Amistad Decision

  • Public-Policy Reform
  • 1841

In 1839, a group of Africans captured by Spanish slavers and then sold into bondage in Cuba rose against the crew of the ship transporting them. They eventually came to shore on Long Island, where they were put on trial for murdering a crewmember. Abolitionist financier Lewis Tappan immediately recognized this as a potential teaching moment for public understanding of slavery.

Tappan collected donations from some fellow abolitionists and set off for Connecticut, where the 36 Africans were locked up. The defendants were clothed and fed by Tappan and questioned with the aid of interpreters he brought in. Tappan subsequently retained respected lawyers to represent their interests, and hired Yale students to tutor them in English, American manners, and Christianity.

After criminal charges were dismissed, the case was referred to civil trial. Lewis Tappan initiated a suit charging the Spanish ship owners with assault and false imprisonment of the Africans, which got the Spaniards arrested. The case became a national and international cause célèbre, drawing large crowds and banner headlines.

The courtroom struggle eventually reached its final appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court, and Tappan convinced former President John Quincy Adams to join the all-star legal team. Ultimately, though five of its nine justices were Southerners who either owned or had owned slaves, the court ruled that the Africans were kidnap victims, not property, with a right to defend themselves. They were declared wholly free.

Lewis Tappan had almost single-handedly financed and organized the defense. He attended every day in court. He engineered much of the publicity and reporting that transfixed many Americans in sympathy with the Africans. Some months later he helped finance the excursion which returned the Africans to their native lands. Hundreds of donors moved by the Amistad trial also contributed funds, which were used to supply the returnees and help them resettle. Abolitionism had turned a corner toward a wide popular following.