April 20, 1775: Sixty militiamen from the town of York begin marching to Massachusetts to confront the British after receiving news about the opening battles of the Revolutionary War at Lexington and Concord.

Other groups of fighters from Biddeford, Scarborough and Falmouth soon follow them, but all are turned back because they no longer are needed.

The quick response demonstrates, however, that the Maine men have more loyalty to Massachusetts than they do to Britain.

April 20, 1783: During an assault case that results in the defendant’s conviction and a fine of 40 shillings, Massachusetts Supreme Court Chief Justice William Cushing announces while giving instructions to the jury that slavery is incompatible with the principles enshrined in the new Massachusetts Constitution.

To the extent that the judge’s utterance has an effect, it is valid in Maine, which was part of Massachusetts then.

The assault case actually is the third of three cases involving the same parties – Quock Walker, a slave; and his owner, Nathaniel Jennison.


James Caldwell had bought Walker in 1754. Caldwell died, and his widow married Jennison, who became Walker’s new owner. Walker escaped in 1781 and fled to Caldwell’s relatives. Jennison found, beat and re-enslaved him.

In the first court case, Walker sued Jennison for assault and battery. He said his original owner had promised he would be freed at age 25. A jury agreed and awarded him 50 pounds as damages.

In the second case, heard in the same session, Jennison sued the Caldwells, alleging they had interfered with his property by convincing Walker to leave for their benefit. Jennison won that case and was awarded 25 pounds, but the Caldwells succeeded in getting the ruling overturned on appeal.

In the last case, the state attorney general prosecuted Jennison on charges of criminal assault and battery on Walker. Jennison was indicted in 1781. The case went before the state’s high court in 1783. That’s when Cushing gives his interpretation of the state constitution.

He notes that the document states that all men are born free and equal and are entitled to liberty, and that all are entitled to have it guarded by law.

“In short,” Cushing says, “without resorting to implication in constructing the constitution, slavery is as effectively abolished as it can be by the granting of rights and privileges wholly incompatible and repugnant to its existence.”

The jury convicts Jennison and fines him 40 shillings.

Some historians trace the Bay State’s ban on slavery to this event. Others say news about the case was not disseminated widely at the time, and other influences were eroding support for slavery in Maine and Massachusetts anyway.

Joseph Owen is a retired copy desk chief of the Morning Sentinel and Kennebec Journal and board member of the Kennebec Historical Society. He can be contacted at: [email protected]

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