Bold, unrelenting in her fight for freedom, Elizabeth Freeman established a precedent for abolishing slavery in Massachusetts. She was the first Black person in Massachusetts to sue for freedom based on natural rights theory and win!
Freeman was born as “Mum Bett” in Claverack, New York, around 1744. Colonel Ashley, a wealthy citizen of Sheffield, Massachusetts and a judge of the Berkshire Court of Common Pleas, purchased Freeman when she was just six months of age.
In January 1773, Ashley became the moderator of a committee of local citizens, including attorney Theodore Sedgwick, that wrote a document known as the Sheffield Declaration. The Sheffield Declaration stated 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.” This is the same language echoed in the 1776 United States Declaration of Independence and the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780.
Today, it is a fundamental belief that everyone SHOULD have equal rights under the law. However, the intrinsic and inalienable rights of Black people were questioned and debated in 18th century Massachusetts, where slavery endured until 1783. In 1778, Massachusetts legislators drafted a constitution that would have recognized slavery as a legal institution and excluded free African Americans from voting. This proposed constitution was rejected by voters and replaced with the constitution of 1780. The Constitution of 1780, in contrast, contained a declaration that “all men are born free and equal, and have . . . the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties.” However, the voters did not reject the proposed constitution of 1778 because it embraced slavery. After all, slavery was legal in the Commonwealth when the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution went into effect.
Less than one year after the adoption of the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution, Freeman, challenged the existence of slavery in Massachusetts, using the Constitution’s language to validate her claims to freedom. In May 1781, Freeman, with Sedgwick’s assistance, initiated the case Brom and Bett v. Ashley. The attorneys for “Bett” and Brom, an enslaved man, obtained a writ of replevin, which ordered Ashley to release Bett and Brom to the Sheriff because they were not Ashley’s legitimate property. Ashley refused. The case was retried in August 1781 before the County Court of Common Pleas in Great Barrington. Sedgwick argued that the Massachusetts Constitution had outlawed slavery. The jury determined that Brom and Bett were not Ashley’s property, and Brom and Freeman were set free and awarded 30 shillings for damages, which is approximately $3.60 today.
Freeman was allegedly motivated to fight for her freedom after overhearing dinner table conversations in the Ashley home about the new promises of liberty made in the Sheffield Declaration (1773), the of Independence (1776), and the Massachusetts Constitution (1780). Other accounts suggest that she was prompted to fight for her freedom after her mistress Hannah Ashley attempted to strike Bett’s sister or daughter with a hot shovel but struck Freeman instead when she intervened.
Freeman’s lawsuit set in motion three related cases, collectively known as “the Quock Walker case,” that led to abolishing slavery in Massachusetts. In his charge to the jury, Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice William Cushing announced that slavery was incompatible with the new Massachusetts Constitution. Quock Walker, like Freeman, was an enslaved person who sued for and won his freedom in Massachusetts.
Although many enslaved people had sued their owners for their freedom, Freeman’s lawsuit was unique because she sued based on the theory of natural rights, highlighting the hypocrisy of the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution. In contrast, other enslaved individuals sued their owners for freedom when they had violated a specific law, like a broken promise to grant their freedom. By 1780, nearly 30 enslaved people had sued their owners for their freedom.
Once she gained her freedom, Mum Bett changed her name to Elizabeth Freeman. She became a paid domestic worker in Sedgwick’s household in gratitude to him for helping her win her case. In arguing a later case in defense of the abolition of slavery, Sedgwick used the example of Freeman when he said, “If there could be a practical refutation of the imagined superiority of our race to hers, the life and character of this woman would afford that refutation.” Freeman also worked as a prominent healer, midwife, and nurse.
After 20 years, she was able to buy her own house, where she lived with her children and ultimately died in 1829. Freeman died a free woman, surrounded by her loved ones. One of her great-grandchildren, W.E.B. DuBois, was born 39 years later in Great Barrington, the same town where she successfully sued for and won her freedom. Following his great-grandmother’s footsteps, DuBois became an activist and one of the most influential intellectuals of the 20th century.
Elizabeth Freeman lit the path to freedom for many Black people in Massachusetts. This is her legacy, a pioneer of human rights, an embodiment of the ideals of American democracy.