How Massachusetts Ended Slavery, Part Fourteen (with thanks to @mimicofmodes and @ancient0history)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 1011, 12, 13

The Quock Walker muddle continues. We know Walker won his personal freedom. His lawyers might have argued that the new constitution of 1780 outlawed slavery in Massachusetts, but that doesn’t seem to have decided the case in Walker’s favor. Nathaniel Jennison argued that the court ruled that the constitution had enacted a general emancipation in his petition to the legislature for redress, but he might have done so out of misunderstanding, ignorance, or as a strategy for best recouping his losses. Yet we still have zero slaves in the Bay State come 1790. Something happened to cause that, if not Walker’s verdict alone.

Indeed, we can say with confidence that Walker did not free Massachusetts. We know because even after the verdict, the papers carried advertisements for human beings and we have surviving bills of sale, like this one:

Bill of sale for Poppy, a nine-year-old enslaved boy.

Gentle readers, if you struggle to read it then know that I did too. Two friends helped me puzzle it out, in the sense of helping where I picked out a few words and had the general gist but they actually read it for me. Thanks to Cassidy’s and Bobby’s kindness, I have a transcription:

Boston November 15th, 1784. I have this day sold to Mr. Samuel Pith of Boston a Negro Boy named Poppy Nine years old for and in the full consideration of thirty-five pounds [???] for which I promise to warrant and defend against the lawful blame of all and every person on knowing and whatever as witness my hand.

Samuel Pith bought Poppy a full year after Walker had his freedom and the transaction has no hint of insecurity. Nor does it carry any provision that he deserves his freedom at a certain age. Except for the date and location, the bill would fit right in with those crafted decades later and hundreds of miles to the southwest. Had slavery undergone a general collapse as soon as Walker won his case, or even at the end of his protracted legal ordeal, we would expect just the opposite.

Walker’s, and Elizabeth Freeman’s, cases did not bring about instant abolition. Nor did either probably owe their freedom chiefly to John Adams’ Declaration of Rights. The newspapers of the era reported on the court session that heard Walker’s cases and made no remark about a grand historical ruling, or anything about him at all. People kept buying and selling other people. Two weeks after Walker had his day in court, a correspondent calling himself Mentor wrote the Evening-Post to rally the voters against any representative who dared support an “execrable retrospective bill” then before the House concerning slavery, which would have declared slavery never legal in Massachusetts. The bill passed the House and got no farther, but his example shows that Bay Staters understood slavery as under some kind of significant attack.


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.

How Massachusetts Ended Slavery, Part Twelve

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

We left the Walker and Freeman cases bringing us almost back to where we started. We know that Quock Walker after some travails and Elizabeth Freemen after somewhat less legal drama, won their personal freedom. We know that no enslaved people remained in Massachusetts as of the end of the 1780s, since none appear in the 1790 census. We also have a charge to the jury in one of the cases involving Walker that the judge viewed slavery as incompatible with the Declaration of Rights John Adams wrote for the new Massachusetts constitution…but also that such a reading would come as a shock to Adams himself and that the men who wrote and submitted the constitution to the voters did not intend to enact emancipation of any kind. The record leaves us with a muddle which generations of historians have despaired at. I think we have come near to the end of it, but let’s go just a little further in understanding just how scholars have arrived at the unsatisfying answer of “we don’t know.”

The Caldwell brothers, who sheltered Walker, received for their troubles a civil suit from Nathaniel Jennison. Jennison claimed that they had enticed Walker, who he legally enslaved, and so he should get some judgment against them for interference with his property. The jury agreed with Jennison, but the verdict did not survive an appeal.  Walker also sued Jennison for the attack upon his person and brief imprisonment that resulted from his former enslaver’s effort to regain control of Walker’s life. We know that Walker’s initial arguments did not reach to the Bay State’s new constitution, rather only to a promise from his now deceased former enslaver that he would have his freedom when he turned twenty-four or twenty-five. To further add to our confusion, the two cases played out almost simultaneously in the same court. We don’t know which saw trial first.

In 1960, William O’Brien pointed out these difficulties and suggested a way to share the contradictory verdicts that Jennison rightly owned Walker as a slave, as he must to sustain his claim of enticement, and then that Walker had his rightful freedom and so Jennison assaulted him unlawfully. It might have played out that Walker’s lawyers got to the court first with the assault case, so Jennison claimed he enslaved Walker specifically as a defense against those charges. He might not have sued the Caldwells for enticement of a slave, but rather felt he had a stronger case for claiming Walker as an ordinary employee. The complaint, per O’Brien, always refers to Walker as a servant, where when Walker makes the pleas he refers to himself as wrongly a slave. When the appeals court vindicated the Caldwells in September, they might have reversed the lower court simply on the grounds that the Caldwells did not actually entice Walker. Such a verdict need not touch on Walker’s precise status, especially if Jennison didn’t raise it. Yet O’Brien admits that we have no evidence that the court ruled on those grounds or Jennison plotted such a legal strategy. The explanation fills a lacuna in the records, but we can’t mistake that for having the records.

On the other hand, maybe the court did make such a ruling. The Caldwell’s lawyer left behind a brief which might have seen use in the case which does reach to the constitutional question. It declares slavery a violation of “the law of nature” and “the law of God” which together make a higher law. The Declaration of Rights recognized that -don’t tell it’s authors- and thus slavery must end in Massachusetts. The judge in the case later told that both parties went “into the consideration of slavery for and against as far as their fancy would lead them altho not directly on the point.” Something about slavery in general got argued in the two cases, though Judge Cushing in 1798 recalled that it did not decide the case.



How Massachusetts Ended Slavery, Part Eleven

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10

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.

How Massachusetts Ended Slavery, Part Ten

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

Nathaniel Jennison believed he owned Quock Walker, fair and square. He married Walker’s owner and that made all her property his. For Walker to run off to live with the sons of his prior owner and call himself free simply would not do. As soon as Jennison found out that Walker took shelter with the Campbell boys, he went over and seized Walker. Some kind of altercation ensued, where Jennison knocked Walker to the ground, beat him, and then imprisoned him. All that transpired on April 13, 1781. It doesn’t seem like Walker remained in Jennison’s custody too long after that since the complaint, dated May 5, doesn’t ask for his release. Instead Walker sought damages to the tune of three hundred pounds. The affair went to trial on June 12.

Jennison, as one would expect, argued that Walker’s complaint “ought not to be answered” on the grounds that his wife inherited Walker from her deceased first husband. He acquired Walker by marrying her, thus

the said Quork at the time of his suing out the said Writ & long before & ever since was the proper negro slave of him the said Nathaniel

Walker’s lawyers, Caleb Strong and Levi Lincoln -I know of no relation of his to the more famous Lincoln- argued that Walker had his freedom, so Jennison had no case for dismissal. It appears they didn’t argue at all about the facts of the assault. The jury deemed Walker free and awarded fifty poundsand court costs, a large sum of money then but far less than the asked three hundred. Jennison appealed.

Come September, the Supreme Judicial Court took up the appeal. Jennison failed to appear, so the court ruled for Walker by default and added nine pounds, ten shillings, and seven pence to the bill for another round of court costs. The necessary court orders to execute the judgment came down in February, 1782. However, Jennison got ahead of them by petitioning the Massachusetts House to let him re-appeal because, he argued, his lawyer screwed up by not showing back in September. At the start of March, the House obliged temporarily, pending further action. A joint committee of the General Court then resolved that everything should wait until Jennison could produce some evidence of his lawyer’s laxity.

The House got enough evidence to move forward around June 4, 1784, two years after the fact. The chamber voted to give Jennison a stay pending a new trial and kicked the matter upstairs. The Massachusetts Senate either failed to act or did nothing that left a surviving paper trail. There ended one legal challenge to Quock Walker’s personal freedom. Jennison had another proceeding simultaneously.


How Massachusetts Ended Slavery, Part Nine

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8

Elizabeth Freeman lived with the Sedgwicks for the rest of her life and they wrote down a version of her travails. Quock Walker had no such dedicated biographer. Documents refer to him as Quok, Quarco, Quack, Quork, Quaco, and Quarko. His parents may have called him Kwaku or something similar. He first appears in our records courtesy of this document:

Rutland District, May 4th, 1754

Sold this day to a Mr. James Caldwell of said District, the County of Worcester, & Province of the Massachusetts-Bay, a certain negro man named Mingo, about twenty Years of Age, and also one negro wench named Dinah, about nineteen years of age, with child Quaco, about nine months old-all sound and well for the Sum of One hundred & eight pounds, lawful money, recd. to my full satisfaction: which Negroes, I the subscriber to warrant and defend against all claims whatsoever as witness my hand

Zedekiah Stone.

If the enslavers of the eighteenth century trafficked in lives the same as those of the nineteenth, and I don’t know a reason to think otherwise, then baby Quock likely changed hands with his mother. Their enslaver died in 1763. He didn’t leave a will behind, so the court divided his estate between Caldwell’s widow, Isabell, and John Murray. Murray also served as a witness on the bill of sale above and had guardianship of the Caldwell children. The estate inventory worked up for the division included a ten-year-old enslaved boy, Quock. He went with the third of the worldly goods transmitted to the Isabell. She remarried, to a Nathan Jennison who acquired property rights to Quock and all the other things his wife owned as a consequence of their marriage. The Enlightenment era patriarchy had scarce patience for such modern notions as married women possessing rights independent of their husbands.

In April of 1781, twenty-eight-year-old Quock stole himself from Jennison and went to John and Seth Caldwell, for whom he began to work. We don’t know for sure, but probably he knew them from growing up under the same roof. In that event, the younger Caldwells may have remembered a promise that their father and mother made to Quock to free him at a certain point, now passed. They might also have disputed the settlement of their father’s estate back in the day and thought they had rights to Quock rather than their mother. Either way, Walker went to them and received shelter.

There Jennison found him ten days later, on April 13. That day, according to a legal summons that resulted:

the said Nathaniel [Jennison] … with force & arms on the said Quok, then and there in our presence being, did make an assault, and then and there with force & arms aforesaid, seized the said Quok and threw him down and struck him several violent blows upon his back and arm with the handle of a whip, and did him then and there imprison-and other enormities the said Quok the said Nathaniel did then and there against the peace of the law.

How Massachusetts Ended Slavery, Part Eight

John Adams

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

Chief Justice Parsons of Massachusetts wrote in 1806 that some case he declined to name then held that slavery could not square with John Adams’ Declaration of Rights in the state constitution of 1780. Therefore, the Bay State had abolished it. This would have surprised Adams, as well as all the people who kept buying and selling other people after that date. Parson’s failure to cite a case further raises questions. As a judge on a high court, he ought to know his precedents. That he refused to cite one might mean that he didn’t know himself and repeated only accepted legal wisdom of the time, or may point to an awareness of the ambiguity in how Massachusetts came to report zero enslaved people in the 1790 census. By keeping things vague, he could immunize himself from criticism that referring to a specific authority might invite.

That said, we have two possible cases that Parsons might have had in mind and which subsequent historians have guessed either did the job or, much more likely, opened the legal floodgates that then accomplished abolition. We usually cite Quock Walker first, so let’s give pride of place this time to Elizabeth “Mumbet” Freeman. Much of her life story comes down to us as family reminiscences written down well after the events in question, but like most enslaved people Freeman left few other traces of herself in the record. A Dutchman enslaved her and her sister in New York, later making wedding presents of them John Ashley of Sheffield, Massachusetts. Ashley married his daughter.

They remained with the Ashleys for around forty years before the woman of the house, Annetje Ashley, took it on herself to beat Freeman’s sister with a shovel. Elizabeth objected and got in the way of the blow, suffering permanent disability to her arm for the trouble. Or maybe she heard a public reading of the Declaration of Independence and got inspired. The latter story comes from Freeman’s white advocates, but also neatly flatters the noble whites who get to both tell the ignorant black woman of this thing called freedom and then give it to her. Maybe it happened that way, but probably Elizabeth and her sister suffered a long series of abuses that culminated in the attack with the shovel. At best, the changed political environment of the Bay State might have helped make freedom seem a more realistic hope once that happened.

Freeman sought help from Theodore Sedgwick, who brought a freedom suit on behalf of her and an enslaved man named Brom. Sedgwick got a court order for Ashley to surrender property he had come into illegally. Ashley refused to comply and the fight was on. Sedgwick argued that he held illegal property in the form of Freeman and Brom and pointed to the Declaration of Rights as the proof. A jury -not the judge- agreed with him and awarded Freeman and Brom their freedom plus trial costs and damages.

Receiving that verdict didn’t end things for John Ashley. In 1781, he thought he had a chance still and appealed to the state’s Supreme Judicial Court. He later withdrew the appeal without having a trial. He didn’t leave us any explicit reason why, but obviously he thought his chances much worse on further consideration. The only clear signpost we have for changing times in this front comes in the form of Quock Walker’s case.

How Massachusetts Ended Slavery, Part One

I’m sorry for the lack of posts, Gentle Readers. I felt a bit ill over the weekend and then my mother had cataract surgery on Monday. That’s put me behind on several things but has given me occasion to revisit something I meant to do more of and fell away from. Welcome back to Deep Dives, where we go back in time far past the usual late Antebellum to look at the history of American slavery.

In those later decades, we think of Massachusetts as resolutely antislavery. The state practiced slavery at one point and conservative elements within it always remained inclined to make excuses, but we can reasonably call it a state that aligns firmly on the antislavery left. How it got from a state which enslaved people to one that did not receives little scholarly attention, even though we believe that it did so with an instantaneous, uncompensated abolition much like enacted in 1865. Some of that comes down to slavery lasting longer in the American South and the vastly larger scale of the institution there. We should also probably grant that the Revolution draws a tremendous amount of scholarly attention away from anything near to it. But that still leaves us with a remarkable story.

John Adams

In 1780, Massachusetts wrote a new constitution which included a bill of rights written by John Adams. His draft received some style tweaks by a committee and the convention accepted it. Article I reads:

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.

An enslaved man named Quock Walker sued for his freedom under that provision in 1783. The Massachusetts courts agreed with him. The 1790 census shows no slaves in Massachusetts. Therefore Walker killed slavery in the Bay State and, retroactively, it was abolished with the adoption of the new constitution in 1780. Thereafter, Massachusetts assumed its place as the leading bastion of freedom. The records indicate a more complicated story and ambiguous story, as usual.

As soon as revolutionary rhetoric with its talk of natural rights began to circulate, black Americans insisted it ought to apply to them as well. White antislavery men agreed, but the flurry of speeches and petitions generated only limited action. The state House formed a committee to look into the conditions facing black Bay Staters in the fall of 1776. Spring brought about a few bills for abolition, with a gradual emancipation proposal gaining some steam. We don’t know how it would have gone down because the House drew up short of a final vote, instead asking Congress for an opinion:

from an apprehension that our brethren in the Other Colonies should conceive there was an impropriety in our determining on a question which may … be of extensive influence, without previously consulting your Honors

Congress, which had a war to run and absolutely no inclination to touch such an explosive issue if it meant to keep the South fighting the British, refused to answer. With no approval forthcoming, the Massachusetts House approved a petition asking for abolition and went no farther.