The Captives of the Amistad/Section 5
Meanwhile the matter began to assume more political importance. A Presidential campaign was impending and Mr. Van Buren was a candidate for re-nomination. Mr. Adams in March had carried through a resolution in the House of Representatives, calling for copies of all papers in the State Department touching the Amistad, and they were sent in and printed in April. The document was eagerly sought for and the whole edition was gone in a few days. It was immediately reprinted by the Amistad Committee, and copies put on sale at the “Anti-Slavery depository” in New York.
In the official translation sent in with the Spanish papers which formed part of this document, the passport of Montez, which covered the shipment of 49 “negros ladinos” was put into English as “sound negroes.” The fact was, as has been said above, that ladinos meant “long resident in Cuba,” as distinguished from those newly imported, or “bozals.” This mistranslation, as well as the omissions already alluded to in the letters of the District Attorney, provoked sharp criticism, but there is no reason to suppose that it was due to anything but the ignorance or prejudice of the clerk from whose hands it came.
The newspapers of the day contained frequent allusions to all these matters, and the Globe, the official organ of the Administration, published at Washington, within a few days before the final hearing printed a communication in which after speaking of the arrest of Ruiz and Montez in New York, “under charges which the negroes were instigated to make” the writer said:
This is the justice of an American Court, bowed down in disgraceful subserviency before the bigoted mandates of that blind fanaticism, which prompted the Judge upon the bench to declare in his decree, in reference to one of these negroes, that, although he might be stained with crime, yet he should not sigh in vain for Africa; and all because his hands were reeking with the blood of murdered white men. It is a base outrage (I can use no milder language) upon all the sympathies of the civilized life.
This letter was introduced by the editor of the paper as coming from one of the highest intellects of the South. It probably represented the views of the Administration, of which Von Holst had said in reference to this affair, in his Constitutional History of the United States, “it strained its influence to the utmost in the service of the slaveocracy in a case in which only the boldest sophistry could discover the shadow of an obligation.”
Another thing which excited a good deal of feeling among the anti-slavery people of Connecticut was this:
By the laws of this State all those born in slavery after March 1st, 1784, were to be free when twenty-five years old, and the census of 1830 showed only twenty-five slaves left among our population. In the returns of the census of 1840, it was observed with surprise that this number had been largely increased, and it turned out, on inquiry, that the Marshal, under whose direction they were captured, had added the 37 Amistad captives to the list. Complaint was made to the State Department, soon after Daniel Webster had taken Mr. Forsyth’s place, and he ordered this addition struck out.
In 1819 a South American privateer which during a long cruise had turned into something like a pirate, after plundering several slave-ships of their cargoes, was brought into Savannah by one of our cruisers. She had on board over 200 Africans, of whom 25 had been taken from an American slaver hailing from Rhode Island, and the rest from Spanish and Portuguese ships. Spain and Portugal claimed the latter, in behalf of their owners. The district and Circuit Courts decided that this claim was just; but here arose a practical difficulty. No one could tell which of the negroes came from the American ship, yet all agreed that these were entitled to their freedom, since the slave-trade was unlawful for Americans. The Circuit court concluded to appeal to Heaven for aid. To quote the words of the Judge, (Judge Johnson, of South Carolina, one of the Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States), in regard to those men:
I would that it were in my power to do perfect justice in their behalf. But this is now impossible. I can decree freedom to a certain number, but I may decree that to A, which is the legal right of B. It is impossible to identify the individuals who were taken from the American vessel, and yet it is not less certain that the benefit of this decree is their right, and their’s alone. Poor would be the consolation to them to know that because we could not identify them, we had given away their freedom to others. Yet shall we refuse to act, because we are not gifted with the power of divination? We can only do the best in our power. The lot must decide their fate, and the Almighty will direct the hand that acts in the selection.
Lots were accordingly drawn, and the required number set apart as free, leaving the rest to be divided between Spain and Portugal, but on appeal, the greater part of the proceedings were disapproved, including the lottery. Chief Justice Marshal delivered the opinion of the Supreme Court, and declared that the slave-trade had always been recognized as not unlawful by the law of nations, though it was prohibited by Act of Congress to Americans; but that while the Spanish and Portuguese claims for restitution were valid, each of those governments was bound to make out by satisfactory evidence which of the negroes belonged to its subjects.
This was known as the case of The Antelope, and though decided by a Court equally divided in opinion upon some of the questions, was recognized from the first as the great obstacle in the road of the Amistad captives to liberty. It was relied on by the counsel for the claimants in the trial in Connecticut and it was felt that the final struggle at Washington would depend greatly on the manner in which this precedent might be treated. In the argument before the Supreme Court, Mr. Adams was to act as the senior counsel for the captives, and he snatched every moment he could spare from his Congressional engagements, to bestow on the preparation for their defence. One day, he is moving the Supreme Court to order copies of more of the Connecticut proceedings to be sent up to Washington; on another he is in conference with the British minister; on another delving into the dusty files of the Court for the original papers, on which the decision of the Antelope was reached. The formal brief for the argument, stating the various legal points and authorities, was wholly prepared by Mr. Baldwin, though signed by both.
The District Attorney of the United States for the District of Columbia, at this time, was Francis S. Key, the author of the Star Spangled Banner. Mr. Adams met him in the Supreme Court room, shortly before the case was reached, and fell into a conversation about it, of which his diary contains this note:
He said he was afraid there was not any chance for the poor creatures; that the case of the Antelope was precisely in point against them. He had argued that case for the freedom of the negroes, but it had been overruled. Yet it would never do to send them back to Cuba. The best thing that could be done, was to make up a purse, and pay for them, and then send them back to Africa.
I said we hoped to prove that the case of the Antelope would not be conclusive in its bearing upon our clients; but he continued very positive that it would. I went, therefore, into the Supreme Court library room, and took out the volume of Wheaton’s Reports containing the case of the Antelope. I read as much of it as I could, and longed to comment upon it as I could; but I have neither time nor head for it—nothing but heart.
As the day drew near for the final argument, Mr. Adams writes in his diary (Dec. 12th 1840), that he began to prepare for it
with deep anguish of heart, and a painful search of means to defeat and expose the abominable conspiracy, Executive and Judicial, of this Government, against the lives of these wretched men. How shall the facts be brought out? How shall it be possible to comment upon them, with becoming temper—with calmness, with moderation, with firmness, with address, to avoid being silenced, and to escape the imminent danger of giving the adversary the advantage in the argument by overheated zeal? Of all the dangers before me, that of losing my self-possession is the most formidable. I am yet unable to prepare the outline of the argument, which I must be ready to offer the second week in January. Let me not forget my duty.
He was not the only person who was anxious about the character of his coming argument. His power of invective was well known, and friends of the navy officers who had seized the vessel began to fear that his denunciations might fall upon them. On Jan. 9th, 1840, he writes:
Miss Margaret Monroe Stuart, came in—a maiden lady, who in the compass of half an hour, uttered in one continued stream, more good words than I could record in three months. Her sister is the wife of Captain Gedney, who is here very sick, and, she fears, not very sound in mind. She came to entreat me that in arguing the Amistad case before the Supreme Court, I would not bear hard upon Captain Gedney for she fears it might kill him, and she is sure it would kill her sister. I assured her that I would have all due consideration for the condition of Captain Gedney.
When the Africans heard that the argument in the Supreme Court was about to come on, they determined to write a letter to Mr. Adams, and Ka-le a bright boy of eleven who had picked up more English than the older ones, was selected as the scribe. The following was the result, written with no aid from white men:
New Haven, Jan. 4, 1841
Dear Friend Mr. Adams:
I want to write a letter to you because you love Mendi people, and you talk to the grand court. We want to tell you one thing. José Ruiz say we born in Havana, he tell lie. We stay in Havana 10 days and 10 nights, we stay no more. We all born in Mendi—we no understand the Spanish language. Mendi people been in America 17 moons. We talk American language little, not very good; we write every day; we write plenty letters; we read most all time; we read all Matthew, and Mark, and Luke, and John, and plenty of little books. We love books very much. We want you to ask the Court what we have done wrong. What for Americans keep us in prison. Some people say Mendi people crazy; Mendi people dolt, because we no talk America language. Merica people no talk Mendi language; Merica people dolt? They tell bad things about Mendi people, and we no understand. Some men say Mendi people very happy because they laugh and have plenty to eat. Mr. Pendleton come, and Mendi people all look sorry because they think about Mendi land and friends we no see now. Mr. Pendleton say Mendi people angry; white men afraid of Mendi people. The Mendi people no look sorry again—that why we laugh. But Mendi people feel sorry; O, we can’t tell how sorry. Some people say, Mendi people no got souls. Why we feel bad, we got no souls? We want to be free very much.
Dear friend Mr. Adams, you have children, you have friends, you love them, you feel very sorry if Mendi people come and carry them all to Africa. We feel bad for our friends, and our friends all feel bad for us. Americans no take us in ship. We on shore and Americans tell us slave ship catch us. They say we make you free. If they make us free they tell true, if they no make us free they tell lie. If America people give us free we glad, if they no give us free we sorry—we sorry for Mendi people little, we sorry for America people great deal, because God punish liars. We want you to tell court that Mendi people no want to go back to Havana, we no want to be killed. Dear friend, we want you to know how we feel. Mendi people think, think, think. Nobody know what he think; teacher he know, we tell him some. Mendi people have got souls. We think we know God punish us if we tell lie. We never tell lie; we speak truth. What for Mendi people afraid? Because they got souls. Cook say he kill, he eat Mendi people—we afraid—we kill cook; then captain kill one man with knife, and cut Mendi people plenty. We never kill captain, he no kill us. If Court ask who brought Mendi people to America? We bring ourselves. Ceci hold the rudder. All we want is to make us free.
- House Document No. 185, 26th Congr., 1st session.
- Probably F. W. Pickens of South Carolina.
- Vol. ii., p. 321.
- Statutes, Revision of 1784, p. 235.
- Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, x. 451.
- 10 Wheaton’s Reports, 66; 12 id. 546.
- Memoirs, x., 396.
- Memoirs, x. 373.
- Ib., 393.
- The jailer.
- From the Emancipator, for Mar. 25, 1841.