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JQA: For the Defense

John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, a Private Life

by Paul C. Nagel
Knopf, 432 pp., $30.00


a film directed by Steven Spielberg, and produced by Steven Spielberg, by Debbie Allen, by Colin Wilson


an opera, musical score by Anthony Davis, libretto by Thulani Davis

Within the past two years or so the historical visibility of John Quincy Adams has been enhanced to a degree that could scarcely have been anticipated a few years earlier. William Lee Miller’s Arguing about Slavery was a circumstantial account of how Adams, in his post-presidential career as a Massachusetts congressman, almost singlehandedly beat down the efforts of Southern members to prohibit the House’s reception of antislavery petitions.1 At the end of last year came two dramatic spectacles, each with the same name, one a film and the other an opera, depicting the mutiny in 1839 of black African captives aboard the schooner Amistad who were destined for slavery. Recaptured off the Long Island coast by an American naval vessel and incarcerated in a Connecticut jail, they were eventually released following the powerful plea on their behalf before the Supreme Court by John Quincy Adams. Finally, we have a new biography of Adams himself by Paul Nagel, which aims to exhibit aspects of the man’s personality hitherto, the author believes, imperfectly understood.


The African slave trade depended on black Africans capturing other black Africans and selling them to dealers on the coast for shipment to plantations in the Caribbean and elsewhere in the Americas. This is what happened to a group of Mende tribesmen in West Africa in the spring of 1839. They were transported in a Portuguese slaving vessel to Cuba, where fifty-three of them were sold to two Spaniards who planned to carry them by sea in the chartered ship Amistad for resale at Puerto Principe on the island’s northeast coast. But on the fourth night out one of the captives, Joseph Cinqué, managed to get free of his manacles and unchain the others.

Seizing sugar-cane machetes they found in the hold, they killed the captain and ship’s cook; the other two crew members escaped in a ship’s boat; and the lives of the two Spanish traders were spared on condition that they navigate the Amistad back to Africa. The Spaniards thereupon tricked the mutineers by steering eastward by day but maneuvering the ship by night northward into US coastal waters, bringing it eventually to anchor off Montauk Point. The ship and its African refugees were captured, and their would-be Spanish owners rescued, by a patrolling American revenue cutter. The Africans with their by-then acknowledged leader, Cinqué, were taken to Connecticut by a federal marshal and lodged in the county jail at New Haven, there to await the adjudication of their status.

The legal issues, understandably somewhat slurred over in the Spielberg movie and all but ignored in the opera, were in fact fairly knotty. On the one hand the seaborne slave trade had by this time been outlawed throughout the Atlantic world for some eighteen years, both by municipal law and by international agreements. Engaging in it was punishable by death in both England and the United States, and the King of Spain had decreed that any slave brought into a Spanish colony was automatically free. On the other hand, slavery itself was lawful throughout Latin America and the Southern United States. It was not illegal to ship slaves from one Spanish colony to another, and once a trader from Africa got his cargo ashore in Cuba the captives’ status became in practice that of slaves, since it was in the interest of most of the island’s white population to connive in evasion of the law. Newly arrived blacks were openly bought and sold, at which time bribed notaries would certify lists of them with newly conferred Spanish names, providing the new owners with “evidence” that the blacks had been in a state of slavery, and thus by degrees Hispanicized, since before the external trade had been proscribed.

So although the Amistad captives, fresh from Africa, were in principle legally free persons, the mounting drama of their case from the moment of their imprisonment in New Haven grew from the tug and heave of two conflicting interests, each determined that the other not be allowed to specify what was to be done about them. Great exertions were made by their self-proclaimed owners, José Ruiz and Pedro Montes, by the Spanish minister to the United States, and even by officials of the Van Buren administration—who, facing the election of 1840, were doing all they could to avoid antagonizing voters in the Southern states—to get the case, whether involving piracy and murder, or property, or both, transferred to Cuba and tried by a Spanish tribunal there. Equally intense were efforts by a contingent of American abolitionist leaders determined to have the Africans declared free.

Those pressing for a transfer to Cuba based their argument on comity between friendly nations and a claim that American courts were not competent to take jurisdiction in comparable cases involving Spanish subjects, and on a clause in a treaty of 1795 between the United States and Spain committing the parties to see that property rescued from pirates and robbers at sea be taken to port for restoration to its owners. The defense’s position was that the blacks were not property, having been unlawfully captured, and that they were not pirates or murderers either, having acted in lawful self-defense to reclaim the freedom that had been taken from them.

The case was heard twice at Hartford before the federal district and circuit courts, the judgment on both occasions being, in the light of overwhelming evidence, that the Africans were legally free. The latter decision was appealed by the Van Buren administration and argued before the Supreme Court in Washington in February 1841. Former President John Quincy Adams had been persuaded to appear as senior counsel for the defense, and brought the story to its climax with flashes of his best oratory. The Court was persuaded; the blacks—by then reduced in number to thirty-nine—were awarded their freedom; and after further funds were raised by the abolitionists, they were transported back to their African homeland the following year.

Moviemakers who undertake historical films appear to fall into two opposing categories. Their respective aims are all but irreconcilable and neither has much feeling for or comprehension of the other. For the one, a predominating aim is to bring the past—with judicious amendments if deemed necessary—closer to the present, and thereby simplify it for the perceptions of an audience assumed to be little informed and no more than half awake. The other, a soberingly small minority, is concerned above all with the very otherness of distant times and past events. It is concerned with the contrasts, rather than the similarities, to what we know, and with the need for reaching for whatever may be recoverable in the tonality and color of the past in order to capture a wholeness of effect which alone, these moviemakers believe, may disclose to us something of its meaning.2

I can’t be certain which class Mr. Spielberg sees himself as belonging to, or whether he even supposes such a distinction to exist. Amistad is certainly a film of considerable power. The black captives are real-life West Africans, speaking their own dialect with subtitles, and as for the two leading actors, Djimon Hounsou as the heroic Cinqué and Anthony Hopkins as the irascible John Quincy Adams, it’s hard to see how any producer could have done better. The scenes of violence make their principal impact by depicting forms of brutality with which we are no longer familiar, and with a realism in shuddering contrast to the grotesquely stylized abstractions that pass for violence in most of the cop movies we see. On the other hand, scriptwriters don’t as a rule have many settled convictions or points of view about anything; they go with the fancies of their time; they need to be called to account to make them do anything else; and I can’t but deplore Mr. Spielberg’s not keeping his on a shorter tether.

If I were called in as a historical censor on this film, I’d begin with what might appear at first glance as a trifling instance. Beards and mustaches—potent talismans of our own time—would not come into fashion before the late 1850s (every portrait of the period shows this), yet they’re all over the place here, and when the extras come boiling out of the US cutter Washington to take charge of the Amistad people their faces are covered with a five-day stubble, in the style of many of today’s film notables, a piece of whimsy which would in that former day have got them all clapped in the brig. The carefully shaped historical illusion we need for belief already begins to unravel. Rather more serious, though, is the scene in which a woebegone little band of abolitionist missionaries outside the captives’ jail cell try to hearten them by singing psalms and waving Bibles at them. One of the blacks mutters, “They look miserable,” and the audiences at both the screenings I attended sniggered obligingly, as it was intended they should.

In fact the abolitionists of that day were a stern and intrepid lot who took daily risks for their convictions, and their armament against the abuse they took and the stones with which they were often pelted was a stout Christian faith that fortified them in adversity and beckoned them on. As to what purpose could have prompted the cheap shot taken at them here I won’t venture to guess, but it isn’t merely unfair; it falsifies and contaminates the story’s entire moral texture. These were the very people whose exertions got the Amistad case going in the first place and kept it going, making its successful outcome—and for that matter Mr. Spielberg’s film—possible. Sneering at such types now, for taking on the role of Christian soldiers then, simply shuts another door on what we’re straining to recover.3

But Spielberg and his collaborators, perhaps in compensation, have meanwhile concocted another kind of abolitionist out of whole cloth, a fictional black printer of New Haven—“Theodore Joadson,” played by Morgan Freeman—who is accepted on terms of equality and with easygoing respect as a matter of course by everyone he deals with. But how can we have forgotten so soon? Lamentably high on the list of what any historian of that period—or indeed any reader drawn to it—cannot help knowing is that no such person of the bearing and dignity depicted by Mr. Freeman would have been allowed to exist in the America of 1840, even in New England, and that in fact such a person would have had hard enough going well into the twentieth century. The airy complacency that presumes to redraw such realities does no service to the historical understanding of anyone in our own time, black or white, who aims, even at the expense of feeling good, to grasp the tone and feel of race relations in their then-hideous state. 4

  1. 1

    Vintage, 1998. Reviewed by me in The New York Review, November 14, 1996, pp. 46-50.

  2. 2

    A brilliant example of the second type, aptly recalled by Simon Schama in his critique of the Spielberg Amistad (“Clio at the Multiplex,” The New Yorker, January 19, 1998, p. 40), is Daniel Vigne’s Return of Martin Guerre, during the filming of which the historian Natalie Zemon Davis kept after the crew until she was satisfied that every touch was right.

  3. 3

    To top it off, this earnest group of Congregationalists (they couldn’t have been anything else), in a community where the least hint of popery made people twitch with horror, are all wearing crosses. (The high school drama coach would have caught that one, at least anywhere in New England.) But this was a slip-up, and thus partially excusable. Not excusable, being a calculated alteration of the truth, is the deliberate downsizing of two other white antislavery men, Lewis Tappan and Roger Baldwin. Tappan, a New York merchant, was from first to last the prime mover in the effort to secure the captives’ freedom and their passage back to Africa. But in the film he is last heard musing that it might be better for the antislavery cause if they were all to be martyred, whereupon he fades from the action and is seen no more—banished, as it were, by a withering glance from the imaginary “Joadson.”

    Baldwin, counsel for the Africans both before and after Adams came on board, is played as a cocky young property lawyer scrambling for fees (though the film is vague about who was paying the bills), and referred to by the Africans among themselves as “the Dung-Scraper.” The real Baldwin was a middle-aged, successful, and respected New Haven attorney who was the grandson of Roger Sherman, a signer of the Declaration, and who would shortly be elected governor of Connecticut and, later in the 1840s, United States senator. Baldwin’s antislavery credentials were beyond question; he took the Amistad case as a matter of conscience, and accepted no more than a token fee for his work.

    The Spielberg people had ample access to the facts regarding both these men (otherwise of course they couldn’t have rewritten them); they’re all in Howard Jones’s admirable Mutiny on the Amistad (Oxford University Press, 1987). The producers knew about Jones’s book: they list his name in the credits among those they “wish to thank”; they even invited him to Hollywood to be entertained on the set. But they had not asked him to be a consultant. It was too late for any consulting by the time he arrived: they had already made up their minds how they wanted the story to go; the shooting was already in progress; the script was already set. Professor Jones’s own somewhat wry account of this occasion is in American Historical Association Perspectives, December 1997, pp. 25-28.

    It might be added that the movie’s treatment of Tappan, Baldwin, and the doleful missionaries has been decidedly offensive to the United Church of Christ in Connecticut, where the Amistad story has been regularly commemorated and celebrated for many years. The relatively restrained protest by the Reverend Davida Crabtree, conference minister for 265 congregations, is described by Gustav Niebuhr in The New York Times, January 17, 1998, p. A10.

  4. 4

    It might be objected that Frederick Douglass should embody a major contradiction to the generalization made above. Yet it was no less a person than William Lloyd Garrison who brooded that Douglass was getting too uppity, and told him, “Better have a little of the plantation speech than not; it is not best that you seem too learned.” Anyone who supposes that the climate in which a free black person—to say nothing of a black abolitionist—had to function was anything like that depicted in the film would do well to consult Leon F. Litwack, North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860 (University of Chicago Press, 1961), pp. 214-246; or William H. Pease and Jane H. Pease, “Boston Garrisonians and the Problem of Frederick Douglass,” Canadian Journal of History, Vol. 2 (September 1967), pp. 29-48.

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