In 1839, fifty-three men, recently abducted from Sierra Leone, revolted aboard the Spanish schooner Amistad. When the Amistad was discovered off of Long Island, it was hauled into New London, Connecticut by the U.S. Navy.
President Martin Van Buren wanted the prisoners returned to Cuba to stand trial for mutiny. A Connecticut judge, however, issued a ruling recognizing the defendants’ rights as free citizens and ordered the U.S. government to escort them back to Africa. The U.S. government appealed to the Supreme Court.
Former president John Quincy Adams came out of retirement to represent the men of the Amistad in the Supreme Court case, and successfully argued that it was the illegally enslaved Africans, rather than the Cubans, who “were entitled to all the kindness and good offices due from a humane and Christian nation.”
This was John Quincy Adams’s final summation to the court:
May it please your Honors: On the 7th of February, 1804, now more than thirty-seven years past, my name was entered, and yet stands recorded, on both the rolls, as one of the Attorneys and Counsellors of this Court. Five years later, in February and March, 1809, I appeared for the last time before this Court, in defense of the cause of justice, and of important rights, in which many of my fellow-citizens had property to a large amount at stake. Very shortly afterwards, I was called to the discharge of other duties–first in distant lands, and in later years, within our own country, but in different departments of her Government.
Little did I imagine that I should ever again be required to claim the right of appearing in the capacity of an officer of this Court; yet such has been the dictate of my destiny–and I appear again to plead the cause of justice, and now of liberty and life, in behalf of many of my fellow men, before that same Court, which in a former age I had addressed in support of rights of property I stand again, I trust for the last time, before the same Court–“hic caestus, artemque repono.” I stand before the same Court, but not before the same judges–nor aided by the same associates–nor resisted by the same opponents.
As I cast my eyes along those seats of honor and of public trust, now occupied by you, they seek in vain for one of those honored and honorable persons whose indulgence listened then to my voice. Marshall–Cushing–Chase–Washington–Johnson–Livingston–Todd–Where are they?
Where is that eloquent statesman and learned lawyer who was my associate counsel in the management of that cause, Robert Goodloe Harper?
Where is that brilliant luminary, so long the pride of Maryland and of the American Bar, then my opposing counsel, Luther Martin?
Where is the excellent clerk of that day, whose name has been inscribed on the shores of Africa, as a monument of his abhorrence of the African slave-trade, Elias B. Caldwell?
Where is the marshal–where are the criers of the Court? Alas! where is one of the very judges of the Court, arbiters of life and death, before whom I commenced this anxious argument, even now prematurely closed?
Where are they all? Gone! Gone! All gone!–Gone from the services which, in their day and generation, they faithfully rendered to their country. From the excellent characters which they sustained in life, so far as I have had the means of knowing, I humbly hope, and fondly trust, that they have gone to receive the rewards of blessedness on high.
In taking, then, my final leave of this Bar, and of this Honorable Court, I can only ejaculate a fervent petition to Heaven, that every member of it may go to his final account with as little of earthly frailty to answer for as those illustrious dead, and that you may, every one, after the close of a long and virtuous career in this world, be received at the portals of the next with the approving sentence–“Well done, good and faithful servant; enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.”