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JQA and the U.S.Supreme Court Trial of the Amistad Captives

For two sessions, Adams’s main thrust was the actions of the executive branch, although he certainly took slaveholders and the slave trade to task as well. He accused the executive branch of having sympathy, along with a large portion of the population, for slave traders, against “these poor, unfortunate, helpless, tongueless, defenceless Africans” which was the main motivation behind the proceedings they were now engaged in. Adams felt it was his duty to call upon the court “to restrain itself in the sacred name of JUSTICE.” Dramatically pointing to a copy of the Declaration of Independence hanging on one of the pillars in the court, he fell back on this key document as he had done time and time again. “I know of no law, but one which I am not at liberty to argue before this court, no law, statute or constitution, no code, no treaty, applicable to the proceedings of the Executive or the Judiciary, except that law.” He added, “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 own national existence.” Adams was referring to a strand of the Declaration that had been familiar to the founders since the Greeks and Romans and more recently, the Europeans and in particular, the English philosopher John Locke. Locke had postulated in his Two Treatises of Government that men in the condition of nature, live in a state of equality in terms of power relationships, where “all the Power and Jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another.”Since rights are from a higher authority, no earthly power can violate them. Locke believed that “creatures of the same species and rank . . . born to all the same advantages of Nature . . . should also be equal amongst another without Subordination or Subjection.”

Adams also said that there was no article in the treaty that had any relevance to the Africans. Since he had negotiated this treaty, the court was intent on what he had to say. Article 8 of the treaty addressed a provision for vessels driven into a port by weather, pirates, or other necessities: the vessel and its inhabitants would be reasonably treated. No such condition existed in this case. “The clandestine landing in Havanna, the unlawful sale in the barracoons, the shipment on board the Amistad, were all parts of the original transaction. And it was in pursuit of the original unlawful intent that the Spaniards brought the vessel into a port of the United States," Adams observed. Article 9 stipulated that any merchandise rescued from pirates must be delivered into some port and restored to the owner. Adams dismantled that as well. “When they were brought . . . in the Tecora, against the laws of Spain, against the laws of the United States, and against the law of nations . . . who were the robbers and pirates?” Adams asked. “And when the same voyage . . . was continued in the Amistad, and the Africans were in a perishing condition in the hands of Ruiz, dropping dead from day to day under his treatment, were they the pirates and robbers?” When the treaty was negotiated, he insisted, “neither of us ever entertained an idea that this word merchandise was to apply to human beings.”

The tenth article dealt with a damaged vessel and the fair treatment by the host country in terms of paying the same charges as the inhabitants of their own country. This article, Adams argued, had nothing whatsoever to do with the case. The ship was neither wrecked nor damaged, and the Africans “were brought to our shores by deception, and against their wills.” The Spanish, therefore, had no basis for using the treaty to argue their case.

Adams saved some of his most pointed remarks for use against the executive branch. What greater violation of the oath of office, Adams said, than to cooperate with a foreign government and deliver a cargo of men under the guise of slaves. The Declaration of Independence remained the central tenet in the case, and the president was “profoundly ignorant” of the self-evident truths, which was a “willful and corrupt perjury to his presidential oath.” Any cooperation with Spain was a desecration of the American judicial system, and furthermore, there was no American jurisdiction over this case in any way whatsoever. Adams also brought up an official document that had no name attached that referred to the decision of the District Court as “one of the deepest importance to the southern states.” What did the Southern states have to do with the case and what did the case have to do with the Southern states, asked Adams? He drilled home the point that “it is a question of slavery and freedom between foreigners; of the lawlessness or unlawness of the African slave trade; and has not . . . the remotest connection with the interests of the southern states.” Fully aware that the court was a majority of Southerners, Adams said the document “was evidently calculated to excite prejudice, to arouse all the acerbities of feeling between different sections of this country, and to connect them with this case, in such a manner to induce this court to decide it in favor of the alleged interests of the southern states, and against the suppression of the African slave trade.”

Adams again circled back to the Declaration of Independence. Was the principle on which the Southern states demanded a particular decision by the court a principle of that Declaration, Adams asked the court, again pointing to the copies hanging in the court. “Every man has a right to life and liberty, an inalienable right,” Adams added. “This case is decided. I ask nothing more in behalf of these unfortunate men.” Adams had shown that the Blacks were free, the papers were “absolutely null and void as passports for persons, and still more invalid to convey or prove a title to property.”

NOTE: All quotations in this excerpt have been noted in the actual text of the book.


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