The Amistad Rebellion
A White Man's Nation?
The Amistad case is fascinating for a number of reasons, one of which is the light it casts on racial perceptions among whites in the United States before the Civil War. There were many attitudes, of course, but the following quote from the decade of the Amistad affair, from Judge Andrew T. Judson, can serve as a representative example. Judson was a Connecticut official who claimed to oppose slavery, but who once argued before a jury that …
[the United States of America is] a nation of white men, and every American should indulge that pride and honor, which is falsely called prejudice, and teach it to his children. Nothing else will preserve the American name, or the American character. Who of you would like to see the glory of this nation stripped away, and given to another race of men? [Emphasis in original.]
Judson was, in short, one of the majority of white northerners who considered the immediate abolition of slavery, or the idea of the “amalgamation of the races,” to be the kind of dangerous extremism that was likely to lead to the end of the Republic. His views reflected the mainstream of northern thought during the period. As a judge, however, Judson would go on to play an important role in the long-running legal dispute that centered on the Amistad captives. He delivered a ruling that refused to return the captives to Spanish authorities in Cuba. It was appealed.
Enter John Quincy Adams
Former President John Quincy Adams, now a Congressman from Massachusetts, had been an informal advisor to abolitionists on the Amistad matter for many months. He expanded his role in the controversy after determining that there was (as he confided to his diary) “an abominable conspiracy, Executive and Judicial, against the lives of these wretched men.”
Adams was born into a family known for its commitment to principle and public service, and was raised in the expectation that he would serve his nation at a high level. His father was the legendary John Adams, second U.S. president. In 1824, the younger Adams (by then a former senator and the current secretary of state) fought a breathtakingly close and bitterly disputed election contest with Andrew Jackson that ended up in the House of Representatives. The House awarded the election to Adams.
Historians have not been particularly kind to the younger Adams's presidency, citing his aloofness and his inability to build coalitions. Jackson defeated him soundly when he ran for re-election in 1828. Yet those who believed that the former president's career was over after his defeat were in for a surprise. Adams sought and won election to the House of Representatives in 1830, and the following year he began the final phase of his remarkable political career as the most prominent spokesman for the anti-slavery faction in the lower chamber of Congress.
Adams was not an abolitionist, but he loathed the institution of slavery, and devoted the balance of his life to opposing it. By the time he was approached to offer legal advice to the legal team representing the Amistad captives—and, eventually, argue the case before the U.S. Supreme Court—he was in his seventies, and had not represented a client in court in more than 30 years.
The closing argument he delivered was, however, the finest hour of his career.
Excerpts from John Quincy Adams' defense of the Amistad captives before the United States Supreme Court:
“I know of no other law that reaches the case of my clients but the law of Nature and of Nature's God, on which our fathers placed our national existence.”
“[The] American government [has] consistently adopted the design of delivering [the Amistad captives] up, either as property or as assassins.… Was this justice?”
[In reference to a treaty between Spain and the United States stipulating that recovered merchandise “be taken care of and restored entire to the true proprietor”:] “A stipulation to restore human beings entire might suit two nations of cannibals, but would be absurd, and worse than absurd, between civilized and Christian nations.”
[In response to a claim from the Spanish that they were due “merchandise, rescued from pirates and robbers”:] “The merchandise was rescued [by the U.S. Navy] out of its own hands, and the robbers were rescued out of the hands of the robbers! … [Is] any thing more absurd than to say these forty Africans are robbers, out of whose hands they have themselves been rescued? Can a greater absurdity be imagined in construction than this, which applies the double characters of robbers and of merchandise to human beings?”
“[The Spanish have demanded that the president of the United States] turn himself into a jailer, to keep these people safely, and then into a tipstaff, to take them away for trial among the slave-traders…”
“Has the fourth of July become a day of ignominy and reproach?”
Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to African-American History © 2003 by Melba J. Duncan. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
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