The Taney Court (1836–64)


In what celebrated decision did the Taney Court affirm the release of Africans enslaved by Spaniards?

In The Amistad (1841), the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed a lower court judgment that forty-three African slaves who washed ashore in Connecticut on the Spanish ship The Amistad should be returned to their native land free from the shackles of slavery by their Spanish captors.

The celebrated case occurred when the Spanish ship sailed from Havana, Cuba, to Porte Principe, another town in Cuba. The Africans revolted and killed the ship’s captain, Ramon Ferrer and a few other members of the crew. Two crew members, Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montes, momentarily escaped but were captured. The Africans did not kill Ruiz and Montes. Apparently, the two Spaniards promised to sail the ship back to Africa, but instead headed for America. The ship was discovered by Lieutenant Thomas Gedney of the U.S. Coast Guard and by sea captains Henry Green and Peletiah Fordham.

Ruiz and Montes told authorities of the African mutiny, which led to the imprisonment of the Africans. The Spanish men, Gedney, Green, and Fordham all filed claims for either all or part of the ship and its cargo’s value. Meanwhile, President Martin Van Buren pressured the U.S. attorney in Connecticut to file a claim on behalf of the Spanish government. The Africans—the so-called Amistads—were placed on trial for murder.

The civil claims took predominance as the courts had to sort out whether the slaves were property and if so, who owned them. A federal trial court judge determined that the Amistads were free men who were unlawfully transported by the Spanish and should be returned to their native land. The United States appealed the decision to Circuit Judge Smith Thompson, who affirmed. Then, the United States appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.


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