This Day In History: February 24

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On February 24, 1841, former President John Quincy Adams begins to argue the Amistad case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.

A practicing lawyer and member of the House of Representatives, John Quincy Adams was the son of America’s second president, founding father and avowed abolitionist John Adams. Although John Quincy Adams publicly downplayed his abolitionist stance, he too viewed the practice as contrary to the nation’s core principles of freedom and equality. After serving one term as president between 1825 and 1829, Adams was elected to the House of Representatives, in which he served until his death in 1848. During his tenure, he succeeded in repealing a rule that prevented any debate about slavery on the House floor.

In 1839, a Spanish slave ship named La Amistad appeared off the coast of New York. The captives aboard it, who were free Africans kidnapped in Africa and originally bound for sale in Cuba, had rebelled, killing the Spanish ship’s captain and cook. The African mutineers then promised to spare the lives of the ship’s crew and their captors if they took them back to Africa. The crew agreed, but then duped the slaves by sailing up the coast to New York, where they were taken into custody by the U.S. Navy.

A complicated series of trials ensued regarding the ownership and outcome of the ship and its human cargo. The capture of the Amistad occurred in an era in which debate over the institution of slavery, its legality within the United States and its role in the American economy became more intense. Although the federal government had ruled the slave trade between the U.S. and other countries illegal in 1808, the “peculiar institution” persisted in the South and some northeastern states.

The Navy captains who commandeered the Amistad off the coast of New York turned the ship in to authorities in Connecticut. In Connecticut at this time, slavery was still technically legal, a fact that further complicated the case. Abolitionists filed a suit on behalf of the Africans against the captors for assault, kidnapping and false imprisonment. Spain, backed by a 1795 anti-piracy treaty with the U.S., also claimed rights to the Amistad and her cargo. President Martin Van Buren, personally neutral on the issue of slavery and concerned about his popularity in southern states, supported Spain’s claim.

After two district courts ruled in favor of the abolitionists, President Van Buren immediately instructed the U.S. attorney general to appeal. Abolitionists hired Adams, who some referred to as “Old Man Eloquent,” to argue for the Africans’ freedom in the Supreme Court.

In a seven-hour argument that lasted two days, Adams attacked Van Buren’s abuse of executive power. His case deflated the U.S. attorney’s argument that the treaty with Spain should override U.S. principles of individual rights. In appeasing a foreign nation, Adams argued that the president committed the “utter injustice [of interfering] in a suit between parties for their individual rights.” In a dramatic moment, Adams faced the judges, pointed to a copy of the Declaration of Independence hanging on the courtroom wall, and said “[I know] no law, statute or constitution, no code, no treaty, except that law…which [is] forever before the eyes of your Honors.”

Adams’ skillful arguments convinced the court to rule in favor of returning the Africans to their native country, but later, President Tyler refused to allocate federal funds to send the Africans back to Africa. Instead, the abolitionists had to raise money to pay for the expense.

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