All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of employing and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.
These words from the Massachusetts Constitution, ratified June 15, 1780, seem obvious to Americans today, but they were at the center of a Massachusetts county court case in August 1781. The case involved an enslaved woman named Bett, or Mum Bett, who worked in the home of John Ashley, a prominent landowner, lawyer, businessman and leader in Sheffield, Massachusetts. His home was the site of political discussions and activities during the Revolution, including a meeting that resulted in the writing of the 1773 Sheffield Resolves, a petition against British tyranny and a manifesto of individual liberty.
Had Bett, who was illiterate, overheard these discussions of liberty? Or did she hear the reading of the Massachusetts Constitution in the public square? However she learned of it, Bett was determined that if all people were born free and equal, she was too.
Following a confrontation with Mrs. Ashley that resulted in a deep wound in her arm, Bett left the home and refused to return. When John Ashley went to court to claim his property, Bett found attorney and abolitionist Theodore Sedgwick to help sue in open court for her freedom, and that of another enslaved person in the household. The case of Brom and Bett v. Ashley was heard before the Great Barrington, Massachusetts, county court, with Sedgewick arguing that slavery was inherently illegal under the newly ratified Massachusetts Constitution. The jury was convinced and ruled in Bett’s favor on August 22, 1781. She became the first African-American woman to be set free under the Massachusetts Constitution. The jury also ordered that Ashley pay her damages of 30 shillings and the court costs.
This county court case set an important precedent. The Massachusetts Supreme Court soon ruled in another case involving an enslaved man, Quock Walker, that slavery was unconstitutional in Massachusetts. Bett’s freedom was ensured. With no legal support for the institution, slavery in Massachusetts gradually eroded over the next decade.
What happened to Bett? Bett took the name Elizabeth Freeman and worked as a paid housekeeper and governess in the home of Theodore Sedgwick and his wife Pamela, first in Sheffield and later in Stockbridge. She was well known as a midwife and nurse in her community. Bett single-handedly defended the Sedgwick house from a small mob of rebels during Shay’s Rebellion in 1787, while Sedgwick himself was away working to end the rebellion. In later years, Bett gained a level of financial independence and bought her own small house. Little is know of her own family, but her will reveals she was once married and had children. When she died, she was buried in the Sedgwick family plot in Stockbridge. They provided a tombstone that reads:
ELIZABETH FREEMAN, known by the name of MUMBET died Dec. 28 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 nor 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, fare well.