Legal Questions before the Federal Courts
Did the federal courts have jurisdiction to try the Mende on criminal charges?
No, said Justice Smith Thompson in the U.S. Circuit Court.
Following the Spanish planters’ testimony about the revolt on the Amistad, the U.S. attorney for Connecticut prepared an indictment of the adult Mende on charges of murder and piracy. In the U.S. Circuit Court for Connecticut, a grand jury returned a finding of facts regarding the revolt on the schooner, the killing of the captain and cook, and the theft of goods on board. Justice Thompson denied that the federal courts had any jurisdiction over the alleged crimes. The crimes allegedly committed on a Spanish vessel sailing under a Spanish commander could only be tried in the courts of that nation. The federal courts did have jurisdiction over violations of the law of nations, including piracy, but earlier court decisions had established that the slave trade was not a violation of the customs and practices that made up the law of nations.
Even before the circuit court convened, the U.S. attorney privately admitted that the courts did not have criminal jurisdiction over the Mende, and few observers expected a criminal trial. The Mende never again faced any criminal charges in the United States.
Did the federal courts have authority to hold the Mende in custody?
Yes, said Justice Smith Thompson, as long as they were the object of property claims pending before the courts.
The lawyers representing the Mende used a writ of habeas corpus to seek the release of the three young girls detained as both witnesses and as objects of several property claims. Once the circuit court dismissed the criminal charges against the adult Mende, another lawyer used a separate writ of habeas corpus to seek the release of those men as well. The Africans’ lawyers argued that their clients had been found in a state of freedom and that the district court’s order to imprison them had the effect of reducing them to slavery. One of the lawyers, Roger Sherman Baldwin, insisted that the federal courts could not take custody of the Mende unless they determined that these individuals were the lawful property of the Spanish planters. At the same time, the lawyers presented their first evidence that the captives from the Amistad had been illegally enslaved in Cuba and could not be claimed as property.
Justice Thompson denied the motion for release of the Mende. He prefaced his ruling with a statement of his own disapproval of slavery, but nevertheless determined that the district court had jurisdiction over the Mende just as it had jurisdiction over the schooner and its cargo. The Constitution recognized the right to hold slaves, and the Supreme Court had said that the federal courts had the power to decide the right to slave property.
Which district court had jurisdiction over the salvage and property claims?
The U.S. District Court of Connecticut, not that of the Southern District of New York, had jurisdiction over the admiralty case and its several property claims.
When a ship was rescued on the high seas, the rescuers could file a salvage claim in any judicial district to which they carried the disabled vessel. If the ship were taken within the boundaries of a judicial district, only the district court for that district could accept jurisdiction over a claim. Lieutenant Gedney and his crew carried the Amistad to New London, Connecticut, and filed their libel in the U.S. district court in that state. The lawyers for the Africans argued that the ship was taken not on the high seas, but within the state of New York, where the Mende shore party had landed to collect supplies. The lawyers expected that the district judge of the Southern District of New York would be more sympathetic to the Africans than would be Judge Judson of the district court in Connecticut.
Judson dispatched the U.S. attorney and lawyers for the Mende to investigate the location where the Amistad was taken into custody off Montauk Point, Long Island. The location, though close to the New York shore, met the criteria of being in the open ocean, “where the dominion of the winds and the waves prevail.” Some of the Mende were on the New York shore when the Navy crew took them into custody, but according to guidelines provided by an earlier case, these Mende were still attached under a legal definition to the ship at sea. Judson thus determined that the U.S. District Court for Connecticut had jurisdiction in the case.
Was the Navy crew entitled to a salvage award for rescuing the Amistad?
Yes, said each of the courts that heard the case.
Lieutenant Gedney and the crew of the Brig Washington submitted a libel, or claim, asking the district court to grant them a salvage award for rescuing the Amistad. The Spanish owners of the schooner and its cargo challenged Gedney’s claim on the grounds that the treaty between the United States and Spain required each nation to return the property of the other, with no deduction for salvage. Judson ruled that the actions of the Washington crew qualified as meritorious service, a standard qualification for salvage. Since the Amistad would otherwise have been lost at sea, Judson said, the salvage award was within the definition of “reasonable rates” that the treaty allowed for restoring the other nation’s property. The Supreme Court agreed that the salvage award was consistent with the general principles of maritime law.
A salvage award required the sale of the ship and goods so that a portion of the value could be paid to recipients of the award. Judson had no authority to order the sale of Mende, even if they were legally slaves; he therefore denied Gedney’s claim for a salvage award in the rescue of the alleged slaves. Judson also dismissed as without merit a salvage claim submitted by two men who sold the Mende supplies on the Long Island shore.
Did the treaty between Spain and the United States require the return of all Spanish property?
Yes, if the claimants had proper proof of ownership.
Judge Andrew Judson agreed that the treaty of 1795 obligated the United States to return lawfully held Spanish property, but he asserted the right of the federal courts to investigate the validity of any property claims. Judson’s review of the testimony and evidence in the district court trial established that the Spanish planters had produced no title to the enslaved Mende, only passes for their transportation. Those passes incorrectly stated that the Mende were long-time inhabitants of Spanish territory. In fact, they were recent arrivals in Cuba and under Spanish law were free, not slave. When a claim to slave property was legitimately documented, as in the case of the captain’s slave, Antonio, Judson agreed that the courts must order the slaves’ return to the owners in Cuba.
Justice Story’s opinion for the Supreme Court also stated that if the Mende were legally the slaves of the Spanish planters, the Court would order their return just as they would for merchandise belonging to the planters. The Spanish-American treaty, however, called for “due and sufficient proof” of ownership, and Story insisted that the courts had an obligation to determine if the foreign government’s documents had been subject to fraud. In the case of the Amistad, the fraudulent origin of the passes for the Mende captives invalidated the planters’ claims of slave property.
Were the Mende on the Amistad slaves?
No, said each federal court that decided this question that lay at the center of the Amistad case.
The Spanish planters, Josť Ruiz and Pedro Montes, claimed the Mende on the Amistad as their slaves, legally purchased and owned in Cuba. They asked the U.S. district court to order the return of the alleged slaves, along with the planters’ other property on the Amistad.
Judge Andrew Judson decided that these Africans were not slaves under Spanish law, and could not be returned to the planters, who held no valid proof of ownership. Testimony in the district court trial proved that the Mende on the Amistad arrived in Cuba in June 1839, and under Spanish law, no Africans transported to Spanish territory after 1820 could be enslaved. The circuit court affirmed this decision. The Supreme Court agreed that it was clear “beyond controversy” that the Mende were never the lawful property of Ruiz or Montes or any other Spanish subjects. By the laws of Spain, the Mende were declared to be free.
If the Mende from the Amistad were not slaves, what authority could the federal courts exercise over them?
Judge Judson’s decision that the Mende were not slaves under Spanish law did not provide for the Africans’ release from federal custody. Judson ordered that custody of the Mende be transferred from the federal courts to the President. Under the provisions of an 1819 act, any enslaved Africans transported into the United States were to be delivered to the President for return to Africa at government expense. Judson acknowledged that the Mende arrived in command of the Amistad rather than as enslaved persons, but he thought the humanitarian objectives of the act called for a broad interpretation of its provisions. The circuit court decree upheld this part of Judson’s decision.
The Supreme Court disagreed, and decided that the federal courts had no authority to detain the Mende once they determined that the Africans were not slaves and that they had entered the United States as free individuals. The Supreme Court issued a decree ordering the U.S. Circuit Court in Connecticut to free the Mende.
Could the federal courts protect slave property?
Yes. Until the Civil War, the federal courts recognized and protected slave property when it was held in accordance with a nation’s laws.
If the properly enacted laws of a nation (so-called “positive law”) permitted slavery, the federal courts recognized the right to hold slave property. In the circuit court session of September 1839, Justice Smith Thompson reminded the abolitionist lawyers that the Constitution provided for the return of fugitive slaves within the United States and prohibited states from making any laws that would hinder the recovery of slave property. Thompson also emphasized that the Supreme Court had decided that foreign slave owners could recover slave property in federal custody if they could prove ownership under the laws of their own country. The federal courts had a responsibility to consider claims for slave property, regardless of state laws or the personal beliefs of an individual judge.
In the district court, Judge Andrew Judson determined that under Spanish law, Antonio, the cabin boy from the Amistad, had been the slave property of the ship’s captain. Judson ordered that Antonio be delivered to the captain’s heirs. The African-born captives from the Amistad were not slave property under Spanish law, and Judson refused to order their return to the planters who had purchased them. Story, in his Supreme Court opinion, agreed that if any individuals were lawfully held as slaves under Spanish law, the Court would order their return to anyone who could prove title of ownership.
What had the federal courts decided in earlier cases involving the foreign slave trade?
Before Amistad, the federal courts had decided only a limited number of cases involving slavery or the slave trade. Two cases, The Antelope and La Jeune Eugenie were the subject of much speculation about how the courts might deal with the questions raised by the Amistad case. The oral arguments presented in each court included frequent references to these cases, and Judson relied in part on these cases to explain his decision in the district court trial.
In The Antelope case of 1825, the Supreme Court, in an opinion written by Chief Justice John Marshall, held that the federal courts must recognize a nation’s right to engage in the slave trade if the laws of that nation did not prohibit the trade.
The Antelope case involved an American ship commander who raided Spanish, Portuguese, and American-owned ships along the West African coast and took possession of the slaves on board of each. Eventually he transferred nearly 300 slaves to the Antelope and headed for the Florida coast. A U.S. revenue cutter seized the Antelope and delivered all on board to Savannah. In the U.S. District Court for Georgia, the U.S. attorney sought an order that would have required the return to Africa of all the enslaved persons on board, under the provisions of the same the act of 1819 cited by Judson in the Amistad decision. The Spanish and Portuguese owners of the seized slaves filed claims for the recovery of their property. The slave trade was legal under Spanish and Portuguese law at the time these slaves were transported from Africa.
The U.S. attorney appealed the district and circuit court decisions to grant all foreign claims that could be documented. Marshall’s opinion stated his personal belief that slavery violated natural law, but many nations had approved of the trade and therefore the Court could not rule that is was a violation of international law. The Court must recognize that citizens of nations that had not prohibited the slave trade had a right to engage in that trade. The Supreme Court ordered that the valid foreign claims be paid.
By the time the case was heard by the Supreme Court, many of the enslaved Africans from the Antelope had died, and no one had a record of which survivors originated on the different ships. A randomly-selected group of the Africans, in numbers proportionate to the legitimate foreign claims, was sold by the federal government and the proceeds delivered to the foreign slave owners. The Court ordered that the remaining survivors, including all from the American-owned slave ship, be returned to Africa at the expense of the United States government.
Marshall’s opinion in The Antelope made it difficult for the abolitionist lawyers to argue for the Mende’s freedom on the basis of natural law, but it provided support for their claim that the Mende could not be delivered to Spanish officials because the Spanish planters did not hold valid proof of ownership.
U.S. v. La Jeune Eugenie
Justice Joseph Story ruled in a circuit court case of 1822 that the African slave trade violated natural law and international law, and that the federal courts had the authority to confiscate ships employed in that trade.
Story’s decision came in a case before the U.S. Circuit Court for Massachusetts, where he presided as the circuit justice. The crew of a U.S. revenue cutter captured the ship La Jeune Eugenie off the coast of West Africa and transported it to Boston on the suspicion that it was an American ship engaged in the slave trade. The revenue cutter’s crew claimed an award available under the law prohibiting the slave trade with Africa. The French consul in Boston and the French owners of the ship submitted claims for the return of the vessel.
Story determined that La Jeune Eugenie was French-owned, but he refused to return the ship to those owners because they clearly had been involved in the slave trade. Story declared that the African slave trade violated natural law, international law, and the enacted laws of almost every nation in Europe as well as those of the United States. Unless the African slave trade were specifically protected by a nation’s laws, the federal courts had the authority to hear cases involving foreign citizens who participated in the trade and to order the confiscation of property used in the trade. Story agreed to President Monroe’s request for delivery of La Jeune Eugenie to the French government so that the courts of that nation could examine the owners’ involvement in the slave trade.
Judson’s decision in the Amistad trial referred to La Jeune Eugenie in regard to requirements for proof of ownership, but he made no mention of Story’s decision regarding natural and international law. Marshall’s decision in The Antelope case of 1825 had restricted the ability of any federal judge to invoke principles of natural law in determining a case about the slave trade.
Amistad: The Federal Courts and the Challenge to Slavery — Historical Background and Documents