Anthony Hopkins as former president John Quincy Adams delivers a most eloquent argument against slavery and for freedom based on the Declaration of Independence and international law before the United States Supreme Court of 1841. This might be a good time to revisit it, considering the immigration crisis facing the U.S. and states such as Alabama today. All people should see this movie, especially modern-day self-styled Conservative Republicans, who think they know something about American freedom. I was moved by this scene. Perhaps you would be too.
The Amistad case, also known as United States v. Libellants and Claimants of the Schooner Amistad, was a U.S. Supreme Court case resulting from the rebellion of slaves on board the Spanish schooner Amistad in 1839. It was an unusual suit in a long line of cases that came to define what “freedom” meant under the law in the United States.
The rebellion broke out when the schooner, traveling along the coast of Cuba, was taken over by a group of captives who had earlier been illegally kidnapped in Africa from a British Colony where the slave trade was outlawed, modern day Sierra Leone, and sold into slavery. The Africans revolted and took over the ship, but their ship was captured near Long Island, New York, by the U.S. Revenue cutter and taken into custody. The widely publicized court cases in the United States helped the abolitionist movement in its argument against slavery, and some say it was a precursor to the Civil War, although there are historians and critics who disagree.
In 1840, a federal trial court found that the initial transport of the Africans across the Atlantic had been illegal, because the international slave trade had been abolished, and the captives were thus not legally slaves but free. Given that they were illegally confined, the Africans were entitled to take whatever legal measures necessary to secure their freedom, including the use of force. After the US Supreme Court affirmed this finding on March 9, 1841, supporters arranged transportation for the Africans back to Africa in 1842. The case influenced numerous succeeding laws in the United States, according to Wikipedia and other sources.
The Mende believed that when faced with a situation in which there is no hope at all, they invoke their ancestors. They believe if they can summon the spirit of their ancestors then they have never left, Hopkins argues, invoking the founding fathers of the U.S. and their phrase in the Declaration of Independence, that “all men are created equal.”
“We understand now, we’ve been made to understand, and to embrace the understanding, that who we are is who we were.”
He exhorts the court by saying: “We desperately need your strength and wisdom to triumph over our fears and our prejudices — ourselves. Give us the courage to do what is right. If it means civil war, then let it come. And when it does, let it be, finally, the last battle of the American Revolution.”
© 2011, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.