On March 1, 1841, 73-year-old John Quincy Adams stood in the chambers of the Supreme Court to present an argument in defense of 33 surviving Africans out of 53, originally charged with murder during a mutiny aboard a slave ship in 1838. Twenty had died before their case would appear before the court.
At one point during his presentation, Adams positioned himself near one of two copies of the Declaration of Independence, which were hung on pillars within the room. Courtroom documents show he pointed to it during his emotional appeal.
Adams’ clients were originally taken as slaves from Africa and transported to Cuba. From there, they were placed onto the Spanish schooner Amistad, to be transferred to sugar plantations a few hundred miles up the coast from Havana.
They were severely mistreated. When the opportunity arose, they rose up and overwhelmed the ship. They killed the captain and cook. Two crew members escaped overboard, and the mutineers promised to spare the lives of the remaining crew if they would help steer the schooner back to Africa.
The Spaniards tricked them into sailing to the east coast of America, where the Amistad was captured by the U.S. Navy off the coast of Long Island. The slaves were arrested and jailed.
The Spanish government insisted the Africans were considered property and demanded that they be returned to Cuba. The administration of President Martin Van Buren agreed, but a lower U.S. court ruled they were illegally brought to Cuba and therefore were not slaves. The Van Buren administration still wanted to return them to Cuba and appealed the case to the Supreme Court, where the fate of the Africans would rest with its decision, and John Quincy Adams knew their very lives depended upon the success of his argument.
The eldest son of John Adams, the second president of the United States, John Quincy Adams followed in his father’s footsteps and was also elected president, serving from 1825-29.
“Quincy” was truly America’s representative, serving numerous positions under six presidents, including a term as Secretary of State. He was a statesman, diplomat and lawyer. After his presidency, he represented Massachusetts as a U.S. senator. History shows he was firmly opposed to slavery and extremely critical of those who supported it.
In his later years, Adams was presenting his case for a cause he believed in. In his address to the Supreme Court, Adams noted that a prior judge had said there was no precedent of law the court could refer to in this instance. Adams used that statement to stress one of his most relevant points.
“I know of no law, but one which I am not at liberty to argue before this court, no law, statute or constitution, no code, no treaty, applicable to the proceedings of the executive or the judiciary, except that law,” he said, pointing to the copy of the Declaration of Independence.
“I know of no other law that reaches the case of my clients, but the law of nature and of nature's God on which our fathers placed our own national existence,” Adams continued. “That law, in its application to my clients, I trust will be the law on which the case will be decided by this court.”
The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Africans. They were to be considered free. They were released and returned by ship back to their home in Africa.
The natural law of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness so eloquently expressed in the Declaration of Independence forms the cornerstone of American freedom and justice. These founding principles provided the path to correcting many flaws in our history as it involves race, religion and the rights of all people, and they continue to do so. These truths are as just as relevant and worth fighting for today as they were when that great document was signed on July 4, 1776.