adams spoke for eight and a half hours, not unusual for legal proceedings of that day.
The text of Adams’ argument may be read here. The case involved the successful mutiny of slaves on board the Spanish ship Amistad. The mutiny occurred on July 1, 1839. The slaves killed the members of the crew except for two crewmen who were promised their lives if they would return the Africans to their home in Africa. Instead, the crewmen steered the unsuspecting slaves to America, where they were taken into custody half a mile off eastern Long Island on August 24, 1839.
The case quickly became a cause celebre, with abolitionists filing a petition in federal court in Connecticut to have the slaves freed and returned to Africa. Pro-slavery forces in response rallied around the Spanish government which filed a petition for return of the slaves. The abolitionists argued that Spain had signed a treaty with Great Britain in 1817 to abolish the Atlantic slave trade and that therefore the Africans could not be slaves, but were rather victims of kidnapping. In January 1840, the District Court agreed. President Martin Van Buren, who did not want to anger slave holding sentiment in the Democrat party, ordered the US Attorney for Connecticut to appeal. The District Court’s judgment was affirmed in April 1840.
The US Attorney appealed to the US Supreme Court. Oral argument occurred between February 23, 1841- March 1, 1841. On March 9, 1841 the Supreme Court, with one dissent, affirmed the opinion of the District Court that the Africans were victims of kidnap and ordered that they be freed immediately.
It is plain, beyond controversy, if we examine the evidence, that these negroes never were the lawful slaves of Ruiz or Montez, or of any other Spanish subjects. They are natives of Africa, and were kidnapped there, and were unlawfully transported to Cuba, in violation of the laws and treaties of Spain, and the most solemn edicts and declarations of that government. By those laws and treaties, and edicts, the African slavetrade is utterly abolished; the dealing in that trade is deemed a heinous crime; and the negroes thereby introduced into the dominions of Spain, are declared to be free. Ruiz and Montez are proved to have made the pretended purchase of these negroes, with a full knowledge of all the circumstances. And so cogent and irresistible is the evidence in this respect, that the district-attorney has admitted in open court, upon the record, that these negroes were native Africans, and recently imported into Cuba, as alleged in their answers to the libels in the case. The supposed proprietary interest of Ruiz and Montez is completely displaced, if we are at liberty to look at the evidence, or the admissions of the district-attorney.
If then, these negroes are not slaves, but are kidnapped Africans, who, by the laws of Spain itself, are entitled to their freedom, and were kidnapped and illegally carried to Cuba, and illegally detained and restained on board the Amistad; there is no pretence to say, that they are pirates or robbers. We may lament the dreadful acts by which they asserted their liberty, and took possession of the Amistad, and endeavored to regain their native country; but they cannot be deemed pirates or robbers, in the sense of the law of nations, or the treaty with Spain, or the laws of Spain itself; at least, so far as those laws have been brought to our knowledge. Nor do the libels of Ruiz or Montez assert them to be such.
THIS cause came on to be heard, on the transcript of the record from the circuit court of the United States for the district of Connecticut, and was argued by counsel: On consideration whereof, it is the opinion of this court, that there is error in that art of the decree of the circuit court, affirming the decree of the district court, which ordered the said negroes to be delivered to the president of the United States, to be transported to Africa, in pursuance of the act of congress of the 3d of March 1819; and that, as to that part, it ought to be reversed: and in all other respects, that the said decree of the circuit court ought to be affirmed. It is, therefore, ordered, adjudged and decreed by this court, that the decree of the said circuit court be and the same is hereby affirmed, except as to the part aforesaid, and as to that part, that it be reversed; and that the cause be remanded to the circuit court, with directions to enter, in lieu of that part, a decree, that the said negroes be and are hereby declared to be free, and that they be dismissed from the custody of the court, and be discharged from the suit, and go thereof quit, without delay.
From a legal standpoint the decision of the Court was unremarkable. Spain having agreed by treaty to abolish the slave trade in 1817 could clearly not sustain a case that the Africans had been legally enslaved. As a signpost of the gathering storm in this country over slavery, it was much more significant.