I n New England, suits by enslaved African-Americans date back to Colonial times. The cases were frequently based on a slave’s claim of white or Native American parentage. But as revolutionary ideals took hold in the 1770s and ’80s, many enslaved plaintiffs began to mount more ambitious arguments that all people, black or white, had a “natural right” to freedom. That was the basis of a successful lawsuit involving a black man named Quock Walker, who won his freedom in 1781.
The man who considered himself Walker’s owner appealed to the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, and in a 1783 trial the court issued a charge to the jury citing the new state constitution, which held that all men are born free—and setting a precedent that effectively ended slavery in the Commonwealth. In his notes on the case, Chief Justice William Cushing wrote, “Every subject is intitled to Liberty, & to have it guarded by the laws, as well as Life & property…. This being the Case, I think the Idea of Slavery is inconsistent with our own conduct & Constitution.”
Full Article: The slaves who sued for freedom