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.


Letter from A. Willey to Lewis Tappan
Letter from A. Willey forwarding six dollars from a man, [L.L. Howell?], in Cornish, Maine, as a donation to support the Amistad Captives.,
Letter from A.A. Guthrie to Lewis Tappan
A donation letter from A.A. Guthrie on behalf of various individuals pledging support for the Amistad Captives. Guthrie writes that he is pleased to hear that John Quincy Adams will serve as counsel for the captives. He comments on the Putnam Female Seminary and expresses his hope to see a revival of anti-slaveryism following the recent election even though the attempt in Ohio "to bring Abolitionists out as a 3rd party...was a great failure." Guthrie then requests that a subscription to Youth's Cabinet be provided to Henry Jenkins, "a remarkable colored boy residing here" in Putnam, Ohio.,
Letter from A.A. Phelps to Joshua Leavitt
A letter from A.A. Phelps to Joshua Leavitt suggesting Robert Rantoul Jr. as a prospective lawyer to assist the Amistad Captives.,
Letter from A.A. Phelps to Lewis Tappan
A letter from A.A. Phelps acknowledging Lewis Tappan's letter from May 18 stating that he will "endeavor to see that the Amistad [Africans] are duly provided for." Phelps asks which route they will come by and whether carriages are needed. He asks whether their teacher should stop at the same place with them and what arrangements should be adopted.,
Letter from A.A. Phelps to Lewis Tappan
A letter reporting that A. A. Phelps has received $30 or $40 dollars for the Amistad Captives and that he previously had paid Ellis Gray Loring a larger amount. Phelps states, "I was rather surprised that you should substitute Mr. Loring's name for mine, as the person authorized to receive the donations." Phelps explains that he continues to receive money on behalf of the Captives and considers how to remit it to Lewis Tappan. He then asks if his name could be re-inserted or if D.L. King is authorized to receive the money, if not, Phelps must decline receiving money.,
Letter from Abner Sanger to Lewis Tappan
A donation letter from Abner Sanger on behalf of various individuals pledging support for the Amistad Captives.,
Letter from A.F. Williams to "Dear Sir"
A letter from A.F. Williams about Jose Ruiz's declaration in New London. According to Williams, Sullivan Haley [?] reports that Dwight P. Janes asked Ruiz if the Amistad Captives could speak English. It is also mentioned that Haley claims Ruiz told a shoemaker in New London that he was worth $300,000.,
Letter from A.F. Williams to Lewis Tappan
A letter from A.F. Williams providing a detailed account of expenditures for the care of the Amistad Africans during March 1841. In his letter, Williams states that if the Committee is unwilling to deposit $400-$500 to draw from, then a check should be issued for the amount now due. He references his letter from March 24 and states that the Africans have been convinced it is best not to jump for money.,
Letter from A.F. Williams to Lewis Tappan
Austin F. Williams has been awaiting a letter and response from Lewis Tappan regarding the Committee's opinion on purchasing a place for the Amistad Africans, as well as an answer from John Quincy Adams as to whether he will deliver an address in Broadway Tabernacle in New York. Williams believes it is important for the Africans to "have every facility for acquiring our language & become savingly acquainted with the religion of Jesus" for fear they will be lead to crime and ruin by wicked men. Williams writes about purchasing a house in Farmington for the Africans and asks how far the Committee is willing to go to provide for them. He asks about apparel for the Africans and lists clothes already procured and states a tailor has been employed. Williams says he and others have attempted to make the Africans "as comfortable as the rooms we have engaged will admit" but that larger quarters are needed. He describes their daily meals and states that the Africans seem pleased with their fare. He mentions that the Africans had grown accustomed to jump and talk for money and they will not talk with visiting men and women unless they are paid, which is "getting to be quite an annoyance." He writes that they are sometimes "decoyed into stores" in Farmington. The Africans have promised their teacher, Sherman M. Booth, that they will no longer jump for money and do what he says. They have been working piling and splitting wood. Williams explains that he has spoken with the Africans about the Mendi country and discusses its fertility and agriculture. He believes that "if these men advance as rapidly as they have done for a few days they will surprise this whole nation." He discussed with Cinque, Foole, and Bartu the fate of Stanton Pendleton and Biblical teachings. Williams says some people are anxious that the Africans "should not come into Town" and asks "under what authority do we act, as a self-constituted [committee] or as individuals." Williams may request money soon and asks if $400-500 may be deposited to draw from.,
Letter from A.F. Williams to Lewis Tappan
A letter from A.F. Williams stating that he has not been able to write to Lewis Tappan because he is "devoting nearly all my time & for the benefit of the Mendi people." He explains that John T. Norton does not feel as much interest in the Africans, so, he and Samuel Deming shoulder much of the work. Williams makes note that he wishes to discuss this matter when he sees Tappan in ten days. He then informs Lewis Tappan that he has purchased land on which a house for the Africans can be built because he has feared sickness among them due to their current quarters. He goes on to write that the house will be ready in about four weeks and will cost approximately $400. He reports that Fargana, Cinque, and two others have been sick and that the Africans are learning English quickly and beginning to understand the value of money. The girls are attending school with the men and have time to read at home and learn house work. Williams describes the Africans as "a more interesting company of men I never saw & a more grateful circle I think cannot be found." Williams also mentions that Sherman M. Booth is away attending examinations and Rev. Mr. Fessenden has taken his place for a few days.,
Letter from A.F. Williams to Lewis Tappan
In his letter to Lewis Tappan, A.F. Williams reports that the Africans "have been constantly exposed to the rain which has fallen in great abundance," but he has tended to them and they are well now. He ensures that when the house that is being erected is finished, the Africans will be less exposed to the rain and they can exercise without "going into the street or [being] unnecessarily exposed to the bad influences of those few among us who would glory in their ruin." Williams states that he wishes John T. Norton would "put his shoulder to the wheel" and assist more with the Africans. Williams writes about the doubts which have been expressed regarding the exhibition of the Africans in New York and claims that his fears regarding this have vanished. He and Samuel Deming took Cinque and Kinna to a county anti-slavery meeting where he was able to observe their overall interest. According to Williams Cinque and Kinna were invited to speak during the meeting, he states that "Kinna arose in a very dignified manner & with great deliberation" and spoke in English. "Cinque then arose & faced the chairman & began his speech in Mendi, then spoke to the audience in a most eloquent manner," while Kinna interpreted his speech. Williams comments that he is "satisfied that with proper care & caution these brethren will make an impression on the minds of those who hear them" and suggests how to structure exhibitions of the Africans. It is mentioned in his letter that "When Bro. [Theodore] Weld was here, he & Bro. B agreed to take Yabboy [Yaboi] & not Grabbeau [Grabeau] as you write for the reason that he Yabboy sings & reads well & Grabbeau does not.",
Letter from A.F. Williams to Lewis Tappan
A letter from A.F. Williams expressing his joy regarding the "deliverance of the Amistad prisoners" stating that he has a strong desire that all the Africans not wishing to return home "be put in a course of education" to "qualify them as missionaries & teachers" so they can go to Africa and render "essential service to their countrymen." Williams believed that this would open a door "for the instruction of civilization & Christianity" into Africa. In his letter he outlines his plan for "an institution for their education & the instruction of such other colored men who might wish to avail themselves of an education free of expense." He discusses the place and setting of such an establishment, as well as its teachers. To fund this plan, Williams suggests a man of piety, influence, and perseverance take "Cinque & about 6 of the most intelligent" to visit the principle places in free states and sell tickets for public meetings. He writes that $100,000 could be raised in one year, and if his plan is not feasible, then it is suggested that the Africans be placed at Oneida Institute or Oberlin College. If this not possible then, some of the Africans should travel the country to raise funds for their return and to support emancipation. Williams states that, "an exhibition of these men would do more to remove prejudice than all other efforts" and that he is "glad these men are free by law and not by stratagem or force.",
Letter from Albert J. Bellows to "Dear Friends"
A donation letter from Albert Bellows on behalf of the children of the First Baptist Sabbath School in Charlestown for the "younger portion" of the Amistad Africans. Bellows writes, "I mention the younger portion of your number become most of the children said on giving their money "send it to the Mendi Children.",
Letter from Alfred Rockwell to Lewis Tappan
A donation letter from Alfred Rockwell to Lewis Tappan pledging support for the Amistad Captives. Rockwell asks Tappan to send him "the Congressional Document containing the correspondence between the Secretary of State and the Spanish minister.",
Letter from Alfred Rockwell to Lewis Tappan and Joshua Leavitt
A donation letter sent by Alfred Rockwell on behalf of Ambrose Judd, Asahel Thomas, Thomas North, Amery Willson, and Charles Sayles. The letter includes Rockwell's pledge of support for the Amistad Captives.,
Letter from Allen Kingsbury to Lewis Tappan
A donation letter to Lewis Tappan from Allen Kingsbury on behalf of the Free Congregational Church of Cazenovia. The letter is accompanied by a resolution pledging support for the Amistad Africans and the promotion of a "mission in the Mendi country or [to] procure Bibles for distribution among the African tribes.",
Letter from Alpheus Bigelow to Lewis Tappan
A letter from Alpheus Bigelow acknowledging the receipt of the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Reporter Extra from March 15 and expressing his great pleasure at its contents. He notes the work of the Committee "for the liberation from confinement the boy Antonio, the prosecution of the suits against Ruiz and Montes." He asks for details regarding the "public meeting" and asks if John Quincy Adams will be present and if a resolution should be presented to Adams. Bigelow questions whether Roger S. Baldwin should attend to speak of the importance of the Amistad Case.,
Letter from Amistad Captives to John Quincy Adams
Transcription: Mr John Q Adams, Dear Friend, We thank you very much because you make us free because you love all Mendi people. They give you money for Mendi people and you say you will not take it, because you love Mendi people. We love you very much & we will pray for you when we rise up in the morning & when we lie down at night. We hope the Lord will love you very much & take you up to heaven when you die. We pray for all the good people who make us free. Wicked people want to make us slaves but the great God who has made all things raise up friends for Mendi people he give us Mr Adams the he may make me free & all Mendi people free Mr Adams we write our names for you. Kali -- Mr Adams, Dear Friend we write this to you because you plead with the Great Court to make us free and now we are free and joyful we thank the Great God. I hope God will bless you dear friend. Mendi people will remember you when we go to our own country & we will tell our friends about you and we will say to them Mr Adams is a great man and he plead for us and how very glad we be and our friends will love you very much because you was a very good man and oh how joyful we shall be. Mendi hope the great God will send down His Holy Spirit upon you and have mercy upon you & that our dear saviour Jesus Christ will bless you and give you a new heart. We write this because you plead for us. We give you good love. Kinna -- Dear Friend I desire to write you a letter because you be so kind to poor Mendi people. Dear Friend I call you my Father because you set us free. Mendi people thank you very much and we will pray for you every day and night that god will keep you from danger Dear sir who make you become great President over America people God"u2014God make everything. He make men to do good and love one another. Your Friend Foole -- Mr Adams We write our names for you in this Bible that you may remember Mendi people. Some cannot write so we write for them. Kali Cinqui Cici Kinna Faliama Barma Tagino Batu.,
Letter from Amistad Committee to Daniel Webster
A letter from the Amistad Committee, written by Joshua Leavitt to Daniel Webster requesting on behalf of "the Committee of citizens charged with the protection and defense of the Africans of the Amistad" that the Africans be able to keep the beds and bedding provided to them while in custody of the U.S. Marshall for Connecticut.,
Letter from Amos A. Phelps
A donation letter from Amos A. Phelps on behalf of various individuals and groups pledging support for the Amistad Captives.,