Over the years, other such lawsuits, known as Freedom Suits, were filed against owners by their slaves. As more states in the North rejected slavery, these suits increased when slaves were taken into free states, yet remained enslaved. The most famous Freedom Suit occurred in 1857. The Dred Scott Decision tried to put an end to such lawsuits for good, permanently cementing slavery into America’s fabric. (see ) However, the Republican's 1860 abolitionist platform elected President Abraham Lincoln, prompting the South’s secession. The Civil War that followed finally ended the horrific practice instead. (see )
Liberty, despite the narrative of current textbooks, not all colonists were racists and supported slavery. In fact, many fought hard to end it. Even several of the Founders wanted to abolish slavery. As part of the first draft of the , Thomas Jefferson included an excoriating paragraph to King George III regarding slavery. Rightfully admonishing the crown for bringing the Negros to America's shores, he further rebuked it for forcing slavery upon the colonists. Jefferson concluded by scolding the king for now promising freedom to those same individuals if they fought for the country that enslaved them in the first place. (see ) However, Jefferson removed the paragraph because two states did not agree and he did not want to jeopardize a united front. Regardless, the wheels of abolition were already turning.
Moreover, by 1776, slavery had become such a staple of the economy, the Founders realized an instant ending of the slave trade could prevent America from even getting started. But more importantly, before the colonists could even attempt to secure freedom for the slaves, they first needed to win their own liberty from Britain. Therefore, they set out to institute a more progressive removal of the practice. They also hoped individual states would abolish slavery on their own, as Massachusetts did, giving them that right through the . (see )
Unfortunately, Liberty, there are forms of slavery that still permeate our great country. While Democrats cheer Mum Bett, they treat today’s Mum Bett’s much differently. Every time an African-American speaks out as a Republican or worse, a conservative, Democrats lynch them in the media, thrashing them into silence for leaving the plantation. (see ) In fact, any minority, whether determined by race, sexual orientation, or gender, are ridiculed for daring to think for themselves. (see ) The Democratic platform hasn’t changed, it’s only adjusted its approach.
We are so busy pointing fingers at each other and leveling accusations, we have forgotten Elizabeth’s point. “Mankind in a state of nature are equal, free, and independent of each other, and have a right to the undisturbed enjoyment of their lives, their liberty and property.” Americans must be reminded of this if we have any chance of becoming liberated.
That’s my 2 cents.
August 22, 2018
In one of her frequent rants, Hannah Ashley's eyes flashed with rage. Furious, she grabbed a shovel, heated from the kitchen fire. As she raised the weapon in the air, Elizabeth darted in front of her sister, Lizzie, to stop the attack. The hot shovel cut Elizabeth's arm, yet Elizabeth did not flinch. Eventually that vicious strike would break her chains of slavery.
Elizabeth refused to dress her wound, using it as a reminder to her mistress of her actions. According to Elizabeth, “Madam never again laid her hand on Lizzy. I had a bad arm all winter, but Madam had the worst of it. I never covered the wound, and when people said to me, before Madam, ’Why Betty, what ails your arm?’ I only answered, ‘Ask misses.’”
Known at the time as Mum Bett, Elizabeth had heard about men being born equal and free since her owner, Colonel John Ashley, hosted the committee to draft the Sheffield Declaration in 1772. Approved on January 12, 1773, the document declared that "Mankind in a state of nature are equal, free, and independent of each other, and have a right to the undisturbed enjoyment of their lives, their liberty and property." The author of those words, prominent lawyer Theodore Sedgwick, was also an abolitionist. Mum Bett heard similar words as Ashley and his guests discussed the new in 1776. (see )
Cases against slavery gained little traction while the colonies remained under British rule, as demonstrated by the 1773 petition by black Bostonians to end slavery. Those that did move forward contained accusations of the slave owner violating existing law, such as extreme brutality or reneging on a promise of freedom. However, Massachusetts was now governed by a new constitution. Drafted by John Adams in 1779, the Massachusetts Constitution became the inspiration for the a decade later. Effective October 25, 1780, it declared:
FREE AND EQUAL
“All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties.”
At a public reading of the new state Constitution, the ideas of freedom, equality and God-given rights rang in Mum Bett's ears again. Yet this time, they truly resonated. Soon after, Mum Bett collected her daughter, Betsy, and headed to a man she truly trusted, the man who wrote the words that all men were equal. As Mum Bett laid out her case, Sedgwick grinned in agreement. Eager to take her case, he knew it needed a little more support as women's rights were as suppressed at that time as blacks. Therefore, another Negro slave of Ashley's, named Brom, was added to the lawsuit. With that, Mum Bett began her crusade against slavery in Massachusetts.
Within a year, Brom and Bett vs. Ashley tested their own state Constitution's words, especially since it did not include a violation of a specific law. Unlike his wife, Ashley was considered a humane slave owner, as well as a respected member of society. The lawsuit would directly address slavery itself. Sedgwick contacted the founder of Litchfield Law School, one of America's oldest law schools, to help him with the case. With the assistance of Litchfield’s Tapping Reeve, Sedgwick argued two main points:
“(1) That no antecedent law had established slavery, and that the laws which seemed to suppose it were the offspring of error in the legislators ...” and “(2) That such laws, even if they had existed, were annulled by the new Constitution.”
On August 22, 1781, a jury of white men agreed. Along with declaring Mum Bett and Brom free, the two former slaves received thirty shillings' each in damages from Ashley. He was also ordered to pay the cost of the suit, totaling five pounds, fourteen shillings and four pence.
Other court cases, including Quock Walker v. Jennison and one let by Prince Hall, led to the dissolution of slavery in Massachusetts, though slavery did not officially become illegal in the United States until the in 1865. (see ) However, due to their state Constitution, and cases such as Mum Bett's, the practice soon died as there was no legal support for it. This was a reasonable progression the majority of the Founding Fathers hoped would naturally happen throughout the nation. (see ) The state's slave owners voluntarily freed their slaves, either immediately or upon their death. Others reassigned their slaves as indentured servants with a finite period of service. (see ) By 1790, no slaves were listed in the Federal Census of Massachusetts.
Following the trial, Mum Bett changed her name to Elizabeth Freeman. However, those close to her continued to affectionately refer to her as Mum Bett. Col. Ashley asked Elizabeth to return to his service for pay. She declined, instead choosing to work for the Sedgwick family. Employed there for many years, Elizabeth saved enough money to purchase a home for her and her daughter, Betty. Even after her retirement, Elizabeth remained close to the Sedgwick's.
As Captain Daniel Shays led his rebels through Massachusetts as part of Shays Rebellion, they found their way into the Sedgwick home several times. (see ) Now a state legislature, Sedgwick was away as his family sought safety elsewhere. However, Elizabeth remained at the home, fearless of those in the rebellion. During one raid, Elizabeth rescued Sedgwick's beloved horse, Jenny Gray, setting her loose so the rebels could not take her. On other occasions, she ridiculed the invaders looking for goods to steal, causing them to stop their searches, thus saving items such as valuable liquor and the family silver.
Not much is known about Elizabeth before the time of the lawsuit. Two of the Sedgwick children, Theodore and Catherine, documented many of the facts we do know. It is believed she was born sometime around 1744. Originally owned by Hannah Ashley's father, Elizabeth was likely given to Hannah and John following their wedding.
Elizabeth married young, yet her husband left to fight in the American Revolution, like many other slaves. (see ) He lost his life fighting in the Continental Army, leaving her widowed with a young child. Elizabeth never remarried.
In an 1831 speech commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Brom and Bett vs. Ashley decision, Theodore Sedgwick II confirmed that Hannah Ashley's attack on the young slave was completely unacceptable, at least in Massachusetts. The scar Elizabeth took for her sister remained for the rest of her life.
Elizabeth resided at her home until her death on December 28, 1829, surrounded by her daughter, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Her tombstone claims she was 85 years old, yet she contended she was closer to 100. The Sedgwick's placed her body in their family plot, the only non-Sedgwick to be laid to rest there. Two Sedgwick sons inscribed her tombstone with:
ELIZABETH FREEMAN, also known by the name of MUMBET died Dec. 28th 1829. Her supposed age was 85 Years. She was born a slave and remained a slave for nearly thirty years; She could neither read nor write, yet in her own sphere she had no superior or equal. She neither wasted time nor property. She never violated a trust, nor failed to perform a duty. In every situation of domestic trial, she was the most efficient helper and the tenderest friend. Good mother, farewell.
Years later, Civil Rights leader W.E.B. DuBois claimed Elizabeth had married his maternal great-grandfather, “Jack” Burghardt, yet no evidence supports this. However, it is possible Jack married Elizabeth’s daughter, Betsy, becoming her children's step-father. Regardless, it is likely a family connection exists between DuBois and Elizabeth. (see ) Unfortunately, DuBois did not seem to understand or appreciate freedom the way Elizabeth did. She once stated:
"Any time, any time while I was a slave, if one minute's freedom had been offered to me, and I had been told I must die at the end of that minute, I would have taken it—just to stand one minute on God's earth a free woman— I would."