In 1839, in waters off the coast of Cuba, a group of forty-nine Africans ensnared in the Atlantic slave trade struck out for freedom. They had been captured, sold into slavery, carried across the ocean, sold again, and they were being transported on what was, for millions of Africans, the last leg of the slave trade when they found the chance to seize the initiative. One of them, a man the world would come to know as “Cinque,” worked free of his chains and led a shipboard revolt. The vessel they won was a schooner that had been named, in a grim bit of irony, the Amistad (”Friendship”). The Africans tried to force two Cuban survivors to sail them back to Africa, but the Amistad wound up instead in U.S. waters, just past Long Island Sound, where the Africans were again taken into custody. Spain promptly demanded their extradition to face trial in Cuba for piracy and murder, but their plight caught the attention of American abolitionists, who mounted a legal defense on the Africans’ behalf. The case went through the American judicial system all the way up to the Supreme Court. The Amistad Case became one of the most important slavery cases that the nation had ever seen. A case that would not only bring different anti-slavery groups together, but a case that would prove to be a corner stone in the fight against slavery. It would prove to be a case that would have many influential people step in or try to, including the president of the U.S., martin Van Buren, and a former president, John Quincy Adams. Both cases were strong and provable, but it would be the Supreme Court that would have the final decision to free the slaves.
The Amistad Case was one of the only times when three main groups of abolitionists came together to form one group in the fight against slavery. Moral Suasion, was one of the main groups that used graphic illustrations of the wrongs of slavery to turn people against it and join the abolitionists. The second group was a group that believed in using religion in the fight against slavery. They spoke out that slavery was a sin and the government should be built on the principles of God and not man. The third group believed in using government to gain supporters of antislavery, they designed special parties to speak out against slavery. The Amistad brought together all three groups and others in the fight against slavery, they believed the Amistad Case could undercut barriers based on color and racial prejudices, the South would lose its major bases for slavery.
John Quincy Adams threw himself into the Amistad case with characteristic vigor. During the period from November 1840 to January 1841 he was all about gathering and interpreting new evidence to help set the blacks free and prove a point against slavery. Above all, he seems to have relished the opportunity to attack and expose the Van Buren Administration, which he became convinced had conspired to influence the judicial outcome of the case. His arguments before the Supreme Court didn t do much, in the end, to influence the ruling: Justice Story’s decision took up the points made by Adams’s colleague, Roger Baldwin. Still Adams’s spirited defense made strong points, gave life to the abolitionist sentiment, and helped to damage Van Buren’s credibility. Although his role in the Amistad Case was not a large one, he still proved strong points against the institutions of slavery.
Martin Van Buren, who was president at the time, was not in Washington when the Amistad affair broke; he was campaigning in upstate New York. Therefore his cabinet formulated the administration’s initial response: meeting in mid-September, they arranged for federal authorities to support Spanish demands that the “slaves” be returned to Cuba to face trial as murderers and pirates. Van Buren soon returned to the capital, but he seemed to have paid little attention to the matter, letting other administrators continue to handle the situation. Unlike The Amistad (the movie), he did not replace any judges on the case, but did put federal attorneys on the case. He also signed off on an effort to have the Africans shipped immediately to Cuba if the court found for the administration, before any appeals could be filed. In sum, Van Buren wanted this problem to go away, cleanly and quietly. From his point of view, this was not only a potential diplomatic crisis with Spain, but more fundamentally a slave revolt — a dangerous provocation to southerners already unsettled by the rise of northern abolitionism.
One tremendous obstacle in achieving equal rights for blacks was the Constitution, which in the eyes of the abolitionists tolerated slavery by making a matter for sate constitutions and laws. The 3/5ths Compromise and the Fugitive Slave Clause were seen as supporting slavery and therefore the Constitution condoned slavery. Did the constitution allow a framework for slavery and support civil rights of whites and what was the status of blacks? These were two main questions asked by abolitionists in regard to the Constitution and slavery. An amendment to repeal slavery was not possible; it would never be passed by 3/4ths of the states. The only solution was to regulate the interstate movement of slaves and prohibiting it in territories.
There were several arguments from both sides that were probably not the strongest, but factored into the larger picture of slavery. The pro slavery case contained arguments such as the Africans were savages based on their head shape and bodies. That blacks benefit from slavery, and that abolitionists are just troublemakers who are trying to stir something up. The anti-slavery case contained parts about the noble appearance of Cinque and how his actions were similar to those of the U.S. when we revolted against England. Also how the Africans showed interest in learning and education to disprove that they were just savages.
The anti-slavery groups won the battle, but the war was still waging all over. The fact the slaves were freed on the basis that they were taken illegally was a solid step for the abolitionists, but they were not freed on the basis that they were human beings. The opinion, written by Story, may or may not have fully reflected the thinking of his southern colleagues, but set forth his own views. In it he wrote that the Africans were not pirates and were justified in seizing the Amistad for they had exercised “the ultimate right of all human beings in extreme cases to resist oppression.” In the absence of positive law ” ‘the eternal principles of justice’ had to prevail.”
The Amistad case is considered to be one of the most important cases regarding slavery that was ever brought into the Supreme Court. It united several types of abolitionists with a common goal to accomplish and brought new ideas and processes of freeing blacks to the table. The fact that the two presidents were involved with the case proves that slavery was a large issue and people had strong opinions regarding it. The fact that the blacks were freed was a superior step for anti-slavery and this case would live in the minds of all for years to come.