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 Anonymous to Lewis Tappan
A donation letter from an anonymous individual pledging support for the Amistad Captives. The writer of the letter refers to himself as "one who attributes to Mr. Tappan and his friends right intentions, but thinks him wrong in his views of Christian obligation on the subject of slavery.",
Letter from Anonymous to Lewis Tappan
A donation letter pledging support for the Amistad Captives.,
Letter from Anson G. Phelps to Lewis Tappan
A letter from Anson G. Phelps relating information about Reverend William Finley who "got 40 slaves liberated" after being brought to New Orleans and claimed as Spanish property.,
Letter from Austin Willey to Lewis Tappan
A donation letter from Austin Willey on behalf of his Sabbath school pledging support for the Amistad Captives. Willey thanks Lewis Tappan for sending him his bill and asks him to forward 1000 [illegible] from the Congregational Union of Scotland. He includes instructions on how to send them and he hopes Tappan will be able to send James Birney and [illegible] "in the field at once." Willey believes Judge Thomson made a mistake "in requesting the publication of that correspondence in the last [American and Foreign Anti-Slavery] Reporter" and asks that Tappan send copies of the Reporter to a number of people. Willey references the publishing of a prospectus in the Advocate of Freedom.,
Letter from B. Green to Lewis Tappan
A letter from Beriah Green to Lewis Tappan that he is awaiting communication from the Amistad Committee regarding the Africans being sent to the Oneida Institute. Green states that if they are sent "their presence would very greatly modify our arrangements, I may say, radically" and Institute would be responsible for opening the Boarding Hall. He writes that Mr. Gaston would expect to devote his time to giving instruction to the Africans and the farm would be managed by the superintendent. If the Committee decides against sending the Africans to Oneida, "other methods would be adopted." Green states the suspense he and the Institute are in is "very embarrassing" and they "know not how to interpret this long silence" and speaks of the financial difficulties of the Institute, which necessitates communication from the Committee. Green hopes to pass along a copy of his book [The Miscellaneous Writings of Beriah Green] and that Tappan would "say a word friendly to it." Apparently, Joshua Leavitt as editor of The Emancipator has not commented on the book and yet it has book has been well reviewed in many papers and its sale is important to the Oneida Institute. Green mentions that he has sent a copy of a sermon to Tappan.,
Letter from B. Griswold to Lewis Tappan
Benjamin Griswold acknowledges Lewis Tappan's letter of October 16 and claims that he did not reply because he could not accede to Tappan's wishes. Griswold informs that he is at present attending medical lectures and "can have no opportunity after the present season," and therefore cannot leave New Haven, but will do so if Tappan wishes. He adds that he has communicated this to both Amos Towsend and Simeon Jocelyn. He then comments that since he has lived in New Haven for only a short time, he has little acquaintance with the neighboring clergy.,
Letter from B. Griswold to Lewis Tappan
Correspondence from B. Griswold acknowledging Lewis Tappan's letter that asked Griswold what he has done for the Amistad Captives, in which he replied "nothing" followed by an explanation. Upon receiving Tappan's authority to act as agent in collecting money, Griswold called upon Amos Townsend and Leonard Bacon. As he knew many ministers in the New Haven area, he would visit them on behalf of the captives if Townsend and Bacon wrote to them first. However, neither has called upon Griswold and "the churches around wish to know what New Haven has done. They think she ought to take lead, but she has as yet done nothing.",
Letter from B. Griswold to Lewis Tappan
Correspondence from B. Griswold acknowledging Lewis Tappan's letter and his suggestion regarding "what you seem to think it best for me to do." Griswald states that Tappan's suggested course would not be pleasant to him or the minister and adds that the Committee in New Haven seems "to think that they have enough to meet the demands against them or will have." Griswold writes that Tappan acknowledges "the rec't of some hundreds of Dols [dollars] & more will doubtless be sent you & probably enough for all your wants." He then asks Tappan to recall conversation "relative to the country & people in African from where these men came." He mentions that he has written to Sierra Leone asking questions about where the "Mendi tribe "resided, etc., and has yet to receive a reply. He believes that anyone who can answer these questions should be brought forward and states, "I think I should be unwilling to start to go home with these men if I knew that I could get no further than Sierra Leone." If the Amistad Captives are to be settled in Liberia or Sierra Leone, Griswold feels it unadvisable to send an escort with them. He goes on to state, "the little girls say that they do not wish to return to Africa. They would like to see their parents but they do not know as they should see them [returned?].",,
Letter from B. Griswold to Lewis Tappan
A letter from Benjamin Griswold intended as a delayed reply to Lewis Tappan's letter from April 1, as he was out of town. In his letter, he states that he cannot "give you a decided answer because I do not yet know how permanent the arrangement will be, which you purpose to make for my support." He then says it would not be pleasant to be landed on the coast of Africa, sustained a year or two and then forsaken. Griswold does not know whether it would be possible "to find the people to which Cinque & his associates belong" and states it would be desirable to learn about the difficulty or ease of obtaining access to their country. He writes that he has offered his services to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions and wishes to consult with the Board before replying to Tappan. He then mentions that he is ready "to go anywhere & suffer anything for Christ" and wishes to do "that by which I can do the most for poor, perishing Africa & the salvation of this dying world.",
Letter from Bancroft Fowler to Lewis Tappan
A letter reporting that Bancroft Fowler has received news of the Amistad Case from an American & Foreign Anti-slavery Reporter. He rejoices "to find [him] engaged in so good a cause as that of endeavoring to prevent the reduction to slavery of those who have an undoubted right to freedom, & to break the bonds of those who are unrighteous held in the most cruel servitude." Fowler recalls last meeting Lewis Tappan in Boston when Tappan was a Unitarian and is glad "that you have been the Spirit of God, to renounce those dangerous sentiments." Fowler sends money in support of the Amistad Captives and wishes he could send more, but his "pecuniary circumstances" are more limited than before, however, he may send more in the future.,
Letter from Banna to Lewis Tappan
Fragment of a letter from Banna to Lewis Tappan. Transcription reads: Dear Sir, Mr L. Tappan, I will write you a few lines because I love you very much and I wish I thank you very much because you make us free and Mr Adams he made us free and I wish to pray to the great God to send us to our home and he will sent missionary to them that they may teach them about the Lord Jesus Christ who has died for us he want all men to be good and love him very much indeed my friend I want you to send us now home and he want all men to be good and love him he sent his son into the world to save us from going down to hell all men have some work to do great God he deliver us from hands of wicked men from Havanas men great God he make us free and he will send us to the Africa Country and he will sent the Bible into Africa that they may repent of there sins that they may love the great God and he will take them up to Heaven when they die there they...,
Letter from Benjamin Griswold to Lewis Tappan
A letter reporting that Benjamin Griswold has received Lewis Tappan's letter and an answer was all but completed "the evening before the sitting of the court at Hartford." Griswold explains that he has not quite come to a decision [presumably to accompany the Amistad Captives back to Africa], but that "now I suppose there can be not great haste in as much as I presume you do not expect that they will leave this country for a year." He states that some preliminary questions must be settled before he can make a decision and that he has informed the Africans about the court appeal. They are told that that they must "remain here two or three months longer -- they seemed very much grieved." Griswold admits that he is "afraid they will think that there is some iniquity in this business...although they say they are not offended with us." In the letter, Griswold asks Tappan if he thinks there "is any probability that they will go to Africa in April" and whether the case will be "carried to the Supreme Court." He remarks that, "God will I think bring good out of this evil," in that "some great principles will be settled," that "deeper & more general sympathy" will be given "for the blacks & hatred of slavery," and that the Africans "will be better prepared to do good when they return." Griswold mentions that Mr. Bacon says that the [illegible] at Sierra Leone feel hostile to requests of other societies and do not wish to have any settle near them. Griswold asks if there is truth to this matter.,
Letter from Benjamin Griswold to Lewis Tappan
A letter from Benjamin Griswold to Lewis Tappan regarding "the painting" [Amasa Hewins' depiction of the Amistad rebellion]. In the letter, Griswold states, "I do not know whether it is best to say anything about it in public or not." He remarks that "perhaps it will have the effect to draw attention to [the Amistad Case]" and that the responsibility of making the painting public will be Lewis Tappan's. Appended to the letter in an unknown had is "Mr. Barber preparing pamphlet." Accompanying the letter is a more thorough description of the painting entitled "The Massacre on Board the Amistad by the blacks who are now in jail in this city." The painting is described in the letter as being on a 100 x 135 foot canvas and that it will be on display in the artist's room at the Phoenix Building for a few days. Griswold provides a detailed description of the events depicted in the painting and contrasts them with statements by the Amistad Captives. In reference to the painting as a work of art, Griswold has "nothing to say." Regarding the artist, Griswold states, "he seems to feel an interest in these men, to sympathize with them, & their friends.",
Letter from Benjamin Loring to Lewis Tappan
A donation letter from Benjamin Loring on behalf of his sister Lydia L. Walker of Leominster, Massachusetts, pledging support for the education of the Amistad Africans.,
Letter from Benjamin Loring to Lewis Tappan
A donation letter from Ellis Gray Loring on behalf of his deceased brother, Josiah Loring, pledging support for the Amistad Captives.,
Letter from Benjamin Tappan to "My Dear Sir"
A donation letter from Benjamin Tappan pledging support for the Amistad Captives.,
Letter from B.R. Lyons to "Dear Sir"
A donation letter from B.R. Lyons pledging support for the Amistad Captives.,
Letter from C. Stockton Halsted to Arthur Tappan
A letter of reference on behalf of Joseph H. Patten to serve as prospective lawyer for the Amistad Captives.,
Letter from C.A. Ingersoll to "Dear Sir"
A letter enclosing a copy of the deposition by British abolitionist, Dr. Richard R. Madden [deposition not present with letter].,
Letter from C.D. Cleveland to Lewis Tappan
A donation letter from Charles Dexter Cleveland on behalf of various individuals pledging support for the Amistad Captives.,