WILLIAM SEWARD AND THE SLAVE SHIP AMISTAD (The speech that was never made)
Autobiography of William H. Seward from 1801-1834: 1846-1861 by William Henry Seward, Frederick William Seward
One of the first measures that came up, on the assembling of Congress, was the bill in regard to the Amistad. Seward moved its postponement, and prepared to oppose it in debate. Very soon, however, its supporters, finding that they had already a sufficiently heavy load of pro-slavery legislation to carry, wisely concluded to let it drop. The story of the Amistad is a veritable romance of the sea, now fallen out of popular remembrance. It may be recounted here from the notes of Seward’s unpublished speech:
On about the 15th of April, 1839, the Pecora, a schooner which bore the Portuguese flag, cast anchor in an obscure port on the coast of Africa. A band of armed men, issuing from her, kidnapped and carried away from the shore fifty-two natives, including several women and children. All of these persons spoke the rude dialect of an African tribe, and recited Arabic prayers, from the ritual of the Mohammedan faith.
After a voyage marked by the well-known sufferings of the slave ship, these captives were landed in Havana, in the island of Cuba, and immediately confined in a barracoon, or jail. * * * They were then sold by the mercantile house of Martinez and Company — three of them to Pedro Montez, and the others to Jose Ruiz — with full knowledge, on their part, that the prisoners were “Bozal negroes,” and not “Ladinoes,” as the domestic slaves, recognized by Spanish laws in that island, are called. Montez and Ruiz were planters, who dwelt at, or near, Puerto Principe. * * *
CINQUE – THE AFRICAN LEADER URGES REBELLION
On the 28th of June, the schooner Amistad, chartered for the purpose, sailed for Puerto Principe, carrying the fifty-two captive negroes, together with Montez and Ruiz as passengers. * * * The savages had already learned that their Christian oppressors had no suffering in reserve for them greater than the continuance of life itself in bondage.
On the first of July, while they were yet close upon the eastern coast of Cuba, they rose to the appeal of Cinque, the brave and athletic leader, slew the captain and cook, who resisted them, put the seamen ashore in the small boat, retained Antonio, whose African descent pleaded in his behalf, and spared the lives of Montez and Ruiz, on their agreement to direct the vessel eastward and deliver the insurgents upon the coast of Africa. Montez and Ruiz, in the daylight of sixty long summer days, unwillingly steered the coaster on an eastern course, as they had under such fearful circumstances engaged to do; but in the night-time, knowing that the barbarians were ignorant of the guidance offered to all mariners by the compass and the stars, they treacherously bore away to the northward. By these varying courses they brought up at last near Mont auk Point, on the shore of Long Island, perhaps to the equal surprise of the impressed pilots, the ignorant mutineers, and the peaceful inhabitants of that cultivated coast. Urged by the common want, twenty of the Africans, leaving all the women and children on board, went ashore to beg of white men, their natural enemies, water and bread. During their absence, Captain Gedney, of the United States Navy on board the brig Wmhington, engaged in the Coast Survey, discovered and hailed the Amistai?, and at the request of Montez and Ruiz, seized and secured the Africans who were on board, as he afterward secured the shore party on its return, and conducted them all, with the schooner, into the port of Xew London. There they were delivered into custody of a Marshal of the United States, to await judicial investigation. * * * The Americans, who had aided in the recapture of the schooner, now put in a claim for salvage. Montez and Ruiz appealed to the United States Government for its aid in securing their negro “property.” * * * The Cuban owners of the Amistad claimed her restoration to themselves. Her Catholic Majesty assumed the case of Montez and Ruiz as her own, and demanded of the United States that the Africans should be surrendered as slaves, without reservation, detention, or hindrance. Her Protestant Majesty of Great Britain took a very different view of that transaction. She not only remonstrated with her Royal Sister of Spain against that demand, but insisted on her punishing Montez and Ruiz as pirates, and instructed the British Minister, residing here, to invoke the good offices of the President of the United States in behalf of the Africans, and to.endeavor to secure to them ” that liberty of which they were deprived.” * * *
On the 28th of June, the schooner Amistad, chartered for the purpose, sailed for Puerto Principe, carrying the fifty-two captive negroes, together with Montez and Ruiz as passengers. * * * The savages had already learned that their Christian oppressors had no suffering in reserve for them greater than the continuance of life itself in bondage. On the first of July, while they were yet close upon the eastern coast of Cuba, they rose to the appeal of Cinque, a
THE PRESIDENT INTERVENES
The President of the United States at first affected neutrality, but, soon afterward, openly intervened, and by his attorneys urged that the Africans should be condemned as slaves and returned to Montez and Ruiz. Confident of success in this appeal to the court, he kept a national ship at anchor near the scene of the trial, ready to receive the captives and convey them back to Cuba, there to be consigned to bondage.
The Federal Judiciary, however, maintained not only its independence but its fidelity to truth and justice. First, the District Court for the District of Connecticut, then the Circuit Court sitting within the same district, on appeal, and lastly, the Supreme Court at this capital, finally reviewing the whole subject, overruled alike the claims of the pretended salvors, and even those of Montez and Ruiz, notwithstanding the intervention of the Court of Spain and the President of the United States, and decided, in effect, that the captives of
the Amutaii were guiltless and injured freemen, entitled to liberty by the laws of the United States and by the laws of nations. * * *
The Federal Judiciary, however, maintained not only its independence but its fidelity to truth and justice. First, the District Court for the District of Connecticut, then the Circuit Court sitting within the same district, on appeal, and lastly, the Supreme Court at this capital, finally reviewing the whole subject, overruled alike the claims of the pretended salvors, and even those of Montez and Ruiz, notwithstanding the intervention of the Court of Spain and the President of the United States, and decided, in effect, that the captives of 356, the Amutaii were guiltless and injured freemen, entitled to liberty by the laws of the United States and by the laws of nations.
Benevolent citizens received them at the prison doors, with acclamations and thanks to God for their deliverance from so many, and so great perils; and placing them on board a vessel prepared for that purpose, sent them back in safety to their native shores.
This is the short and simple story of the Africans of the Amistad. It proves that the human heart can be more treacherous than the irresponsible winds, and that things are sometimes found on the surface of the sea, which are more wonderful than even the ray less mysteries which it conceals. Had those captives been white men, the American people would have agreed, with the whole world beside, in approving the judgment of the Supreme Court of the United States, and the Amistad case would have been at an end. But they were not white men, and hence arose an appeal from that judgment, although it has long since been executed. The bill now before the Senate, brought in at the instance of the President of the United States, proposes to pay Montez and Ruiz the estimated value of the captives of the Amistad, on the ground that they were slaves, wrongfully set at liberty by the Supreme Court of the United States. It is, therefore, in fact, what I have already called it, an appeal from the Supreme Court to the Congress of the United States.
Such a recital of the facts of the case ought to have insured the defeat of the bill, and perhaps would have done so. Possibly its movers feared to face the narration. At all events the bill was not called up, and the speech was never made.
BALLS AND SCHOOLS
Washington was full of visitors this winter. Railway facilities and important public issues before Congress, were every year bringing more people to the capital. Hotels were filled with guests, and expanding in size. Social gayeties increased. Seward, though he disliked ostentation, was fond of hospitality. Round his table, or in his drawing-room, he liked to bring together political friends and opponents, foreign representatives, and strangers from distant States. Among the diplomatic corps, and among the families residing in Washington, he had now come to have a large and pleasant acquaintance. One of the social events of the season was a fancy dress ball at the house of Senator Gwin, at which Lord and Lady Napier appeared in eighteenth century costumes as Mr. and Mrs. Hamilton, their earliest predecessors in the British Legation to the United States.
Although the seat of National Government, Washington was, as yet, without a city police for its own protection. The increase of population, and the influx of strangers was beginning to be attended by crimes and disorders that rendered the streets unsafe. Seward, advocating a bill for the establishment of a police force, remarked:
I think every man who is a resident of the city can bear witness that persons take care to avoid being out in the night, exposing themselves to violence and brutality by offenders who are at large in the city. It was but the night before last, that one of the public officers, a messenger of the Treasury Department, was assassinated in the open streets, and at an early hour in the 342 MYBTILLA MINER. [1s5s.
evening. It is certainly due to the character of the capital of the country, that we should give this subject immediate attention.
The project of public schools also came up at this session and was warmly supported by him. Answering some of the arguments against it, he described the peculiar relation held by Washington to the rest of the country, and made a forecast of its future:
With the beginning of the building up of a great nation there was also begun necessarily the building up of a great capital. I remember,—it was within my own time, and yours, Sir,— when Washington was ridiculed as a “city of magnificent distances”—a mockery of a city. It has passed from that stage, and has already become a city of magnificent edifices, and of magnificent gardens. Now as the nation grows in strength, and wealth, and territory, this capital will necessarily grow; and every year it will require from Congress the appropriations necessary to its advancement, until it shall become the finest, the greatest, the most magnificent capital in the world.
But there is another want which every capital on earth always has had, and always will have,— namely, some provision for maintaining its morals and public virtue. This capital is no more necessary for the purposes of the Government, or the welfare of the country, than school-houses are for the education of children, at the seat of Government.
The schools were established at last. But there was one educational enterprise not included in them, and looked upon with much disfavor by those who did not want to have ” chattels ” taught to read. This was Myrtilla Miner’s school for the education of colored children. Benevolent and self-sacrificing as this work was, she was not allowed to proceed in it without opposition, insults, and threats of mob violence. Wilson, in describing it, says:
Among leading men and families of Washington she found patrons and friends, who lent both countenance and material aid to her mission of love and good works. For even in those dark days of pro-slavery violence, there were not wanting members of Congress who were won to her support, by her welcome importunity and the beauty of her pure and perilous endeavor; while the carriage from the residence of Mr. Seward, often seen standing before her humble school-room, attested the interest felt in the work of the brave and heroic woman, by the wife and daughters of the New York Senator.
Two more States besides Kansas were at the doors of Congress this session. Oregon presented herself with a Constitution containing an article excluding “persons of African descent” from the State. Seward protested against this ” un-Republican discrimination.” The majority of the Senate, however, made no objection to it. The bill for her admission was passed in the Senate, but did not get through the House of Representatives until February, 1859.