How Massachusetts Ended Slavery, Part Thirteen

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 1011, 12

The three legal cases involving Quock Walker, his alleged enslaver Nathaniel Jennison, and the Caldwell brothers who employed him once he fled Jennison leave us in a tangle. Walker unambiguously won his freedom and it seems that his lawyers may have argued that slavery did not square with the new Massachusetts constitution’s Declaration of Rights; Judge Charles Cushing, then a clerk of the court, later recalled that the slavery question did come up in a general sense. But Walker also had agreed upon promises of freedom at his twenty-fifth or twenty-first birthday, both of which had come and gone. It appears that those, not the constitutional claim, decided the issue.

However, we do have a body of evidence that argues against that. Specifically, Nathaniel Jennison argued that Walker had his freedom in consequence of the new constitution. After thrice losing in court, he petitioned the General Court -Massacusetts’ legislature- for relief on the grounds that

he was deprived of ten Negro servants by a judgment of the Supreme Judicial Court on the following clause of the Constitution, “That all men are born free and equal” and praying that if said judgment is approved of, he may be freed from his obligation to support said negroes.

It seems Jennison differed with the judge who delivered the ruling as to its basis. The General Court kicked his petition back and forth between its chambers for a few years, but never gave an answer. Cushing’s remarks to the contrary come almost twenty years after the Walker case. He might easily have confused one case with another or misremembered given that span, so we can’t dismiss Jennison’s more contemporaneous account out of hand. But Jennison could have it wrong too. He managed to hire a lawyer who didn’t show for the first trial and doesn’t seem to have had much legal education himself. His counsel may have misled him or he might have misunderstood the proceedings. 

Or Jennison might have lied. He made a claim for ten slaves, not the one. If he protested only on Walker’s case and the court did rule narrowly, as seems most plausible, then he could hope for little relief. By calling into question the security of all his slaves, indeed all the slaves in the Bay State, he may have expected a legislature that had refused to enact emancipation so recently would spring into action to undo what the judges had wrought. Furthermore, by relieving enslavers of the obligation to support aged enslaved people, those same people would fall on the towns to provide for. Massachusetts passed laws curbing emancipation on just those grounds early in the eighteenth century. This could set Jennison up for a win-win: either he got Walker back or he got the law that required him to support superannuated slaves out of his own pocket repealed. The General Court let him down on both counts, though it took three years of deliberation. A bill to repeal the anti-emancipation law of 1703 passed the House but the Senate declined to act. Nor did the legislature repudiate the Walker verdict.

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