Slavery and the U.S. Supreme Court: The Amistad Case


On June 28, 1839, the schooner La Amistad set sail from Havana, Cuba, setting off a series of events that would have international and historical consequences. On board the schooner were 53 Africans who had been abducted from West Africa and sold in violation of international law. Their intended fate was enslavement on plantations down coast from Havana. On the third day out, the Africans revolted and ordered that the ship be guided toward the rising sun back to Africa, but each night the Cuban plantation owners who had purchased them from Havana’s slave market and survived the uprising changed course. Zigzagging for two months, the ship eventually was brought by northerly winds and currents to Long Island. Intercepted by the United States Navy, the Africans were jailed and charged with piracy and murder. In New York City, a group of Christian abolitionists, headed by Lewis Tappan, formed a defense committee. Attorney Roger Sherman Baldwin, with help from former President John Quincy Adams, took the case to the United States Supreme Court, which ruled in March 1841 that the Africans were free. This digital collection is comprised of correspondence, dating from 1839-1841, by abolitionists, pro-slavery advocates, governmental officials, and the Amistad Africans themselves, related to the development of efforts to provide legal assistance to the Africans. The resulting trials in the U.S. court system; the political interests on the part of the United States, Cuba, and Spain; and the personal experiences of the imprisoned Africans are detailed in these letters, which are housed in the archives of the American Missionary Association, an abolitionist missionary organization that grew out of the Amistad Committee’s efforts.


A.F. Williams' Report on the visit to Culloden Point Long Island
A report by Austin F. Williams about a "visit to the Place of the landing of the Africans in the Schooner Amistad, Long Island" [Culloden Point]. According to Williams, the visit was made via the revenue cutter, Wolcott, which was commanded by Captain [Andrew] Mather, along with U.S. Marshal Norris Wilcox and District Attorney for the State of Connecticut, William S. Holabird. Williams reports that D.P. Janes accompanied the group, along with Mr. Lester, Mr. Allen, and Lieutenant Richard Meade. The group met with Sullivan Haley about facts related to Jose Ruiz, including a conversation between D.P. Janes and Ruiz regarding the Amistad Captives. Williams mentions another conversation occurring on board the Wolcott that included a discussion concerning the "Africans and Spaniards, as well as on the general subject of slavery, which after a while become very troublesome to some of the party and specially to Lt. Mead [sic].” Williams reports on Meade's poor opinion of Lewis Tappan and favorable opinion of Pedro Montes. Meade claims that Montes intends to free the children who were on board La Amistad after the court proceedings.,
Article for Spanish paper
An article written by a "member of the committee appointed to act on behalf" of the Amistad Captives for a Spanish or Spanish-language newspaper. The article is addressed to readers of the paper, "many of them Spaniard by birth, and naturally sympathizing with their countrymen," who, "should understand fully the reasons of the late arrest of Messrs. Montes and Ruiz." The author states that the members of the Committee entertain malicious feelings toward Montes and Ruiz but must "adhere to the immutable principles of justice and righteousness in acting for the weaker and more defenseless Africans." The arrest was made in consequence of advice from respectable persons of the legal profession and of having legal questions of whether the Amistad Captives are slaves according to Spanish law or free men. The Committee also sought punishment of Montes and Ruiz if it appeared "that the poor negroes had been cruelly and barbarously treated while in the custody of” the Spaniards. The article mentions that there are two men acting as interpreters; they "understand the vernacular tongue of the Amistad negroes.” The writer makes note that he would not be one to harass "any of the subjects of the august Queen who sways her scepter over an ancient and renowned land" and asks that the editor insert this in his paper.,
Article, The Spaniards -- Ruiz and Montes
An article prepared for The Emancipator concerning the actions of John B. Purroy, counsel for Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montes in the chambers of Judge Inglis of the New York Court of Common Pleas.,
Article, Treatment of the Captured Africans
An article prepared for The Emancipator concerning the treatment of the Amistad Africans. The article consists of a series of questions asked of Federal Marshal, Norris Wilcox regarding the living conditions of the Africans.,
Circular Appeal to the Friend of Liberty
A circular issued to solicit funds employing lawyers to assist the Amistad Captives.,
Donations for the Amistad Captives received by Samuel D. Hastings
A list of individuals and their donations received by Samuel D. Hastings of Philadelphia for support of the Amistad Captives.,
Handwriting sample, James Covey
A specimen of James Covey's handwriting.,
Instructions to [Committee?] at Farmington
A series of instructions written in the hand of Joshua Leavitt regarding the conduct, teaching, and needs of the Amistad Africans by the committee overseeing them in Farmington, Connecticut.,
Inventory of payments made to the Anti-Slavery Depository by the Amistad Committee
A statement of receipt for payments made by the Amistad Committee to the Anti-Slavery Depository. The document is signed by the agent, Samuel F. Foster.,
Invoice of goods purchased for the Mendi Mission for Lewis Tappan
An invoice of goods purchased for the Mendi Mission for Lewis Tappan. Transactions included on the invoice are for "Williams & Camp," Phineas Walker, and Lewis Tappan.,
Judge Thompson's Decision
Fragment of a letter written to a newspaper editor regarding the decision by Judge Smith Thompson in the circuit court at Hartford: "Judge Thompson seemed to hit upon an expedient to avoid deciding whether the three little girls were entitled to their liberty under the writ of habeas corpus." The writer quotes Thompson's statement regarding the question of where the Amistad was seized and how that would affect the jurisdiction of the court. The verso contains the printed text of "The Views of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, as Expressed in 1818, with Regard to the Moral Evil of Slavery.",
Judge Thompson's Recent Decision
A statement or article entitled "Judge Thompson's Recent Decision" regarding a decision by Jude Smith Thompson in the circuit court at Hartford. The author writes that Thompson's status as a "venerable judge…should not exempt his decisions from respectable criticism." It is reported in the article that Thompson's decision "occasioned much remark and decision.” The writer explains that the case which came before Thompson "very improperly," questioned the actions of the United States naval officers who came in contact with the Amistad, and that Thompson "committed to jail 49 Human Beings contrary to law.”,
Letter fragment listing donations to the Amistad Captives
A fragment of an unidentified letter directing payment to Lewis Tappan from donations received for the Amistad Captives.,
Letter from A. A. Phelps to Lewis Tappan
A donation letter from A.A. Phelps on behalf of various individuals pledging support for the Amistad Captives. Phelps relates that a portion of the money was taken up "as long ago as Jan. 5, 1840. It was taken specifically for the distribution of publications at the South, and in consequence of some intimation from the American Anti-Slavery Society that a door was open to do it then." He advises Lewis Tappan to make use of it as he thinks just.,
Letter from A. Brooke to Joshua Leavitt
A letter from A. Brooke to Joshua Leavitt asking whether the United States and Lt. Thomas R. Gedney will be held to answer for the imprisonment of the Amistad Captives and whether damages can be obtained from the U.S. "for the detention occasioned by the appeal of the Executive to the Supreme Court?" In his letter, Brooke states his belief that the captives are entitled to some remuneration for the hardship endured and that abolitionists "should follow up the defeat we have given the enemy (slavery) by an attack upon his stronghold the government of the United States.",
Letter from "A Friend" to Lewis Tappan
Donation letter from unidentified individual pledging support for the Amistad Captives.,
Letter from "A Friend" to Lewis Tappan
A donation letter from [Shearman] to Lewis Tappan on behalf of himself and another man "for the expenses of [the Amistad Africans'] education in Farmington. He asks whether "the plan of exhibiting them in our larger towns and cities will not interfere with those habits of patient application to labour and study.",
Letter from "A friend to the oppressed"
A donation letter from an anonymous individual pledging support for the Amistad Captives.,
Letter from A. K. Beckwith to Lewis Tappan
Donation letter from A.K. Beckwith to Lewis Tappan pledging support for the Amistad Captives on behalf of Miss Matilda Seymour.,
Letter from "A Philanthropist" to Seth Staples Theodore Sedgwick and Roger S. Baldwin
A letter comparing the treatment of the Amistad Captives with that of Native Americans in the United States in relation to the law.,