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"Look back to slavery, to suffrage, to integration and one thing is clear. Fashions in bigotry come and go. The right thing lasts" (Quindlen). The belief of blacks being lesser than whites was a widely accepted principle back in the 1800's, and many issues arose from those who were firm believers. Two very important and prominent controversies stemmed from this belief, and consisted of people so strongly rooted in this belief of inequality, that they had to be taken to the Supreme Court. These two cases, The Dred Scott Supreme Court Case and the La Amistad Supreme Court Case, were the two most widely publicized cases on slavery of their times. Each consisted of a majority of elements similar to the other, though the decisions of the cases were reciprocals. Both cases had to do with black(s) on American soil, trying to escape being claimed as property. The Dred Scott Case decision was that the Scott family, along with all blacks in the US were not US Citizens, making him comparative to a piece of property and not free from his owner. The La Amistad Case decision was that the blacks from Africa were not property, and therefore were allowed to return to their home, freed. From a glance at these two cases, and from the exterior, the details are quite similar. Through research, I will find any differences in these two cases and determine the deciding factor that allowed the freedom of some blacks, but not others. There is also a question of validity in the reasoning behind these Supreme Court cases. This essay examines the two cases, discusses the decisions, reveals and deliberates the determinant of the differing verdicts of the blacks on American soil, and questions the validity of said verdicts.
The Amistad Supreme Court Case
The beginning of what led to the Amistad Court Case the illegal importation of blacks into Havana. From there, 53 slaves were put on the Spanish vessel La Amistad and were being transported to Guanaja to be sold. On the night of July 1st on the ship, after the cook on the ship motioned with his hands that the crew was going to kill the slaves and eat them, the slaves revolted and killed the captain and owner, Ramon Ferrer, and the cook, Celestino, along with many other Spanish crew members (Jones, 24). This revolt was lead by Joseph Cinque, who managed to free his handcuffs with a nail (24). Kept to navigate the captured blacks back to Africa, two navigators by the names of Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montes were spared their lives. Though the navigators were being held at gunpoint and knifepoint, they tricked the Africans by aiming the boat north at night, as opposed to heading towards Africa. Ruiz and Montes were hoping to be spotted by a British cruiser patrolling the Caribbean for pirates. As this zigzagging pattern went on for the next two months, the Spanish navigators finally got La Amistad to land on American soil, where the blacks are captured by Lt. Thomas R. Gedney. Until a decision was reached on what to do with the blacks, they were taken to New London, Connecticut and held in the New Haven Jail (30). This brought much attention to abolitionists who, with the rest of the United States, were in the midst of a "common man" reform movement, in which the common man gained importance and increased his self responsibility (31). The nationwide acknowledgement from abolitionists led to more investigation into the ship and the situation at hand. Thanks to the abolitionists and their notice of this case, it was taken to the Supreme Court. After a fair trial, with John Quincy Adams speaking on the behalf of the blacks, Supreme Court Justice, Justice Story, delivered the final decision. The initial claim by the US government was to decide between returning the blacks to their Spanish owners as their property or to define them as blacks illegally brought into the country, and possibly returnable to Africa if ruled not slaves. After this had been given much thought and many points about this peculiar case had been brought up, there was the realization that the blacks had no intention "to import themselves here as slaves or for sale of slaves" (Jones). This shifted the main issue in the case to being whether the blacks were property of Ruiz and Montes or if they were returnable to Africa. Since the blacks had never been legal slaves, they couldn't be slaves revolting as pirates or robbers. Therefore, they were declared free. This conclusion was a big step for abolitionists. They felt as if it were "a milestone for their cause" (Jones). As predicted, the Southerners and Northerners had completely different reactions to this verdict. The Southerners were not happy, as this allowed blacks on American soil to be free. Northerners, on the other hand, were very happy.
The Dred Scott Supreme Court Case and Impact
Dred Scott and his family were slaves in Missouri who moved with his owner, Peter Blow, to the Free State of Illinois, which happened to be a slave-forbidden area of the Louisiana Compromise (Dred). The Scotts lived on free soil as slaves from 1833-1843 until the Army ordered Blow and his slaves to go back to Missouri (Dred). Dred Scott believed he should no longer be enslaved, as he had been living on free land for about 10 years. He sued his owner for freedom, claiming that his time living in the free territory made him a free man (Bennett 293). The case wound its way through federal courts, gaining popularity, and eventually ending up in the Supreme Court, where Taney delivered the final decision (293). In his 50-page ruling, Taney announced the ruling that: 1. Dred Scott was not even considered an American citizen. He continued to state that he could never be one because of his race. 2. The Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional because, according to the 5th Amendment, Congress "had no power to interfere with Sandford's 'property' without due process. 3. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 was also unconstitutional. To finish his statement off, Taney adds, "Obiter dictum," meaning that since Dred Scott was a black man, he was "so inferior [that he] had no rights which the white man is bound to respect" (294). Southerners gladly accepted this decision. They frequently bragged and tried to get more land to be farmed by slaves (Sunstein). Northerners rejected it and did not agree with it. It "shocked millions of Northerners into a belated recognition of freedom's peril" (Bennett). The Dred Scott Supreme Court Case and the decision gained much attention in its lifespan, and continues to be popular today. There was much opposition, and the ruling changed history, as the decision declared two important American documents unconstitutional.
The Amistad Case was successful, in terms of freedom for the black Africans for many reasons.
Throughout my research, I came to find that the major determining factor of the granted freedom to the blacks from La Amistad was the fact that, by Spanish law and treaty, they were not legal, nor legally imported slaves. They were taken (stolen) and were eventually going to be sold as slaves for profit for the Spanish, but it was illegal, and the Spaniards knew it. Therefore, the trade was illegal and there was nothing that could permanently deem them as slaves. Since the Africans were not legal slaves, it means they couldn't be considered property of the Spaniards. The lack of integrity on the Spaniards part is believed to be the reason the blacks were deemed free. Though there were many contributors to the points and arguments for the slaves, a major influence on the Supreme Court was John Quincy Adams. He spoke on behalf of the captured blacks in his last court case appearance.
The Africans were in possession, and had the presumptive right of ownership; they were in peace with the United States; the Courts have decided, and truly, that they were not pirates; they were on a voyage to their native homes-their dulces Argos; they kind acquired the right and so far as their knowledge extended they had the power of prosecuting the voyage; the ship was theirsâ€¦. (John Quincy Adams).
One more minor, but imperative element that could have influenced the Supreme Court was the radical abolitionists during the 1830's. From the beginning, when they heard about the situation, they brought the Case to public attention. A Committee was formed to help get better conditions for the blacks while they remained in America during their trial. These abolitionists' petitions and efforts to make the case widely known made it the most renowned and most talked about case of its time. The abolitionists were the reason it got the publicity that it did and were a major factor in bringing the case to Supreme Court. One could argue that if the United States were trying to keep the blacks on American soil as slaves, they would have ruled in favor of the US. This would have been unconstitutional, considering the Slave Trade Act of 1807, but had that not been in place, the selfishness of white Americans could have easily persuaded the decision of the court.
The Dred Scott Case was unsuccessful, in terms of freedom for Dred Scott for many reasons.
The Dred Scott Case was unsuccessful, in terms of freedom for Dred Scott, for many reasons. The main element in the Dred Scott Case that hindered the freedom of the black and his family was that they were legally enslaved people (Bennett 295). Since at one point Dred Scott was a slave for an owner while living in a slave state where slavery was allowed, he was considered his owner's property. As property, he could not be stripped from his owner in the case of moving and such. This means that the Scott family was considered the Blow's until sold, no matter where the Blow family might have gone. This is exemplified when the Blow family moves to "free" territory in Illinois, yet Dred Scott was not allowed to be freed. Another very important element was the mindset of the Supreme Court and the influence of the people. Supreme Court had a good number of Southern Justices, and there was a large influence from the slave owners of the south (295). A verdict rendering Scott free from slavery could have caused a large upset in the South and unwanted means of opposition. There might have been constant complaints from southerners, along with a new perspective on slavery much unwanted by most Southerners in fear of losing slavery itself (297 - 298). It is impossible to say for sure, but more slaves would have probably tried to go to court with cases they thought would grant them their freedom. These influences of societal views, Southern justices, and the fact that Dred Scott was a 'legal' slave were the determining factors the fate of Dred Scott and his family.
Compare the two cases
Between the Amistad Case and the Dred Scott Case, we find many similarities. Both court cases deal with the freedom of blacks. As blacks of the 1800's, they were being tried for property. These cases both caused major stirs in the North and South societies. Many movements and actions brought the cases to the attention of even more people. Eventually, these two cases were taken to Supreme Court. In these Supreme Court cases, they were presented with the same Chief Justice, Robert Taney. Throughout the cases, these captured blacks were talked about as property and not even citizens of the United States of America, making that an important deciding factor. The North's and South's pre-empted reactions were also probably taken into consideration, as slavery was a touchy subject for both sides. In fact, the North and South each felt so strongly and had a strong opinion about both cases, that there was plentiful public involvement, making them the most renown cases of that time. Though there were many similarities, there were elements that set these cases apart. The Dred Scott Case was a case only dealing with one slave trying to be freed of his owner. The Amistad Case was a case dealing with many blacks. The Amistad Case also included a good defendant for the blacks: John Quincy Adams. On the other hand, Dred Scott didn't have much support for defending him, so his attorney was not very good. The main difference, I discovered, is that the Supreme Court ruled the Amistad blacks as "not slaves," since they had supposedly been stolen by the Spaniards who landed them in America. Since the Supreme Court didn't think the blacks were legally enslaved, they deemed the black men in the Amistad Case free. Dred Scott was not so lucky. He was formerly enslaved, and had been for a while. This is supposedly what influenced the Supreme Court to conclude that since Dred Scott was formerly a slave, he had no rights and therefore was not freed.
Validity of Outcomes
Though set in different years and with different circumstances, there were many similarities of the Amistad Supreme Court Case and the Dred Scott Supreme Court Case; similarities that can make one question the validity of the court case rulings. After looking at the results of the Dred Scott case, one can see that there was no hesitation in denying Dred Scott and his family their freedom. Why was this not the decision for the Amistad case? Blacks had washed up on American soil. Technically, Americans could have done whatever they wanted with these blacks. The reason for the freedom of these blacks is supposedly because of the knowledge that the blacks were not legally enslaved, but with American's views on African American's during that time period, it seems unlikely that that would have been a strong enough reason. There could have been precautionary reasons, such as us not wanting to upset Spain, therefore avoiding conflict. Also to be considered is the violence seen from the captured blacks. The blacks from the ship "La Amistad" were not like the somewhat complacent and often times "better off" slaves. There was much rebellion, wildness, and rage seen in these Amistadians, which could have frightened the Supreme Court into ruling them freed to go home. These cases can also be look at in reciprocal form. Why was Dred Scott not freed? There is a question in the validity of the Dred Scott decision, in that Dred Scott, like many other freed blacks, was on free territory. Enslaved blacks who made it to free soil could be considered free from enslavement. Dred Scott made it to free soil. He technically should have been free. The Supreme Court full of Southerners twisted the situation around and used it to further deplete any progression towards black freedom. Abraham Lincoln even criticized the Supreme Court's decision of no freedom for Dred Scott in the Dred Scott case, accusing the court of attempting to "nationalize slavery." Most likely, Taney could have seen this case as an opportunity to make their moves towards a pro-slavery America. The court cannot be blamed for trying to nationalize slavery, as the decision did not force slavery on the states that did not want it. But to Taney's delight, it might have allowed slavery to spread farther. Recognizing these points can lead to inquisition of the validity of the two Supreme Court case rulings at hand. With the same Chief Justice, it is hard to believe that in two cases dealing with the freedom of blacks, one group was freed and the other was kept enslaved. Though it is shown by research that the differing rulings of the blacks was because of the legality of previous enslavement, the validity of those rulings can be questioned based on the morality of Americans and Americans general view of blacks.
Looking at the brief details of The Amistad Case and the Dred Scott Case, one can draw from the facts that the cases had very similar elements, especially for such contradictory results. Both cases were dealing with African Americans' freedom on American soil. Examining both cases more closely, I found there to be one main difference between the Amistad Supreme Court Case and the Dred Scott Supreme Court Case: the fact that the La Amistad blacks were found to be illegal slaves and slaves captured on illegal terms, while Dred Scott was previously a legal slave under his owner, John Sandford (Bennett). From this major detail, the Africans were unable to be labeled as property of the two Spanish navigators and consequently, were to be taken back to their home country of Africa. This seemed to be the right, "constitutional" decision; however it can be put into question the verdict if the United States was trying the blacks to be kept as slaves on American soil, similar to the Dred Scott Case. It is known that Dred Scott was formerly a slave, but what made him property? What made the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional? I believe it was the white United States officials, trying to find a way to keep blacks out of control and away from the possibility of escaping captivity. Should a slave on free land not be free? According to the Supreme Court, they should not, as slaves are properties of their owners.
Roughly thirteen years passed between the two cases, exemplifying that timing and circumstance are very important in affairs so life changing and impacting such as these. Both cases caught the eyes of the public, since they were dealing with ideas and beliefs not quite worked out in the imperfect subject of slavery and inequality. As much as they would have liked, the abolitionists didn't get Dred Scotts freedom, and the Southerners didn't get to see the blacks being returned as slaves; but everyone has their shining moments. As Quindlen said, "Fashions in bigotry come and go. The right thing lasts." This is evident in all of the movements, revolts, and reforms unintentionally happening because of these cases. The Amistad Case and the Dred Scott Case, and the decisions correlating with each, helped our nation define who we are and get to where we are today.
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