When most people think of slavery in the United States, images of Negroes in southern cotton fields, such as those in the opening scenes of Gone With the Wind, come to mind. Though that did exist, slavery was not confined to the South. It was spread throughout the North as well.
Elizabeth (Bett) Freeman, a little-known national heroine, was born to enslaved parents on the farm of Pieter Hogeboon of Claverack, New York, somewhere around 1742. When Hogeboon’s daughter Hannah married John Ashley of Sheffield, Massachusetts, Bett, then in her early teens, went with her. She remained here until 1781, during which time she married and had a child, Betsy. Her husband (name unknown) never returned after he left to fight in the American Revolution.
Though a slave, Bett was a woman filled with spunk and determination, known to demonstrate a sense of self and strong spirit. In 1780, a conflict arose at which time Hannah attempted to strike Betsy with a heated shovel. Stepping in the way to shield Betsy, Bett received a deep wound in her arm. She left the wound uncovered throughout its healing process and when people questioned her as to what happened, Bett responded, “Ask missis!” Her behavior gave one cause to wonder, which was the real misses and which the slave?
Colonel John Ashley, a prominent citizen of Sheffield, was a judge of the Berkshire Court of Common Pleas and in 1773, helped to co-author the Sheffield Declaration. Prior to the American Revolution, Ashley and others began to speak out against the way Great Britain treated her subjects in the Massachusetts colony.
Ashley’s vanity caused him to proclaim his farm to be the largest in Sheffield. In doing so, however, he failed to recognize the wealth he boasted had been accumulated on the backs of the slaves he owned. As the American Revolution wound down, abolitionists began to infiltrate Massachusetts and life as Ashley had known it found its way into the history books. Puritan Judge Samuel Seawall, an active participant in the Salem Witch Trials, penned an article entitled, “The Selling of Joseph,” in which he called into question the owning of other individuals.
Beginning in 1773, a group of Negroes in Boston brought forward a petition for the abolishment of slavery, but it was turned down. Seven years later, however, things had changed. Following the American Revolution, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts penned its constitution, the first state to do so. These words from Article 1 of the document reached Bett’s ears:
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; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.
After hearing those words, Bett approached Theodore Sedgwick for help. A young lawyer with an abolitionist mindset, Sedgwick listened as Bett told him she wanted to go to court and sue for her freedom. “I heard that paper read yesterday that says, ‘all men are created equal, and that every man has a right to freedom.’ I’m not a dumb critter; won’t that law give me my freedom?”
Sedgwick had been searching for an opportunity to mount an attack against slavery and considered Bett’s request to be a perfect trial run. He agreed to take her case, in addition to that of Brom, another slave in the same household. To assist him with the case, Sedgewick enlisted the help of Tapping Reeve, the gentleman responsible for founding one of the first law schools in the United States.
Bett’s case began in May of 1781 when Sedgewick and Reeve obtained a writ of replevin from the Berkshire Court of Common Pleas. The writ ordered the release of Bett and Brom, claiming they were not Ashley’s legitimate property. Ashley refused to do so.
On August 21, 1781, the case of Brom and Bett v. J. Ashley Esq. went before Great Barrington’s County Court of Common Pleas. The attorneys emphasized Massachusetts’ constitution stated, “. . . all men are born free and equal”, thus effectively abolishing slavery within the state. When the verdict was read one day later, the jury ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor. “. . . Brom & Bett are not, nor were they at the time of the purchase of the original writ the legal Negro of the said John Ashley . . .”
The court went on to assess damages in the amount of 30 shillings, court costs and labor reparations for each of the plaintiffs. Bett was now the first female slave to be freed under the state constitution of Massachusetts. Having had no family name, following the ruling, she changed her name to Elizabeth Freeman.
The unique thing about this case, compared to others which had been brought before, was the fact no claim was made regarding whether John Ashley, the slave owner, had violated a specific law. Instead, this case served to directly challenge the very existence of slavery in Massachusetts.
At first Ashley appealed the decision to the Supreme Judicial Court, but then thought better and dropped the case several months later. Some think Ashley’s reason was due to the Court’s first ruling in the Quock Walker case, now sensing his efforts were futile. Instead, he asked Bett to return to his home and work for wages.
Bett declined Ashley’s offer, choosing instead to work for Attorney Sedgwick. Here she remained until 1808, in the position of senior servant and governess to Sedgwick’s children, known to them affectionately as “Mum Bett”.
As an adult, Catharine Sedgwick, one of Bett’s charges, became a well-known author and wrote about the life of her governess, including the fact Bett was constantly in demand regarding her skills in midwifery, nursing and as a healer. Once the Sedgwick children were grown and had left home, Bett and her daughter bought their own home in Stockbridge.
Elizabeth Freeman died in December 1829. Though her real age was never known due to lack of a birth certificate, her tombstone indicates she was 85 at the time of her death. Laid to rest in the Sedgwick family plot in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, her tombstone stands in the innermost circle of what is known as the "Sedgwick Pie." Its inscription reads:
“ELIZABETH FREEMAN, left behind 4 children but is 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.”
Elizabeth Freeman’s case served to open the door for others who followed. It was cited as a precedent when the case Quock Walker v. Jennison was heard by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. In the case, Walker’s freedom was also upheld. On March 26, 1788, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts effectively abolished slave trade within its state; the first in the Union to do so.