American Portraits

Justice: John Quincy Adams and The Amistad

In this lesson, students will analyze the reasons why John Quincy Adams acted as the defense attorney for the Africans on The Amistad. They will discuss Adams’ role in the case and determine ways they can protect justice themselves.

Founding Principles

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Due Process

The government must interact with all citizens according to the duly-enacted laws; applying these rules equally among all citizens.

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Individual Responsibility

Individuals must take care of themselves and their families and be vigilant to preserve their liberty.

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Except where authorized by citizens through the Constitution, the government does not have the authority to limit freedom.

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Rule of Law

Government and citizens all abide by the same laws regardless of political power. Those laws respect individual rights, are transparently enacted, are justly applied, and are stable.


Former president John Quincy Adams entered the Supreme Court chamber to deliver closing remarks in a contentious case. Adams was serving in the House of Representatives when he volunteered to be part of the defense team for the thirty-six Africans who took over a Spanish ship called The Amistad after being captured illegally in Africa to be sold in Cuba….

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

How can you protect justice for yourself and others?

Virtue Defined

Justice is the capacity to determine and preserve our common rights.

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will analyze the reasons why John Quincy Adams acted as the defense attorney for the Africans on The Amistad. They will discuss Adams’ role in the case and determine ways they can protect justice themselves.


  • Students will evaluate John Quincy Adams’ role in The Amistad case.
  • Students will understand the importance of protecting justice to advance freedom.
  • Students will determine ways in which to safeguard justice in their own lives.


Like his father, John Quincy Adams understood the necessity of a virtuous citizenry. Adams served in many public offices throughout his life such as a diplomat, state senator, U.S. Senator, Secretary of State, U.S. Representative, and sixth President of the United States. In his role as a U.S. Representative, John Quincy Adams fought against the continuation of slavery. During his term in the House, Adams successfully defended the Africans who took over a Spanish ship called The Amistad.

In 1839, a Spanish ship kidnapped a group of Africans from the coast of Sierra Leone to sell them as slaves in Cuba, even though Spain, Britain, and United States had prohibited the slave trade. The Africans were to be transported from one Cuban port to another, but that effort was thwarted when the Africans freed themselves from their shackles. They killed the ship’s captain and cook and took control of the vessel. The ship meandered along the coast of the United States until the USS Washington discovered it just off Long Island, New York. The commander of the United States ship took custody of the Africans and brought them to Connecticut to claim rights to the property, including the ship itself, the cargo, and the Africans.

It has been said that there are two sides to every story, but in this situation, there were at least five sides. The case was first brought to the United States District Court when the commander of the Washington filed a suit to claim the Africans and cargo. Two of the sailors on the Amistad filed suit to have the Africans and cargo returned to them. However, the United States Attorney for the District of Connecticut filed suit to have the property returned to the Spanish government. The Africans themselves maintained that they were not property or slaves and could not be returned to any owner. There was even more contention when President Martin Van Buren ordered that the Africans be returned to Cuba despite the continued appeals in the case. Some viewed the president’s order in the complex case as an overreach of executive power.

In the ruling, the district court ordered that the Africans be returned to Africa under the protection of the president and did not award them to the Spanish government. It ruled that the commander of the USS Washington be awarded one-third of the ship’s property and the shipmasters also be awarded one-third of the ship’s property. Under an order by President Van Buren, the case was appealed to the circuit court that upheld the district court’s finding. The case was then appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

Adams delivered an extensive defense of the Africans, citing the prohibition of the international slave trade. He insisted that the people on board the ship were not property but were free. He also argued that the executive branch should not have been involved in the case.


  • Contentious
  • Rant
  • Appalled
  • Lament
  • Warrant

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the Compelling Question in mind as they read. Then have them answer the remaining questions below.

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Walk-In-The-Shoes Questions
As you read, imagine you are the protagonist.

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What fears or concerns might you have?
  • What may prevent you from acting in the way you ought?

Observation Questions

  • What was John Quincy Adams’ role in The Amistad case? Did this case alter or strengthen his identity? How so?
  • What was Adams’ purpose as the attorney for the Africans?
  • What does the purpose of Adams’ role in the case say about his identity?

Discussion Questions
Discuss the following questions with your students.

  • What is the historical context of the narrative?
  • What historical circumstances presented a challenge to the protagonist?
  • How and why did the individual exhibit a moral and/or civic virtue in facing and overcoming the challenge?
  • How did the exercise of the virtue benefit civil society?
  • How might exercise of the virtue benefit the protagonist?
  • What might the exercise of the virtue cost the protagonist?
  • Would you react the same under similar circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How can you act similarly in your own life? What obstacles must you overcome in order to do so?

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