Regarding the film Amistad by Steven Spielberg, what was the defense John Quincy Adams used before the Supreme Court?

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kipling2448 | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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There is a moment in Steven Spielberg’s 1997 film Amistad when the former president of the United States-turned U.S. congressman John Quincy Adams provides a bit of advice to an African American abolitionist regarding the legal profession:

 “Well, when I was an attorney, a long time ago, young man, I err... I realized, after much trial and error, that in the courtroom, whoever tells the best story wins. In un-lawyerlike fashion, I give you that scrap of wisdom free of charge.”

The character of Adams in Spielberg’s film, portrayed by Anthony Hopkins, may sound flippant and extremely cynical regarding the legal profession, but there are merit in his words, at least with respect to trials involving a jury of one’s peers.  Convincing a group of twelve men and women (in those days, men, as women were deemed unfit for such responsibilities, a position upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 1879 decision) to agree with one’s position does, occasionally, come down to the most eloquent spokesman, or to the most convincing one.  As Adams knew, however, arguing before the Supreme Court does not involve attempting to persuade a group of ordinary citizens of the merits of one’s arguments; on the contrary, arguing before the highest court in the land involves no jury at all, but presenting one’s case in the presence of those nine experienced and usually highly intelligent jurists known as the Supreme Court justices.  Convincing the majority of those eminent jurists of the soundness of one’s argument must involve recourse to the law and its application.  In the America of the early 19th Century, that meant reference to British common law as well as to the statutory law that defines, at least in part, the U.S. legal system today.  Toward that end, Adams, in the film, borrows from the spiritual heritage of the African prisoners whose fate he hopes to favorably resolve.  As the film’s main protagonist, Cinque, attempts to communicate through a translator to Adams, he draws on tradition as a source of sustenance by appealing to the wisdom of his ancestors:

Ens. Covey: [translating for Cinque to John Quincy Adams] “I will call to the past, far back to the beginning of time, and beg them to come and help me at the judgment. I will reach back and draw them into me, and they must come, for at this moment, I am the whole reason they have existed at all.”

Adams is sensitive and receptive to Cinque’s spirituality, and applies such tradition to his practice of law in arguing Cinque’s case before the Court.  Just as Cinque appeals to his ancestors for guidance and support, so does Adams appeal to the nation’s Founding Fathers – including his father – in appealing to the Court:

 “James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington... John Adams. We've 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... an appeal to you might be taken for weakness. But, we've come to understand, finally, that this is not so. We understand now, 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.”

Adams’ application of a form of common law in arguing the merits of Cinque’s case constitutes a vital component of his strategy.  But he is also sufficiently astute to recognize the more substantive if dehumanizing legal questions at the heart of this case, particularly those that imply the Africans’ status is merely that of property no different than canned goods or horses.  The key, then, is to humanize his clients before the Court and move the rationale of the case from one of property rights to one of human rights:

“Your Honor, I derive much consolation from the fact that my colleague, Mr. Baldwin here, has argued the case in so able, and so complete a manner, as to leave me scarcely anything to say. However... why are we here? How is it that a simple, plain property issue has should now find itself so ennobled as to be argued before the Supreme Court of the United States of America? . . .This is the most important case ever to come before this court. Because what it in fact concerns is the very nature of man.”

In making this argument, John Quincy Adams advanced a concept alien to those who would deny Cinque’s humanity.  This is the United States Supreme Court, and it exists as a direct result of the U.S. Constitution’s directive that it be established and that it function in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution.  This is not Spain, which claims the right to this property; it is the United States of America, and people are, under the laws of the land, equal.  As Adams notes in his reference to the issue of slavery as “the last battle of the American Revolution,” it would require a protracted and bloody civil war before the issue of slavery would be resolved once and for all.  Adams emphasizes the uniquely “American” nature of the exercise.  In so doing, he successfully appeals to the Court’s recognition of its responsibility to abide by the language of the Constitution.

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