Quock Walker sued Nathaniel Jennison for assault in the course of trying to take him back to slavery. A jury ruled in favor of Walker’s freedom. Jennison appealed, but his lawyer failed to show. Jennison asked the Massachusetts legislature for a do-over on that one, which the General Court seemed disposed to grant for a while. Later it let the matter drop and thus left Walker free from that particular threat to his liberty. Jennison had a second one going at the same time.
Jennison couldn’t rightly sue Walker himself while still claiming the man as his property. Instead he sued the Caldwell brothers, John and Seth, for the crime of enticing Walker away from his rightful place as an enslaved man. For a term of six weeks, they denied Jennison the fruits of slavery and further
did hinder, prevent & molest him said Nathaniel in reclaiming & reducing his said servant to his business & service upon the said several days & times aforesaid […] whereupon the affairs & business of the said Nathaniel were very much neglected
For that, the Caldwells should make good by a fine of one thousand pounds. They, of course, declared themselves innocent and it all came to trial on June 12, 1781. This time, Jennison had a more sympathetic jury. They found the Caldwells at fault and imposed a fine of twenty-five pounds, less than another jury at the same court granted Walker in damages against Jennison.
The Caldwells appealed and got a hearing in September, a bad month for Jennison. His appeal of the verdict declaring Walker a free man failed and the Caldwells won their appeal against him. Then he got hit with criminal charges for his assault on Walker. The prior verdict came in a civil complaint. This trial testimony adds that Jennison held Walker for two hours after. One of the Caldwells testified that Walker had his freedom promised at age twenty-five. Walker himself, identified as “Quack” argued:
I was harrowing. 10 years old when Master Caldwell died. Mrs. lived a number of years before she married again. I lived with Dr. Jennison 7 years and 1/2 after I was 21. My old master said I should be free at 24 or 25. Mistress told me I should be free at 21-said so to Jennison, before and after marriage.
As a free man attacked by another free man, he had rights. The judge and jury agreed, fining Jennison forty shillings.
This brings us up to three legal cases: Walker’s civil and criminal complaints against Jennison and Jennison’s civil complaint against the Caldwells for, essentially, stealing his slave. Jennison won his case, then lost it on appeal. The other cases went against him from the start. In no case does it appear that the the court understood itself as ruling on slavery as a constitutional question. Rather, Walker had a previous promise of freedom which the court enforced against Jennison. However, the charge to the jury in the criminal case does include a statement from the judge deserving our attention:
As to the doctrine of slavery and the right of Christians to hold Africans in perpetual slavery and sell them and treat them as we do horses and cattle, that, it is true, has been countenanced by 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 in some of hte European nations and the regulations of the British Government respecting the 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 for Liberty, which heaven (without regard to color, complexion, or [(] shape of noses) gestures) 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 odd punctuation is in my source for the text, William O’Brien’s paper Did the Jennison Case Outlaw Slavery in Massachusetts? in The William and Mary Quarterly of April, 1960.
You may have seen some lines of this quoted before as the judgment that freed Massachusetts, but it does not constitute a judicial ruling as such. Rather, the judge gave instructions to the jury. This falls rather short of an analog to Brown vs. Board of Ed. Legal authorities aware of the decision thus remained vague and divided on the question, leaving us almost back to where we started: some believe no judicial ruling ended slavery. Others argue that one did, but can’t specify when and where.