John Quincy Adams

Amistad (1997) John Quincy Adams Addresses the Supreme Court

Amistad (1997)

John Quincy Adams Addresses the Supreme Court

Adams:Your Honors, 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 toleave me scarcely anything to say.


However,why are we here? How is it that a simple, plain property issue should now finditself so ennobled as to be argued before the Supreme Court of the United States of America? I mean, do we fear thelower courts, which found for us easily, somehow missed the truth? Is that it?Or is it, rather, our great and consuming fear of civil war that has allowed usto heap symbolism upon a simple case that never asked for it and now would haveus disregard truth, even as it stands before us, tall and proud as a mountain?The truth, in truth, has been driven from this case like a slave, flogged fromcourt to court, wretched and destitute. And not by any great legal acumen onthe part of the opposition, I might add, but through the long, powerful arm ofthe Executive Office.


Yea,this is no mere property case, gentlemen. I put it to you thus: This is themost important case ever to come before this court. Because what it, in fact,concerns is the very nature of man.


Theseare transcriptions of letters written between our Secretary of State, JohnForsyth, and the Queen of Spain, Isabella the Second. Now, I ask that youaccept their perusal as part of your deliberations.


Thankyou, sir. [to court officer]


Iwould not touch on them now except to notice a curious phrase which is muchrepeated. The queen again and again refers to our incompetent courts. Now what,I wonder, would be more to her liking? Huh? A court that finds against theAfricans? Well, I think not. And here is the fine point of it: What her majestywants is a court that behaves just like her courts, the courts this elevenyear-old child plays with in her magical kingdom called Spain, a court thatwill do what it is told, a court that can be toyed with like a doll, a court --as it happens -- of which our own President, Martin Van Buren, would be mostproud.


  Thank you. [takes document from Baldwin]


Thisis a publication of the Office of the President. It's called the ExecutiveReview, and I'm sure you all read it. At least I'm sure the President hopes youall read it. This is a recent issue, and there's an article in here written bya "keen mind of the South," who is my former Vice President, JohnCalhoun, perhaps -- Could it be? -- who asserts that:


    "There has never existed a civilizedsociety in which one segment did not thrive upon the labor of another. As farback as one chooses to look -- to ancient times, to biblical times -- historybears this out. In Eden, where only two werecreated, even there one was pronounced subordinate to the other. Slavery hasalways been with us and is neither sinful nor immoral. Rather, as war andantagonism are the natural states of man, so, too, slavery, as natural as it isinevitable."


Now,gentlemen, I must say I differ with the keen minds of the South, and with ourpresident, who apparently shares their views, offering that the natural stateof mankind is instead -- and I know this is a controversial idea -- is freedom.Is freedom. And the proof is the length to which a man, woman, or child will goto regain it, once taken. He will break loose his chains, He will decimate hisenemies. He will try and try and try against all odds, against all prejudices,to get home.


Cinque,would you stand up, if you would, so everyone can see you. This man is black.We can all see that. But can we also see as easily that which is equally true-- that he is the only true hero in this room.


Now,if he were white, he wouldn't be standing before this court fighting for hislife. If he were white and his enslavers were British, he wouldn't be able tostand, so heavy the weight of the medals and honors we would bestow upon him.Songs would be written about him. The great authors of our times would fillbooks about him. His story would be told and retold in our classrooms. Our children,because we would make sure of it, would know his name as well as they knowPatrick Henry's.


Yet,if the South is right, what are we to do with that embarrassing, annoyingdocument, "The Declaration of Independence?" What of its conceits?"All men...created equal," "inalienable rights,""life," "liberty," and so on and so forth? What on earthare we to do with this?


Ihave a modest suggestion. [tears up a facsimile of the Declaration]


Theother night I was talking with my friend, Cinque. He was over at my place, andwe were out in the greenhouse together. And he was explaining to me how when amember of the Mende -- that's his people -- how when a member of the Mende encounters a situation where thereappears no hope at all, he invokes his ancestors. It's a tradition. See, theMende believe that if one can summon the spirits of one's ancestors, then theyhave never left, and the wisdom and strength they fathered and inspired willcome to his aid.


JamesMadison, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, GeorgeWashington, John Adams: We've long resisted asking you for guidance. Perhaps wehave feared in doing so we might acknowledge that our individuality which weso, so revere is not entirely our own. Perhaps we've feared an appeal to youmight be taken for weakness. But, we've come to understand, finally, that thisis not so. We understand now, we've been made to understand, and to embrace theunderstanding that who we are is who we were.


Wedesperately need your strength and wisdom to triumph over our fears, ourprejudices, our-selves. Give us the courage to do what is right. And if itmeans civil war, then let it come. And when it does, may it be, finally, thelast battle of the American Revolution.


That'sall I have to say.


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