EMANCIPATION in MASSACHUSETTS
The Massachusetts Legislature in 1777 tabled a proposal for gradual emancipation. The 1778 draft constitution legally recognized slavery and banned free blacks from voting. It was rejected at the polls, for other reasons. The more liberal state constitution approved two years later contained a bill of rights that declared "all men are born free and equal, and have ... the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberty."
This provided the basis for abolishing slavery in Massachusetts, but it clearly was not the intent of the Legislature to do so. Popular sentiment and the courts were pro-abolition, however. And it was a 1783 judicial decision, interpreting the wording of the 1780 constitution, that brought slavery to an end in Massachusetts.
Collectively known as "the Quock Walker case," it was actually a bundle of judicial actions concerning a Massachusetts slave known as Quock Walker (the name is variously spelled). Walker was purchased, along with his parents, by a man named Caldwell in 1754. Caldwell died, and his widow remarried to Nathaniel Jennison. In 1781, Walker ran off from Jennison and fled to the farm of Seth and John Caldwell, younger brothers of his former master.
Jennison and his friends came and took the slave, beat him, and hauled him back to the Jennison farm. A few days later, Walker filed an assault-and-battery suit against Jennison. Jennison countered by suing the Caldwell brothers for interfering with his property. He said they had enticed Walker away for their own benefit.
In the first case, "Quock Walker v. Jennison," the jury found that Walker was "a Freeman and not the proper Negro slave," because Jennison would have known that Walker's former master had promised Walker freedom once he reached 25, a promise that was renewed by the Widow Caldwell. The jury awarded Walker 50 pounds in damages (he had asked for 300). Jennison lost his appeal when he failed to appear.
Walker and the Caldwells were represented by Levi Lincoln, who was not content to argue the case on the legal, technical ground of the promise of freedom -- which was usually sufficient evidence for a Massachusetts jury. He went after a higher authority. The jury in the second case ruled in favor of Jennison and awarded him 25 pounds. That decision was reversed on appeal by the Supreme Judicial Court. In the appeal, Lincoln argued that slavery was a violation of the laws of nature and of God.
In the final case, "Commonwealth v. Jennison," the defendant was indicted and charged with assault and battery against Walker. The Attorney General argued that Jennison had attacked a free man, based on testimony about Walker's former master's promise of freedom. Jennison's lawyer argued that the 1780 state constitution did not specifically prohibit slavery.
In his instructions to the jury, Chief Justice William Cushing held that the constitution had, in fact, granted rights that were incompatible with slavery:
As to the doctrine of slavery and the right of Christians to hold Africans in perpetual servitude, and sell and treat them as we do our horses and cattle, that (it is true) has been heretofore countenanced by the Province Laws formerly, but nowhere is it expressly enacted or established. It has been a usage -- a usage which took its origin from the practice of some of the European nations, and the regulations of British government respecting the then Colonies, for the benefit of trade and wealth. But whatever sentiments have formerly prevailed in this particular or slid in upon us by the example of others, a different idea has taken place with the people of America, more favorable to the natural rights of mankind, and to that natural, innate desire of Liberty, with which Heaven (without regard to color, complexion, or shape of noses-features) has inspired all the human race. And upon this ground our Constitution of Government, by which the people of this Commonwealth have solemnly bound themselves, sets out with declaring 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 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 own conduct and Constitution; and there can be no such thing as perpetual servitude of a rational creature, unless his liberty is forfeited by some criminal conduct or given up by personal consent or contract ....
The jury found Jennison guilty of assault and battery.
The case was not set down in law reports, but it was the talk of the state. Legal experts have pointed out that Cushing's statement was likely obiter dictum, and the constitution of 1780 never actually was amended to prohibit slavery. Nevertheless, with the courts clearly refusing to uphold it, slavery in Massachusetts was doomed. The Legislators pondered whether to clarify their meaning in the constitution, but they thought better of it, rightly reading public opinion as being strongly anti-slavery.
Massachusetts had a strong, politically active white working class which perpetually sought an end to slavery, not for the benefit of blacks but to remove them from economic competition. "If the gentlemen had been permitted by law to hold slaves," John Adams wrote, "the common people would have put the Negroes to death, and their masters too, perhaps."
1. Letters and Documents Relating to Slavery in Massachusetts, MHS Colls., 5th Ser., III (1877), pp.401-2.