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tv   Reel America Amistad - The Federal Courts the Challenge to Slavery -...  CSPAN  July 7, 2021 12:50pm-1:20pm EDT

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>> announcer: yale law professor justin driver talked about the 1956 southern manifesto, a document written by congressional members who oppose the supreme versus board of education decision which ruled that segregated schools were unconstitutional. mr. driver analyzes how strom thur man and other contributors argued for segregation in what they named the constitution principles. the supreme court historical society hosted the lecture with justice elena kagan offering introductory remarks.
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in the summer of 1839 a foreign schooner accidentally sailed along the shores of the united states and transformed the federal courts into a forum for an explosive national debate. the drama that began when the enslaved african americans on the a.m. stad revolted and took control of the vessel off the coast of cuba would culminate in the supreme court of the united states with a former president arguing on behalf of the african americans' appeal for freedom. the arm stad case forced the federal courts and the nation to consider the legal foundations of slavery.
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>> for several weeks in the summer of 1839 newspapers along the atlantic coast reported sightings of a mysterious schooner supposedly commanded by african pirates. late in august the crew of the navy brig washington spotted a badly damaged vessel in long island sound and a shore party trading with local residents along the new york coast. when the naval officers boarded the armistad they were braced by two spanish men pleading for protection from a group of african men who they had purchased as slaves in cuba but who had taken control of the ship. the crew took custody of the armistead and the africans aboard. they towed the schooner to
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connecticut, a state where slavery was legal. under the law of salvage anyone who rescued a ship from danger was entitled to a portion of the value of the ship and its cargo. once in port the commanding officer of the washington contacted the federal marshall and requested a hearing in the u.s. district court for connecticut in order to file a claim of salvage. he and the crew intended to submit a claim for rescuing the armistead and its cargo, including the enslaved africans. on august 29th the armistead case entered the federal judicial system when u.s. district court judge andrew jut son declared a court, judson along with the u.s. marshal, the clerk of court and a group of observers heard testimony from the two spanish planters about the armistead's voyage from cuba
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to new england. the planters josé ruiz and pedro montez testified each had purchased a group of slaves in havana, then chartered space to carry the slaves to plantations along the coast of cuba. several nights out of havana the enslaved men freed themselves and in their struggle to take command of the ship killed the captain and his crew. the leaders of the revolt forced ruiz and montez to sail the ship in the direction of the rising sun and west africa, but each night the spaniards shifted course to the north and west in hopes of encountering another ship. nearly two months later the armistead reached long island sound, desperately short of food and water. one of the enslaved africans on board the washington during the inquest was a young man who
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would become better known as sinkay. he spoke neither english nor spanish and could not testify at this court session, but he was recognized by the court officers as the leader of the africans on the armistead. reporters at the hearing commented on his composure, characteristic of true courage. his presence dramatized the unique character of this case, a case that resulted from the actions of enslaved africans and in which these african captives would appear in courtrooms to assert their right to freedom. judson moved the court to the armistead itself in order to hear testimony from antonio, a slave who served as cabin boy to the slain captain. antonio recounted what he had witnessed the night of the revolt and in the armistead's hold crowded with the africans in custody he identified those
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who had led the revolt along with sinkay. after hearing the testimony judge judson ordered the u.s. marshal to hold the adult africans in custody in a new haven jail. he also ordered that antonio and three young girls purchased as slaves in cuba be held in custody to serve as witnesses. the testimony revealed both criminal and civil questions. judson referred the criminal questions to the u.s. sirvg put court for the district of connecticut and set a date for the u.s. district court to hear the sailors' salvage claim. the judiciary act of 1789 established both district and circuit court for the federal judicial system. among the powers granted to district courts was the authority to hear cases involving maritime commerce and the trade laws of the new nation. in the armistead case the connecticut district court would be responsible for hearing all property claims related to the
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ship and its cargo. circuit courts which operated from 1789 to 1911 were also trial courts that exercised jurisdiction over most federal crimes, over disputes between citizens of different states and over all but the smallest cases in which the federal government was a party. they also heard some appeals from the district courts. the circuit court in connecticut would consider the u.s. attorney's charges of murder and piracy on the armistead. circuit courts had no authorized judgeships of their own so the district judge and a justice of the supreme court presided over them. each of the nine supreme court justices was assigned to a regional circuit and spent much of the year traveling to the circuit court sessions in that circuit. this practice was known as circuit riding. the circuit justice for connecticut was smith thompson, a new yorker appointed to the supreme court in 1823 by president james monroe.
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during the three weeks between the initial inquest and the sessions of the district and circuit courts the armistead case became the subject of a growing national debate on slavery led by wealthy merchant louis tappen a group of anti-slavery advocates in new york recognized the opportunity to build national support for the abolition of slavery in the united states. these abolitionists had found the case they were looking for to challenge the laws of slavery in federal court. tappen and his associates formed a committee to represent the jailed africans. in a newspaper appeal to friends of liberty they asked for donations in order to employ interpreters, lawyers and whatever else it took to secure the rights of the africans. the abolitionist committee called upon josiah gibbs to give
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the captives a voice in the upcoming court proceedings. gibbs learned some basic phrases from the captives and then searched the docks of new york hoping that an african sailor could serve as a translator. within a week gibbs met two sailors from west africa's mendy nation. while the abolitionists organized their legal strategy the spanish ambassador to the united states signing a treaty between the two countries requested that the ship and cargo including the alleged slaves be returned without any payment for salvage. the administration of president martin van buren decided to enter the case on the side of the spanish planters and ship owners, van buren, a democrat, faced a difficult bid for reelection in 1840 and was determined not to anger southern
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slaveholders who supported the democratic party. the president preferred to deal with the armistead as a diplomatic problem and let the secretary of state, john forsyth, manage the administration's response to the case. forsyth instructed the u.s. attorney in connecticut to take whatever steps were necessary to keep the africans in federal custody and ready for transfer to spanish authorities. preparations for the court proceedingings took place against a backdrop of intense interest in the case. newspapers throughout the country debated questions of federal jurisdiction and the law of privacy. even popular entertainment capitalized on the interest. within a few days of the original inquest a new york theater presented a play called the long low black schooner.
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in new haven nearly 4,000 visitors paid the jailer for a chance to view the men in custody. the greatest public attention focused on snikay. the newspaper compared him to senator daniel webster who they hoped would represent him in court. other papers portrayed him as a classical hero. at the same time racist newspapers presented vicious accounts of his supposedly savage nature. after the translators arrived in new haven newspapers printed articles about the mendies families, their occupations and accounts of their enslavement. a broad public soon recognized the men held in custody as distinct individuals devastated by the cruelties of the slave
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trade. the circuit court convened in the state house in hartford, connecticut, on september 17, 1839. sitting in the senate chamber the court first impaneled a grand jury to hear testimony regarding the u.s. attorney's indictment of the mendy on charges of murder and piracy. when the grand jury asked for instructions from the bench, circuit justice smith thompson ruled that no federal court had jurisdiction over an act that occurred on a foreign vessel at sea. this ruling eliminated all threat of criminal prosecution of the africans. thompson referred the admiralty case concerning trade and property questions to the u.s. district court for connecticut. the mendy's fate depend upon a court proceeding that revolved around the question of their status as property rather than any accusation of wrongdoing.
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in the district court the crew of the navy ship washington and the people who traded with the mendy on the new york shore submitted rival claims for salvage rewards, both parties asserted that the mendy were slaves and should be considered part of the armistead's cargo. claims for recovery of slave property were submitted by the planters who had purchased the mendy and by the heirs of the cabin boy. if the court determined that the mendy were slaves and the property of spanish planters, the federal government's attorney asserted that they should be delivered to agents of the spanish government. if the court decided that the mendy had been illegally enslaved and transported to the united states, the government wanted them delivered to the president for return to their native country under provisions of an anti-slave trade act.
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in an admiralty proceeding with no jury determination of the district court case rested solely with judge andrew jettison. the abolitionists feared he would not be sympathetic to appeals from africans. jettison was appointed by president jackson in 1836, prior to that he was well-known for his efforts to shut down a connecticut school established by abolitionists for the education of african-american girls. nor were the mendeeses lawyers encouraged by the activities of the van buren administration. the president ordered the positioning of a navy ship off the coast of new haven so that the captives could be removed immediately if the judge ordered their return to cuba. in new haven when judson convened the district court session he faced one of the largest crowds ever assembled to
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view a federal court proceeding. most of the spectaors supported the abolitionists and followed the case so intently that they refused to leave their seats during the midday recesses. the team of experienced lawyers recruited by the abolitionist committee was led by roger sherman baldwin, son of a famous political family. baldwin and his colleagues followed a legal strategy based on personal liberties and the laws of property. their priority was to win the court's acknowledgment that slavery violated natural rights, those rights to which every human was entitled regardless of any nation's laws. baldwin argued that the enslaved mendy had a natural right to return to their home land or seek asylum in a free country. but baldwin also needed to respond to the president from an earlier supreme court case involving slaves transported citizens of other nations.
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in that case chief justice john marshall wrote the opinion ruling that even though slavery violated natural law the federal courts must support the rule to hold slave property whenever any government approved laws in support of slavery or the slave trade. and in the circuit court hearing justice thompson had reminded baldwin that the united states constitution protected slavery. baldwin argued that under spanish law the mendy could not be considered lawfully held slaves. the captives had only recently been transported to cuba which was in violation of a spanish treaty prohibiting the african slave trade and that under the terms of that spanish treaty the mendy were free in cuba or any other spanish territory. in a trial filled with testimony about salvage laws and treaty obligations the dramatic high
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point came when snikay presented the court with a chilling narrative of enslavement. speaking through a translator snikay described his capture by slave traders in west africa and the horrors of what was called the middle passage, the voyage across the atlantic with several hundred people confined in the suffocating hold of a slave ship. he demonstrated the painful position the enslaved were forced to maintain day and night. snikay also reenacted the brutal physical scrutiny of the africans by the planters in the havana slave market. to other mendy captives gave similar testimony about being kidnapped and enslaved within the past year. after five days of testimony
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judge judson read his lengthy decision to a crowded courtroom. in response to the conflicting claims of salvage judson determined that the naval officers and crew had taken custody of a ship in almost certain danger of sinking and thus were entitled to an award of one-third the value of the ship and its cargo. but judson denied the salvage award for rescuing the africans because slave sales were illegal in connecticut so the court had no way to determine a monetary value of slaves. the judge then considered spain's demand for the return of the mendy as the rightful property of spanish citizens. according to judson the spaniard's right to this property and with it the fate of the mendy depended on proof of ownership and proof that the africans were, in fact, property under spanish law. on both points judson surprised nearly everyone by ruling
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against the spanish claims. judson determined that the spanish planters possessed no legal evidence of ownership only passes for transporting slaves and that these documents incorrectly stated that the africans on the armistead were long-time inhabitants of spanish territory. the spanish treaty declared that any africans transported after 1820 were to be free in spanish territory, including cuba. since the testimony of several witnesses proved that the mendy had arrived recently in cuba, judson declared that they were not lawfully held property and could not be delivered to spanish officials. instead judson granted a u.s. attorney's alternate request that the mendy be delivered to the president for trans port to their native land. the mendy were elated at the
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possibility of returning home but disappointed that judson had not declared them free individuals. judge judson next turned to the question of antonio, the slave who had been cabin boy for the armistead's slain captain. the abolitionists wanted the court to affirm natural rights. judson ruled that because antonio was born in spanish territory as a slave he was the legal property of the captain and must be delivered to the spanish government along with other spanish property. any possible homecoming for the mendy was postponed when the u.s. attorney william holibert appealed the decision to the u.s. circuit court. that court convened in hartford in april of 1840 with justice smith thompson presiding.
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in order to haven the certain appeal to the supreme court he affirmed the district court's decision. pending the convening of the supreme court's term in january 1841 the mendy remained in federal custody, although in less restrictive confines in the town of westville outside new haven. in the coming months several of them took odd jobs and all received religious and language instruction provided by the abolitionists. no one could predict how the supreme court justices would respond to the armistead case. the majority of the nine justices were slaveholders, among them chief justice roger tawny. in the few previous cases dealing with slavery the supreme court had protected the institution as it existed in the united states, but the court had strictly enforced the prohibition on the foreign slave trade.
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anticipation about the deliberations were further heightened when former president john quincy adams joined the group of lawyers representing the mendy chblngts. the abolitionist committee wanted a prominent statesman on the legal team and when daniel webster declined they turned to the 73 year old former president. adams was then serving as a member of the house of representatives where he had earned the nickname old man eloquent for his tireless condemnation of slavery. in february 1841 the case came before the supreme court in its chamber on the ground floor of the capitol building, large crowds gathered in expectation of dramatic oral arguments. u.s. attorney general henry gill pin presented the government's arguments in support of the spanish claims to the alleged slaves. roger sherman baldwin repeated the arguments he had used in the
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lower courts. then former president adams offered the court and its audience a seven-hour performance over the course of two days. his emotional arguments included a blistering chris eek of the van buren administration. adams add could you sayed of administration of concealing the spanish demand for return of the captives for trial, which would surely lead to their execution in cuba. as apples repeated will i invoked the principles of natural rights as embodied in the declaration of independence, two copies of which hung before the justices in the supreme court chamber. on march 9th, 1841 nearly 18 months after the federal courts first ordered the detention of the mendy, justice joseph story delivered his opinion for the majority of the supreme court. story from massachusetts was the court's senior justice and the nation's most respected constitutional scholar.
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after a lengthy review of the federal court proceedings and the arguments presented to the supreme court story issued the decision that finally gave the captives their unconditional freedom. the supreme court upheld the district court's ruling that the mendy were recently arrived in cuba and should not be delivered to spanish officials as legally held property. the justices, however, overturn judson's decision to deliver the captives for return to africa. the supreme court decision immediately freed the mendy and released them from federal custody. the victory of freedom was bittersweet, it left the mendy with no means by which to return to their home land. to raise money for transportation the abolitionists staged public appearances of which the mendy sang, demonstrated their english language skills.
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one event at the broadway tabernacle in new york attracted more than 2,500 people. finally in november 1841 the 35 surviving mendy departed for sierra leone accompanied by several missionaries from the united states. the decision that freed these particular captives offered no legal relief for the nearly 3 million residents of the united states held in slavery. the supreme court let stand the district court's ruling that the cabin boy antonio was a slave under spanish law and like all lawfully held slaves must be returned to its owners. soon after the decision antonio escaped to canada and freedom realizing the dreams shared by many slaves in the united states. yet nothing in the armistead case would serve as a precedent for legal challenges to slavery within the united states, until
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the civil war the federal courts continued to protect slave property at the same time that they enforced laws prohibiting the slave trade from africa. and abolitionists largely abandoned efforts to challenge slavery through the federal judiciary. like many other important cases in the history of the federal courts armistead had its greatest impact in the world beyond courtrooms and case books. the legend of snikay inspired other enslaved people and remains a powerful tale of the quest for freedom. the widely prorpd court proceedings exposed the legal principles and political compromises supporting slavery and the personal stories of enslavement won the anti-slavery cause many new supporters. the lasting impact of armistead's passage through the federal courts was to encourage the growing opposition to
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slavery in the united states. 60 years ago on april 17,
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1961, a force of more than 1,400 cia-trained cuban ex siels launched an invasion called brigade 2506 their goal was the overthrow of communist leader fiddle castro who had taken power two years earlier in the cuban revolution.communist lead who had taken power two years earlier in the cuban revolution fiddle castro who had taken power two years earlier in the cuban revolution. weekends on c-span 2 are an intellectual feast. every saturday american history tv documents americans story and on sunday book tv brings you the
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latest on nonfiction books and authors. funding for c-span 2 comes from these companies and more including comcast. >> comcast is partnering with 1,000 community centers to create wifi-enabled lift zones so students can get the tools they need to be ready for anything. >> comcast along with these television companies supports c-span 2 as a public service. >> yale law professor justin driver talked about the 1956 southern manifesto, a document written by congressional members who opposed the supreme court's 1954 brown versus board of education decision which ruled that segregated schools were unconstitutional. mr. driver analyzes how strom thurman and other contributors argued for segregation. the supreme court historical society hosted the lecture


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