01/28/2013 04:19 pm ET Updated Mar 30, 2013

The Forgotten "Father of Emancipation"

As with most good films, books, and plays about our 16th President, the cheers for Steven Spielberg's wonderful film Lincoln have obscured the lives of those who preceded Lincoln and laid the groundwork for his Emancipation Proclamation.

More than twenty years before Lincoln ever uttered the word "emancipation," the courageous sixth President of the United States--John Quincy Adams--masterminded the U.S. Supreme Court victory that made the Emancipation Proclamation possible.

In January 1840, a federal district court in New Haven, Connecticut, heard the case of thirty-six Africans who had been prisoners on the slave ship Amistad off the coast of Cuba. Led by a Congolese chief named Cinque, they had broken their chains, killed the captain and three crewmen, and overpowered the white crew. Knowing nothing of navigation, they ordered the white crew to sail them to Africa and, by day, the crew complied. At night, however, crewmen reversed course and eventually sailed into American waters, where an American frigate seized it and took it to New London, Connecticut.

Officials there arrested the Africans and charged them with piracy and murder. But several legal questions complicated the case: Were the Africans property--that is slaves--to be returned to their owners? Or were they people, to be released on habeas corpus and later tried for piracy and murder? And finally, did the United States have jurisdiction or should U.S. authorities release the prisoners to Spanish officials, to do with as they wished under Spanish law?

"The American people," declared the defense attorneys, "have never imposed it as a duty upon the government of the United States to become actors in an attempt to reduce to slavery men found in a state of freedom by giving extraterritorial force to a foreign slave law." The prosecution fired back: "Slaves released from slavery by acts of aggression" do not lose their status as the property of their rightful owners "any more than a slave becomes free in Pennsylvania who forcibly escapes from Virginia."

When the case reached the Supreme Court in January 1841, the retired sixth President, John Quincy Adams, rose to address the justices. By then, Adams had spent a dozen years in the House of Representatives. The first-born son of Abigail and John Adams, John Quincy Adams had been a renowned attorney, diplomat, and fearless Secretary of State before winning election as President in 1824. After losing his bid for a second term, he won election to the House of Representatives, where he spear-headed the battle for abolition until his death in 1848.

"The courtroom was full, but not crowded," Adams described the Amistad case in his diary. "I had been deeply distressed and agitated till the moment I rose.... With grateful heart for aid from above...I spoke four hours and a half, with sufficient method and order to witness little flagging of attention by the judges."

"Justice," he began, "as defined in the Institutes of Justinian nearly 2,000 years the constant and perpetual will to secure everyone his own right.... I appear here on behalf of thirty-six individuals, the life and liberty of every one of whom depend on the decision of this court.... Thirty-two or three have been charged with the crime of murder. Three or four of them are female children, incapable, in the judgment of our laws, of the crime of murder or piracy or, perhaps, of any other crime.... Yet they have all been held as close prisoners now for the period of eighteen long months."

John Quincy Adams told the justices of his personal distress in prosecuting the government of his own nation before the nation's highest court and, indeed, "before the civilized world." But, he said, it was his duty. "I must do it. The government is still in power...the lives and liberties of all my clients are in its hands.... The charge I make against the present administration is that in all their proceedings relating to these unfortunates, instead of that justice which they were bound not less than this honorable court itself to observe, they have substituted sympathy with one of the parties and antipathy to the other: Sympathy with the white; antipathy to the black. And in proof of this charge, I adduce the admission and avowal of the secretary of state himself."

John Quincy went on to read a letter from Secretary of State John Forsyth of Georgia to the Spanish minister in America, citing the owners of the Amistad "as the only parties aggrieved"--that all the right was on their side and all the wrong on the side of their surviving, self-emancipated victims.

"I ask your honors, was this justice?"

Far from any "flagging of attention," the judges sat transfixed for more than four hours--until other needs forced them to adjourn. When the Court reconvened, Adams took the floor for three more hours, arguing that the Amistad prisoners had been free men, seized against their will on their native soil, kidnapped onto a ship, where they defended themselves and, in doing so, killed their kidnappers. "What would...every human being in this Union, man, woman, and child, have done for the blessing of freedom?"

The court answered by declaring the prisoners free men and women, and ordered the President of the United States to send them back to Africa--at White House expense. Although the decision did not outlaw slavery itself, it criminalized the commercial slave trade between Africa and the United States as felony-kidnapping. By outlawing the slave trade, the Amistad case was the first step in the nation's road to abolition and made John Quincy Adams the rightful claimant to the sobriquet Father of Emancipation.

Historian Harlow Giles Unger is author of more than 20 books, including John Quincy Adams, published last fall by Da Capo Press.