Commonwealth v. Jennison (Massachusetts, 1783, Unreported)

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COMMONWEALTH v. JENNISON (Massachusetts, 1783, Unreported)

In 1781 Quock Walker, a Massachusetts slave, left his master, Nathaniel Jennison, to work as a hired laborer for Seth and John Caldwell. Jennison went to the Caldwell farm, seized Walker, beat him severely, and brought him home where he was locked up.

Three legal cases resulted from this event. In Walker v. Jennison (1781) Walker sued his former master for assault and battery. A jury ruled Walker was a free man and awarded him fifty pounds in damages. Jennison then successfully sued the Caldwells for twenty-five pounds for enticing away his "slave property." This decision was overturned by a jury in Caldwell v. Jennison (1781). Here attorney levi lincoln paraphrased arguments from somerset v. stewart (1772) in a stirring speech against slavery. In 1783 Jennison was convicted under a criminal indictment for assault and battery against Walker (Commonwealth v. Jennison). Chief Justice william cushing charged the jury that the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 abolished slavery by declaring "All men are born free and equal.…" Although some blacks were held as slaves after these cases, the litigation, known collectively as the "Quock Walker Cases," was instrumental in ending the peculiar institution in Massachusetts.

Paul Finkelman


Finkelman, Paul 1981 An Imperfect Union: Slavery, Federalism, and Comity. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

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Commonwealth v. Jennison (Massachusetts, 1783, Unreported)

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