Slavery had been deeply intertwined into the economy of the 18th century American colonies. This is the story of a slave in the home of Colonel Ashley and how she used the U.S Revolution to sue for freedom and won her case against the state of Massachusetts.
Elizabeth Freeman spent the first half of her life being the property of someone else because she had been born into slavery. According the Ashley Museum her name from birth until 1781 was known as “Bett”. The name even appears on her court case. Bett was a very common name for enslaved women at the time and it is not known who gave it to her. Elizabeth Freeman is the name that she chose for herself when she won her freedom. Although it does not appear in many other places, it is how she refers to herself in official documents. She was known mostly as “Mum Bett” to all those she helped and inspired. After she gained her freedom, Elizabeth Freeman said:
“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.”
The early years of Elizabeth Freeman’s life is quite unclear. She was born sometime in the 1740s most likely near The Hudson Valley River in New York. The home of Pieter Hogeboom in Claverack is where she spent her childhood. She was a slave from the beginning which meant right from the start everyday life was very bleak and exhausting.
According to an article titled Elizabeth Freeman: Massachusetts Slave by the Woman’s History Blog, it was not long before her circumstances changed and she was sold into another household to work under new masters leaving behind those she had known.
“Elizabeth Freeman, known as Bett in early life and later as Mum Bett, was born to enslaved parents in 1742 at the farm of Dutchman Pieter Hogeboom in Claverack, New York, about twenty miles south of Albany. Bett and her younger sister Lizzie grew up as slave children. Freeman was illiterate and left no written records of her life. Her early history has been pieced together from the writings of contemporaries, as well as from historical records.
In 1735 Hogeboom’s youngest child, Hannah, married John Ashley of Sheffield, Massachusetts, the son of one of the original proprietors permitted by the General Court of Massachusetts to organize settlements along the Housatonic River. The Ashleys had four children. Exactly when they acquired Bett and Lizzie is not known, but it was most likely after Hannah’s father died in 1758, when Bett was about sixteen.”
Elizabeth Freeman moved to the Ashley House in her young teen years, according to most sources. The dates of precisely when she was sold is not entirely known. Hannah Ashley was not an easy mistress to serve; however, the family was very prominent and wealthy.
John Ashley was an active and a leading member of the community during these times even being appointed as a judge in the Court of Common Pleas making his home a notorious place where political discussions often occurred. The Ashley farm was known for being the biggest house in town and John Ashley himself was a massive supporter of the American Revolution. He was Yale educated with a law degree under his belt. It is because of this discussion that first sparked Elizabeth’s interest in freedom and what was occurring in the colonies as states began drafting their own constitution claiming that all men were equal and had basic rights that could not be taken away from them.
Slaves working in the Ashley house had to be expected to work at any hour tending to the fire, cooking, cleaning, spinning, sewing, hauling water and ash. They were expected to serve all household guest and be at their call to care for their comforts. Slavery is a huge injustice and often layered in pure unacceptable violence. Elizabeth was like any slave and had her fair share of this misery. Hannah Ashley was a temperamental and mean lady. An article in the Elizabeth Freeman Center makes clear of a moment where Hannah Ashley inflicted damaging injuries to her slaves.
“During her period of enslavement to them, she married and had a child, Betsy. In 1780, Mrs. Ashley struck at Betsy with a heated shovel, but Bet shielded her daughter, receiving a deep wound in her arm in the process. Bet left this wound uncovered as it healed, as evidence of her harsh treatment.”
[The Colonel John Ashley House]
Slaves were commonly illiterate and uneducated. Elizabeth Freeman was no exception and never received any schooling; however, as reported by the Ashley House Museum there was a way to gain knowledge. Elizabeth despite her enslavement did have the ability to listen to the discussion around her and was able to gain ideas from that learning.
“While working in the Ashley home, Bett educated herself by “keeping still and minding things” while prominent Sheffield men discussed politics in the study. In this way, she heard the words of the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution, which declared that “all men are born free and equal.”
Bett understood that those words meant that she, too, had a right to be free and equal. In 1781 she met with lawyer Theodore Sedgwick and asked him to represent her in a lawsuit. Sedgwick agreed.Brom, a man enslaved to Col. Ashley’s son, also joined the suit. The higher legal and social status of men meant that the case was more likely to be taken seriously with Brom involved.
In May 1781, Bett and Brom sued for the right to own themselves in the case now known as Brom and Bett vs. Ashley. Sedgwick argued that Ashley did not own Bett and Brom because slavery was unlawful under the new constitution.”
The court case was not motivated to directly target John Ashley for breaking any known laws, it instead challenged the legality of the entire institution of slavery in the state of Massachusetts with the goal of winning well deserved freedom for the defendants.
In “The Practicability of the Abolition of Slavery,” a lecture delivered fifty years after the event, Henry Dwight Sedgwick, one of Theodore Sedgwick’s ten children, recalled the episode.
“Slavery in New-York and New-England,” he first explained, “was so masked, that but a slight difference could be perceived in the condition of slaves and hired servants. … The younger slaves not only ate and drank, but played with the children. They thus became familiar companions with each other. The black women were cooks and nurses, and as such assisted by their mistresses. … In this state of familiar intercourse, instances of cruelty were uncommon, and … caused a degree of indignation not much less than if committed upon a freeman.
“Under this condition of society, while Mum Bett resided in the family of Col. Ashley, she received a severe wound in a generous attempt to shield her sister. Her mistress in a fit of passion [had] resorted to a degree and mode of violence very uncommon in this country: she struck at the weak and timid [Lizzie] with a heated kitchen shovel: Mum Bett interposed her arm, and received the blow; and she bore the honorable scar it left to the day of her death.”
The case was set in motion because Elizabeth had runaway and refused to return to her master. As stated in the Women’s History Blog, there was no way to force her to return so John Ashley petitioned the courts for the return of his “property” but ultimately would fail. Theodore Sedgwick was prepared to defend his clients to his fullest abilities.
“The case of Brom and Bett v. Ashley was heard in August 1781 before the County Court of Common Pleas in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Sedgwick and Reeve asserted that the constitutional provision that “all men are born free and equal” abolished slavery in the state.
The Ashley were represented by David Noble, who subsequently became a judge, and John Canfield, a respected lawyer from Sharon, Connecticut. They argued that “the said Brom and Bett, are and were at the time of Issuing the original Writ [of replevin], the legal Negro Servants of the said John Ashley during their Lives” and that this could be proved; thus the suit should be dismissed. Sedgwick and Reeve countered by pleading: “(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, the jury ruled in Freeman’s favor, and she became the first African-American woman to be set free under the Massachusetts Constitution. The jury found that “…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…”
Once Elizabeth Freeman earned the rights natural to any living person, she was also awarded thirty shillings in damages but this didn’t end the problem of what to do next. Many free slaves often ended up working for the masters regardless of freedom because choices and options were limited. The freed slave needed to earn an income for a place to live, food, and general survival leading to the need for employment.
John Ashley offered to hire Elizabeth Freeman as a paid household servant but that request was outright refused because she chose instead to work for the lawyer who defended her case. Elizabeth Freeman worked for Theodore Sedgwick and his second wife Ms. Pamela Dwight. The Ashley House Museum notes that Elizabeth Freeman was also a very pivotal person that aided in the health and care of Pamela Sedgwick.
“Once freed, Elizabeth Freeman had no property, little savings, and few options. But, for the first time, she was free to choose where to live and work. Col. Ashley offered her a position as a paid servant, but Freeman turned him down, and instead chose to work for Theodore Sedgwick. Freeman and her daughter Betsy moved with the Sedgwicks to Stockbridge. As head servant, Freeman nursed Theodore Sedgwick’s ailing wife Pamela and helped raise the couple’s seven children. “
Theodore Sedgwick (May 9th, 1746 to January 24, 1813)
Elizabeth Freeman became a valued member of the Sedgwick family as a servant and governess to Theodore and Pamela’s children. The Eldest Sedgwick daughter of the couple named Catherine Maria is said to have called Ms. Freeman “mumbet” from early childhood and later went on to write many papers about the life of her governess as a former slave who legally obtained freedom. Catharine Sedgwick would become a well know author of her time and has given a contemporary account of Ms. Elizabeth Freeman’s well lived life.
Freeman’s history shows that after about thirty years of being a servant for the Sedgwick, she eventually bought her own home. This was after her charges had grown and left their family home. Reports from the Elizabeth Freeman Center indicate that she mapped out a life for herself as helpful and useful person for those in her community always willing to assist those in need especially assisting those who were in bad health.
“As a free woman, Bet took the name Elizabeth Freeman. She worked as a governess in the Sedgwick household until the Sedgwick children were grown, and then she and Betsy bought and moved into their own house in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where she was widely recognized and in demand for her skills as a healer, midwife, and nurse.”
The purchase of her own property would occur in 1803, about twenty-two years after earning her own freedom. Throughout the years Elizabeth Freeman welcomed her children and their families to live on the 19-acre farm. The place was big enough and at certain points housed four generations of Freeman’s family along with close friends that had been invited to stay and live on the property. Elizabeth Freeman eventually became the second wealthiest black landowner in the area and truly paved the way for others to pursue their own cases for Freedom and thus effectively set the tone to end slavery in the state of Massachusetts during a time when nobody would have imagined it possible.
Elizabeth Freeman was a courageous, stubborn, and hardworking woman whose intelligence preserved through enslavement. At the age of eighty-five the world lost a valuable soul. The Ashley House Museum explains that she knew death was inevitable and this made her want to ensure a last will and testament was in place for her descendants to protect the property she owned so they could continue to be supported.
“On October 18, 1829, at the age of 85 and in poor health, Elizabeth Freeman created her last will and testament. She could not read or write, so she dictated it to a lawyer. She died two months later on December 28.A woman filing a will in the 19th century was unusual. A woman’s property legally belonged to her father or husband, unless she was widowed or not married, like Freeman. And most African Americans did not own much property, so they had had little reason to write a will.
Elizabeth Freeman’s will testifies to her incredible life journey. When she was enslaved, she did not even own herself. But by her life’s end, Freeman owned far more property than many of her neighbors.
Just two of Freeman’s possessions remain today: her gold beaded necklace and a miniature portrait showing Freeman wearing the beads. Few 19th-century Americans ever had their portraits painted. In fact, no portrait of Col. John Ashley survives. Sedgwick descendents donated the necklace and portrait to the Massachusetts Historical Society. They remain there, alongside the papers of presidents, governors, and Revolutionary heroes – further evidence of Freeman’s unusual life and lasting impact.”
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- Elizabeth Freeman (Mum Bett) 1742 – 1829 (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part2/2p39.html
- Elizabeth Freeman. (2017, April 02). Retrieved from http://www.womenhistoryblog.com/2011/02/elizabeth-freeman.html
- BlackPast. (2019, February 06). Elizabeth Freeman (Mum Bett) (1742-1829) • BlackPast. Retrieved from https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/freeman-elizabeth-mum-bett-1742-1829/
- Elizabeth Freeman, Illiterate Slave, Wins Freedom and Honor. (2014, August 14). Retrieved from http://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/elizabeth-freeman-illiterate-slave-wins-freedom-honor/
- Jury Decides in Favor of Elizabeth. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.massmoments.org/moment-details/jury-decides-in-favor-of-elizabeth-mum-bett-freeman.html
- Elizabeth Freeman Center/ Who We Are: Elizabeth Freeman. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.elizabethfreemancenter.org/who-we-are/elizabeth-freeman/
- Elizabeth Freeman: Fighting for Freedom (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.thetrustees.org/places-to-visit/berkshires/ashley-house.html
- Zilversmit, A. (1971). Mumbet: Folklore and Fact. Retrieved from https://berkshirehistory.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Mumbet-Folklore-and-Fact-by-Arthur-Zilversmit-1971.pdf