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U.S. v. Amistad: A Case of Jurisdiction

Focusing on Details: Spotlight

All documents and text associated with this activity are printed below, followed by a worksheet for student responses.

Introduction

In 1841, the United States Supreme Court issued its decision in the case United States v. Libellants of Schooner Amistad. With your classmates, closely examine the majority opinion in this case and respond to the questions below in writing. Use the spotlighted sections to guide you, then click the arrow and magnifying glass icons in the blue menu bar at the bottom of the document to look more closely.

Be prepared to share your responses during a class discussion.


Name:
Class:

Worksheet

U.S. v. Amistad: A Case of Jurisdiction

Focusing on Details: Spotlight

Examine the documents included in this activity and write your response in the space provided.


  • What court had original jurisdiction?
  • Which court was next to hear the case? What was the result?
  • What was the Supreme Court's decision in United States v. Libellants of Schooner Amistad?
  • According to the Constitution, why does the Supreme Court have the authority to hear this case? Provide the exact article and section.

Your Response




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Activity Element

Opinion of the Supreme Court in United States v. the Amistad

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Conclusion

U.S. v. Amistad: A Case of Jurisdiction

Focusing on Details: Spotlight

Using this Google Map, view the route the schooner Amistad took from Africa to the United States. Do you agree with the Circuit Court's decision that the United States had the authority to hear this case?

Justice Story stated in the Supreme Court opinion that "...it was the ultimate right of all human beings in extreme cases to resist oppression and to apply force against ruinous injustice." Do you agree with his assertion in this case?

Your Response




Document

Opinion of the Supreme Court in United States v. the Amistad

3/9/1841

In February 1839, Portuguese slave hunters abducted a large group of Africans from Sierra Leone and shipped them to Havana, Cuba, a center for the slave trade. This abduction violated all of the treaties then in existence. Two Spanish plantation owners purchased 53 Africans and put them aboard the Cuban schooner Amistad to ship them to a Caribbean plantation. On July 1, 1839, the Africans seized the ship, killed the captain and the cook, and ordered the plantation owners to sail to Africa.

Instead, they sailed north; and on August 24, 1839, the Amistad was seized off Long Island, NY, by the U.S. brig Washington. The schooner, its cargo, and all on board were taken to New London, CT. The plantation owners were freed and the Africans were imprisoned on charges of murder.

The murder charges were dismissed, but the Africans continued to be held in confinement and the case went to trial in the Federal District Court in Connecticut. The plantation owners, government of Spain, and captain of the Washington each claimed rights to the Africans or compensation.

President Van Buren was in favor of extraditing the Africans to Cuba. However, abolitionists in the North opposed extradition and raised money to defend the Africans. Had it not been for the actions of abolitionists in the United States, the issues related to the Amistad might have ended quietly in an admiralty court. But they used the Amistad incident as a way to expose the evils of slavery and generate significant opposition to the practice. They hired attorneys to represent the Africans.

The court ruled that the case fell within Federal jurisdiction and that the claims to the Africans as property were not legitimate because they were illegally held as slaves. The U.S. District Attorney filed an appeal to the Supreme Court. 

In the trial before the Supreme Court, the Africans were represented by former President John Quincy Adams. Preparing for his appearance before the Court, Adams requested papers from the lower courts one month before the proceedings opened. For 8 ½ hours, the 73-year-old Adams passionately and eloquently defended the Africans' right to freedom on both legal and moral grounds, referring to treaties prohibiting the slave trade and to the Declaration of Independence. He defended the right of the accused to fight to regain their freedom.

The Supreme Court decided in favor of the Africans, stating that they were free individuals. Kidnapped and transported illegally, they had never been slaves. Senior Justice Joseph Story wrote and read the decision: "...it was the ultimate right of all human beings in extreme cases to resist oppression, and to apply force against ruinous injustice." The opinion asserted the Africans' right to resist "unlawful" slavery.

The Court ordered the immediate release of the Amistad Africans. Thirty five of the survivors were returned to their homeland (the others died at sea or in prison while awaiting trial).

Transcript

[in left margin: 42.]

The United States Appts.

vs

The Libellants & Claimants of the Schooner Amistad, her tackle apparel and furniture, together with her Cargo, and the Africans mentioned and described in the several Libels and Claims.

[beginning to the right of the vertical line]

On appeal from the Circuit Court of the United States for the District of Connecticut –

This Cause came on to be heard on the transcript of the record from the Circuit Court of the United States for the District of Connecticut and was argued by Counsel. On consideration whereof, it is the opinion of this Court that there is error in that part of the decree of the Circuit Court affirming the decrees of the District Court which ordered the said Negroes to be delivered to the President of the United States to be transported to Africa in pursuance of the Act of Congress of the 3rd. of March 1819; and that as to that part it ought to be [underlined] reversed [end underline]; and in all other respects that the said decree of the Circuit Court ought to be affirmed. – It is therefore ordered adjudged and decreed by this Court that the decree of the said Circuit Court be and the same is hereby affirmed except as to the part aforesaid, and as to that part, that it be reversed; and that the cause be remanded to the Circuit Court with directions to enter in lieu of that part a decree that the said Negroes be and are hereby declared to be free and that they be dismissed from the custody of the Court and be discharged from the suit and so thereof guilt without day. –

March 9. 1841.—
This primary source comes from the Records of the Supreme Court of the United States.
National Archives Identifier: 301672
Full Citation: Opinion of the Supreme Court in United States v. the Amistad; 3/9/1841; United States, Appellants, v. The Libellants and Claimants of the Schooner Amistad, her tackle, apparel and furniture, together with her cargo, and the Africans mentioned and described in the several libels and claims, Appellees; Appellate Jurisdiction Case Files, 1792 - 2014; Records of the Supreme Court of the United States, ; National Archives Building, Washington, DC. [Online Version, https://www.docsteach.org/documents/document/amistad-opinion, June 24, 2018]


Opinion of the Supreme Court in United States v. the Amistad

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