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 Amos Townsend Jr. to Lewis Tappan
Amos Townsend acknowledges Tappan's letter of February 8. In his letter, Townsend writes that he has heard nothing from John T. Norton and that Brother [John W.?] Hill is satisfied that nothing is intended by the Marshal [Norris Willcox] at present. He reports that Hill has gained the confidence of Stanton Pendleton and "knows all about matters & will be able to give us the information we desire." Hill has informed him that Willcox and Pendleton will travel to Washington on Monday. Townsend believes if the Supreme Court rules "to give up the victims of cruelty to the Spaniards" efforts will be made [by the U.S. government] "to get the Africans away before the decision is publicly known." He writes that Tappan is now aware of all the judges on the subject of the writ of habeas corpus and asks "if any responsibility is to be laid upon me." He goes on to state his unwillingness to attempt any "illegal interference." He also reports that Pendleton's difficulty in receiving payment for the Amistad Captives' bills led to a reduction of their allowance. Townsend then provides a summary of the captives' meals and informs Tappan that he has communicated to Marshal Willcox protesting such treatment and public exposure may result., reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from Amos Townsend Jr. to Lewis Tappan
Amos Townsend acknowledges Lewis Tappan's letter from February 18. Townsend encloses a writ of habeas corpus left with him by Simeon Jocelyn [writ not present] and asks for confirmation of the reason for the writ. He states that it is "difficult to account to [the Amistad Captives'] minds for the continuation of their case," which has "drawn a gloom over their minds." He then comments that they are otherwise well and they "now have three meals in a day & are satisfied with their food.", reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from Amos Townsend Jr. to Lewis Tappan
In this letter, Amos Townsend writes that James Birney has received Lewis Tappan's letter and a response has been sent. Townsend does not believe the Amistad Captives' condition can be improved by "scattering them in families" and that such attempts would be unsuccessful thus angering Stanton Pendleton. Townsend mentions the children and that the girls' instruction has not been favorable since entering the Pendleton home. He suggests it would be desirable if the girls, Kale and Kinna could be placed with more suitable families. Townsend writes that he awaits Tappan's permission to send James Covey to New York, as he is anxious to return to Sierra Leone, and Roger S. Baldwin says he will not be further needed in the trial., reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from Amos Townsend Jr. to Lewis Tappan
Amos Townsend writes that in regards to "the clothing of the Africans we are in an unpleasant predicament." The Marshall is unwilling to provide additional clothing and therefore, Roger Baldwin and Leonard Bacon have written to Judge Judson concerning the situation. The letter mentions newspaper articles concerning the Amistad Captives., reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from Amos Townsend Jr. to Lewis Tappan
Amos Townsend writes that in regards to "the clothing of the Africans we are in an unpleasant predicament." The Marshall is unwilling to provide additional clothing and therefore, Roger Baldwin and Leonard Bacon have written to Judge Judson concerning the situation. The letter mentions newspaper articles concerning the Amistad Captives., reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from Amos Townsend Jr. to Lewis Tappan
Amos Townsend writes that in regards to "the clothing of the Africans we are in an unpleasant predicament." The Marshall is unwilling to provide additional clothing and therefore, Roger Baldwin and Leonard Bacon have written to Judge Judson concerning the situation. The letter mentions newspaper articles concerning the Amistad Captives., reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from Amos Townsend Jr. to Lewis Tappan
A letter from Amos Townsend Jr. to Lewis Tappan regarding a conversation with [illegible] who said that, "Judge Williams was much afraid that the Supreme Court would be so influenced by the opinions & wishes of men in power as to give their decision against the Africans & adjudge them to the Spaniards." He claims that Judge Sherman is of the same opinion. Townsend goes on to describe this as a "dreadful prospect" and asks whether "our friends across the water [could] do something through the British Court" or with the Spanish government., reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from Amos Townsend Jr. to Lewis Tappan
Amos Townsend reports that Roger S. Baldwin "thinks it would not be safe to have James [Covey] leave the country at present prior to the Supreme Court." Townsend explains that the Circuit Court sits in Hartford in September and an examination may be necessary "as to the facts to be laid before the Court at Washington in January." He states that it is desirable to have Covey employed, but is unsure how; he asks if there are opportunities in New York for Covey. Townsend mentions that he has written about the Amistad Captives' move to Westville and that he has met with them. He explains that the Captives can understand "a great deal without the intervention of an Interpretor" and some now act as interpretors., reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from Amos Townsend Jr. to Lewis Tappan
A letter from Amos Townsend stating that in regards to "the clothing of the Africans, we are in an unpleasant predicament." He writes that the Marshall is unwilling to provide additional clothing and therefore, Roger Baldwin and Leonard Bacon have written to Judge Judson concerning the situation. The letter also mentions newspaper articles concerning the Amistad Captives., reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from Amos Townsend Jr. to Lewis Tappan
With regard to James Covey, Amos Townsend has discussed with Benjamin Griswold whether or not Covey should stay in New Haven. Townsend concludes that he should not, however, Griswold has not yet decided. It is mentioned that last spring Townsend considered Covey's leaving "after the close of the trial, but the poor Africans...begged me...that he might remain." Covey has "been generally very attentive & has rendered valuable assistance." He has also been employed in teaching the Amistad Captives to read. Townsend writes that Covey and Stanton Pendleton have been quarreling, which has limited Covey's time with the captives. Townsend reports that communication with the captives has improved as they "can converse very intelligently in English & several of them can read in the Bible." Townsend believes that Covey's work and instruction have benefited the Captives but is unsure if Roger S. Baldwin considers his presence necessary. According to Townsend, the two will meet the next day and discuss the matter while the Captives are moved to Westville, "in consequence of the demolishing of the Old Prison." Townsend later reports in his letter that he has met with Griswold, who now agrees that Covey need not remain., reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from Amos Townsend Jr. to Lewis Tappan
Correspondence from Amos Townsend delivered via James Covey. In the letter, Townsend states that Covey has a desire to see the city of New York "as he only passed through it in the night when he came from the [HMS] Buzzard." It is mentioned that Covey has been impatient during the winter and wishes to now return to Sierra Leone. He is now more contented and Townsend would not oppose his wish to visit New York "as he has behaved himself very well." Townsend sends six dollars towards his expenses and suggests that Lewis Tappan "make some arrangement with him about his wages taking into account the amount which has been expended on him.", reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from Amos Townsend Jr. to Lewis Tappan
Amos Townsend Jr. apologies for his delay in replying to Lewis Tappan's letters. He includes a statement of his account with the Amistad Committee and lists expenses for James Covey, Charles Pratt, and John Ferry. He mentions that nothing has yet been paid for in regards to the instruction of the captives and questions the rate of pay for instruction which has included "moral & religious improvement" as well as "intellectual cultivation." He claims that James Covey has "spent much time in the prison" with the captives, "teaching them himself," and has also "engaged a portion of his time in study himself." Townsend admits that he is not aware of any employment for Covey at this time and states that he will need to give testimony at the circuit court trial. Townsend explains that he has made no bargain with Covey regarding wages and that a committee has been established in New Haven to accept donations, however, nothing has actually been done., reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from Amos Townsend Jr. to Lewis Tappan
A letter from Amos Townsend regarding his discussion with Roger Baldwin about subpoenas and the willingness of James Covey and Charles Pratt to "remain unless compelled." John Ferry is "not of any service if James or Charles remain." The letter reports that one of the Amistad Captives has died and mentions an upcoming article about the Captives in a newspaper. A suit for damages has been commenced against Lewis Tappan by Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montes. It is mentioned that James Covey has agreed to remain., reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from Amos Townsend Jr. to Lewis Tappan
A letter from Amos Townsend to Lewis Tappan reporting that the clerk of the court could not give a certificate, therefore Townsend is returning papers to Tappan. Townsend reports that the Africans were presented with a talk on religion and engaged in prayer. He also relates Cinque's story of his indebtedness and seizure into slavery., reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from Amos Townsend Jr. to Lewis Tappan
A letter from Amos Townsend Jr. to Lewis Tappan regarding correspondence from John Quincy Adams to Roger Baldwin asking whether James Covey and Charles Pratt should be sent to New York. It is mentioned in the letter that Covey has had disputes with Mr. Pendleton, the jailer in New Haven, and it is not known if John Ferry should be sent to New York. The letter also discusses the question of knives procured for the Amistad Captives., reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from Amos Townsend Jr. to Lewis Tappan
Amos Townsend reports that James Covey understands he is to "attend the 'Grand Court' at Hartford." Townsend writes that he has provided an overcoat, shoes, and money to Covey. It is also mentioned that George E. Day and Josiah W. Gibbs have received books sent to them and that four of the Amistad Captives are to travel to Hartford to attend court. Townsend goes on to discuss Cinque's former story that he had owned and sold a slave, as well as the details of his family. He writes that Roger Baldwin has stated that the Marshall showed him a letter from Judge Johnson concerning clothing for the Amistad Captives and that the Marshall has obtained a certificate from "select men of the town & the attending physician" that clothing is sufficient. It is suggested that the Amistad Captives would learn English better if they were separated from each other., reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from Amos Townsend Jr. to Simeon S. Jocelyn and Joshua Leavitt
A letter from Amos Townsend regarding a meeting with Roger Baldwin and John T. Norton on the topic of Baldwin's engagement as a lawyer for the Amistad Captives and Baldwin's initial opinion on a writ of habeas corpus. Amos Townsend mentions a letter from a lawyer named, E.W. Chester, regarding legal points that will arise in the Amistad case and suggests not involving "the Antislavery Society" in the case in order not to diminish sympathy for the Amistad Captives., reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from Amos Townswnd Jr. to Lewis Tappan
A letter from Amos Townsend Jr. to Lewis Tappan acknowledging news of the Supreme Court decision which states, "The oppressor is confounded, & the oppressed delivered." Townsend writes about the reaction of the Amistad Captives, claiming that they "received the tidings of their deliverance with great joy, yet their joy was not that tumultuous outbreak of feeling, which the first decision of the lower court produced. It was a more Christian like & dignified gladness, chastened & modified no doubt by the remembrance of their former disappointed hopes after being apprised of the decision of the circuit court." In regards to whether the Africans wished to remain in the U.S. or return home, they replied, “ask Cinque," who responded, "I think. Can't tell now. I think. We talk together & think, then I will tell." Townsend believes many would prefer to stay, but considers it a "serious question.” He describes the Africans as "entire strangers to the art of gaining a livelihood in a civilized country, liable to the designs of wicked men.” He explains that Stanton Pendleton is determined to secure the girls and writes that he believes prompt measures are needed for fear Pendleton will "turn [the Africans] all adrift" when they are discharged and his pay ceases. He adds that Brother [John W.?] Hill's presence is no longer needed and he wishes to leave. He also mentions that Tappan's stand on "behalf of these oppressed men deserves the acknowledgement of all the friends of human liberty.", reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from Andrew Harris to Joshua Leavitt
A letter from Andrew Harris regarding an interpreter for the Amistad Captives., reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from Anonymous to Amistad Committee
A donation letter from an anonymous individual pledging support for the Amistad Captives., reference@amistadresearchcenter.org

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