The Slave Ship Rebellion

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Van Buren asked his attorney general, Felix Grundy of Tennessee, for a legal opinion. Grundy held that the Spanish claims were just. The United States, said he, had no authority to question the validity of the Amistad’s papers; all questions—the legal status of the slaves, the charges of piracy and murder—should be decided in Spanish courts. “A delivery [of the slaves] to the Spanish minister is the only safe course for this government to pursue,” Grundy told Van Buren. The President did not dare supersede the courts completely, but he did order the United States attorney in Connecticut to represent Montez and Ruiz.

With Van Buren thus a committed partisan of the slave interests, the controversy mounted to fever heat. Lewis Tappan and other abolitionist leaders spoke at public mass meetings, took up contributions for the Amistad cause, and engaged Roger Sherman Baldwin, one of the foremost attorneys of his day, as chief defense counsel.

The trial was set for early January, 1840, before Judge Andrew T. Judson in the United States District Court in New Haven. Judson was a Van Buren appointee, and his earlier career had been noteworthy for his prosecution of Prudence Crandall, a school teacher whom he had succeeded, with a mob’s help, in running out of Canterbury, Connecticut, because she had admitted a Negro girl to her young ladies’ academy and then, when the other pupils withdrew, turned it into an all-Negro school. The abolitionists were convinced that no more inimical jurist could have been selected to decide the fate of the Amistad Negroes.

Van Buren’s expectations tallied perfectly with the abolitionists’ fears. So assured was he of the outcome that he ordered the navy brig Grampus to New Haven for the express purpose of returning the slaves to Havana. The Amistad committee countered this move by chartering a fast schooner of its own, determined to make the daring attempt to spirit the slaves away if the decision should go against them.

The two rival vessels, anchored near each other in the harbor, were symbols of the rival causes that focused the tense attention of the nation on the New Haven courtroom when the hearing opened.

The case lasted a week, but the high point, with James Covey interpreting, came when Cinquè took the stand. He testified about the manner in which he had been shanghaied from the side of his wife and three small children in Africa. He squatted on the courtroom floor, demonstrating how tightly the slaves had been packed together in the shallow four-foot hold on the middle passage.

Roger Sherman Baldwin backed up this testimony by showing that the three little girls, all of whom had been born long after the 1820 slave-running ban, knew no language but their native African tongue. This prima-facie evidence that the children had been kidnaped was supported by the testimony of an expert on the slave trade. Dr. Richard Robert Madden, English member of the Mixed Commission trying to enforce the 1820 treaty, told the court he had seen the Amistad captives in the Havana barracoon shortly after they arrived from Africa.

This was the evidence before Judge Judson when, on January 13, 1840, he handed down his decision. He ruled that the navy officers, Gedney and Meade, were entitled to salvage for recovering the Amistad , but denied they had any right to collect on the value of the slaves. As for the claims of Montez and Ruiz, he cited the 1820 treaty outlawing the slave traffic and added: “These Negroes were imported in violation of that law, and by the same law of Spain, such Negroes are declared free, and of course are not the property of Spanish subjects …. Cinquez and Grabeau [another of the slaves who had testified] shall not sigh for Africa in vain. Bloody as may be their hands, they shall yet embrace their kindred.”

Then Judson ordered the slaves turned over to the President for transportation back to Africa.

The unexpected decision was greeted by abolitionists with wild rejoicing—an outburst that was stilled almost instantly by an astounding announcement. The United States attorney, acting on the orders of President Van Buren, filed an immediate notice of appeal, taking the case to the Supreme Court and dooming the Amistad Negroes to additional months of captivity.

At this juncture, a new and challenging figure entered the case—John Quincy Adams, the sixth President of the United States. The venerable patriarch was now 73. Angered by the partisanship of the Democratic President, he forced through Congress a resolution calling for full disclosure of all official correspondence dealing with the case. And so there came to light a curious document.

This was a letter from Secretary of State John Forsyth to the United States attorney in Connecticut, written in January when Judson’s decision was pending and marked “confidential.” It revealed Van Buren’s intention to deny the slaves the right of appeal if the verdict went against them by whisking them instantly aboard the waiting Grampus. “The order of the President is to be carried into execution, unless an appeal shall actually have been interposed,” the Secretary of State wrote. “You are not to take it for granted that it will be interposed. And if, on the contrary, the decision of the court is different, you are to take out an appeal, and allow things to remain as they are until the appeal shall have been decided.”