Daily readings about people, places, and events in American history.
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February 24th
Old Man Eloquent and the Amistad
“I am too old! ” protested John Quincy Adams, congressman and former president of the United States, when admirers asked him to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The situation was this. In 1839 the Spanish schooner Amistad left Havana, Cuba, for another Cuban port, carrying fifty-three African slaves. Under the leadership of an African named Cinque, the captives revolted, killed the captain, and seized the ship. They demanded to be taken back to Africa, but the Amistad’s navigator tricked them and sailed toward Long Island, New York. A U.S. Navy vessel took the ship into custody and brought it to Connecticut.

Spain demanded that the U.S. return the Amistad and its human cargo as the property of Spain. The administration of President Martin van Buren agreed. But Cinque and his comrades – supported by American abolitionists – insisted that they were not “property” at all, but human beings who had been kidnapped in Africa.

Now the dispute was going to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the abolitionists wanted John Quincy Adams, known as “Old Man Eloquent,” to help argue their case. Adams worried he was too rusty. He had not been in a courtroom in decades. But he finally agreed.

On February 24, 1841, a nervous Adams began presenting his argument to the justices. His voice faltered at first, but his cause brought him confidence. He pointed to a framed document on the wall. “The moment you come to the Declaration of Independence, that every man has a right to life and liberty, as an inalienable right, this case is decided. I ask nothing more on behalf of these unfortunate men than this Declaration.”

The Court ruled that since the transatlantic slave trade had been banned, the Africans were free men. Old Man Eloquent won his case. For payment, he received a handsomely bound Bible from the Africans – and profound satisfaction at having struck a blow for liberty.

American History Parade
1803
The Supreme Court, in Marbury v. Madison, affirms its power as the final interpreter of constitutional issues.

1841
John Quincy Adams begins two days of arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court in the Amistad case.

1868
President Andrew Johnson becomes the first president to be impeached by the House of Representatives (the Senate later acquits him).

1871
For the first time since the Civil War, the South gains full representation in Congress with the seating of the Georgia delegation.

1991
In the Persian Gulf War, a U.S.-led coalition begins a ground campaign against Iraq.
This content is courtesy of The American Patriot's Almanac
© 2008, 2010 by William J. Bennett and John T.E. Cribb
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