Important Piece of Original Supreme Court History Offered for Sale at Raab

Long in a Private Collection, John Quincy Adams’ Original Handwritten Notes From His First Supreme Court Appearance, Cited in the Amistad Case



The Raab Collection announces that it has acquired and is selling a powerful and important piece of Supreme Court and presidential history: John Quincy Adams’ original handwritten notes from his first case before the U.S. Supreme Court, which began a great legal career and which he argued in front of then Chief Justice John Marshall. Long before Adams began the diplomatic and political career that culminated in his 1825-29 presidency, he argued and won the case using this very manuscript. The bifolium contains three pages of facts and theories that Adams used in court and is valued at $75,000.

John Quincy Adams manuscript Supreme Court

Adams gave these very notes to Supreme Court reporter William Cranch, his cousin and former Harvard classmate, who long held and preserved them; a notation in Cranch’s handwriting evinces this provenance. 

The Case Before SCOTUS

The case that John Quincy Adams, then a practicing lawyer and son of former President John Adams, argued before the highest court in the nation is officially known as Head & Amory v. Providence Insurance Co.  The Massachusetts firm of Head & Amory hired Adams to represent them in an insurance claim involving the confiscation of merchandise from a ship captured by the British in 1800. The company’s insurer, the Providence Insurance Co., denied liability in the matter. Head & Amory sued, lost, and then filed an appeal which went to the Supreme Court. 

Adams made his first appearance before the judges on February 7, 1804. His argument extensively cited recognized authorities, as detailed in these notes, and succeeded in overturning the lower court’s decision. Chief Justice John Marshall authored the opinion, which asserted the power of a corporate character and became a landmark in corporation law. 

John Quincy Adams autograph manuscript signed Supreme Court
Detail from John Quincy Adams’ manuscript notes

Interestingly, when Adams argued his final case before the Supreme Court, the famous Amistad case,  in 1841, he paused and reflected on this first case–the two bookends of his historic legal career. Here are his words: 

“May it please your Honors: On the 7th of February, 1804, now more than thirty-seven years past, my name was entered, and yet stands recorded, on both the rolls, as one of the Attorneys and Counsellors of this Court…I stand before the same Court, but not before the same judges…As I cast my eyes along those seats of honor and of public trust, now occupied by you, they seek in vain for one of those honored and honorable persons whose indulgence listened then to my voice. Marshall–Cushing–Chase–Washington–Johnson–Livingston–Todd–Where are they?…Where is the marshal–where are the criers of the Court?…Where are they all? Gone! Gone! All gone!–Gone from the services which, in their day and generation, they faithfully rendered to their country…[I am] taking, then, my final leave of this Bar, and of this Honorable Court…”

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