United States v. Amistad

(1841)

Issued on March 9, 1841, the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in the United States v. Amistad was the most significant one issued by the Court on the question of slavery before the Dred Scott decision of 1857. The case arose from the seizure of the schooner La Amistad, its passengers, and cargo in 1839 by a U.S. naval vessel. Among the passengers were fifty-three Africans, a slave named Antonio owned by the captain, and two Spaniards. The Spaniards claimed that the Africans were their slaves, but the Africans asserted they were free. For the next two years, American abolitionists provided legal counsel to the Africans, hoping to secure their freedom and to record a legal victory in the battle against slavery. Unlike the Dred Scott decision, in which Chief Justice Roger Taney would say that blacks “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect,” Justice Joseph Story’s opinion in Amistad, based on “the eternal principles of justice and international law,” held that...

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Portrait of Joseph Cinque (Library of Congress)

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