3 Cases for Abolition
Updated: Jul 12, 2021
In 1781, two civil suits and one criminal indictment would reverse the legitimacy of slavery in Massachusetts. The series of court cases presided over by Judge William Cushing would determine that slavery would no longer be supported by Massachusetts Courts, ultimately abolishing slavery in our home state. These trials, which would later come to be known unilaterally as the Quock Walker case, centered around one man and his fight to free himself from slavery.
Quock Walker was born in 1753 near Barre, Massachusetts, to Ghanian-born parents sold into slavery. At nine months old, he, along with his family, was sold to James Caldwell, his first owner, in Worcester County. During his time serving the family, Walker was promised his freedom on two separate occasions: James Caldwell promised to manumit Walker when he reached the age of 24 or 25, and Mrs.Caldwell, upon her remarriage, promised to free him at the age of 21. James Caldwell passed away sometime around 1774 when Walker was 21 years old. Mrs.Caldwell, his widow, was soon remarried to Dr. Nathaniel Jennison, and due to property laws determining that women couldn’t be held legally responsible for such possessions, Walker now had a new owner, who subsequently refused to manumit him. Mrs.Caldwell died three years after her first husband, leaving Quock Walker’s freedom completely in Dr.Jennison’s hands.
In 1781, at the age of 28, Quock Walker ran away from Jennison’s land and sought refuge on a farm belonging to the younger brothers of James Caldwell, his previous owner who had promised him his manumission. The two brothers, John and Seth Caldwell, employed Walker on their farm until he was captured by Nathaniel Jennison. He was then severely beaten, forced back onto his owner’s land, and locked in a barn. A few days later, Walker would file a suit against his owner on charges of assault and battery. Jennison responded with a civil suit against Seth and John Caldwell for harboring Walker and profiting from his labor. The final case, rounding out the series which would ultimately end slavery in Massachusetts, was a criminal charge of Nathaniel Jennison on counts of assault and battery. Now, let's break these three cases down
Quock Walker V. Jennison
The first case, as previously mentioned, centered around a civil suit due to the damages caused by Jennison through assault and battery. It is important to note that in the two decades leading up to these trials, Massachusetts juries had ruled in favor of slaves in similar situations suing their masters. Here, the jury recognized Walker not as, “the proper Negro slave” of Nathaniel Jennison, but as a freedman, who therefore must be paid 50 pounds in damages. Keep in mind, Walker originally asked for 3oo pounds.
Jennison V. Caldwell
The second case was Jennison’s retaliation for the earlier civil suit: he sued the Caldwell brothers for their role in employing and harboring Quock Walker in 1781 when he fled Jennison and took refuge at the Caldwell family farm. Here, the Jury went against the previous decision, deciding that Jennison should be paid 25 pounds for the financial damages the harboring and profiting caused. This case was later appealed and reversed by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court under the argument that Slavery is not only against the constitution but a violation of the laws of God and natural order.
Commonwealth of Massachusetts V. Nathaniel Jennison
The final case and the only suit resulting in a criminal indictment, Commonwealth of Massachusetts V. Nathaniel Jennison charged Jennison with assault and battery before the Massachusetts Supreme Court in 1783. The case was presided over by Judge William Cushing, who in his charge to the jury, stated that he believed that slavery contradicted the tenets of the Massachusetts Constitution, “I think the idea of slavery is inconsistent with our own conduct and Constitution, and there can be no such thing as perpetual servitude of a rational creature.” The jury agreed and found Jennsion guilty, forcing him to pay a fine of 40 shillings.
In the historical community, there are significant disagreements about the impact that this case had on the abolition of slavery. While in 1790, the state census indicated that there were no more slaves in the state, historians disagree on whether this should be credited to the series of legal actions or changing socio-economic conditions and norms. However, it is indisputable that after Cushing’s declaration and the jury’s verdict on the final case, Massachusetts state courts would never legalize and legitimize slavery in the eyes of the law again.