Richard Henry Lee

On July 2, 1776 the second Continental Congress, sweltering away in Philadelphia, adopted the Lee Resolution, also known as the resolution of independence. It declared all the colonies to be independent of the British Empire and was first introduced by Richard Henry Lee of Virginia on June 7. It took weeks to drum up enough support for the measure to pass (we’ll get to that in the next installment of John Adams). The document formally announcing the action, better known as the Declaration of Independence, was approved on July 4.

Exactly one year later, Vermont became the first American territory to abolish slavery. It was soon followed by Pennsylvania (which chose to gradually abolish slavery starting in 1780), Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New York.

And speaking of slavery: 62 years after Vermont’s abolition, more than 50 slaves led by Joseph Cinque rebelled against their captors and took over their ship. You may have heard of it: the Amistad.

As anyone who’s seen the movie knows, the captives managed to free themselves, gained control of the ship, and demanded they be returned home. Instead, they were delivered to Long Island, New York and taken into custody. It was for the courts to decide what to do with them, as it was uncertain whether they were legal slaves born in Cuba or illegal African captives being sold into slavery. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, and by that time, former president John Quincy Adams had gotten involved. He was supposed to give the opening arguments before the higher court, but he felt unprepared, so the case was opened by Roger Sherman Baldwin, the attorney who’d represented the captives in the earlier cases. Adams started speaking on February 24 and concluded an eight-and-a-half hour oration on March 1 (the court recessed for a while following the death of an associate justice). On March 9, 1841 Associate Justice Joseph Story delivered the court’s decision: The captives were not, in fact, legal slaves from Cuba but Africans kidnapped from their home, in violation of several treaties and US laws. With help from abolitionist supporters, the 36 surviving captives returned to Africa in early 1842.

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