John Quincy Adams, the Amistad Case,
and the Idea of the Inalienable Rights of Man


by Denise M. Henderson

Printed in the American Almanac, August, 1998


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In 1997, a movie on the Amistad case of 1839 to 1841 was released. The movie, called ``Amistad,'' dealt with the events surrounding the attempt of Africans who had been kidnapped from Africa, even though the slave trade had been outlawed in Europe and the United States by the 1830s, to seize control of the ship which they had been embarked upon in Cuba, and to try to return home. The captives included adult black males, as well as women and children, many of whom perished in the attempt to free themselves and soon thereafter, while held in captivity in the U.S. while their fate was decided in the U.S. courts, amid international and national political intrigue.

The movie, directed by Steven Spielberg, included a depiction of the legal fight, all the way up to the Supreme Court, by abolitionists to defend the rights of the Africans, to assert their freedom, but to be allowed to return to their homeland. Ultimately, the Supreme Court appeal was argued by that great American President, jurist, intellectual, scholar, and patriot, John Quincy Adams.

While the movie gave a general idea of what the case involved, this article will address some of the more profound constitutional and other issues that arose in the case, and will give the reader a fuller sense of who, exactly, President and Congressman John Quincy Adams, American extraordinaire, was.

Unfortunately, over the past 25 years, the more profound ideas of the American Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution have been watered down and replaced with catchphrases meant to deceive citizens into believing that their ``concerns,'' their ``needs,'' and their ``rights'' are being ``addressed,'' as the sociological babblers of today like to put it. One hears, for example, much talk of ``equity,'' meant allegedly to signify some concept of ``rights'' for all parties involved, as well as the phrase ``a seat at the table,'' supposedly meant to signify that all segments of society--whether poor, rich, institutional, middle-class, home owners, renters, farmers, urban or rural--that all these parties concerned with some particular political process, will be listened to, and their needs ``appropriately'' addressed and met.

But what has been lost in this banalized conception of ``equity,''is a more profound concept addressed by the Founding Fathers of the United States in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, and embodied throughout the long active political life of John Quincy Adams, whose life's work in significant part guaranteed that a true and profound concept of justice was embodied in United States constitutional law. It was Adams' work which, in large part, guaranteed the success of the Second American Revolution--the process of which the Civil War and its aftermath, Reconstruction, was a part.

Adams's Supreme Court argument runs 135 pages, addressing each and every one of the so-called legal issues involved in the case, including issues of international law. But as far as Adams was concerned, the issue of the inalienable rights of man--the rights of the individual as an individual, overrode every other argument made in the case.


- Who Was John Quincy Adams? -

Despite his protestations of old age, it was no accident that Adams found himself counsel for the Amistad captives at that particular moment in U.S. history, 1840-1841. Adams' life had encompassed the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Monroe Doctrine--of which he was in fact the chief author--as well as the South Carolina secession crisis of 1832, the western expansion of the U.S., and the building of U.S. industry and the infrastructure--railroads, canals, steamboats, etc.--to support that industry and expansion. Adams also called for a government project to build ``lighthouses of the sky''--astronomical observatories--and supported the U.S. Coastal Geodetic Survey, headed up by Alexander Dallas Bache.

John Quincy Adams was born on July 11, 1767, at the family farm in Braintree, Massachussetts. His father, John Adams, was one of those involved in the Continental Congress.

On July 17, 1775, at the age of 8, John Quincy and his mother Abigail witnessed the Battle of Bunker Hill from Penn's Hill. The American Revolution had started, and the Adamses were on the front lines, geographically as well as politically.

In 1778, when John Adams was named one of three U.S. commissioners to Paris, Abigail and John decided to send John Quincy abroad with him. Although the journey was considered dangerous--including the danger of capture of an American ``rebel'' and his son by the British Navy--John Quincy's mother and father believed that, given the war in America, their son could get a better education, and would also broaden his horizons by travelling abroad.

It was during this first journey abroad that John Quincy first began to keep his diary, which was to become a lifelong occupation, with Adams attempting to write faithfully in his diary every day. While in Europe, Adams met Benjamin Franklin, which had a profound impact on his intellectual and moral development.

In 1781, at the age of 14, John Quincy travelled with Francis Dana, who was sent to Russia to seek Russian diplomatic recognition of the U.S. John Quincy's knowledge of French, the diplomatic and court language of Russia, proved to be invaluable.

John Quincy finally returned home in 1785 to attend Harvard, from which he graduated second in his class. His commencement oration, ``Defense of the Constitution,'' was designed to arouse support for the newly created American form of government.

By 1790, Adams had received his masters from Harvard and was admitted to the bar. By 1794, however, John Quincy received an appointment as ambassador to The Hague (Netherlands) in the Washington administration. George Washington later indicated his appreciation of John Quincy's intelligence-gathering ability.

With the election of John Adams as President in 1796, John Quincy was appointed the U.S. consul to the Court of Prussia, also an important listening post for the U.S. in Europe. But it also gave John Quincy a chance to study German, and he translated poems of Schiller, for whom he had the utmost respect, as well as a full-length translation of Oberon by Wieland.

Adams returned to the U.S. in 1800, and in 1802 became one of the U.S. Senators from Massachusetts. Adams was then a member of the Federalist Party, which in New England was the party of treason. That is, throughout the early part of the century, leading up to the War of 1812, the New England Federalists, who tended to consist primarily of oligarchical families tied to Great Britain, were discussing the possibility of seceding from the United States and re-uniting with Great Britain. Because he opposed such an outlandish--not to mention treasonous--idea, Adams's senatorial career was to be a politically stormy one.

While keeping up his schedule as a U.S. Senator in Washington, Adams also continued to pursue his scientific studies. He was part of a study group which met once a week, and replicated the experiments of Lavoisier, as well as of other members of the Ecole Polytechnique.

By 1805, Adams had also become the Boylston Professor of Oratory and Rhetoric at Harvard. Special arrangements were made to work around his schedule as a U.S. Senator.

The post as Boylston Professor, was not merely an academic honor. Adams was teaching the scions of the same oligarchical families whose politics he was opposing in the Senate, and at home in Massachusetts. He was able to use his lecture series as a means of factionalizing among the New England elite, and to discuss the idea of the republic in the broadest possible terms, using historical precedent. Adams emphasized that rhetoric should not be seen as just the mouthing of words, but as the basis for discussing republican versus oligarchical ideas.

When in 1809, however, it became clear that the hostility among New England oligarchical families to Adams's patriotic stances in the Senate was so great that he could no longer function effectively as a Senator, his position became untenable. President Madison proposed that Adams take the post of Minister to Russia.

Once again, John Quincy's full powers of intellect, his intelligence-gathering capabilities, his diplomatic skills, and his political acumen, came into play. Russia, too, was crucial for the United States. Czar Alexander I, who had been defeated by Napoleon in two major battles, was re-marshalling his forces, and was indirectly in touch with some of the leading Prussian military reformers, including Scharnhorst, about a war-winning strategy against Napoleon. At the same time, Friedrich Schiller's brother-in-law was at the St. Petersburg court, reading almost nightly Schiller's plays with the Czarina.

Adams and Alexander I developed an informal, as well as a formal diplomatic relationship. Adams, who loved to walk, discovered that Alexander often walked along the quays of St. Petersburg. Adams and Alexander often ``accidentally met'' during their walks, and discussed the gathering war clouds in Europe, Russia's intentions, Napoleon's plans, and so forth.

As the war broke out in Europe, Adams was deployed, along with Albert Gallatin and Henry Clay, to the peace negotiations at Ghent to end the War of 1812.

After his stint at Ghent, Adams was named U.S. Ambassador to the Court of St. James--Great Britain, where he remained for two years. By 1816, however, Adams was ready to return home and was informed that he had been appointed Secretary of State under President James Monroe.

Adams was to remain Secretary of State until 1824, and his expertise was crucial on a number of foreign policy issues. The most well-known one is the Monroe Doctrine, which Adams in large part drafted, and which expressed the U.S.'s commitment to keeping British gunboat diplomacy out of the Western Hemisphere, out of North and South America.

In 1824, when Monroe's second term expired, there was a three-way race for the Presidency. The two leading contenders were Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams. When it became clear to Clay that the only way to ensure that the Presidency remained in the hands of a patriot was to throw his support to Adams, he did so. In turn, Adams named Clay as his Secretary of State.

Adams served as President for one term, from 1824 to 1828. While we cannot discuss the scope and nature of his Presidency here, it's important to note that Adams actively promoted enterprises like the B&O Railroad, canal-building, and scientific research endeavors to be funded by the U.S. government. His Presidency was marked by the promotion of internal infrastructure improvements, as well as a strong, pro-American (i.e., republican) foreign policy.


- `Old Man Eloquent' -

In 1828, Adams lost his re-election bid to Andrew Jackson. In 1832, sick of his retirement--i.e. a minimal amount of activity on the national political scene--Adams decided to run for governor of Massachusetts on the anti-Masonic Party. It was because of this, that he attended a party conference in Philadelphia, where he met Thaddeus Stevens, the great champion of President Lincoln's policies in the House a decade later.

This foray into politics put Adams in touch with those who would later become the founders and members of the Whig Party, the precursor to Lincoln's Republican Party.

Adams dropped his bid for the governorship for a number of reasons. But almost immediately, he was nominated and elected to the U.S. Congress, in 1832. Adams thus became the first ex-President to be elected to the U.S. Congress.

Adams remained in Congress until he died in 1848. On Feb. 21, 1848, he had a stroke, and was removed to an ante-room in the House. He died on Feb. 23.

Given the crises facing the United States, including the threat posed by the Jackson Presidency (1829-1837), which dismantled the Second Bank of the United States and brought on the Panic of '37, as well as the ever-growing tensions between the British-inspired secessionists in South Carolina, it was no wonder that Adams saw it as his patriotic duty to return to the Congress.

Because of Adams's ability to concisely put an issue, and to address the overall principle involved in any fight, he became known, during his years in Congress, as ``Old Man Eloquent,'' and was often asked to mediate disputes which could not have been settled without that venerable Congressman's wisdom.

The battle for which Adams is most known, however, is the fight for the right to petition. It was the custom in Congress at that time, to set aside one day a week for petitions from constituents on all issues to be heard. The abolitionists came up with the tactic of submitting petitions to be read on the floor of the House, opposing slavery, demanding the immediate or gradual abolition of slavery, demanding the rights of slaves, etc.

Needless to say, this enraged the Southern pro-slavery Congressmen. When Adams decided to make it his priority to read every petition that came to him from his district regarding slavery, Southern Congressmen led a campaign to gag him. They actually succeeded in getting a ``gag rule'' passed, which prohibited Adams from reading any petitions regarding slavery on the floor of the House. (Once, to demonstrate the absurdity of the Southern Congressmen's opposition to the right to petition, Adams rose to read some petitions. As usual, the Southern delegations objected. Adams then revealed that the petitions that he had attempted to read, were from Southern slaves defending the institution of slavery!) Ultimately, a trial was held, and Adams spent two days defending not himself, not the abolitionists, but the fundamental right of a U.S. citizen to petition the Congress. Adams eventually carried the day.

In his diary, however, Adams recorded instances in which he overheard Southern Congressmen discussing how it would be better for all concerned if Adams were dead; he received death threats regularly from citizens who lived in the South. At the same time, however, slaves in the U.S. South, particularly house slaves, would listen carefully to their masters' talk about what ``Old Man Eloquent'' was up to.

It was in this way, in fact, reported Frederick Douglass, he got the news of the fight being waged by John Quincy Adams and a handful of others in the House on behalf of the slaves. In fact, Douglass reported to an audience in 1841 that while still a slave, he had read a speech by John Quincy Adams in which Adams was attempting to present petitions to the House for the abolition of slavery, specifically in the District of Columbia. Douglass added that he had read the speech aloud to other slave boys. ``Waiters hear their masters talk at table, cursing the abolitionists, John Quincy Adams, etc.,'' he added; ``the masters imagine that their poor slaves are so ignorant they don't know the meaning of the language they are using.'' But, noted Douglass, it was the knowledge that this fight was going on, which gave slaves the hope that they would soon be free.

In the midst of all this, occurred the Amistad case, which had quickly become a cause celebre among abolitionists, but which Adams was to raise to an even higher, more universal principle: the principle of justice for each and every individual, black or white, young or old, male or female, ``slave'' or ``free.'' For Adams, it was impossible that the Africans aboard the Amistad were slaves, according to either international law or U.S. law, but especially universal law. For this great American constitutionalist, there was only one issue: the inalienable rights of man.


- The Amistad Case -

The facts of the Amistad case are pretty much as portrayed by director Spielberg in his movie. Two Cubans, Ruiz and Montez, had purchased the slaves, who had been illegally kidnapped from Africa, from the Tecora, when it arrived in Cuba. They were planning to transport them to the sugar plantations. Three days into the voyage, the slaves, led by Joseph Cinque (or Singbe), staged a revolt to regain their freedom. They kept the owners of the vessel alive, because they needed them to guide the ship back to Africa.

Ruiz and Montez instead, however, hugged the coastline, and deceived the Africans as to the direction in which they were sailing. The ship kept heading north. Supplies were dangerously low, many of the slaves were sick. Finally, the ship was intercepted off the coast of Long Island by a U.S. Coast Guard vessel which had been observing it, and thought that the slaves were pirates. The U.S. Navy seized the vessel, and the Africans were imprisoned.

A trial was scheduled to be held in New Haven, Connecticut, on the issue of who held the salvage rights. Was it Lt. Gedney, who had seized the vessel? Was it the U.S. Navy officers? Was it Ruiz and Montez? Or did Spain, under international laws regarding ``piracy,'' have the right to the human cargo--the kidnapped Africans?

The abolitionist community waged an all-out fight to defend the Africans, who, every last one, including women and children, sat in prison for the entire time they awaited trial.

In the meantime, President Van Buren and his Secretary of State, John Forsyth, actually drew up plans to spirit the Africans away and hand them over to the Spanish government, should the court rule in favor of the captives. Those plans never materialized, both because the political climate wouldn't allow it, and became Van Buren at that point was a lame-duck President, who realized he couldn't have gotten away with it.

Despite the victory in the Connecticut court, the Spanish government continued to press its claims, as did the other parties greedily interested in their salvage claims. As a result, on Feb. 22, 1841, (by coincidence, George Washington's Birthday) with the Africans still sitting in prison, the case wound up in the Supreme Court of the United States.

Contrary to the impression given by the movie, Adams had been actively following the Amistad case, and, when it first came to prominence, sections of a letter he had written to one of the abolitionist defense attorneys, Ellis Gray Loring, appeared in many New England newspapers. That letter said, in part, that the plight of the Amistad captives ``claimed from the humanity of a civilized nation compassion:--it claimed from the brotherly love of a Christian land sympathy;--it claimed from a Republic professing reverence for the rights of man, justice.... Instead they were seized, jailed, accused of piracy and murder.'' The fact that they had attempted to free themselves, said Adams, meant that ``They were not slaves but Masters.'' The letter made clear to Loring that Adams could be called on to aid in the defense of the Amistad captives.

Adams's overriding argument before the U.S. Supreme Court, beginning on Feb. 22, 1841 and then, on the death of one of the justices, continued on March 1 of that same year, was that the Declaration of Independence, with its guarantee of the inalienable rights of man superseded any other international treaties, legal claims, or political expediencies.

Adams began by pointing to the Declaration of Independence hanging on the wall of the room where the Supreme Court met. He noted, ``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. The circumstances are so peculiar, that no code or treaty has provided for such a case. That law, in its application to my clients, I trust will be the law on which the case will be decided by this Court,'' that is, as Adams was to explicitly say later, the case had to be decided on the basis of universal natural law, and not on the basis of any other legalistic arguments.

Said Adams,

``I derive consolation from the thought that this Court is a Court of JUSTICE. And in saying so very trivial a thing, I should not on any other occasion, perhaps, be warranted in asking the Court to consider what justice is. Justice, as defined in the Institutes of Justinian, nearly 2000 years ago, and as it is felt and understood by all who understand human relations and human rights, is--

`Constans et perpetua voluntas, jus SUUM cuique tribuendi.'

`The constant and perpetual will to secure to every one his OWN right.'

``And in a Court of Justice,'' Adams continued,
``where there are two parties present, justice demands that the rights of each party should be allowed to himself, as well as that each party has a right, to be secured and protected by the Court. This observation is important, because I appear here on the behalf of thirty-six individuals, the life and liberty of every one of whom depend on the decision of this Court. The Court, therefore, I trust, in deciding this case, will form no lumping judgment on these thirty-six individuals, but will act on the consideration that the life and the liberty of every one of them must be determined by its decision for himself alone.''

This theme, that justice meant justice for the individual as an individual--that is, meant the inalienable rights of man--was continued by Adams throughout his argument.

Adams continued, ``One of the Judges who presided in some of the preceding trials, is said to have called this an anomalous case,'' he pointed out.

``It is indeed anomalous, and 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 (pointing to the copy of the Declaration of Independence, hanging against one of the pillars of the court-room), that law, two copies of which are ever before the eyes of your Honors. 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. The circumstances are so peculiar, that no code or treaty has provided for such a case. That law, in its application to my clients, I trust will be the law on which the case will be decided by this Court,''
Adams argued.

Adams then proceeded to blast the just-ousted President Van Buren and his administration for its ``sympathy'' with the Spanish government, which was in fact a sympathy for slavery, and for oligarchical rule.

Adams stated that Van Buren's Secretary of State, Forsyth, and also Van Buren, were guilty of ``sympathy with the white, antipathy to the black,'' and that this false idea of sympathy had replaced any notion of justice.

``This sympathy with Spanish slave-traders,'' Old Man Eloquent continued,

``is declared by the Secretary to have been first felt by [U.S. Coast Guard] Lieutenant Gedney. I hope this is not correctly represented. It is imputed to him and declared to have become in a manner national. The national sympathy with the slave-traders of the baracoons is officially declared to have been the prime motive of action of the government: And the fact is given as an answer to all the claims, demands and reproaches of the Spanish minister!|... The sympathy of the Executive government, and as it were of the nation, in favor of the slave-traders, and against these poor, unfortunately, helpless, tongueless, defenseless Africans, was the cause and foundation and motive of all these proceedings, and has brought this case up for trial before your honors.''

Adams also criticized the Van Buren administration's willful blindness to the implications of returning the Amistad captives to either Cuba or Spain:
``In point of fact, the voyage of the Amistad, for which these papers were given, was but the continuation of the voyage of the slave trader, and marked with the horrible features of the middle passage. That is the fact in the case, but this government and the courts of this country cannot notice that fact, because they must not go behind that document. The Executive may send the men to Cuba, to be sold as slaves, to be put to death, to be burnt at the stake, but they must not go behind this document, to inquire into any facts of the case.''

Pointing out also that at issue here, was the rights of the United States as a sovereign nation, not to surrender any of its sovereignty to a foreign power, in this case Spain, which was demanding the return of the slaves, Adams continued,

``[I]f the President has the power to do it in the case of Africans, and send them beyond seas for trial, he could do it by the same authority in the case of American citizens. By a simple order to the marshal of the district, he could just as well seize forty citizens of the United States, on the demand of a foreign minister, and send them beyond seas for trial before a foreign court.''

Adams then proceeded to demonstrate that neither the government of Spain, nor the U.S. naval officers who wanted to claim the ship and its captives as salvage, nor the Spanish owners of the ship, Montez and Ruiz, had any standing to seize the Africans and re-enslave them, or in the case of the African males who had killed members of the Amistad crew and seized the ship, to be tried and then judicially murdered for their so-called act of piracy, either in Cuba or in Spain.


- Inalienable Rights vs. Public Vengeance -

Because the more profound substance of Adams's arguments lay elsewhere, I omit here any detailed discussion of his refutation of the prosecution's arguments that the Amistad ``mutineers'' should be returned to Spain.

However, it is worth noting that the Spanish ambassador to the United States, in fact, the Chevalier d'Argaiz, had called for what he asserted was ``public vengeance'' to be satisfied. As Adams put it,

``The burning of these forty Africans at the stake, as the result of a compliance by our Executive with the Spanish demand, would hardly tend to exhibit or inspire `benevolence.' No, it was for vengeance that they were demanded [by the Spanish government].''

As to d'Argaiz's idea of ``public vengeance, Adams had the following to say:
```The public vengeance!' What public vengeance? The vengeance of African slave-traders, despoiled of their prey and thirsting for blood! The vengeance of the baracoons [slave-traders]! This `public vengeance' is not satisfied. Surely, this is very lamentable. Surely, this is a complaint to be made to the Secretary of State of this government,'' Adams said, sarcastically.

But, said Adams,
``The Constitution of the United States recognizes the slaves, held within some of the States of the Union, only in their capacity of persons--''
-- note here that Adams is himself revolutionizing the definition of a slave, since legalistically speaking, in the U.S., a slave was only considered two-thirds a person--
``persons held to labor or service in a State under the laws thereof--persons constituting elements of representation in the popular branch of the National Legislature--persons, the migration of importation of whom should not be prohibited by Congress prior to the year 1808. The Constitution no where recognizes them as property,''
Adams continued.
``The words slave and slavery are studiously excluded from the Constitution. Circumlocutions are the fig-leaves under which these parts of the body politic are decently concealed. Slaves, therefore, in the Constitution of the United States are recognized only as persons, enjoying rights and held to the performance of duties (emphasis in original).''

Adams, as an American patriot, was trying to re-open the issue publicly, that slavery was supposed to have been extinguished by the United States after 1808, according to the original idea of a majority of the Founding Fathers. But because of the intransigence of the South, the institution had continued, even though importation of slaves was not permitted. At the same time, Virginia, for example, had become a state which bred slaves to be sold further south, into the inhumane labor conditions which existed in the cotton fields and sugar plantations of Georgia, North and South Carolina, Louisiana, and Mississippi.

Adams then addressed the calumny of the Van Buren administration in proposing to agree to Spain's demand that the Amistad captives be handed over to that government.

For those who have followed the unjust and illegal frame-up and imprisonment of Lyndon LaRouche and his associates, Adams's argument that the law of habeas corpus had to be applied to the Amistad captives, ought to strike a resounding note.

``Is there a law of Habeus Corpus in the land?'' asked Adams.

``Has the expunging process of black lines passed upon these two Declarations of Independence [the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution] in their gilded frames? Has the 4th of July, '76, become a day of ignominy and reproach?''
He asked the justices,
``And can you hear, with judicial calmness and composure, this demand of despotism, countenanced and supported by all the Executive authorities of the United States, though not yet daring to carry it into execution?''

Asked Adams of by then former President Van Buren,
``Is it possible that a President of the United States should be ignorant that the right of personal liberty is individual. That the right to it of every one, is his own--jus suum; and that no greater violation of his official oath to protect and defend the Constitution ... could be committed, than by an order to seize and deliver up at a foreign ministers' demand, thirty-six persons, in a mass, under the general denomination of all, the negroes, late of the Amistad. That he was ignorant, profoundly ignorant of this self-evident truth, inextinguishable till yonder gilt framed Declarations of Independence shall perish in the general conflagration of the great globe itself....''

Adams went on to remind the Court that Van Buren was ``a northern President with southern principles,'' and that his pliancy in the face of the slave-traders, was shameful. Referring further to an article published in a leading southern journal (not named), in defense of the moves to return the Amistad captives to Cuba, Spain, or to their ``owners,'' Adams asked,

``What have the southern states to do with the case, or what has the case to do with the southern states?|... It is a question of slavery and freedom between foreigners; of the lawfulness or unlawfulness of the African slave trade; and has not, when properly considered, the remotest connection with the interests of the southern states.''
Thus did Adams address any attempted backlash by the southern states, as a result of a decision in favor of the defense in the case.


The Declaration of Independence vs. Hobbes

Adams also addressed the idea that ``all's fair in war,'' i.e., the principle alleged that since, historically, men have always been enslaved during war, that there is historical precedent for slavery. Adams dug back into Ancient Greece to demonstrate that far from having been taken as a universal principle, the dispute over slavery existed as far back as Homer.

Said Adams:

``In the estimate of that Prince of Grecian Poets,

``Jove fix'd it certain that whatever day
``Makes man a slave, takes half his worth away --

``and in the political statistics of the author of the Declaration of Independence the degradation of the character of man, by the infliction upon him of slavery, is far greater than is asserted by the blind old rhapsodist of Smyrna [Homer].''

Indeed, it was well known that one crucial provision, denouncing slavery, had been struck from the Declaration of Independence in order to guarantee the support of the South in the American Revolution. That provision read that the King of England
``has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of distant peoples who never offended him; captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.... Determined to keep open a market where men should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative by suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce ... he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived, them, by murdering the people on whom he has obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another. [emphasis in original]''

But as for the argument that slavery is a privilege of the victor in war, said Adams, all of those notions were swept away by the Declaration of Independence. He pointed out that this was one of Thomas ``war of each against all'' Hobbes's arguments. Hobbes, he added, had assumed that
``government and despotism are synonymous words. I will not here discuss the right or the rights of slavery, but I say that the doctrine of Hobbes, that War is the natural state of man, has for ages been exploded, as equally disclaimed and rejected by the philosopher and the Christian. That it is utterly incompatible with any theory of human rights, and especially with the rights which the Declaration of Independence proclaims as self-evident truth. The moment you come, to the Declaration of Independence, that every man has a right to life and liberty, an inalienable right, this case is decided.... [emphasis added]''

The latter part of Adams's argument, had to do with the Antelope case, which the prosecution attempted to use as a precedent for the Amistad case. Adams pointed out, that the overriding, central feature of the Antelope case, was that Chief Justice John Marshall had ruled, that ``the Court is divided on it, and, consequently, no principle is settled. [emphasis in original]'' That is, Marshall, himself opposed to slavery, said that while one might say from a legalistic standpoint, that the Antelope captives had to be returned to their so-called rightful owners, that in the eyes of God--i.e., under natural law--there was no natural right to property in man, and that because the Court itself was so divided in the final vote on the Antelope case, that ``no principle is settled,'' and consequently, no precedent had been set which could be used in future cases.

- Adams the Statesman -

Finally, at the ``end of the day,'' Adams concluded his argument.
``I said, when I began this plea, that my final reliance for success in this case was on this Court as a court of JUSTICE; and in the confidence this fact inspired, that, in the administration of justice, in a case of no less importance than the liberty and the life of a large number of persons, this Court would not decide but on a due consideration of all the rights, both natural and social, of every one of these individuals. I have endeavored to show that they are entitled to their liberty from this Court. I have avoided, purposely avoided, and this Court will do justice to the motive for which I have avoided, a recurrence to those first principles of liberty which might well have been invoked in the argument of this cause. I have shown that Ruiz and Montes, the only partners in interest here, for whose sole benefit this suit is carried on by the Government, were acting at the time in a way that is forbidden by the laws of Great Britain, of Spain, and of the United States, and that the mere signature of the Governor General of Cuba ought not to prevail over the ample evidence in the case that these negroes were free and had a right to assert their liberty. I have shown that the papers in question are absolutely null and insufficient as passports for persons, and still more invalid to convey or prove a title to property.''

It should here be noted, because it is an important insight into Adams's thinking, that contrary to the Spielberg movie, that there is not one sentence in Adams's argument warning about the danger of a civil war breaking out in the United States. This is not because Adams was some idealist, somehow unaware of the sectionalist crises that was growing ever-deeper. Rather, Adams himself had written in his diary, more than once, that he feared for the United States, and feared that a civil war was unavoidable. He also had recorded in his diary many times, private conversations he had had with prominent individuals, that a civil war might be unavoidable.

At the same time, Adams knew that for a public figure as prominent and as respected as himself--a former President--to publicly say, particularly in a forum like the U.S. Supreme Court, in a highly publicized case, in an argument that most likely would be published in Europe and in all parts of the United States, including the South, to say that there would be a civil war, and let it come, would be highly inappropriate, and could in fact damage efforts by Northern and Southern moderates (who were in an ever-shrinking minority) to defend the Union, and could only provide grist for the mill of foreign governments, including Britain and its flunky, France, which were hoping for just such a civil war.

In concluding his argument, after paying tribute to a number of distinguished deceased Americans, including John Marshall and George Washington, as well as certain lawyers who had fought against the slave trade, Adams told the Supreme Court,

``I can only ejaculate a fervent petition to Heaven, that every member of [this Honorable Court] may ... be received at the portals of the next with the approving sentence--`Well done, good and faithful servant; enter thou into the joy of the Lord.'''

Adams's argument won the day, and ultimately, the Amistad captives were returned to Africa.

As to the effect of Adams's argument, whether or not Adams's hope was realized by those whom he addressed, Adams, the good and faithful servant for the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution--in short, for the inalienable rights of man--upon his death in 1848 no doubt entered into the joy of the Lord. And that which he accomplished in his lifetime, was made a part of the moral and intellectual life of the United States as a nation, a part of what made America the greatest and noblest experiment of mankind ever to be attempted, as Alexander Hamilton put it in the Federalist Papers. It is our responsibility today to ensure that that spark not only does not die out, but that it flames ever higher, inspiring a new generation of Americans and citizens around the world in the fight for a more profound sense of justice as represented in the U.S. Constitution, and as articulated by that great American, John Quincy Adams.


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The preceding article is a rough version of the article that appeared in The American Almanac. It is made available here with the permission of The New Federalist Newspaper. Any use of, or quotations from, this article must attribute them to The New Federalist, and The American Almanac


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