March in U.S. Legal History

On March 9, 1841, the Supreme Court issued its landmark ruling in United States v. Schooner Amistad, 40 U.S.(15 Pet.) 518 (1841). This case was a freedom suit challenging the U.S. legal system to provide justice for all on its shores while also honoring government treaty obligations. In so doing, it influenced the abolitionist movement and much later director Steven Spielberg who made a movie based on these events.

On February of 1839, Portuguese slave hunters abducted a large group of Sierra Leone citizens and shipped them to Havana, Cuba aboard the Tecora. This abduction violated laws and accepted treaties against the international slave trade.

Fifty three of those abducted were sold to two Spanish plantation owners. These two men put the 53 Africans aboard the schooner Amistad to ship them to their Caribbean plantation.

While at sea, the captives managed to escape their shackles and take over the ship. The group seized the ship, killing the captain and most of the crew while sparing the plantation owners Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montez. They then demanded that Ruiz and Montez sail them back to Africa.

The two agreed to do so but instead steered the ship along the coast of the United States where they were discovered by the US Navy ship Washington. The ship took custody of La Amistad along with all those aboard.

The Spanish government demanded all back and the US filed a claim on their behalf prompting abolitionists to file charges of kidnapping, false imprisonment and assault against Ruiz and Montez. President Martin Van Buren sided with the Spanish but a US court ruled those abducted be returned to their homeland.

This decision was appealed to the Supreme Court, and John Quincy Adams, who was seventy three years old at the time, came out of retirement to defend the freedom of the abducted Mende people of Sierra Leone.

Adams said, “The moment you come to the Declaration of Independence, that every man has a right to life and liberty, an inalienable right, this case is decided…I ask nothing more on behalf of these unfortunate men, than this Declaration.”

The Supreme Court ruled for the Africans, accepting the argument that they were never citizens of Spain and were illegally taken from Africa where they lived in a state of freedom. The court acknowledged the United States’ argument that it had obligations to Spain under the treaty, but said that the treaty “never could have been intended to take away the equal rights of [the Africans].”

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