In 1781, Quock Walker took to heart the new idea that all men are born free and equal, and that everyone is entitled to liberty, and to have it guarded by the laws.
He sued for his freedom before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. He won it for himself and for others.
Walker was born in Massachusetts in 1753 to parents who were probably kidnapped in their native Ghana. At the time, a census showed 4,500 slaves living in the colony.
The Walker family was sold to James Caldwell, a wealthy Worcester County landowner. Caldwell promised Walker his freedom at age 25, but died when Walker was 10. Caldwell’s widow remarried Nathaniel Jennison and told Walker he could be free at 21. Her husband reneged, and Walker ran away in 1781 to his a farm owned by his late owner’s brothers.
Jennison retrieved Quock Walker and beat him severely.
A series of lawsuits followed: Jennison sued the Caldwell brothers for enticing Walker away, Walker sued Jennison for his freedom and the Massachusetts attorney general sued Jennison for assault and battery.
Walker won his case before a jury of the Worcester County Court of Common Pleas on June 12, 1781. He argued slavery was contrary to the Bible and the new Massachusetts Constitution. An appeals court upheld the ruling, and Walker was free to work for the Caldwell brothers as an employee.
Jennison won his case, but lost on appeal.
In September 1781, the assault and battery case went to the Supreme Judicial Court, where Chief Justice William Cushing used these stirring words to instruct 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 …
While Walker’s cases made their way through the Massachusetts courts, another slave was suing for her freedom.
Elizabeth Freeman, an illiterate 39-year-old mother from Sheffield, had heard the same new idea that everyone is entitled to liberty. She went to court and won her freedom in August 1781.
Those two cases ended the legal support for slavery. The Massachusetts General Court ignored slave-owners’ concerns about their ‘property.’ Over the next decade, slavery eroded away in Massachusetts. By the first U.S. census in 1790, no slaves were recorded in the commonwealth.