LII
[Home] [Contents] [Amistad I] [Amistad II] [Forum] [LII]

The law of slavery in the United States, circa 1841

During the American colonial period, slavery was legal and practiced in all the commercial nations of Europe. The practice of trading in and using African slaves was introduced to the United States by the colonial powers, and when the American colonies received their common law from the United Kingdom, the legality of slavery was part of that law.

Trade in slaves was abolished shortly after the formation of the United States, by Act of Congress on March 2, 1807. Many states took steps to abolish slavery within their borders even before the formation of the federal government, and several states even routinely emancipated slaves who came within their borders.

At the time of the Amistad case, then, slave trade was illegal throughout the United States, but the legality of slave ownership varied from state to state. In New York and Connecticut, the primary states involved in the Amistad case, slavery was illegal.
 

A brief guide to the law of salvage

Salvage is the reward given to persons who voluntarily assist a ship or recover its cargo from impending or actual peril or loss.
To make a valid claim of salvage, a claimant must prove:

     the event involved a ship and its cargo, or things committed to and lost at sea or other public, navigable waterways;
     the ship or its cargo have been found or rescued;
     the service performed by claimant must have been of benefit to the property involved in the rescue.

A salvor (one who salvages) must have the intent and capacity of committing a salvage, but need not have the intention of
keeping the property. The salvor need not have even given physical assistance to the rescue of the ship or property: in a recent
New York case, a ship's captain's decision to keep his ship nearby in case a distressed ship needed help was considered
sufficient to support a claim of salvage. See Reynolds Leasing Corp. v. The Tug Patrice McAllister, 572 F.Supp. 1131 (1984
S.D.N.Y.).

Various types of "peril" are allowed. The most common cases involve abandoned ships or ships in danger of sinking. However,
as argued by claimants in the first Amistad case, the death or disability of the crew, or the seizing of the ship by pirates, can also
support a claim for salvage.

Typically, a salvage must occur on the seas. As such, the salvage claim by Messrs. Green and Fordham is peculiar, in that it
involved activity committed entirely inland.
 

Legal developments since United States v. Amistad

The most significant legal development since the first Amistad case is, of course, the abolition of slavery. With the adoption of
the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, the U.S. Constitution guaranteed that "neither slavery nor involuntary servitude . . . shall
exist within the United States or any place subject to their jurisdiction."

Since the Thirteenth Amendment, Congress has abolished peonage (42 U.S.C. § 1894), , kidnapping persons into slavery (18
U.S.C. § 1583), selling of persons into slavery (18 U.S.C. § 1584), service on slave ships (18 U.S.C. § 1586), and
transportation of or trafficking in slaves (18 U.S.C. § 1585).