In the following legal brief, John Forsyth, Martin Van Buren's Secretary of State, rejects the argument that since the Atlantic slave trade was illegal under U.S. and Spanish law, the Africans on the Amistad had been illegally held captive. If the courts had accepted Forsyth's argument and returned the captives to Cuba, Cinqué and many others would almost certainly have been executed.
In a ruling that stunned the Van Buren administration, the District Court ruled that since the Amistad rebels had been born free, they could not be treated as property, and must be returned to Africa. The district attorney appealed the verdict to the Circuit Court, which upheld the District Court's decision. The case then went to the U.S. Supreme Court.
...It is true, by the treaty between Great Britain and Spain, the slave trade is prohibited to the subjects of each; but the parties to this treaty or agreement are the proper judges of any infraction of it, and they have created special tribunals to decide questions arising under the treaty; nor does it belong to any other nation to adjudicate upon it, or to enforce it.... In the case of the Antelope, (10 Wheaton, page 66), this subject was fully examined, and the opinion of the Supreme Court of the United States establishes the following points:
1. That, however unjust and unnatural the slave trade may be, it is not contrary to the law of nations.
2. That, having been sanctioned by the usage and consent of almost all civilized nations, it could not be pronounced illegal, except so far as each nation may have made it so by its own acts or laws; and these could only operate upon itself, its own subjects or citizens; and, of course, the trade would remain lawful to those whose Government had not forbidden it.
3. That the right of bringing in and adjudicating upon the case of a vessel charged with being engaged in the slave trade, even where the vessel belongs to a nation which has prohibited the trade, cannot exist. The courts of no country execute the penal laws of another....
In the case now before me, the vessel is a Spanish vessel, belonging exclusively to Spaniards, navigated by Spaniards, and sailing under Spanish papers and flag, from one Spanish port to another. It therefore follows, unquestionably, that any offence committed on board is cognizable before the Spanish tribunals, and not elsewhere.
These two points being disposed of--1st. That the Government of the United States is to consider these Negroes as the property of the individuals in whose behalf the Spanish minister has put up a claim; 2d. That he United States cannot proceed against them criminally; --the only remaining inquiry is, what is to be done with the vessel and cargo? the Negroes being part of the latter.
...The claimants of these Negroes have violated none of our laws.... They have not come within our territories with the view or intention of violating the laws of the United States.... They have not introduced these Negroes into the United Sates for the purpose of sale, or holding them in servitude within the United States.... It therefore appears to me that this subject must be disposed of upon the principles of international law and the existing treaties between Spain and the United States....
These Negroes are charged with an infraction of the Spanish laws; therefore, it is proper that they should be surrendered to the public functionaries of that Government, that if the laws of Spain have been violated, they may not escape punishment....
These Negroes deny that they are slaves; if they should be delivered to the claimants, no opportunity may be afforded for the assertion of their right to freedom. For these reasons, it seems to me that a delivery to the Spanish minister is the only safe course for this Government to pursue.