The Captives of the Amistad/Section 6

Footnotes are from the original text.

It was agreed by the counsel for the Africans to present first a motion to dismiss the appeal, on the ground that the United States had no right to take it, for want of any legal interest in the result. This was to have been argued on Jan. 16, but Judge Story was absent, and Chief Justice Taney announced that the Court had deemed it advisable to postpone its consideration for a few days until his arrival, as the matter was an important one and should be heard by all the Judges. Mr. Adams was glad of the delay, for, he writes:[1]

I was not half prepared, and went to the Court with a heavy heart, full of undigested thought, sure of the justice of my cause, and deeply desponding of my ability to sustain it.

During this interval, the British Minister on the suggestion of Mr. Adams[2] addressed a note to the Secretary of State, stating that his government had reason to know that the Amistad negroes were illegally imported into Cuba on a Portuguese slaver, and, on account of the fact that Spain renounced the slave-trade for a valuable consideration, given by Great Britain, the Queen took a peculiar “interest in the fate of these unfortunate Africans, who are known to have been illegally and feloniously reduced to slavery by subjects of Spain.” He therefore expressed the hope that the President would find himself empowered to take such measures as would secure to the prisoners “the possession of their liberty, to which, without doubt, they are by law entitled.”

After several postponements the hearing was reached, at last, on Saturday, February 20, 1841. The motion to dismiss the appeal, and the merits of the appeal were to be discussed together, and, the Attorney General, Mr. Gilpin of Pennsylvania, who had succeeded to Mr. Grundy of Tennessee, opened the argument. He was to close on Monday, and Mr. Adams spent Sunday evening in his last preparations. “Of all that I have written, “ he says in his diary, “nine-tenths are waste paper,”[3] and, on Monday, he writes again:

I walked to the Capitol with a thoroughly bewildered mind—so bewildered as to leave me nothing but fervent prayer that presence of mind may not utterly fail me, at the trial I am about to go through.

The Attorney General made a calm and logical argument, starting from the position that the ship’s papers were conclusive as to the point that the negroes were lawfully held as slaves. If slaves, then they were property, and, as such, Spain had a right to demand their restitution, and our government but did its duty in endeavoring to enforce it, as we had done in the case of the Antelope. He spoke for five hours.

Mr. Baldwin followed, in what Mr. Adams describes as “a sound and eloquent, but exceedingly mild and modest argument.”[4] His clients, he said were contending for freedom and for life, with two powerful governments arrayed against them. Was ours to become a party to proceedings for the enslavement of human beings cast upon our shores, and found in the condition of freemen, within the territorial limits of a free and sovereign State? The United States had brought this appeal on the ground that these men were the property of Spanish subjects, and had been demanded by Spain. But the Spanish minister was no party to the appeal, and in one of his official notes to the State Department had expressly declared that the legation of Spain did not demand the delivery of slaves, but of assassins. These prisoners have been guilty of no crime. Cinquè, the master-spirit who guided them, had a single object in view. That object was—not piracy or robbery—but the deliverance of himself and his companions in suffering from unlawful bondage. They owed no allegiance to Spain. Their object was to free themselves from the fetters that bound them, in order that they might return to their kindred and their home.

A review of the legal points followed, and he closed with an allusion to the high considerations of national honor which had brought with him to their bar that illustrious citizen, who “after enjoying the highest honors that this or any other country can bestow, deems it a still higher object of his ambition to appear before this tribunal to plead the cause of helpless strangers, who have been thrown by Providence upon the hospitality of this nation, and at the same time, in the name and I trust as the representative of the American people, to vindicate the honor of our country and the claims of humanity and justice.

Monday and Tuesday were thus occupied, much to the relief of Mr. Adams, to whom every moment gained for further preparation was precious. On Tuesday morning, he writes in his diary:

With increasing agitation of mind, now little short of agony, I rode in a hack to the Capitol, taking with me, in confused order, a number of books, which I may have occasion to use. The very skeleton of my argument is not yet put together.[5]

His interest in the cause was intense, and he said more than once, that if he should be in any way instrumental in rescuing these people, he should consider it the greatest event in his life.

On Wednesday morning, February 24, the “old man eloquent” rose to address the Court. In his own words:

I had been deeply distressed and agitated till the moment when I rose; and then my spirit did not sink within me. With grateful heart for aid from above, though in humiliation for the weakness incident to the limits of my powers, I spoke four hours and a half, with sufficient method and order to witness little flagging of attention by the Judges or the auditory.[6]

He did not hesitate to make a direct attack upon the expiring Administration, and declare that its course had been governed not by any sense of justice, but by sympathy for Spanish slave-traders. And what, he said, had been the demand of the Spanish minister? That the President of the United States should first turn man-robber; rescue these forty Africans from the custody of the Court; next turn jailer and keep them in his close custody to prevent their escape; and lastly turn catch-poll and convey them to the Havana to appease the public vengeance of the African slave-traders of the barracoons.

The Court adjourned for the day in the middle of his argument, and on re-convening the next morning there was a vacant chair among the Judges. Mr. Justice Barbour of Virginia, had died during the night, with no premonition of danger, the fatal stroke being not improbably due to the excitement incident to the great cause, for the Judges had remained in the conference-room until a very late hour. An adjournment for the week followed, and it was not till March 1st, that Mr. Adams resumed his argument. He was still unsparing in his denunciation of the course of the Executive; to which he said, he was driven by his refusal to withdraw the appeal, notwithstanding a personal solicitation to do so which he had himself descended to make. Had the President ventured to give the order recommended by the Attorney General for the delivery of the captives to the Spanish minister, the people of Connecticut never would and never ought to have suffered it to be executed on their soil, but by main force. The warrant he did issue to put them on board the Grampus, assumed a power that no president had ever assumed before, one which it was questionable if the most despotic government of Europe possessed. Such a power would put the personal freedom of any citizen of the United States at the disposition of executive discretion, caprice, or tyranny. It was the servile submission of an American President to the insolent dictation of a foreign minister. The President must have been profoundly ignorant of the self-evident truth that the right of personal liberty is individual, that to every one that right is his own; for had he known it, he would have been guilty of willful and corrupt perjury to his official oath. It was a lawless and tyrannical order, and issued in cold-blooded cruelty, for the commanding officer of the Grampus had warned those who sent him on this errand, that his vessel was too small to carry so large a cargo of human flesh. The warrant, though absolute on its face, was made conditional on the judgment to be pronounced, by instructions to the District Attorney, thus “letting I dare not, wait upon I would.” But the Attorney had encouraged the Secretary of State with soothing hopes “that the decree of the Judge, ordering the Africans to servitude and death in Cuba, would be as pliant to the vengeful thirst of the barracoon slave-traders, as that of Herod was in olden time to the demand of his dancing daughter for the head of John the Baptist in a charger.”

Thus far Mr. Adams had taken the part of an orator, rather than of a lawyer, but he now made a very thorough and clear review of the case of The Antelope, and put the various rulings of the Court in the best light for his clients, of which they were susceptible. He closed with remarking sadly that a generation had passed away since the last time he had stood at that bar. Every Judge then upon the bench had passed away. His contemporaries at the bar had gone with them. One of the Judges before whom as arbiters of life and death, he had begun this very argument, was no longer among them. He, himself, was there for the last time, and could say, as he took his seat:

Hic cæstus, artemque repono.

The counsel for Lieut. Gedney were ready to follow him, in support of their claim for salvage, but the court declined to hear any discussion as to that, until the question of jurisdiction, on the motion to dismiss was disposed of. The Attorney General therefore closed the case, on March 2d, occupying the entire day, as Mr. Adams says, in “reviewing, with great moderation of manner, chiefly Mr. Baldwin’s argument, and very slightly noticing mine.”[7] In the official report of the case, the arguments of the Attorney General and Mr. Baldwin are given at great length, but it is stated that, as no minute of that by Mr. Adams was furnished by him, none could be given, and that “as many of the points presented by Mr. Adams, in the discussion of the cause were not considered by the Court essential to its decision; and were not taken notice of in the opinion of the Court, delivered by Mr. Justice Story, the necessary omission of the argument is submitted to with less regret.”[8]


  1. Memoirs, x., 399.
  2. Memoirs, x., 400.
  3. Memoirs, x., 429
  4. Memoirs, x., 429.
  5. Memoirs, x. 429
  6. Memoirs, x., 431.
  7. Memoirs, x., 437.
  8. The United States vs. The Amistad, 15 Peters’ Reports, 518, 566.