In Amistad, examine the various positions taken on slavery in the court house.

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The courthouse features three distinct positions in the courthouse.  The side of the prosecution makes the standard defense of slavery.  In this line of analysis, slaves are seen as property and objects.  Since slaves are products and objects, they can be controlled without assertion of rights.   Property makes them something to be owned.  Their lack of rights is a reflection of the lack of property's rights.  This is enhanced by the American status quo, something that Adams reveals in his closing arguments dominates current American government.  Van Buren's and Forsyth's writing is used to reflect this position on slavery.  This position stresses that societies "thrive upon the labor of another" and that slavery is an inevitable part of advanced social organization. Finally, this position asserts that to act in any way that goes against this condition would cause irreparable damage to the United States' relationship to Spain, who has deemed American courts "incompetent" for even entertaining the idea that slaves are not property and possess rights.  This position is countered with the audience of the courthouse, who are unclear as to what path to take.  This group has recognized that the case before the court is an important one, and will play a pivotal role in how they come to view the slavery issue and the condition of the United States.

The film contrasts these two positions with the clarion call for radical action that Adams puts forth in his closing arguments.  The initial argument asserts that the case in front of the court is not a "mere property case."  Rather, it is a battle for "the truth."  Adams's position contrasts what has been put forth by the prosecution in questioning the "inevitability of slavery" and its fundamental role in American society.  Adams suggests that there is no historical inevitability to slavery, but rather one of external imposition:  "The length is the proof that a man, woman, or child will go in order to get his freedom... He will try against all odds to get home."  Such a statement rejects the belief that slavery is fated and predestined as a part of social organization. 

From this point, the position that Adams takes is multi- faceted.  On one hand, he suggests that the American legal system can overcome a certain amount of fear in ruling for the rights of slaves.  This fear is rooted in what nations like Spain will think of the young nation in his distinct action. His position includes the analysis that ruling in favor of the slaves can hold the opportunity to make a statement on slavery that the young nation of America could assert what could be as opposed to what is.  This fear is also evident in its perception of the issue of slavery, itself.  

Adams suggests that rather be held in fear of its presuppositions and its controversial nature, ruling in a manner that supports the slaves can speak to how judicial leadership can spur on social change.  Adams's position also articulates how the American historical lineage rejects slavery.  Adams argues that slavery goes against the basic tenet of the Declaration of Independence's idea that "All men are created equal." His position asserts that America cannot support slavery if it believes in the Declaration of Independence.  In seeking to make a clear connection to American understanding of freedom and the slaves aboard the Amistad, he suggests that to "invoke one's ancestors" is to automatically recognize that slavery is to be rejected. American ancestry would reject the notion of slavery because of their affirmation of individual rights and individual freedom.

He concludes his position with the idea that judicial strength and wisdom is needed to triumph over peers and align the nation with its ancestral heritage, just as the slaves have called out to their own ancestry to help them in their time of need. These positions are submitted before the court as the basis for its decision.

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