Today in 1841: The Supreme Court’s Amistad ruling

March 9, 2010

A snippet of the Supreme Court's ruling in The Amistad caseA U.S. Supreme Court decision announced on March 9, 1841, provides an early example of how a relatively narrow ruling can have broad social consequences.

The Amistad case takes its name from a Spanish schooner that was to carry 53 African slaves from Havana to another Cuban port. The Africans broke free from their chains and killed the ship’s captain and cook, but they spared the lives of two other crew members so that someone could guide the Amistad to Africa. The two instead piloted the ship to America, and the Africans found themselves in New Haven, Connecticut, to experience their first New England winter and await their fate.

The criminal case was dismissed on jurisdictional grounds; it was the civil case that ended up advancing to the Supreme Court. At issue: Were the Africans to be treated as property and returned to Havana, or were they the victims of kidnapping who deserved to be freed?

President Martin Van Buren had been pushing to return the Africans to Cuba, mainly as a diplomatic gesture to Spain (and an election-year favor to political allies in southern states). But the Africans had powerful abolitionist allies on their side – including John Quincy Adams, a.k.a. “Old Man Eloquent,” who was persuaded to help argue their case before the Supreme Court.

Given that five of the nine justices were slave-owning southerners, it came as a shock to many when the Court ruled to free the would-be slaves, stating that they were “kidnapped Africans, who by the laws of Spain itself were entitled to their freedom.”

Indeed, in 1820 the Spanish government had issued an order to  comply with a British treaty that abolished the slave trade south of the equator. The Supreme Court’s majority decision made it clear that had the Africans been enslaved before Spain’s 1820 ban went into effect, they would have been returned to Havana.

The Africans eventually made it back to their homeland (accompanied by a passel of missionaries), and the growing abolitionist movement in the United States got its first big boost from the courts – intentional or not.

For a much more nuanced account of the Amistad case and other famous trials from Socrates to Zacarias Moussauoi, see the excellent Famous Trials website, created and maintained by Professor Douglas Linder of the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) School of Law.