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

Description

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.

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Letter from John Pickering to "Dear Sir"
A letter from John Pickering in regards to a Mandingo man living in Salem, Massachusetts., reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from John Pickering to Josiah W. Gibbs
A letter of introduction for Samuel Barney, living in Salem, Massachusetts. Barney is "of the Mandingo nation" and is believed by John Pickering to be a possible interpreter for the Amistad Captives after testing him with vocabulary from a volume of Rene Caillie's travel narratives., reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from John Pickering to Lewis Tappan
A letter from John Pickering regarding vocabularies of the "Mandingo language" and efforts to find an interpreter for the Amistad Captives., reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from John Pierpont to Lewis Tappan
A letter from John Pierpont describing the controversy of his abolitionist views while pastor at Hollis Street Church in Boston., reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from John Quincy Adams to Simeon S. Jocelyn Joshua Leavitt and Lewis Tappan
A letter from John Quincy Adams acknowledging a letter from March 24 from the Amistad Committee (Tappan, Leavitt, and Jocelyn). In his letter, Adams writes that he has considered the Committee's proposal that he write to Lord Palmerston regarding the Amistad Case and address "the abusive collusions of the Colonial Authorities with the Slave traders in the Island of Cuba," a statement by Antonio G. Vega, Spanish Vice Consul at Boston, the bearing of the Amistad Case on the interests of Great Britain. Adams states that there has been ongoing negotiations between the United States and Great Britain about the slave trade and that any correspondence by Adams to Palmerston may be regarded as interference in those negotiations. Adams directs the Committee to "the voluminous correspondence relating to the Slave trade" published by the British Parliament and says that "the slightest glance over almost any part of that correspondence would convince you, that there have long been floods of evidence before the British government, of the practices not only of the Colonial authorities in Cuba, but of all Spanish and Portuguese to say nothing of other authorities to uphold, while professing to put down the African Slave Trade." Adams would rejoice at the institution of suits for the unlawful arrest and false imprisonment of the Africans, which could lead to a review of the District, Circuit, and Supreme Courts "so as to harmonize with that final decision of the highest Court which pronounced the Africans free." He discusses the question of allowance of salvage to Lt. Thomas R. Gedney upon the Amistad and its cargo and writes that the "arrest upon the soil of the State of New York" of the Africans "and the transportation of them by sea to another State" is a grievous affliction to him but "it has been sanctioned by the whole judicial authority of the Union." The decision of the District Court regarding Antonio "appeared the most exceptionable" to Adams and he considers it fortunate that the decree concerning Antonio has not been executed. Adams further states that he has not been without apprehension "that you might have trouble with some of your 33 freeman when in full possession of their liberty" and discusses the question of whether the Africans should be returned home or allowed to stay in the United States if they wish. In considering whether the Africans might be re-enslaved, he recalls John Barber's account of one of the girls (Margru or Kagne) being pawned by her father for a debt and sold for default of payment: "If she should get home, and be claimable by her purchaser there, it would not better her condition." He reiterates his confidence in the "justice, prudence and humanity" of the Committee and its measures for the Africans., reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from John Sartain to Lewis Tappan
John Sartain writes at the request of Robert Purvis to inform Lewis Tappan that a box will be forwarded containing 200 copies of Cinque's portrait and to explain why Tappan did not receive all that where were done the previous Friday. He writes that Purvis was sick and requested Sartain see mezzotint printer Isaac Sansom and have them dispatched. Through a blunder of Sansom, they were unsent, but he will continue to print and send them., reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from John T. Norton to Lewis Tappan
A letter from John T. Norton acknowledging Lewis Tappan's letter enclosing another letter to Sherman M. Booth, which has been delivered to him, as well as the Amistad Committee's suggestions regarding the "management of the Africans." Norton writes that he will meet with A.F. Williams and Samuel Demming next week to discuss "the location of our charges, their superintendence, etc..." Norton mentions that he had written on March 25 with anxiety, but affairs are more encouraging. Cinque and the other Africans "felt heartily ashamed of their conduct before the ladies and were desirous to make all the atonement in their power." Norton states "the fault was [illegible] so much in them, as in those who took Helen to the place where the ladies were assaulted, as not making proper explanations before taking them there." A discussion was had relative to "exhibiting for money and yielding to or associating with persons with whose characters they were not acquainted." The letter mentions that twelve of the men, including Cinque, Kinna, and Foole attended church today. Norton claims that Sherman Booth believes the Africans need more preparation before reading and singing at a proposed meeting at the Broadway Tabernacle in New York and writes that the Africans read slowly and are not accustomed to speaking with raised voices. Kinna is especially averse to exhibiting himself and if Cinque were "brought out, it would have a fine effect" but "his peculiar [prowess?] would not be exhibited except in an unpremeditated, spontaneous effort." Norton states that consideration must be made regarding the "danger of unsettling their minds, and giving them undue views of their position." Norton then writes that the Africans read accounts of themselves in newspapers and that Kinna is often called upon to read to them. He suggests Tappan postpone the meeting until [the anniversaries?] and that clothing for the Africans must be purchased., reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from John T. Norton to Lewis Tappan
A letter from John T. Norton to Lewis Tappan with a "favorable report" on "our African friends." Norton writes that he does not see them as much as Samuel Deming or A.F. Williams, but he sees them at least once a day and his son spends two hours with them every morning assisting Sherman M. Booth. He finds their "docility truly remarkable" and they have not "tumbled for money since Mr. Booth and Mr. [Golding] had a serious palaver with them." He reports Kinna saying, "If our friends wish us to go to a great meeting, I will do my best if all the world is present," and reports that Kinna led a prayer in Booth's absence. Norton mentions that some of the Africans have been ill including Peah [Pie] and Cinque and seeks advice from the Amistad Committee, hoping that they will visit. In regards to an interview with Dr. Anderson that Tappan mentioned, Norton hopes "an arrangement will be made with the Board which he represents [Rufus Anderson of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions?]. He states, "They could immediately appoint one or more missionaries who would devote themselves to teaching and learn the Mendi language." The Africans like Sherman Booth, but he does not, in Norton's mind, contemplate going with them to Africa. Norton then comments that he is glad to hear Mr. [Joseph] Sturge is expected and hopes Tappan will visit, as well. He reports that twenty-five of the Africans attended church and Sabbath School today., reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from John T. Norton to Lewis Tappan
A letter from John Treadwell Norton to Lewis Tappan stating that he has written and awaits communication. He expresses his anxiety concerning the Africans and states, "They begin to feel their liberty & it will be difficult to restrain them." Norton's apprehension is based on the fact that "they yield readily to the influences of the vile and unprincipled." He writes that Cinque has shown much respect and pleasure on meeting "a vile character who was in jail at Hartford while he was there" and Norton saw him "running through the streets hand in hand with a wild boy of sixteen." Norton reports that a group of women came to make clothes for the Africans and when Cinque, Kinna, and others arrived, Sherman M. Booth asked them to sing and talk to the women. Cinque refused unless he was paid three dollars. Booth eventually persuaded them to sing and talk, and later "succeeded in showing them how improper their conduct had been." Norton believes Tappan cannot rely on the Africans for an exhibition in New York and is not "satisfied they are not as yet able to comprehend what Christian Charity and benevolence is." However, when the Africans "felt the importance of making a favorable impression the effect would be prodigious.", reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from John T. Norton to Lewis Tappan
John T. Norton has just read Lewis Tappan's letters addressed to him at Hartford and says nothing can be done today. He will travel to Hartford on Monday and "give the subject of your letter all the attention in my power.", reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from John T. Norton to Lewis Tappan
John T. Norton reports that Mr. Williams returned to Farmington from New York yesterday and shared with him a letter from Lewis Tappan and Jocelyn. Norton writes that he went to Hartford and remained at the City Hotel, but no one enquired for him and he could not find Mr. Burgess. He states that he intends to be in Hartford tomorrow to see Governor William W. Ellsworth but will do nothing until he hears from Tappan. Norton tells Tappan that he read in a letter from Amos Townsend that a writ of habeas corpus is to be prepared in New Haven; he feels that the Amistad Captives should be brought before Judge Williams without delay. Ellsworth, however, believes Williams will not decide the matter until after the Supreme Court decision. It is suggests that all sides of situation are considered, that they be prepared to ask. Norton then mentions that Horace Cowles of Farmington is dangerously ill and that in his opinion, "there is not a more devoted & judicious friend of the slave." Norton informs Tappan that the mail is slow to reach Farmington, but nevertheless, "we have got Veto [Theodore Sedgwick] into the [Hartford] Courant.", reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from John T. Norton to Lewis Tappan
A letter from John T. Norton asking Lewis Tappan to forward a parcel to "some good Anti-Slavery friends" in Liverpool. The letter contains, among other things, "your last Anti-Slavery Reporter.", reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from John T. Norton to Lewis Tappan
A letter from John T. Norton acknowledging Lewis Tappan's letter and reporting that he has met with Thomas Fessenden, William W. Ellsworth and others, and will travel to Hartford again. He states that he is "ready to go all lengths that a church man can go on behalf of the poor [illegible] brothers." Ellsworth manifests an excellent spirit and Norton believes that many who do not "manifest much love for abolitionists [or] for colored people generally" are supportive of the Amistad Captives. Ellsworth advises against a writ of habeas corpus before the Supreme Court decision. Norton disagrees and states that Judge Williams might discharge the Captives; he believes the government will move the Africans immediately should the court rule against them. He goes on to state that a court ruling for the Africans "would be entirely contrary to Southern policies" and expresses his belief that southern judges in the court would not be independent in their views., reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from John T. Norton to Lewis Tappan
A note authorizing the payment of $212.87 to Austin F. Williams for housing the Amistad Captives in Farmington, Counnecticut., reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from John T. Norton to Lewis Tappan
John T. Norton acknowledges Lewis Tappan's letter from February 19 and apologizes for failing "to be explicit and clear in relation to the position taken by Judge Williams." Norton states that Williams "explicitly disclaims all right to interfere" but added "If compelled to issue a writ, and the persons should be brought before him he should not feel authorized to detain them a single day" and "the Marshall [wont?] exhibit his authority for holding the prisoners & it [won't?] be sufficient for him." He reports that there has been "much conversation on the various points" and Governor William W. Ellsworth endeavors to remove his objections, but without effort. It is apparent that neither Ellsworth nor Norton feel "it would be of any avail...to push forward under such circumstances.", reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from John T. Norton to Lewis Tappan
A letter from John T. Norton acknowledging Lewis Tappan's letter from February 12. Norton reports that during his interview with Simeon Jocelyn, he failed to explain why the "Africans could not be brought here & kept as you proposed." He then reports that Judge Williams "felt he had no right to interfere whilst the subject was before the Supreme Court." Norton writes that he agrees with Tappan that the Africans are "entitled to unqualified freedom." He then asks Tappan to send an issue of the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Reporter to Horatio Potter in Albany, New York., reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from John T. Norton to Lewis Tappan
A letter from John T. Norton expressing his joy at the outcome of the Supreme Court decision and congratulating Lewis Tappan and others for their work. He proclaims it a triumph that "the whole of the claims of the abolitionists have been pronounced just [and] that the individuals were entitled to freedom here." Norton writes that he looks "forward to still greater results" and offers his cooperation to the Committee as guardians and friends of the Africans. Norton relates a rumor that "Mr. Clay had fallen in a duel." He is unsure of its truthfulness, but praises Clay. Norton is considering "trying to collect the history of the southern trade, in all its bearings in this town" and asks Tappan if it would be possible to calculate the loss of lives from New York in the southern trade.", reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from John T. Norton to Lewis Tappan
A letter from John T. Norton acknowledging Lewis Tappan's letter from February 6. Norton claims he does not expect any actions by a judge regarding a writ of habeas corpus while the Supreme Court is considering the Amistad Case. Norton infers from Judge Williams that he would not interfere if the Court decides that the Amistad Captives should be delivered to Spain, but if not, he "might view it differently." He reports that Governor William W. Ellsworth maintains an "excellent spirit" but does not agree with Tappan "that it was best to act immediately." William Hungerford may not be able to appear as counsel for Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montes. He also mentions that "There are many here who are ready to forcibly interfere on behalf" of the Captives. Norton discourages such actions, but would feel justified in providing for the Captives' safety "if they should turn their backs upon their prison as I understand they can do easily." He goes on to write that if the Captives are kept in court a few months longer it might be "more favorable to their escape." He writes about publications in The Journal of Commerce and The Washington Globe are "bringing ab[out] great principles, which were once well understood by [illegible] in our law, but which had well nigh been forgotten." He comments that Mr. Burgess can be relied on fully., reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from John T. Norton to Lewis Tappan
John T. Norton has just read Lewis Tappan's letters addressed to him at Hartford and says nothing can be done today. He will travel to Hartford on Monday and "give the subject of your letter all the attention in my power.", reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from John T. Norton to Lewis Tappan
Norton acknowledges Tappan's note sent via Sherman M. Booth and regrets not seeing Tappan himself. He states that he is indignant "at the conduct of the jailor [Stanton Pendleton]." He states that "our Anti Slavery friends turned out again today & went to Berlin [Connecticut], where our African friends [remain?] in good spirits." The Africans traveled by sleigh, stopping at "Doctor Lee's, a good abolitionist, in New Britain" where many people came to see them, before arriving in Farmington. Accommodations for the Africans have been hastily made. Samuel Deming has secured a room for them to sleep in and "a colored family 40 or 50 rods distant have undertaken to prepare their food and furnish an eating room." He states that "the utmost economy will be observed in all expenditures and nothing by plain substantial fare will be provided" but clothes will need to be provided; Norton speaks of the importance of the Africans and the influence of an "Almighty hand." He asks for Tappan's views and suggests that once "faithful, devote, competent men can be found" the Africans should return "to their country & make them the means of introducing a mission." Norton believes that "the American Board [of Commissioners of Foreign Missions] might be glad to avail itself of this opportunity" and that such a mission "would exhibit a great influence." Norton appends a note stating that Sherman Booth "thinks that Kinna's influence is very important with his brethren.", reference@amistadresearchcenter.org

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