On an April morning in 1781, a man named Quock Walker rose and prepared to go to work on the fields of a farm in Barre, Massachusetts. Alternative spellings of his name include Kwaku, Quork, an Quaco among others. He was about 28 years old. The man who claimed ownership of him was Nathaniel Jennison, a fairly well-off farmer. The house where they lived still stands in the rural, central Massachusetts town. That morning, Quock did not go to work on Jennison’s farm as he was supposed to. Instead, he went to the nearby farm of Seth and John Caldwell to labor for a wage as a free man.
Quock had been born into slavery in 1753. When he was just nine months old, he and his parents, Mingo and Dinah, were purchased by James Caldwell. Caldwell was one of the first settlers of Rutland District which became the town of Barre in 1776. When Quock was just a boy, Caldwell promised him his freedom when he reached 25 (that would have been in 1778).
Unfortunately, fate intervened. On July 18, 1763, when Quock was about 10 years old, James Caldwell and his slave (presumably Mingo, Quock’s father) were caught outdoors in a fierce thunderstorm. They took refuge under a tree which was struck by lightning. The shattered tree fell on them both, killing Caldwell and breaking Mingo’s leg.
Ownership of Mingo, Dinah, Quock and two younger siblings passed to James’s widow, Isabel Caldwell. According to later testimony by Quock, the widow Caldwell promised him his freedom at age 21.
There is no indication as to whether any such promises had been made to Quock’s parents. Promises or no, Mingo decided to take matters into his own hands and fled the Caldwell household, leaving his own family, in June 1765. A notice of his running away, promising a reward, was printed by Isabel Caldwell in the Boston News-Letter on June 13, 1765. We cannot know the nature of twelve year-old Quock’s feelings on the matter, but his father’s flight to freedom must have had a powerful effect on the boy.
On March 28, 1769, Isabel Caldwell married Nathaniel Jennison. According to Quock, Jennison stated both before and after his marriage to the widow Caldwell that Quock should go free at age 21. Again, fate intervened. In 1774, just months before Quock was to turn 21, Isabel Caldwell Jennison passed away. Ownership of Quock’s family went to Nathaniel Jennison. And he reneged on any promises to grant Quock Walker his freedom.
Quock continued to work for Jennison until April 1781, about three years after he would been granted freedom by the late James Caldwell. That spring, Quock made arrangements with Caldwell’s sons, Seth and John, to go to work for them as a free man. According to legal scholar Philip Hamburger, the two Caldwells likely grew up with Quock and knew of their father and mother’s promises regarding Quock’s freedom. After consulting with Levi Lincoln, one of the leading attorneys in Worcester County, the Caldwells instructed Quock to come to their farm.
The day that Quock left, Jennison knew where he was headed and went directly to the Caldwells’ farm, finding Quock working in their fields. He hurled threats, demanding that Quock “go home.” Quock ignored this. Some days later, on May 1, 1781, Jennison showed up again, this time with two men, carrying a large stick, determined to take Quock by force. According to testimony of one of the Caldwell brothers, he was working outdoors when he “heard a screaming.” He went out into the fields and saw Jennison and others pinning Quock to the ground. He approached, took one of the men off of Quock and saw that the young man had injuries on his hands. Outnumbered, Caldwell watched as they took Quock away. Some hours later, Caldwell went in search of Quock and found him locked up in a saw mill. He had been badly beaten. Caldwell insisted to the captors that his father had promised Quock his freedom and they released him.
A series of court cases ensued. Quock Walker, encouraged by the Caldwell brothers, brought suit and the first case, Walker v. Jennison, was heard in the Worcester Court of Common Pleas in June 1781. Simultaneously, Jennison sued the Caldwell brothers for luring his servant away. In the first case, the jury found for Walker affirming that he was a free man and awarded him £50 in damages. In the case of Jennison v. Caldwell, the jury found for Jennison and awarded him £25. The verdict made no statement as to Walker’s status as a free man but by favoring Jennison, it supported his “right” to property. The results of the two cases were contradictory.
Both cases were appealed. In the case of Walker v. Jennison, Jennison’s attorneys, John Sprague and William Stearns, failed to file the appropriate documentation on time, Jennison was found to be in default, and the matter dismissed. Both Sprague and Stearns were accomplished attorneys and their failure to properly pursue the case is odd. It seems likely they had reasons for dropping the matter, but these reasons are unclear.
The appeal of Jennison v. Caldwell, which was heard by the Supreme Judicial Court convened in Worcester in September 1781, brought a new tone to the trials. Both cases in the lower courts centered on the particular facts as to whether or not Walker had been promised his freedom. They did not challenge the “custom” of slavery in Massachusetts on a broader scale. During the appeal of Jennison v. Caldwell, the attorney for the Caldwells, Levi Lincoln, took the case to a higher level.
More than a year prior, on June 15, 1780, the Constitution of the Commonwealth had been ratified by the voters of Massachusetts. The first article 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 liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.” Although this seemed to establish a constitutional basis for the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts, an act of the General Court would be required to specifically declare slavery illegal. This did not happen until the General Court ratified the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. Instead the matter would be played out in the courts in the years following the Revolution as men and women like Quock Walker sued for their freedom and eroded the institution of slavery in Massachusetts, their attorneys using the declaration natural rights as leverage.
Attorney Levi Lincoln (1749-1820), defending the Caldwells during the appeal, was born in Hingham, Massachusetts. He would eventually serve as U.S. Attorney General under Jefferson and Lt. Governor of Massachusetts. Lincoln based his case on the issue of natural liberty. He asserted to the jury:
We are all born in the same manner, have our bones clothed with the same kind of flesh—had the same breath of life breathed into us…Shall all be raised by the sound of one common trump…Shall be arraigned at one common bar, shall have one common Judge…This cause will then be tried over again, and your verdict will then be tried, gentlemen of the jury…Is it not a law of nature that all men are equal and free? Is not the law of nature the law of God?
In the appeal of Jennison v. Caldwell, the jury found for the Caldwells, declaring in their verdict, “that Quork is a Freeman and not the proper Negro slave” of Jennison.
The final case to play out, and the one that has received the most attention from historians, was Commonwealth v. Jennison, a criminal case. Jennison was likely indicted for assault and battery in September 1781 but for reasons unclear, the matter did not go to trial until April 1783. The case was heard before the recently renamed Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court over which Chief Justice William Cushing presided. John Sprague again represented Jennison, presented documentation of his ownership of Quock Walker and argued that Massachusetts law had long upheld slavery and that no law existed to prohibit slavery. Massachusetts Attorney General Robert Treat Paine prosecuted the case, arguing that Walker was a freeman and therefore the attack was unlawful.
Paine did not repeat the lofty arguments against the institution of slavery that Lincoln had presented in the earlier civil case. However, in his instructions to the jury, Chief Justice Cushing certainly brought the issue of natural rights into the case. He told the jury:
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 and fined him 40 shillings.
Many historians have characterized Cushing’s charge to the jury as the turning point of emancipation in Massachusetts, some even going so far as to say that Cushing’s statement literally abolished slavery in the state. Others have pointed out that the decision did nothing of the sort, that emancipation in Massachusetts through the court system was a long process extending back to the so-called freeman’s trials of the 1760s and 1770s during which many other Massachusetts freedmen successfully sued for their own liberation–a process that would continue for many years after the Quock Walker case. John D. Cushing points out that the case was not seen as a watershed moment by contemporaries, that friends and eulogists of Justice Cushing did not mention the Walker case or laud him as a great liberator, and that Justice Cushing himself was no abolitionist and equivocated on slavery in later cases.
Taking the middle ground, Arthur Zilversmit raises the example another significant case, that of Elizabeth “Mumbet” Freeman, also taking place in 1781, during which Freeman secured her freedom through an argument based on natural rights. It is important to note, Zilversmit points out, that the man claiming ownership of her appealed the case but he dropped the appeal a few weeks after the verdict in Jennison v. Caldwell, likely because he saw that the courts would not support slave ownership. We might assume that other slave owners in Massachusetts came to the same conclusion–that their claims would not be upheld based on slavery being inconsistent with the Massachusetts Constitution.
So, while abolition in Massachusetts was a lengthy, complex process and Cushing certainly did not strike down the institution with one charge to a jury, Cushing’s message was a pivotal moment. And while acknowledging that the words of men like Cushing and Lincoln were revolutionary and inspiring, let us not forget that the entire matter came to pass because of the actions of Quock Walker, a young man who had the courage to leave that farm, endure brutality and fight through the legal system to safeguard his natural freedom.
 Robert M. Spector, “The Quock Walker Cases (1781-83)—Slavery, its Abolition, and Negro Citizenship in Early Massachusetts,” The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 53, No. 1 (Jan., 1968), p. 12
 From a transcription of Chief Justice William Cushing’s Notebook, Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Volume 13, (1875), p. 293
 Duane Hamilton Hurd, History of Worcester County, Massachusetts: With Biographical Sketches of Many of Its Pioneers and Prominent Men, Volume 1, (1889), p. 333
 Antonio T. Bly, Escaping Bondage: A Documentary History of Runaway Slaves in Eighteenth-century New England, 1700-1789, (2012), p. 137
 Cushing’s notebook, Proceedings, p. 293
 Philip Hamburger, Law and Judicial Duty, (2008), p. 477
 Rev. George Allen quoted by James Thompson, A Discourse Preached at Barre, January 11, 1854: At the End of a Ministry of Fifty Years in that Town, (1854), p. 48
 Hamburger, p. 478
 John D. Cushing, “The Cushing Court and the Abolition of Slavery in Massachusetts: More Notes on the ‘Quock Walker Case’”, The American Journal of Legal History, Vol. 5, No. 2 (Apr., 1961), pp. 120-121
 Cushing, pp. 124-125
 Cushing, p. 129
 Cushing’s Notebook, Proceedings, p.293
 Henry Flanders, The Lives and Times of the Chief Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States: William Cushing, Oliver Ellsworth, John Marshall, Volume 2, (1858), p. 32. Flander’s statement that “with this trial slavery ceased to exist in Massachusetts” is typical of late 19th century interpretations.
 Cushing, p. 142-143
 Arthur Zilversmit, “Quok Walker, Mumbet, and the Abolition of Slavery in Massachusetts,” Abolitionism and American Law, (1999), p. 622