Speeches That Made History: John Quincy Adams Contends for Freedom

by Derrick G. Jeter

John Quincy Adams was the sixth president of the United States, the capstone of a long and distinguished diplomatic and political career. Leaving the presidency after four years, Adams did the unthinkable—then and now—he returned to Massachusetts, ran for and won a seat in the House of Representatives in 1830. His return to Congress disappointed many in his family, particularly his son, Charles, and wife, Louisa. Charles argued that becoming a Congressman after serving as President would set an unfortunate precedent. But more importantly, Adams should think about the dignity of his former office, as well as his own. How could he serve in a lesser position? A seat in Congress would also prevent, or at least make it difficult, for Adams to pursue a life of scholarship. Charles’s fears were unwarranted. Adams’s election to Congress didn’t set any precedent—he is the only former president to hold a lower office after leaving the White House. And though his service in the House did prevent him from lifetime of scholarship, Adams’s years as a Representative were productive and dignified.

Perhaps the most dignified episode of his congressional years—certainly the most well known—is his defense before the Supreme Court of an international slave-trading case. The case arose when thirty-nine Africans, held captive on the Spanish slave ship Amistad, incited a mutiny off of the cost of Cuba. Killing many of their captors, the Africans forced the remaining whites to navigate back to their homeland. The Spaniards, however, gave the Africans misleading navigational directions. Instead of returning to Africa, the Amistad sailed up the American coastline until it was discovered by the U. S. Navy off of Long Island, New York. The Africans were taken to New Haven, Connecticut and jailed until their fate could be determined.

At both the district and circuit levels, the government argued that the Africans were Spanish property and should be returned to Spain, or risk violating our treaties with that nation. The government also argued that the Africans, because they were property, had no right to mutiny and the deaths on board ship were an act of murder. Federal judges in both courts were unpersuaded by the government’s case and found that the Africans were not property, but were persons illegally taken from their homes to be sold as slaves in Cuba. Therefore, the Africans had the right to defend themselves through mutiny and self-defense. This should have ended the matter but the Van Buren administration, in an attempt to mollify southern sympathies during an election year, appealed the case to the Supreme Court. Adams became involved when the respected abolitionist Lewis Tappan directly appealed to him.

Adams’s co-council, Roger S. Baldwin, opened the defense’s case of “The United States, Appellants, vs. Cinque [the African leader], and others, Africans, captured in the schooner Amistad, by Lieut. Gedney.” Adams’s job was to close. On February 24, 1841, a nervous Adams stood before the Supreme Court. Beginning tentatively, Adams soon found his voice and spoke for four hours. Scheduled to resume the next day, the case had to be postponed because of the sudden death of Justice Philip Barbour. When proceedings began again on March 1st, Adams picked up where he left off and spoke for another four hours. Adams’s arguments sweep far and wide, but the case was actually simple for him. It was not about maritime law or even property rights. It was about human liberty under the laws of nature.

In the speech delivered by Anthony Hopkins, who portrayed Adams in the movie Amistad—a speech adapted and greatly condensed from the original eight hour closing—Adams summarizes the case as being about “the very nature of man.” The dichotomy he establishes, and for the Court to decide, is whether the nature of man is enslavement or freedom. He declared,

I know this a controversial idea—[but the nature of man] is freedom! Is freedom. And the proof is the length to which a man, woman or child will go to regain it once taken. He will break loose his chains. He will decimate his enemies. He will try and try and try, against all odds, against all prejudices, to get home.

The peroration is particularly apt for this President’s Day.

The other night I was talking with my friend, Cinque. He was over at my place, and we were out in the greenhouse together, and he was explaining to me how when a member of the Mende—that’s his people—how when a member of the Mende encounters a situation where there appears no hope at all, he evokes his ancestors . . . tradition. See, the Mende believe that if one can summon the spirit of one’s ancestors, then they have never left, and the wisdom and strength they fathered and inspired will come to his aid. James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, John Adams . . . we have long resisted asking you for guidance. Perhaps, we have feared in doing so, we might acknowledge that our individuality, which we so, so revere, is not entirely our own. Perhaps, we’ve feared an appeal to you might be taken for weakness. But we’ve come to understand, finally, that this is not so. We understand now, that we’ve been made to understand, and to embrace the understanding, that who we are is who we were. We desperately need your strength and wisdom, to triumph over our fears, our prejudices, ourselves. Give us the courage to do what is right. And if it means civil war, then let it come. And when it does, may it be, finally, the last battle of the American Revolution.