TL;DR: In 1841, former President John Quincy Adams delivered a passionate speech in support of a group of illegally enslaved Africans who had stumbled onto US shores aboard the Spanish ship Amistad. Replete with rhetorical finesse and prophetic twists, the speech convinced the Supreme Court to set the victims free.

So What: The oratory masterpiece is a landmark of American rhetoric, delivering countless lessons in effective communication. Challenging the very notion of slavery in an era when many saw it as part and parcel of human existence, the Amistad case was one of the judicial events that foreshadowed the Civil War.

“This is the most important case ever to come before this court. Because what it concerns is the very nature of man.”

Former US President John Quincy Adams’s passionate 1841 speech before the Supreme Court on behalf of a group of Africans illegally enslaved aboard the Spanish schooner La Amistad was an impassioned plea for the right to freedom. It led to a decision that cemented the judiciary’s role in upholding human rights, creating a precedent for future litigation involving slavery.

While the original speech was much longer, the version written for the Steven Spielberg film Amistad condensed it into its main talking points. Here’s what great communicators can learn.

The Amistad Case

On June 28, 1839, the ironically named La Amistad (Friendship) schooner set sail from Havana, Cuba, under a Spanish flag. Its cargo: some general merchandise and 53 enslaved people illegally captured in modern-day Sierra Leone. Its destination: Puerto Principe’s sugar plantations. The ship would never complete its planned journey.

Three days into the voyage, the slaves aboard revolted, killed the cook and the captain, and confiscated the vessel. They took two crew members hostage, demanding them to sail the ship to Africa. Instead, the two Spaniards sailed northward, ending up off the coast of Long Island, New York. There, US authorities apprehended the vessel and imprisoned the purported mutineers.

painting of La Amistad from a youtube video

To make matters worse, Spain demanded that US authorities return the Africans to Cuba as enslaved people. The Van Buren administration released an Executive Order detailing the extradition of the Africans, an order halted by injunction in federal court. An international diplomacy-laced freedom suit followed, morphing into the most critical court case of the time involving slavery and civil rights—the United States vs. La Amistad.

After several instances of executive overreach, the abolitionist lawyers defending the Africans asked former President John Quincy Adams to support their case. Adams took it upon himself to help the kidnapped regain their freedom and right to travel home. On February 24, 1841, he delivered several oratory masterpieces over a week, skillfully arguing for the Africans and their right to self-defense and autonomy.

These were the arguments dramatized in Steven Spielberg’s 1997 movie Amistad.

Make Your Audience Pick a Side

As Adams pointed out, appealing to moral and ethical principles in an age when many consider violence and war necessary parts of humanity was going to be a challenge.

Adams juxtaposes the pro-slavery attitudes of the time with the values put forth in the Declaration of Independence. He wraps the antithesis into a series of rhetorical questions, forcing his audience to pick sides.

“Yet, if the South is right, what are we to do with that embarrassing, annoying document, the Declaration of Independence? What of its conceits? ‘All men…created equal,’ ‘inalienable rights,’ ‘life,’ ‘liberty,’ and so on? What on earth are we to do with this?”

He then adds his “modest suggestion” to solve the moral dilemma he posed by ripping up the Van Buren order containing the pro-slavery language. By doing so, he connects the decision with widely accepted ethical principles and American values, appealing to the audience’s sense of justice and patriotism.

Build a Logical Foundation

Logic plays an essential role in persuasion. Logic appeals to reason and emotion while building trust. In his Amistad speech, Adams references legal precedents, American founding documents, and international law to build a foundation for his case.

He doesn’t shy away from calling out one of the prevailing biases of the era as an aggressive yet logically inconsequential challenger of reason and law. And he doesn’t mince words.

“Now, if he were white, he wouldn’t be standing before this court fighting for his life…Songs would be written about him. The great authors of our times would fill books about him. His story would be told and retold in our classrooms.”

The bluntness with which he addresses the issue of race and racial bias makes his position clear and exposes the illogical toxicity of the racist mindset.

Call Your Audience to Higher Ideals

Adams wants his audience to understand and appreciate the case’s broader implications.

“However, why are we here? How is it that a simple, plain property issue should now find itself so ennobled as to be argued before the Supreme Court of the United States of America?” 

He clarifies that he understands the fears that may drive decision-makers to disregard the truth and knowingly err on the side of caution. Yet he holds truth and justice to be non-negotiable. Metaphorically equating truth with the people on whose behalf he argues, “flogged from court to court, wretched and destitute,” he invokes the legacy of past US Presidents as a source of courage to uphold justice in the face of fears and prejudices.

gavel in a court

In a prophetic twist, he closes his speech by contemplating the gravest possible consequences of upholding truth and justice in the case.

He concludes that not even the specter of civil war should prevent righteous people from doing what’s right.

“And if it means civil war, then let it come. And when it does, may it be, finally, the last battle of the American Revolution.”

Marketer’s Takeaway

John Quincy Adams’ Amistad speech combines many rhetorical elements to provide a brilliant, multifaceted argument. If you’re aspiring to be a great communicator:

  • Align your arguments with moral values. When your arguments are ethics-rooted, your audience perceives you as a principled moral ally. Adams appeals to his audience’s patriotic feelings, evoking the Declaration of Independence as the common ground to assess the problem.
  • Use evidence-based arguments. Logical arguments enhance your credibility, establishing your ethical appeals as genuine and fact-based. They represent the framework that supports your communication. This framework lends weight and structure to your arguments, making them more convincing.
  • Use rhetorical questions to engage and challenge. Questions evoke a dialog. Rhetorical questions may not require responses, but they always subconsciously urge people to provide one.

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