Old Supreme Court Chamber
John Quincy Adams Argues the Amistad Case
An unusually dramatic event occurred in the old Supreme Court chamber on
February 24, 1841, when former President John Quincy Adams rose to argue
United States v. the Amistad. At the age of seventy-three, not having argued
a case in twenty years, and feeling his faculties dropping from him "as
the teeth are dropping from my head," Adams wondered how he could convince
the slaveholders on the Court in a matter involving the suppression of
the slave trade. Those he defended were Africans sold into slavery in Cuba,
who had mutinied and taken control of the Amistad, the ship transporting
them. Rather than head for Africa as ordered, the crew steered into Long
Island Sound, where the Africans were arrested. To placate Spain, Martin
Van Buren's administration pressed for the Africans to be returned to Cuba.
Abolitionists persuaded Adams, nicknamed "Old Man Eloquent," to argue the
case before the Supreme Court.
In his four-and-a-half-hour presentation, Adams charged the administration
with taking "the side of injustice." Justice Joseph Story called Adams'
argument extraordinary "for its power and its bitter sarcasm." On March
9, 1841, Justice Story delivered the Court's opinion ordering the mutineers
returned to Africa. A jubilant Adams notified the abolitionists, "The Captives
For further reading:
Kromer, Helen, Amistad: The Slave Uprising Aboard the Spanish Schooner (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 1997)
Zeinert, Karen, The Amistad Slave Revolt and American Abolition (New Haven: Linnet Books, 1997)