[April 6, 2017] I had a good laugh the other day as I was discussing this upcoming post naming Roger Baldwin as a hero. You see, Baldwin is a lawyer and his reputation was mediocre for a senior leader. With one exception, he generally did okay for himself; in another instance he oversaw a trial that was famous worldwide just over a century ago.
The average person in the United States, unless a lawyer, has likely never heard of this legal case. Yet, in 1965 a historian described it as the most important court case involving slavery before being eclipsed that of Dred Scott.1 The reality of how a group of Africans freed themselves and then were caught up in a complex legal case is what legends are made of. It is also something where heroes are made.
La Amistad was a 19th-century schooner, owned by a Spaniard captain, which occasionally engaged in the slave transportation. In 1839 the ship left Havana for another port on the Cuban island where the slaves were to work on a sugar plantation.
The Africans were from Mendiland (now Sierra Leone) were they were captured and sold. Most of the crew was killed in the onboard revolt but some were spared to drive the ship. La Amistad was discovered by the naval brig USS Washington and taken into United States custody near Long Island, New York.
The heart of the legal issue appeared to be bound to the questions of ownership of the ship and its “cargo of slaves.” Ultimately heard by the United States Supreme Court in 1841, Roger Baldwin along with former U.S. President John Quincy Adams, helped persuade court justices to uphold lower court rulings that essentially said Africans aboard the Spanish vessel La Amistad were captives, therefore never slaves. Since they were illegal captives, their revolt was an act of self-defense and should be immediately freed.
Thanks to the cunning leadership of Baldwin the case not only made headlines across the world but it also set a new moral direction on slavery and gave a boost to the abolitionist movement in Europe and North America. Fundamentally the abolitionists were Christians, initially Quakers, who viewed slavery as immoral. The U.S. at the time was deeply divided over the issue with Northern states outright banning the practice.
Leadership, even for a lawyer, can make a difference. Hailed as the savior of the captured Africans, Roger Baldwin made his mark on the movement to abolish slavery. There were others whose performance was especially notable including the judges in the original 1939 court case held in New Haven, Connecticut.
President Martin Van Buren will be remembered for his failures on this issue. Ultimately, to resolve the slavery issue, it would be a United States Civil War that cost the lives of well over half a million people and massive destruction.
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