In the Quock Walker case of 1783, the Supreme Judicial Court announced that slavery was inconsistent with the Massachusetts Constitution.
The Quock Walker case refers to three civil and criminal actions involving a slave named Quock Walker and his purported master, Nathanial Jennison. In 1781, Walker ran away from Jennison. Walker claimed he was free, as his former master (James Caldwell) had promised him freedom at age 25. Walker contended that Caldwell 's promise bound Jennison, who was married to Caldwell's widow. Jennison caught and beat Walker.
With the help of Caldwell's brothers, Walker sued for his freedom. Prominent Worcester attorney Levi Lincoln, Sr. represented Walker. Lincoln did not rely on Caldwell's alleged promise to free Walker, but on a "law of nature that all men are equal and free."
The final Quock Walker case was tried before the Supreme Judicial Court in 1783.* Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice William Cushing announced that the Massachusetts Constitution prohibited slavery. He instructed the jury that:
Our Constitution of Government . . . sets out with declaring that all men are born free and equal - and that every subject is entitled to liberty, and to have it safeguarded by the laws, as well as life and property, and in short is totally repugnant to the idea of being born slaves. This being the case, I think the idea of slavery is inconsistent with our conduct and Constitution.
The jury agreed and found Jennison guilty of assault and battery upon Quock Walker.
According to the Massachusetts census of 1790, no slaves resided in Massachusetts. Historians generally credit several factors: changing public opinion, African-American activism, and public awareness that slaveowners would lose any "freedom suit" tried in Massachusetts state courts.
Nothing is known of Quock Walker's life after he obtained freedom. President George Washington appointed William Cushing as a Justice of the United States Supreme Court where he served from 1789 - 1810. Attorney Levi Lincoln served as United States Attorney General under President Thomas Jefferson from 1801 - 1804.
The Quock Walker case made clear to the people of Massachusetts that the rights set forth in the Massachusetts Constitution were not empty promises. These rights would be enforced, fairly and equally, for all.
*In its early years, the Supreme Judicial Court functioned as both a trial and an appellate court.