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Historical Document
The Quock Walker case: "Instructions to the Jury"

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Click here for the text of this historical document.

The Quock Walker case was actually a series of judicial cases that successfully challenged the legality of slavery in Massachusetts, based on the 1780 state constitution. Although chattel slavery continued to exist in Massachusetts, the Quock Walker decision indicated that it would no longer be supported by the state courts. This was one of the first times in the country that a written constitution was applied directly as law.

In 1781, Quock Walker (also referred to Quok, Quacks, Quaco, Quack, Quork, and Quork Walker) escaped from Nathaniel Jennison and took refuge on a farm belonging to Seth and John Caldwell. Walker and his parents had been purchased by the Caldwells'older brother in 1754. When the elder Caldwell died, Walker had become the property of his widow, who later married Jennison.

Walker was captured by Jennison and his friends, severely beaten, and forced to return to the Jennison farm. A few days later, he filed suit against Jennison for assault and battery. Jennison countered by filing suit against the Caldwell brothers for interfering in the use of his property, arguing that 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" of Jennison, and awarded Walker 50 pounds in damages (he had asked for 300). Jennison lost his appeal when he failed to appear. In the two decades leading up to the Walker case, juries had found in favor of slaves who sued for freedom on the basis of contracts with their masters.

The jury in the second case, in contradiction to the first verdict, decided in favor of Jennison and awarded him twenty-five pounds, a decision that was reversed by the Supreme Judicial Court on appeal. In the appeal of Jennison v. Caldwell, the Caldwells' lawyer did not argue on the basis of the state constitution; he said 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 that Jennison was aware that Walker's former master had promised him freedom once he reached the age of 25, a promise that was renewed by the widow. 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 granted rights that were incompatible with slavery; the jury found Jennison guilty of assault and battery.

No opinion was ever written in the case, nor was it set down in the law reports. It was, however, widely discussed. Although historians credit the case with abolishing slavery, some at the time attributed abolition in Massachuseets to the weight of public opinion. John Adams considered the abolition of slavery to be "a measure of economy." In fact, the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 was never amended to specifically prohibit slavery.

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Related Entries:
Cato's letter and petition to the Pennsylvania Assembly
A Memorial to the South Carolina Senate
Pro-slavery petitions in Virginia

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