Massachusetts’ new Constitution guaranteed that "All men are born free and equal.” Recognizing the opportunity, several different groups of enslaved people sued for their freedom. The most significant of these cases centered around an enslaved man named Quock Walker.
Walker argued that he had been promised his freedom by a previous enslaver. His legal battle for freedom eventually found its way into the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. There, Chief Justice William Cushing declared that slavery was incompatible with the new Massachusetts Constitution:
[S]lavery is in my judgment as effectively abolished as it can be by the granting of rights and privileges [in the constitution] wholly incompatible and repugnant to its existence.
Cushing's decision that slavery was "incompatible" with the Constitution meant that enslavers' rights to their enslaved property were no longer protected.
While some regard this decision as the immediate and dramatic end of slavery in Massachusetts, the reality is much more complicated.
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1783 legal notes by William Cushing on the Quock Walker case, page 97 (11th in sequence).
Courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society, MHS Collections Online.
(Starting on page 96) And upon this Ground, our Constitution of Govmt, by wch. ye people of this Commonwealth have
(page 97) solemnly bound themselves, Sets out with declaring that all men are born free & equal -- & yt. Every subject is intitled to Liberty, & to have it guarded by ye. Laws, as well as Life & property -- & in short is totally repugnant to ye. Idea of being born Slaves. This being ye. Case I think ye. Idea of Slavery is in consistent with our own conduct & Constitution
(continuing on page 98) & 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.