On This Date, John Quincy Adams Began Arguing in the Amistad Case

Real History |

On this day in 1840, President John Quincy Adams, son of some guy with a similar name, began to argue the Amistad case that was being ruled on by the U.S. Supreme Court.

A year prior, the Spanish slave ship called La Amistad was overtaken by the group of free Africans onboard. The group had been kidnapped in Africa and were trying to get the ship to turn around and take them back. La Amistad's original destination was Cuba.

After killing the ship's captain and cook, the group promised to spare the lives of the rest of the crew if they'd take them back to Africa. The crew agreed, but ended up duping the slaves into heading north, up the coast of the U.S. They were intercepted by a U.S. Naval vessel.

Things quickly became complicated from a legal standpoint. Because the ship was turned over to authorities in Connecticut, a state where slavery was technically legal at the time, law enforcement sided with Spain in their claims that their ship fell victim to piracy. President Martin Van Buren also took Spain's side so as not to irritate his pro-slavery constituents in the South.

But abolitionists in the North were not having it. They sided with the African slaves on the basis that they had been kidnapped in the first place. After two district courts ruled in favor or the abolitionists, President Van Buren instructed the U.S. Attorney General to appeal. The case then moved to the Supreme Court, where John Quincy Adams took over.

After two days and seven hours of arguing that Van Buren had abused his executive powers, Adams made one final, salient point. He faced the judges and pointed to a copy of the Declaration of Independence hanging on the wall, " no law, statute or constitution, no code, no treaty, except that law...which forever before the eyes of your Honors."

Adams made a necessary plea for individual rights than the U.S. attorney general had failed to acknowledge in the case. The argument that America's treaty with Spain superseded these rights was poor and incorrect.

Despite the court ultimately ruled in favor of moving the Africans back home, the government let the issue fall by the wayside. After President Tyler refused to allocate the appropriate federal dollars, a group of abolitionists had to raise the money on their own. A great example of the community coming together for a powerful cause.