Trial was longer than in movie 'Amistad': Presenting the historic Supreme Court case for and against the shipload of freedom-seeking Africans in 1841 dragged on for days. But it was packed with political and social drama.

Sun Journal

December 18, 1997|By Theo Lippman Jr. | Theo Lippman Jr.,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Legal buffs who go to see "Amistad" for its climactic scene in the Supreme Court know better than to expect the real thing. It would be impossible to get what really happened in a two-hour movie. John Quincy Adams alone spoke for over eight hours.

As the movie makes clear, the case -- about whether to return the Africans who had mutinied and taken control of a Spanish slave ship to Spanish citizens who claimed them as their property -- was a dramatic and political high point in American history of the period between the Revolution and the Civil War.

No court case before that one in 1839-1841 so captured the public imagination, and none afterward would till the Dred Scott case in 1857. Both those cases were settled by a Supreme Court whose chief justice was Roger B. Taney. In addition to him, three other justices heard and ruled on both cases.

Scholars generally give the justices of the two decades before the Civil War very low marks. One notable exception is the justice who delivered the opinion in the Amistad case. That was Justice Joseph Story, whom many consider the outstanding legal scholar and jurist of his century. (Yes, that was former Justice Harry A. Blackmun playing him in the movie.)

But what made the case so interesting to the public of the day was that it was one more milestone on the road to the Civil War and the end of slavery -- and that it pitted in the judicial arena two presidents of the United States who had been enemies before in the political arena.

President Martin Van Buren was in office when the Amistad case came before U.S. courts. He favored returning the Africans to Spain, whatever the law might call for, because he needed the support of the slave states to be re-elected. (He was defeated between the time the case was heard in the lower courts and when it moved to the Supreme Court.)

John Quincy Adams had been president for a term 12 years before Van Buren. He defeated Van Buren's benefactor, Andrew Jackson. Jackson defeated Adams the next go-round and chose Van Buren as his vice president. When Jackson retired after two terms, Van Buren was elected to succeed him.

Like Adams, he served only one term. That allows for a delightful bit of comic relief in "Amistad." Two Van Buren cronies are belittling Adams in the White House as the Supreme Court arguments loom. One says of Adams, just as Van Buren walks into earshot, "There's nothing so pitiful as an ex-president."

After his presidency, Adams was elected to the House of Representatives from Massachusetts. He was a member when he took the job of arguing the Africans' case before the Supreme Court.

He was reluctant to take the case. He was almost 74 years old. He told those who pressured him to represent the Africans, "I am too old, too oppressed by my duties in the House of Representatives, too inexperienced after a lapse of 30 years in the forms and technicalities of arguments before the Supreme Court."

But he agreed to argue before the Supreme Court with Roger Baldwin, the attorney who had been handling the case in the lower courts.

In addition, he kept the case before the public by forcing %J congressional hearings on the Van Buren administration's activities in the case. Those activities included a foiled plan to send the Africans back to the Spanish before there could be an appeal of a ruling by a trial judge.

Adams and Story, also from Massachusetts, were friends. In a sense Story owed his Supreme Court appointment to Adams, who had been formally offered the seat by President James Madison in 1811. The Senate had approved the nomination, but Adams declined it. Story got the nod.

But the court of 1841 as a whole was not philosophically or politically friendly to Adams.

No justice had been appointed by him. Five of the nine had been appointed by his old enemy Jackson and two by Van Buren. Five of the nine were from slave states. Of the four Northerners on the bench, one was Henry Baldwin of Ohio, a sometime defender of slavery and, as one historian of the court has put it, "a little touched in the head."

Adams worked long hours preparing for the case. The Supreme Court chamber then was in the basement of the Capitol, and he could easily walk from the House floor to the court to study precedents and other material.

The case was scheduled to be heard in January. But Story was delayed in getting to Washington. So it was postponed, eventually until Feb. 20.

Just as Adams was prepared to go to the court for arguments, a horse accident killed his coachman and old friend. Adams got a two-day delay.

On George Washington's birthday in 1841, the Supreme Court hearing began. One justice, a former Alabama representative who had often fought with Adams, was not present. So the slave state/free state breakdown was 4-4.

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