The History of American Slavery

“Born Free and Equal”

The cases of Quok Walker and Elizabeth Freeman set a benchmark for freedom in the revolutionary North.

John Trumbull’s 1780 painting of George Washington also depicts William Lee, Washington’s personal servant and the only one of his slaves freed outright in his will.

Painting by John Trumbull via Wikimedia Commons

This article supplements Episode 3 of The History of American Slavery, our inaugural Slate Academy. Please join Slate’s Jamelle Bouie and Rebecca Onion for a different kind of summer school. To learn more and to enroll, visit

Excerpted from Death or Liberty: African Americans and Revolutionary America by Douglas R. Egerton. Published by Oxford University Press.

Although settled by whites as early as 1673 and just 46 miles west of Boston, Worcester, Massachusetts, remained a rustic farm community at the start of the Seven Years’ War. In that year, a farmer named James Caldwell purchased three slaves from Zedekiah Stone, “all sound & well for the Sum of One hundred & eight pounds.”

They were 20-year-old Mingo and his wife, a “negro wench named Diana, about nineteen years of age, with child Quaco, about nine months old.” (Kwaku, an Akan day name, was often given to boys born on a Wednesday.) For the better part of the next decade, as was typical of so many Africans and black Americans, Mingo’s family then vanished from the public record. But in 1763 James Caldwell died intestate. A court-appointed committee drew up an inventory of Caldwell’s property, granted the customary one-third to the widow, Isabell Caldwell, and placed the remainder in trust with a guardian for James’ adolescent children. Mingo’s family was assigned to the widow’s share.1

As Quaco (or Quok) grew older, he heard of events to his east in Boston. Emboldened by the endless talk of liberty that pervaded even rural Massachusetts, he pressed his owners to consider freeing him when he reached adulthood. According to what Quok later told one court, James Caldwell had agreed to liberate him at the age of 25, a figure Isabell purportedly reduced to 21. But within three years of James’ death, Isabell married again. Her new husband, Nathaniel Jennison of the nearby town of Barré, already owned eight slaves, and as far as Jennison was concerned, if a revolution was to be fought, it would be waged in the name of property rights rather than human rights. As the head of his household, Jennison and not Isabell made such decisions. She was his “lawful wife,” he swore, by which he “became possessed of the said Quork as his own proper negro slave.”2

When spring arrived in 1781, the young man, now 28 years old and calling himself Quok Walker, decided he had been patient long enough. In early April he simply abandoned Jennison’s household for the nearby farm of John and Seth Caldwell, James’ younger brothers. Furious, Jennison demanded that Walker return immediately, but the young revolutionary replied that he was “a free man, & not the proper negro slave of the said Nathaniel.” At that, Jennison rounded up several of his white farmhands and marched to the Caldwell farm. They attacked Walker “and threw him down and struck him several violent blows upon his back and arm with the handle of a whip” before dragging him back to Barré and locking him in a barn. One of the Caldwell brothers “heard a screaming” and ran in from the fields. He shouted to Jennison that his “brother said always [Walker] should

be free at 25,” but Jennison warned Caldwell to stop “maliciously” interfering “with his said servant.”3

How Walker escaped the barn remains a mystery, but clearly he was no longer safe in Worcester County. Yet neither could he flee for Boston. At least one of his brothers remained enslaved on the Jennison farm, and the only whites who had ever tried to help him—the Caldwell brothers—lived just down the road. Had Walker been born in a different era or in a different part of the Americas, he surely would have done what determined young bondmen had long done: fly for the nearest seaport in hopes of finding a new life on the high seas, or wade into the hinterland in search of a maroon colony of runaways.

Instead, with the war nearly won and revolutionary republicanism upheld, Walker, now styling himself a “yeoman,” did what any proud American with a grievance would do. On June 12, 1781, with the assistance of the Caldwells, he hired Levi Lincoln, the most able attorney in the county, and filed suit for unspecified damages in the local Court of Common Pleas. Significantly, Walker dragged Jennison into court on charges of assault and battery only. Walker did not sue for his freedom, which he simply assumed was the natural right of all Americans living in a post-1776 world. So began the case of Walker v. Jennison, the first of six trials involving one or both of these antagonists that would help determine the future of slavery in Massachusetts.4

African Americans, of course, had pursued their rights through the courts almost since the end of the Seven Years’ War, although these cases typically concluded on technical points—such as Jenny Slew’s 1766 insistence that her mother was white—rather than on grander ideological theories of inalienable rights. But at almost the same moment that Levi Lincoln filed suit against Nathaniel Jennison on behalf of Walker, another slave filed a similar suit. Together, the two cases effectively ended slavery in Massachusetts.

The bondwoman in question was Elizabeth, or Bett for short, or sometimes even Mum Bett. Born around 1742 in the town of Claverack, New York, Bett grew up in the western portion of Massachusetts. As a young woman, she was buffeted about due to the vagaries of her various masters’ lives. Originally the property of Pieter Hogeboom, she became the slave of Col. John Ashley when the latter married Hogeboom’s daughter, Annetje. In 1773, Ashley and a young attorney named Theodore Sedgwick helped draft the Sheffield Declaration, which proclaimed all people to be “free and independent of each other.” Then, according to one account, in early 1781 Bett found herself in the midst of an angry dispute between her sister Lizzie and Annetje, and when her mistress swung a heated fire shovel it was Bett and not Lizzie who received a burn on her arm, the scar of which “she bore until the day of her death.” Furious, Bett marched out of Ashley’s house and vowed never to return. Determined to remain free, Bett arrived at the Stockbridge doorstep of attorney Sedgwick, who had already served one term in the state assembly. Sedgwick agreed to take the case and obtained a writ calling for Bett’s release, and also for that of Brom, another of Ashley’s slaves.5

As the August 1781 court date approached, Sedgwick worried about what grounds he might use to secure Bett’s freedom. Unlike the simultaneous case of Quok Walker, there were no veiled promises of future liberation upon which to construct a case. Sedgwick approached Tapping Reeve, one of the most respected legal minds in Connecticut, to serve as co-counsel. Together they hit upon a brilliant strategy. The final state constitution of 1780, like many documents of the period, opened with a flowery preamble: “All men are born free and equal.” By ratifying that statement of rights, Sedgwick insisted, Massachusetts effectively nullified earlier (if ambiguous) legislation supporting unfree labor.

When the Court of Common Pleas finally met in Great Barrington, Sedgwick argued that Bett and Brom were not “legal Negro Servants” at the time the writ was issued, since the constitution had banned the institution the previous year. Although jury foreman Jonathan Holcomb did not refer specifically to Sedgwick’s argument, he agreed they could not legally be “Servants of the s[ai]d John Ashley during life” and assessed damages against the colonel of 30 shillings.6

Outraged by what was clearly an act of judicial activism, since the drafters of the state Bill of Rights hardly meant for their florid language to be taken literally, Ashley appealed the case to the state Supreme Court, which was set to ride circuit through the county in October. By the fall, however, the next round of trials in the ongoing Walker v. Jennison cases had been decided, and Ashley evidently decided that the winds of revolutionary change were against him. He dropped his appeal, “confessed Judgment for thirty shillings damage and Cost of suit,” and returned home to face an aggravated Annetje. As for Mum Bett, she accepted a position as paid servant in Sedgwick’s household and adopted a more appropriate name for a liberated woman of the new Republic, Elizabeth Freeman.7

As Walker and Freeman’s inclination to adopt legal means suggests, black Americans immediately expected the Revolution to offer not merely new opportunities for freedom but also full participation in the new political order. The 13 united colonies began to write 13 new state constitutions, and industrious “yeomen” anticipated that these documents would live up to the egalitarian ideals of their revolutionary age.

But for all of his strength of purpose, black activists like Walker needed the assistance of benevolent whites such as the Caldwell brothers, just as he required the legal aid of reform-minded attorneys such as Levi Lincoln and Theodore Sedgewick. It would be this combination of African American activism and legal action on the part of white reformers that would finally force every state supreme court or legislature north of Delaware to eliminate slavery.

This struggle was not to be easily won, and the gradualist laws they achieved revealed the extent to which racism remained a crippling national phenomenon. Yet even more than black participation in the military, it was these victories that gave black Americans enormous hope and allowed them to believe that they enjoyed the power to begin the world anew.

Reprinted from Death or Liberty: African Americans and Revolutionary America by Douglas R. Egerton with permission from Oxford University Press.  © Douglas R. Egerton 2009.

1. William O’Brien, “Did the Jennison Case Outlaw Slavery in Massachusetts?” WMQ 17 (1960): 223; Robert M. Spector, “The Quock Walker Cases: Slavery, Its Abolition, and Negro Citizenship in Early Massachusetts,” Journal of Negro History 53 (1968): 12. In various court documents, Quok’s forename appears as Cuarco, Quack, Quork, Quaco, Quarko, but most commonly as Quok, which is the spelling I have adopted. I am grateful to Donald R. Wright for his insight into Quok’s Akan day name.

2. William Cushing to the Jury, 1783, in “Commonwealth v. Jennison,” in Bruns, Am I Not a Man and a Brother, 474; T. H. Breen, “Making History: The Force of Public Opinion and the Last Years of Slavery in Revolutionary Massachusetts,” in Through a Glass Darkly: Reflections on Personal Identity in Early America, ed. Ronald Hoffman, Mechal Sobel, and Fredrika J. Teute (Chapel Hill, NC,= 1997), 94; O’Brien, “Jennison Case,” 226.

3. Spector, “Quock Walker Cases,” 12; O’Brien, “Jennison Case,” 225, 237.

4. Arthur Zilversmit, “Quok Walker, Mumbet, and the Abolition of Slavery in Massachusetts,” WMQ 25 (1968): 614; Emily Blanck, “Seventeen Eighty-Three: The Turning Point in the Law of Slavery and Freedom in Massachusetts,” New England Quarterly 75 (2002): 26; O’Brien, “Jennison Case,” 225; A. Leon Higginbotham, In the Matter of Color: Race and the Legal Process, the Colonial Period (New York, 1978), 91; John D. Cushing, “The Cushing Court and the Abolition of Slavery in Massachusetts: More Notes on the ‘Quock Walker Case,’ ” American Journal of Legal History 5 (1961): 119.

5. Greene, Negro in Colonial New England, 293–94; Theodore Sedgwick Jr., The Practicability of the Abolition of Slavery (New York, 1831), 14; Bethany K. Dumas, “Elizabeth Freeman,” in American National Biography, ed. John A. Garraty and Mark Carnes (New York, 1999), 8: 439; Nash, The Forgotten Fifth, 20–21; Zilversmit, “Abolition of Slavery in Massachusetts,” 619.

6. Elaine MacEacheren, “Emancipation in Massachusetts, 1770–1790,” Journal of Negro History 55 (1970): 291; Zilversmit, “Abolition of Slavery in Massachusetts,” 619; Mum Bett Case, Court Decision, August 1781, in Bruns, Am I Not a Man and a Brother, 468–70; Sedgwick, Practicability of the Abolition of Slavery, 16.

7. Zilversmit, “Abolition of Slavery in Massachusetts,” 621–22; Richard E. Welch, Theodore Sedgwick, Federalist: A Political Biography ( Middletown, CT, 1965), 51.