Civil RightsHistory

Quock Walker

Quock Walker was an enslaved man who played a significant role in the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts. Born around 1753 in Massachusetts, he was enslaved to Nathaniel Jennison, a farmer in Worcester County. In 1781, Walker escaped from Jennison’s farm and sought refuge with an abolitionist couple, David and Hannah Leonard, who helped him bring a lawsuit against his enslaver.

Walker’s lawsuit, which was filed in Worcester County Court, claimed that he was a free man because slavery was incompatible with the Massachusetts Constitution. The state’s constitution, which had been adopted in 1780, declared that “all men are born free and equal” and that there could be no slavery in the state. Walker’s lawyers argued that because the Massachusetts Constitution recognized the equality of all men, enslavement violated his natural rights and was therefore unconstitutional.

The case was heard in Worcester County Court in 1781 and appealed to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in 1783. The court’s decision was a landmark ruling that helped establish the principle of individual freedom and equality under the law. The court declared that Walker was a free man and that slavery was unconstitutional in Massachusetts.

The decision in the Quock Walker case was a significant victory for the abolitionist movement in Massachusetts. It helped pave the way for the abolition of slavery in the state, which was formally abolished in 1783. The case also had wider implications for the future of slavery in the United States, as it demonstrated that the principles of individual freedom and equality were incompatible with the institution of slavery.

The Quock Walker Trials: 1781-83

Case 1: Jennison v. Caldwell, civil suit and appeal
Case 2: Walker v. Jennison, civil suit and appeal
Case 3: Commonwealth v. Jennison, criminal indictment
Plaintiffs: Nathaniel Jennison, (1); Quock Walker, (2)
Defendants: Nathaniel Jennison, (2, 3); John and Seth Caldwell (2)
Charge: Assault and battery (1, 3); deprivation of the benefit of his servant, Walker (2)
Chief Prosecutor: Robert Treat Paine (3)
Lawyers for Walker and the Caldwells: Levi Lincoln, Caleb Strong
Lawyers for Jennison: John Sprague, William Stearns
Judges: Moses Gill, Samuel Baker, Joseph Dorr, and Moses Gill (1, 2); In appeals, Nathaniel P. Sargent, presiding, David Sewall, James Sullivan (1, 2); Chief Justice William Cushing, Nathaniel Sargent, David Sewall, and Increase Sumner (3)
Dates of Trials: Circa June 12-16, 1781 (1); June 12-19, 1781 (2); September 1781 (both appeals); April 20, 1783 (3)
Place of Trials: Worcester, Massachusetts
Verdict: For the plaintiff, (1) reversed on appeal; For the plaintiff (2), appeal dismissed; guilty (3)
Sentence: 25 pounds (1); 50 pounds (2); 40 shillings (3)

SIGNIFICANCE: These were the most famous cases concerning the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts.

The exact point at which slavery ceased to exist in Massachusetts is unclear. Furthermore, whether slavery existed “legally” in Massachusetts is also questionable. The colony’s Body of Liberties expressly forbade slavery except for war captives, indentured servants, and as punishment for a crime.

Slaves in colonial Massachusetts, from time to time, filed “freedom suits.” Sketchy records are unclear as to whether slaves who succeeded were freed on legal or moral principles or because defects existed in masters’ titles.

Massachusetts courts shut down during the Revolution. When they reopened in 1781, a brand-new state constitution stated:

All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberty;

This clause would be invoked in court. In 1754, James Caldwell purchased a slave couple and their infant, Quock Walker. Caldwell died when Quock was 10. Caldwell’s widow, who had inherited Quock, eventually married Nathaniel Jennison and ownership of Quock was passed to him. Or did it? Quock Walker maintained Caldwell had promised he would be free at age 25 and Mrs. Caldwell had amended that promise to age 21. Isabell Caldwell Jennison died in 1773 when Walker was about 19.

Jennison would not set him free. At age 28, Walker ran away. Jennison found him working for John and Seth Caldwell, brothers of James. With help, Jennison beat Walker, dragged him back to his own farm, then locked Walker in a barn.

Quock Walker filed a civil suit against Nathaniel Jennison for assault and battery. Jennison filed suit against the Caldwell brothers for unlawfully enticing his servant—the word slave was not used—Walker “from the business & service of the said Nathaniel.” Jennison asked for damages of 1,000 pounds.

Both cases came before the Worcester County Court of Common Pleas on June 12, 1781. The Jennison v. Caldwell case appears to have been heard first. Jennison won and was awarded 25 pounds.

In Walker v. Jennison, Jennison’s attorneys produced the bill of sale for Walker’s purchase. Walker insisted his former master had promised him his freedom, while attorney Levi Lincoln attacked slavery on moral grounds. The jury found Quock Walker to be a free man and awarded him 50 pounds.

Both cases were appealed. In September 1781, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court dismissed Jennison’s appeal of Walker v. Jennison because his lawyers failed to submit the court records. In the Caldwell appeal, Lincoln insisted slavery was contrary to the law of God and to the Massachusetts Constitution’s Declaration of Rights. Again, a jury decided Walker was a free man. As such, the Caldwells were within their rights to employ him.

In January 1782, Jennison asked the legislature that he be permitted to reenter his Walker appeal because he had “lost his law” through attorney negligence. In June 1782, he submitted a memorial claiming “he was deprived of ten Negro Servants” due to the court’s interpretation of the Declaration of Rights clause, and claiming he should also be relieved of any obligation to support them. No final decision was made on either petition.

In April 1783, two years after a criminal indictment had been brought against Jennison, he was tried for assault, found guilty, and fined 40 shillings. A notion arose that this particular case abolished slavery in Massachusetts. The notion was born of the charge given to the jury by Chief Justice William Cushing, critical of “the right of Christians to hold Africans in perpetual servitude, and sell and treat them as we do horses and cattle,” and voicing the opinion that slavery was inconsistent with the state constitution.

Actually, slavery was abolished by erosion. Each slave case won encouraged another. In the 1790 census, Massachusetts reported (probably erroneously) that it had no more slaves.

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