This case - actually a series of three cases -- began as a freedom suit based on a promise of freedom or manumission, but resulted in a sweeping declaration by Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice William Cushing that the institution of slavery was incompatible with the principles of liberty and legal equality articulated in the new Massachusetts Constitution.
Quock Walker, a slave, was purchased as an infant by James Caldwell in 1754. In 1763, Caldwell died and his widow married Nathaniel Jennison. Walker became the property of Jennison, who resided in the central Massachusetts town of Barre. In 1781, at the age of 28, Walker fled to the home of Caldwell's sons. Jennison recaptured, beat, and reenslaved Quock Walker. Three court proceedings followed.
In the first case, Walker, with the assistance of leading Worcester County attorneys Levi Lincoln and Caleb Strong, sued Jennison for assault and battery; Walker claimed he had been injured without right, as James Caldwell, his first master, had promised Walker freedom by age 25. This case was tried before a jury in the Worcester County Court of Common Pleas. The jury found "that the said Quork is a Freeman and not the proper Negro slave of [Jennison]," and awarded Walker damages of 50 pounds.
In the second case, tried during the same court session, Jennison sued Caldwell's brothers for interfering with his property; Jennison claimed the brothers had unlawfully enticed Walker away for their own benefit. In this action, Jennison prevailed, and the jury awarded him damages of 25 pounds.
Each side appealed these contradictory verdicts, and the two cases were placed on the docket of the Supreme Judicial Court in 1781. Jennison was ruled in default on his appeal for failing to present the required papers.
Default judgment against Jennison (Suffolk files 153161)
Itemization of costs and damages in default action. (Suffolk files 153579)
The Caldwell brothers prevailed in their appeal to the State's high court. Reports of this trial reflect that attorney Levi Lincoln, who represented the Caldwell brothers, centered his argument on the promises of freedom contained in the new Massachusetts Constitution.
The following year, in June 1782, Jennison petitioned the General Court (the official name of the Massachusetts legislature) for reinstatement of the case he had lost by default ten months earlier. The legislature took no action.
Meanwhile, in what became the third Quock Walker case, the Attorney General prosecuted Jennison for criminal assault and battery upon Quock Walker. Jennison was indicted in September 1781, though the case did not come before the Supreme Judicial Court until April 1783.
Criminal indictment of Jennoison for assault and battery on Quock Walker. (Suffolk files 153693)
In his charge to the jury, Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice William Cushing announced that slavery was incompatible with the new Massachusetts Constitution:
. . . [T]hese sentiments [that are favorable to the natural rights of mankind] led the framers of our constitution of government - by which the people of this commonwealth have solemnly bound themselves to each other - to declare - that all men are born free and equal; and that every subject is entitled to liberty, and to have it guarded by the laws as well as his life and property. In short, without resorting to implication in constructing the constitution, slavery is in my judgment as effectively abolished as it can be by the granting of rights and privileges wholly incompatible and repugnant to its existence. The court are therefore fully of the opinion that perpetual servitude can no longer be tolerated in our government, and that liberty can only be forfeited by some criminal conduct or relinquished by personal consent or contract. And it is therefore unnecessary to consider whether the promises of freedom to Quaco, on the part of his master and mistress, amounted to a manumission or not.
The jury convicted Jennison, and the court ordered him to pay a fine of 40 shillings.
The 1790 census recorded no slaves in Massachusetts, but historians disagree over the role of the Quock Walker case in abolishing slavery in Massachusetts. The case was not widely reported, and changing economic conditions and public opinion increasingly hostile to slavery doubtless played an important role in slavery's demise. However, after the Quock Walker case, it was clear that a local (i.e. in-state) slaveowner would not prevail in the state courts. This, in turn, "undermined whites' confidence in their property rights in slaves, and . . . emboldened enslaved persons of color to demand manumission or wage compensation from their owners - [or] simply to walk away from them." As historian John Cushing concluded, there is "ample evidence" that the Quock Walker cases were a significant step toward the end of slavery in Massachusetts.