The Legal End of Slavery in Massachusetts
~William Cushing, Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, 1783
Slavery persisted in Massachusetts through most of the eighteenth century. While individual enslaved people had successfully sued for freedom, and groups had petitioned the colonial government for freedom (although without success; see "The Struggle for Freedom" section of this website for more information), the institution of slavery was not legally abolished until the 1780s, in direct response to the new Massachusetts Constitution. Two court battles in particular, first the case of Brom & Bett v. John Ashley, Esq., and then a series of trials relating to Quock Walker, led to this monumental ruling.
Elizabeth Freeman ("Mumbet")
Elizabeth Freeman ("Mumbet") was born into enslavement around 1742. She was raised, along with her younger sister Lizzie, in Claverack, Columbia County, New York (about 20 miles south of Albany). Her enslaver, a Dutchman named Pieter Hogeboom, gave the two girls to Sheffield, Massachusetts, resident John Ashley when he married Hogeboom's daughter Annetje.
Family lore suggests that after 40 years of bondage in the Ashley household, Freeman was prompted to seek her freedom when Annetje attempted to strike Freeman's younger sister with a shovel. Freeman blocked the blow, but was seriously injured, never regaining the full use of her arm. In a contrasting account, Catharine Maria Sedgwick, who would later record Freeman's life story, reported that she decided to seek freedom after hearing a public reading of the Declaration of Independence.
Whatever the reason, Freeman turned in 1781 to Theodore Sedgwick, a prominent Stockbridge attorney, to help secure her freedom. Legal action began in the spring of 1781, when Freeman (and another enslaved man known as Brom) brought a suit for freedom against John Ashley. Brom & Bett v. John Ashley, Esq. would turn into one of the most important legal cases in Massachusetts history. When John Ashley refused a writ of replevin (a court order to return or release unlawfully obtained property), he was ordered to appear before the Court of Common Pleas in Great Barrington on 21 August 1781. Sedgwick's principal argument stated that slavery was inherently illegal under the newly ratified Massachusetts Constitution, which stated that:
"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."
This section of the state constitution has since been altered to explicitly forbid discrimination on the basis of "sex, race, color, creed or national origin." The jury found Sedgwick's arguments convincing, and both Freeman and Brom were set free. John Ashley was also instructed to pay thirty shillings in damages plus trial costs. Ashley initially appealed this decision to the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, the highest court in the Commonwealth; however, he dropped his appeal before it came before the court, presumably because of the intervening decisions in the Quock Walker trials, which made it clear that no court in Massachusetts would ever find slavery legal under the new Constitution.
Almost nothing is known about Brom's life as a free man, but the remaining 48 years of Elizabeth Freeman's life are very well documented. She became a paid servant in the household of Theodore Sedgwick, and Sedgwick's youngest daughter, Catharine Maria, wrote a draft account of her life, that was published under the title "Slavery in New England," in Bentley's Miscellany in 1853.
Freeman remained a servant of the Sedgwick family for the rest of her life. In one famous incident, she single-handedly defended the Sedgwick house from a small mob of rebels during Shays' Rebellion in 1787 (Sedgwick himself was away from home working to end the rebellion). Freeman was eventually able to achieve a small level of financial independence, even buying her own house before her death in 1829. She is the only non-Sedgwick buried in the "inner circle" of the Sedgwick family plot in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Her epitaph reads:
"ELIZABETH FREEMAN, known by the name of MUMBET died Dec. 28 1829. Her supposed age was 85 years. She was born a slave and remained a slave for nearly thirty years. She could neither read nor write, yet in her own sphere she had no superior nor equal. She neither wasted time, nor property. She never violated a trust, nor failed to perform a duty. In every situation of domestic trial, she was the most efficient helper, and the tenderest friend. Good mother fare well."
Very little is known about Quock Walker. He was born into slavery and sold to James Caldwell in 1754. Following Caldwell's death in 1763, his widow married Nathaniel Jennison, taking Walker with her when she moved to her new husband's house in Barre, Massachusetts. Walker then became the property of Jennison.
Both James Caldwell and his widow had apparently promised Walker his freedom, but Jennison refused to manumit him. In 1781 Walker escaped from Nathaniel Jennison and sought refuge in the Caldwell house, with the brother of his former enslaver. Jennison, in the course of reclaiming what he saw as his property, beat Walker severely.
Three separate trials arose from this incident, two civil and one criminal. The first two cases were tried simultaneously before the Worcester County Court of Common Pleas. In the first case, Walker sued Jennison for assault and battery without right, claiming that he had been promised freedom by James Caldwell more than three years earlier, and as such, was a free man. The jury found that Walker was in fact a free man, and awarded him £50 (a substantial sum, but far less than the £300 he requested). In the second, simultaneous trial, Jennison sued the Caldwell brothers for interfering with his property and "enticing" Walker to run away for their own benefit. In this case, the jury found for Jennison, and he was awarded £25.
Both cases were appealed to the Supreme Judicial Court in 1781. Jennison lost his by default (failure to appear), and the Caldwell brothers won theirs based on the argument that the Massachusetts Constitution guaranteed equality and freedom for "all men."
In the third trial, a criminal case, the attorney general prosecuted Jennison for criminal assault and battery before the Supreme Judical Court of Massachusetts in April 1783. Jennison was convicted and sentenced to pay 40 shillings in damages. Walker's arguments persuaded Chief Justice William Cushing, who wrote in his trial notes that "there can be no such thing as perpetual servitude of a rational Creature ..." In his instructions to the jury before their deliberations, he stated that slavery was unconstitutional in Massachusetts, and they must consider Walker a free man when deciding if Jennison were guilty of assault and battery.
Together with the Elizabeth Freeman decision, the Quock Walker trials effectively ended slavery as a legal practice in Massachusetts. However, slavery did not disappear completely for some time. Often recast as indentured servitude (see online display of bill of indenture for Dick Morey), slavery was not unheard of in Massachusetts through the end of the eighteenth century.