Document Type: Case Law--Colonial and State Cases to 1789 [Primary Source]
Court: Massachusetts
Case Title: Massachusetts--Commonwealth v. Jennison
Date of Decision: 1783
Citation: Proc. of Mass. Hist. Soc., Volume 1873-1875 Pages:  p. 292-295
Content Note: Minutes from the case of Commonwealth v. Nathaniel Jennison, which abolished slavery in Massachusetts
Source Note: Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society: (1873-1875). Boston, 1875.
Subject Descriptors: Massachusetts court cases; Slavery--Massachusetts

Commonwealth v. Jennison


Chief Justice Gray submitted for the inspection of the members of the [Massachusetts Historical] Society Chief Justice Cushing's original note-book of the trials before the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts at the terms held in the County of Worcester in 1783, (which had been intrusted to him for the purpose by Mr. William Cushing Paine, the namesake and great grand-nephew of Chief Justice Cushing), and read therefrom the minutes of the trial at April Term 1783 of the case of the Commonwealth v. Nathaniel Jennison, in which it was established that
slavery was wholly abolished in this Commonwealth by the Declaration of Rights prefixed to the Constitution of 1780.

These minutes, now printed for the first time, and copied verbatim from the note-book of the Chief Justice, altering nothing but the abbreviations and errors in spelling incident to memoranda of this kind, and adding in brackets what is necessary to render them easily understood, are as follows:--

"Indictment, found September, 1781, vs. Nathaniel Jennison of Barre, for an assault on Quack Walker, and beat with a stick 1st May, 1781, and imprisoned two hours.

[Opening of the Attorney-General.]

"Born in Calwell's house, who engaged he should have his freedom at 25 -- his widow, who married defendant, promised the same when he was 28 -- dismissed -- and defendant attempted [to retake him?]

[Testimony for the Government.]

"Mr. Caldwell. The negro came to my house about a week before the warrant. He was at work in my field with a team working -- heard a screaming -- got upon a knoll 5 or 6 rods from Jennison and several others, who had got the negro down, young fellow upon the negro, I took him off -- bruised his fingers -- carried him off -- went to a saw-mill -- and told Jennison his master had freed him -- and Winslow let him go -- wounds in his hands and arms. My brother said always he should be free at 25 -- Mrs. Caldwell [that he should be free at 21?]

"Quack. 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 half 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.


"From Zachariah Stone to Caldwell, deceased -- Bill of Sale of Mingo and Dinah, 1754, and Quaco, 9 months old.

"Charles Baker. I was divider of Caldwell's estate. (About 20 years ago he died.) 2 or 3 years after, the widow received Quaco as part of her dividend.

"Mr. Jones. Quaco lived with Caldwell till he died -- appraised at 40 pounds -- set off to his Mrs. as part of her personal estate. She married Jennison about 1770, and died about 3 years after.

"Joshua Winslow. I was desired by defendant to help him reclaim Quaco.


[Charge of the Chief Justice.]

"Fact proved.

"Justification that Quack is slave -- and to prove it 'tis said that Quack, when a child about 9 months old, with his father and mother was sold by bill of sale in 1754, about 29 years ago, to Mr. Caldwell, now deceased; that, when he died, Quack was appraised as part of the personal estate, and set off to the widow in her share of the personal estate; that Mr. Jennison, marrying her, was entitled to Quack as his property; and therefore that he had a right to bring him home when he ran away; and that the defendant only took proper measures for that purpose. And the defendant's counsel also rely on some former laws of the Province, which give countenance to slavery.

"To this it is answered that, if he ever was a slave, he was liberated both by his master Caldwell, and by the widow after his death, the first of whom promised and engaged he should be free at 25, the other at 21.

"As to the doctrine of slavery and the right of Christians to hold Africans in perpetual servitude, and sell and treat them as we do our horses and cattle, that (it is true) has been heretofore countenanced by the 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 of some of the European nations, and the regulations of British government respecting the then 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 of Liberty, with which Heaven (without regard to color, complexion, or shape of noses) features) 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.

Verdict guilty.

Note by Chief Justice Gray.

The original indictment in this case is presented, with such other records and papers of the Superior Court of Judicature and the Supreme Judicial Court before August 1797, as have come down to us, in the clerk's office in Boston, and is as follows: --

"Worcester, as. At the Supreme Judicial Court begun and holden at Worcester within and for the County of Worcester on the third Tuesday of September in the year of our Lord one thousand and seven hundred and eighty-one.


"The Jurors for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts upon their oath present that Nathaniel Jennison, of Barre in the County of Worcester aforesaid, yeoman, on the first day of May last part at Barre in the said County of Worcester in and upon one Qock Walker, then and there in the peace of GOD and of this Commonwealth being, with force and arms an assault did make, and then and there, with force as aforesaid, with his the said Natahniel's fist and a large stick which the said Nathaniel then and there held in his hand, the said Qock did beat, bruise, and evilly entreat, and him the said Qock, with force as aforesaid, without warrant, just cause or lawful authority, did imprison during the space of two hours, in evil example to others to offend in like case, to the damage of the said Qock, against the peace of the Commonwealth aforesaid and dignity of the same. A true bill.

"Oliver Whitney, Foreman."

R. T. Paine, Att'y pr Repub."

The record of April Term 1783 sets forth the indictment in full, and proceeds as follows: -- "This indictment was found September Term A.D. 1781. And now in this present term the said Nathaniel Jennison comes into court and has this indictment read to him, he says that thereof he is not guilty and thereof for tryal puts & c. A jury thereupon is impannelled and sworn to try the issue, viz. Jonas How, foreman, and fellows, viz: William McFarland, Isaac Choate, Joseph Bigelow, John White, Daniel Bullard, Ebenezer Lovell, Phillip Goodridge, John Lyon, Johnathan Woodbury, Thomas White and John Town, who after hearing all matters and things concerning the same return their verdict and upon their oath do say that the said Nathaniel Jennison is guilty. It is therefore considered by the Court that the said Nathaniel Jennison pay a fine to the Commonwealth of Forty Shillings, pay cost of prosecution, and stand committed till sentence be performed. -- Cost taxed at pounds."

This term appears by the record to have been held by the whole court, consisting of Willian Cushing, Chief Justice, and Nathaniel Peaslee Sargeant, David Sewall, and Increase Sumner, Justices.