Designed by famed New England architect, Charles Bulfinch, and completed in 1796, the Old Statehouse was the first of Bulfinch's public buildings in his dignified Adamesque Federal style. The Hartford Convention of 1814, one the earliest debates on the sovereignty of states versus national sovereignty, was held here. The Amistad Trial began here on September 19, 1839, while the Mende were being held in the New Haven Jail, with preliminary hearings on the jurisdiction of the case by the U.S. Circuit Court and the lower District Court.
Between September 19 and 23, lawyers representing the Mende sought writs of habeas corpus (the release of a party from unlawful restraint) before the U.S. Circuit Court. Presiding Judge Smith Thompson denied this motion, and left disposition of the Mende to the U.S. District Court. At the same time, the District Court, also meeting in the Statehouse, ruled that the Africans could not be sold in the state of Connecticut as "salvage" against the claims of Ruiz and Montez, the planters who had bought the Africans in Cuba. The second round of the trial began here when the District Court, with Judge Andrew Judson presiding, met from November 19-20, but the court eventually postponed the hearing until January 7, 1840, when the court would meet in New Haven. The publicity surrounding these hearings increased sympathy for the Mende. The question still remained whether or not the Africans were legal Cuban slaves, and they remained in the New Haven jail. The hearings determined that the Africans' mutiny against the crew of the Amistad did not occur within U.S. boundaries. Therefore, the Africans could not be tried for mutiny and murder in this country.
During this two-month period in Hartford, before the change of venue to New Haven, Roger Sherman Baldwin, serving as defense lawyer for the Amistad Africans, developed the basis for his argument on behalf of the Africans that would lead to the U.S. Supreme Court judgment in 1841.
The Old Statehouse, a National Historic Landmark, is located at 800 Main St. in Hartford. The building is open from 9:00am to 5:00pm, Monday-Friday. Call 860-522-6766 or visit the Old Statehouse website for further information. The Old Statehouse has also been documented by the Historic American Buildings Survey.
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