“Natural Justice and the Amistad”–Professor Justin Dyer in Starting Points

Justin Dyer, Professor of Political Science at the University of Missouri and an Affiliated Scholar of JWI, recalls the oral argument of John Quincy Adams in the historic Supreme Court case of United States v. Amistad (1841). In a piece published at Starting Points, a journal of the Kinder Institute, Dyer explains Adams’s use of arguments based in the language of natural rights contributed to Adams’s success in the case.

Some excerpts:

“John Quincy Adams – son of the Revolution, former president, and sitting Massachusetts congressman – appeared at the bar of the Supreme Court of the United States in 1841 to plead the case of three dozen Africans who had been found off the coast of New York in command of the Spanish vessel La Amistad. Some two months prior, Spanish slave traders had held the Africans on a short voyage from Havana to Puerto Príncipe; soon the captives overtook the ship, killed the captain, and held two members of the crew hostage. When a U.S. brig intercepted La Amistad off the coast of Long Island, authorities in the courts of admiralty released the Spanish crew members, and took the Africans into U.S. custody.

“Adams begins his defense by appealing to a classical definition of justice offered by the sixth century Byzantine Emperor Justinian in his Institutes – that justice is the constant and perpetual will to secure to everyone his own right. Several things follow from this definition. Justice, like all virtues in the classical tradition, is a habit that leads to good actions. To be just is to have a constant and perpetual will to do just acts, to render to others what is rightfully their own. As an act guided by will, it is rational and voluntary, rather than sub-rational and involuntary. Justice, then, is rationally scrutable, and it is a virtue unique to rational beings.

“Adams’ rhetorical strategy in La Amistad began by drawing out the underlying racial assumptions in the case by juxtaposing the dual claims of reason and sentiment. The actions of the executive branch of the U.S. government, Adams noted, had been motivated from the beginning by sentiment – sympathy with the white, and antipathy toward the black. Justice, however, is rational, a voluntary will to do right by individuals irrespective of sentiment. Yet Adams also recognized that reason needs sentiment as its aid; sympathy and antipathy must be redirected to rightful ends. That sentiments might be malformed and directed to unjust ends points to the possibility of a natural—that is, rational—standard of justice by which we can distinguish between well- and ill-formed sentiment.”

Read Justin Dyer’s article in its entirety here.