Amistad: Legal Battle

Sengbe Pieh and Justice Joseph Story
Sengbe Pieh and Justice Joseph Story

While Pieh and the others were in a New Haven prison, their case was sent to the U.S. District Court (also the Old Statehouse). A U.S. attorney, under direction from Secretary of State John Forsyth, presented Spain’s argument that the captives should be returned to Cuba. The African captive’s defense was organized by the Amistad Committee - a group of local abolitionists. They argued that Spanish law and international treaty forbade the importation of Africans for the slave trade. Pieh and the others described their kidnap, mistreatment, and sale into slavery. The District Court ruled that the African captives were not Spanish and should return to Africa.

The U.S. Attorney appealed the decision to the next highest court, the Circuit Court, which upheld the District Court's opinion. The U.S. Attorney then appealed the decision to the Supreme Court.

The Amistad Committee approached former President and Secretary of State John Quincy Adams and asked him to argue the defense before the Supreme Court. Adams was a leading opponent of slavery and had previously argued before the Supreme Court, and was thus seen as the perfect candidate. Adams was 72 years old, almost blind, an active Congressman, and had not argued a case as a lawyer in more than 30 years. At first hesitant, he finally agreed to take the case.

The U.S. vs. Amistad began in February 1841. The U.S. case argued that, under treaty obligations, the captives be returned to Spain. Adams stated that American ideals of freedom demanded that the Pieh and the others be set free and returned to their homes in what is presently Sierra Leone. The Supreme Court ruled 7-1 on the side of the captive Africans. They found that they were not Spanish, were taken illegally from Africa, and should return to Africa. The majority decision stated:

“...The treaty with Spain never could have intended to take away the equal rights of all foreigners...or to deprive such foreigners of the protection given them by other treaties, or by the general law of nations. Upon the merits of the case, then, there does not seem to us to be any ground for doubt, that these negroes ought to be deemed free.
...[T]he said negroes be declared to be free, and be dismissed from the custody of the court, and go without delay.”

--U.S. vs. Amistad majority decision delivered by Justice Joseph Story

In November 1841, two years after their initial capture, Sengbe Pieh and the 34 other surviving captives returned to Mendeland on the ship Gentleman. Funds for the trip were raised by the Amistad Committee.

The Amistad court case is credited with being the first civil rights case in the United States. The positive ruling on the side of the captive Africans gave strength to the abolitionist movement. It went from being a fragmented group to a legitimate movement, and the Amistad case helped centralize their message about the injustice of slavery.

This is just one story associated with the Amistad event. To learn more, please visit the main Stories page of this travel itinerary.

“John Quincy Adams and the Amistad Event” pamphlet produced by Adams National Historical Park.

Last updated: July 31, 2017