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.

Pages

Letter from John T. Norton to Lewis Tappan
In this letter, it is reported that Simeon Jocelyn visited John T. Norton in Farmington and is traveling to Middleton to consult with Judge William L. Storrs. Norton writes that "many of the good friends here are very desirous to get the Africans out of the hands of their oppressors at once and some are willing to go so far as to shoulder a musket, or to turn Mohawks for this purpose." Norton is of the opinion that it will be best to keep still until after the [Supreme Court] decision is known and he realizes Tappan is not contemplating interference, but advises him to "address others in case you are of the same opinion as myself." He states that the cause of abolition will gain greatly if the Amistad Captives are "delivered...in the path of law & justice" but that opponents of abolition will gain if the abolitionists "depart from the principles they have contended for." He further states that "Providence seems to have thrown these men here for various purposes & one of these purposes might have been to tell Abolitionists & to exalt their principles." If the decision of the Supreme Court is unfavorable it may "open the eyes of good men to the designs of the south" and that if the "Africans should be given to Spain what an outcry would then be [throughout?] the Country & the World." Norton writes that "the existing arrangements do not seem to be such [to] secure speedy action" and he will need a day to secure a writ of habeas corpus. Apparently, Simeon Jocelyn left the blanks of the writ, prepared by Governor William W. Ellsworth, in Norton's hand., reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from John T. Norton to "My dear Friend"
A letter from John Treadwell Norton providing an update on the Africans, listing the homes where the girls have been placed and reporting that the girls, Kinna and Cinque attended church yesterday. Norton writes that he hopes Sherman M. Booth will "get settled down and pursue some systematic course." He suggests that individuals should be found who are willing to devote themselves to a mission for the Mendi people, individuals who can come to Farmington to teach the Africans and learn the Mendi language. If this is done "a mission can be commenced under the most favorable circumstances." He states that no good will come of changing teachers frequently, describing the Africans as "suspicious & fearful, not naturally perhaps, but circumstances have made them so"; he fears that they may become discouraged. Norton goes on to write that clothes are being prepared for the Africans and advises that definite plans be made and that other accommodations be found., reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from Joshua Coffin to Lewis Tappan
A letter from Joshua Coffin notifying Lewis Tappan that he has received his letter and since then has "had a conversation with brother Whittier on a little difficulty, which I had as to the best method of getting permission to the President to accompany the Africans to their native land." Whittier suggests that if Seth Staples, Roger S. Baldwin, and Theodore Sedgwick petition the President on Coffin's behalf, he might be successful and asks that Tappan communicate this point. Coffin adds that he must see Leonard Bacon and Benjamin Griswold before leaving and asks Tappan to write to them regarding Benjamin Griswold going to Africa. Coffin goes on to state that if Mr. Gurley should find out, his plan would be defeated. Coffin explains that he seeks to secure free passage to Liberia for "how would it look for me to go to Liberia at the expense of the United States & then come back & write a big book, abusing the Colony, the Colonization Society, the United States Government & all?" It is then made apparent that if Coffin accompanies the Amistad freemen, "I should have no occasion [sic] to tell Gov. Buchanan my whole object in coming but if I went in any other way, i should deem in my duty...to tell him I came to examine" the situation in Liberia. Coffin appends a note of January 31 regarding conflicting reports of as to whether an appeal has been made from the decision of Judge Andrew T. Judson in the Amistad case., reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from Joshua Coffin to Lewis Tappan
A letter from Joshua Coffin reporting on his visit with a man who can speak several African languages and Spanish, and who may serve as an interpreter to the Amistad Captives., reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from Joshua Leavitt to "D Bro"
A letter from Joshua Leavitt reporting that "the court was occupied, until two o'clock, by Mr. Gilpin in giving the documentary statements of the case, which he did very fully & satisfactorily in chronological order. Mr. Baldwin then read his motion to dismiss the appeal," which Leavitt praises. He outlines the proposed course of the case and believes it will occupy the entire week and writes that he will provide an account of the case as directed to the Journal of Commerce "through Mr. Kingman with whom I am acquainted." Leavitt states that a senator "suggested that it was not unlikely they would be given into the Mixed Commission Court at Havana.", reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from Joshua Leavitt to George W. Alexander
A letter to George W. Alexander from Joshua Leavitt writing on behalf of the Amistad Committee to express its "sincere thanks for the kind interest [they] have taken in their case, & for [their] considerate zeal in urging the subject upon the attention of the Spanish government." The letter contains information regarding the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court and reports that the Committee is now desirous of recommendations for the Africans and their restoration home. The letter brings up several points regarding the Supreme Court case before the British government, particularly a statement by Antonio G. Vega, the Spanish Consul at Boston, regarding official forms about the shipment of the Africans in Cuba, and Spanish laws. The Committee states that it will seek more information regarding "the country from which these Africans came, the practicality of reaching it, provisions for such a journey, etc..." The Committee will also write to the Governor of Sierra Leone, John Jeremie, and David Turnbull, the British Consul to Cuba. Leavitt states that perhaps officers of the British Navy may be of assistance in attempting to return the Africans home. The Committee originally seeks to invoke the aid of the U.S. government to return the Africans, but inquire about aid from the British government in the instance that the U.S. fails., reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from Joshua Leavitt to Lewis Tappan
Joshua Leavitt writes that he has awaited information about the expectation of Francis Scott Key's appearance before the Supreme Court case. Leavitt states that John Quincy Adams will not appear except as an assistant counsel to Henry D. Gilpin. He explains that Adams does not expect the court's decision to be handed down until after March 4 and will be desirous of not "embarrassing the expiring administration." Leavitt knows "it is the feeling of many in the administration party that they have as a party gone far enough, too far, farther than justice & the constitution required, farther than they have got paid for." He reports that "Mr. Walker, of Mississippi, has made a call on the President for his further correspondence on the subject." It is advised that James Birney be prepared to present before the court and also suggested that Professor Josiah W. Gibbs provide an affidavit "as to what he learned of the country of Mendi" and the probability that the Amistad Captives will actually "reach their own country if sent to Liberia." Leavitt notes that he has not learned from Henry D. Wheeler "whether he will go on with his report.", reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from Joshua Leavitt to Lewis Tappan
A letter in which Joshua Leavitt writes, "I succeeded at length in getting my mind to a focus so as to produce the enclosed. If you think it will answer [illegible] have two fair copies made. One to be [signed for?] the President, the other to send to Mr. Adams for his approval & to engage his cooperation.", reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from Joshua Leavitt to Lewis Tappan
A letter from Joshua Leavitt to Lewis Tappan stating that he "cannot be with the Comm. [committee] this evening" as he has a previous engagement. Leavitt explains that he can travel to Washington the following Monday or Wednesday and asks that the committee advance him $100. The note is appended stating that Leavitt received the money "to be returned on demand or such part of it as may not be allowed as compensation for reporting the Amistad Case.", reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from Joshua Leavitt to Lewis Tappan
Joshua Leavitt writes that Lewis Tappan will likely see Roger S. Baldwin and learn from him that the Supreme Court case has been postponed to February; however, he does not feel that "any harm will result from it to the Africans." He mentions that he has been informed by William Winston Seaton that Francis Scott Key "was to appear in the case in favor of sending [the Amistad Captives] to Africa" on behalf of the American Colonization Society. Leavitt asks what should be done as "Our counsel have never been instructed on that point, & I presume are not "certainly Baldwin is not prepared personally to oppose it. Or would it be wise to do so?" He then asks if the counsel can be directed to procure a "[illegible] of the Decree, as well require them to be sent to their own country" provided it can be done with safety." He advises that counsel be furnished with a brief of the objections against having them sent to Liberia and asks Tappan to consult with Simeon S. Jocelyn. Leavitt explains that he has not had an opportunity to confer with Roger S. Baldwin and since the case has been postponed, Leavitt may return home. He goes on to discusses Theodore Sedgwick's article in the Washington Globe and mentions the National Intelligencer and The Madisonian., reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from Joshua Leavitt to Lewis Tappan
A letter from Joshua Leavitt acknowledging Lewis Tappan's letter. Leavitt states that he did not write to Tappan "but had written a short notice of yesterday's proceedings for the Sun & for the Emancipator." Leavitt did not believe he was to furnish "information first or exclusively to the Committee, especially during the progress of the case" and believed they "wished a full and carefully prepared report, rather than a hasty sketch." He reports that Roger S. Baldwin is sanguine of success and has met with Francis Scott Key and also that John Quincy Adams "was in court this morning, wide awake & ready." He writes that he has seen Judge Smith Thompson and that the Supreme Court has given Baldwin the choice of waiting "until the Court is full, or to bring on the case immediately after the New Jersey case, which comes on Monday." Leavitt believes he will choose the latter and says he is "glad you moved so promptly & efficiently in the papers." He then praises [Theodore] Sedgwick's article and says it "will make Calhoun's stuff appear exceedingly flimsy.", reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from Joshua Leavitt to Lewis Tappan
A letter from Joshus Leavitt informing Lewis Tappan that he has applied to both the Washington Globe and the National Intelligencer for insertion of an article written by Theodore Sedgwick (writing as "Veto"), but both papers have declined. He states that, "[Francis Preston] Blair has not directly or positively declined, but said he did not think he should do it. [William Winston] Seaton entirely declined." Leavitt writes that John Quincy Adams desires a written refusal from both editors; so, Leavitt will have Seth Merrill Gates "or some other member of Congress to make a written application, so as to receive a written reply." Leavitt reports that Henry G. Wheeler has applied to Adams to "report the case and publish it on his own account with a copy right." He believes that "our object & policy would be quite different from Wheeler's, ours being to give the widest diffusion to the reports & his to [illegible] it by a copy right." Leavitt wishes to know the views of the committee on whether to hire Wheeler as a reporter or have Tappan do it and relates Adams' feeling that "he shall revive all the bitterness of the [slave?] party against him, if he argues the case" but he is willing to endure all this" and that he believes the court will not recognize the Colonization Society as having a right to appear in the Supreme Court case., reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from Joshua Leavitt to Lewis Tappan
A letter from Joshua Leavitt to Lewis Tappan writing that he has been informed by Henry D. Wheeler that he shall not attempt to report John Quincy Adams' speech before the Supreme Court. Leavitt will endeavor to write the report and asks how Tappan will publish the report, the length, its aim, and whether additional reporting will be needed for the Emancipator. Regarding the length, he states that "arguments here are to a prodigious length" and cites recent examples. Leavitt mentions a recent editorial on the Amistad case in the Boston Recorder and states that it is a "great disappointment" to be detained in Washington for so long, but he is "not very [illegible] to have the Africans in the hands of Daniel Webster instead of John Forsyth." He writes that "Mr. [?] has entered an appearance on behalf of [Lt. Thomas R.] Gedney & co," and goes on to describe Henry D. Gilpin as "gentlemanly & frank, " stating that Gilpin argues alone for the United States' case and that Francis Scott Key has decided not to appear. Leavitt is unsure if the correspondence of Henry S. Fox, British minister in Washington, has been communicated to the Senate. Leavitt mentions that he is to meet with Mr. Cook [or Cooke], a colored preacher, and has heard a "most interesting sermon [from?] a slave.", reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from Joshua Leavitt to Lewis Tappan
Joshua Leavitt writes that he has awaited information about the expectation of Francis Scott Key's appearance before the Supreme Court case. Leavitt states that John Quincy Adams will not appear except as an assistant counsel to Henry D. Gilpin. He explains that Adams does not expect the court's decision to be handed down until after March 4 and will be desirous of not "embarrassing the expiring administration." Leavitt states that he knows "it is the feeling of many in the administration party that they have as a party gone far enough," too far, farther than justice & the constitution required, farther than they have got paid for." He reports that "Mr. Walker, of Mississippi, has made a call on the President for his further correspondence on the subject." He states that James Birney should be prepared to present before the court and suggests that Professor Josiah W. Gibbs could provide an affidavit "as to what he learned of the country of Mendi" and the probability that the Amistad Captives would "reach their own country if sent to Liberia." Lastly, Leavitt writes that he has not learned from Henry D. Wheeler "whether he will go on with his report.", reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from Joshua Leavitt to Lewis Tappan
Joshua Leavitt begins his letter with corrections to his previous reports on the Supreme Court case. He writes that he needs money and asks for seventy-five dollars, explaining that he provides his reports to the attorney general for examination and has not received Roger S. Baldwin's comments, "in regard to the filling out of his argument. The purely legal part, he can do better than I can probably or he has the authorities at his command." Leavitt acknowledges Lewis Tappan's letter from February 25, 1841, stating, "You are right, probably in part, about the effect of my unguarded remark with regard to the Mixed Commission, though not as to the results. Perhaps it would be well to address the [British Minister] & tell him that the Mixed Commission ought not to claim them, except in the settled alternative of their being as actually given up, [illegible] about to be given up to 'the vengeance of the barracoons.' If they can be protected & cleared by our laws, as they right to be, he ought to insist upon its being done." Leavitt further states, "I believe it is the first blunder I have made in the case, & I think this is neither very great nor irretrievable" and claims he will endeavor to complete the report of John Quincy Adams' speech before the Supreme Court after her returns home; however, the decision may be delayed., reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from Joshua Leavitt to Lewis Tappan
Joshua Leavitt offers to act as a reporter on the Amistad Case in Washington for a fee of nothing less than $100., reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from Joshua Leavitt to the Committee of the British and Foreign Anti-slavery Society
A letter from Joshua Leavitt writing as Corresponding Secretary of the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, to the Committee of the British and Foreign Anti-slavery Society. In his letter, Leavitt encloses "a communication from our Committee addressed to the Lord Palmerston" regarding the Amistad Case which the Committee "deemed necessary to be laid before the British Government" He outlines the claim by the United States government that the Amistad Africans were legally enslaved in Cuba and a statement by Antonio G. Vega, the Spanish Consul at Boston, declaring that there "was actually no law in Cuba against enslaving Africans recently imported, but that such Africans were sold bona fide & lawfully held as slaves." The Committee feels it necessary "to place a copy of this Declaration of Vegas, certified under the seal of the court, in the hands of the British Government" and encloses document to the care of the British society "that you may present them in such manner as may appear best calculated to further the great [illegible] we have in view." Leavitt writes that "We learn with much interest of the proceedings of your worthy deputation to Spain" and hopes the Amistad Case may have some influence. Leavitt makes sure to mention that Joseph Sturge is a welcome visitor to the United States., reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from Joshua Levitt to Thomas Fowell Buxton
A letter from Joshua Leavitt informing Thomas Fowell Buxton that the Amistad Committee seeks his advice regarding questions related to Africa and the possible return of the Africans to their homes, since, he is doubtlessly familiar with the Amistad Case and decision of the U.S. Supreme Court. Leavitt writes that the Committee is "anxious for their happiness and desirous to ensure their safe return to their own country, if possible. The Committee are apprehensive that the dreadful slave trade along the West Coast, with its dire consequences in turning the hand of every man against his fellow in the intensions, will render it impossible for them to penetrate to Mendi, even if landed on the coast." The Committee thinks it would best if the Africans remained in the United States and do not wish to send them home unless "there is a reasonable prospect that they will be able to get home." Leavitt states that although Colonizationists have talked in favor of Africa, "they have gained but very little knowledge of its actual condition in the detail." Thus, Leavitt asks a series of questions concerning the existence and location of the country of Mendi like, for example, how to travel there and whether the British government would offer aid in restoring the Africans if the U.S. government will not., reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from Joshua Maule to Lewis Tappan
A donation letter from Joshua Maule on behalf of Charles and Parvin Wright pledging support for the Amistad Captives. In his letter, Maule acknowledges the receipt of pamphlets and the [American and Foreign Anti-Slavery] Reporter sent to him and J.P. Smith. He feels that Judge William Jay's letter published in the last Reporter "is calculated to do much good...and gives a full explanation of the case.", reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from Joshua Maule to "Respected Friend"
Joshua Maule writes that he has seen an appeal published in "The Friend" and encloses ten dollars in support of the Amistad Captives. From the ten dollars, five is from John P. Smith and the other five is from Joshua Maule., reference@amistadresearchcenter.org

Pages