Whenever she served food and drink to her master and his friends, the slave named Bett listened carefully to the political discussions. She heard the guests claim that all men were created equal and she could not help but wonder if that meant her too.
Born a slave in Claverack, New York, Bett was a wedding gift at age seven, when her master’s daughter married Colonel John Ashley, a judge and selectman in Sheffield, Massachusetts. She served the Ashley household for many years during which time she married and had a daughter. Her husband was killed in battle during the Revolutionary War.
One day in 1780, Mistress Ashley caught another slave in the act of stealing bread. Bett prevented their mistress from striking the girl with a shovel, hot from the hearth. By intervening to protect her fellow slave, however, Bett suffered a severe cut on her arm. She ran from the Ashley home to a neighbor’s house but kept the wound uncovered as evidence of the abuse.
“I had a bad arm all winter,’ she would explain. “But Madam had the worst of it. I never covered it, and when people said to me, ‘What ails your arm?’ I answered – ‘ask missis!'”
When Colonel Ashley appealed to the law to reclaim his property and force Bett to return to his home, she sought the counsel of Theodore Sedgwick, a young lawyer who had been present at many gatherings in the Ashley house.
When Sedgwick asked Bett why she thought she should be free, she said she’d “heard about the Bill of Rights and the new Massachusetts’ constitution that said all men were born free and equal and after thinking long and hard about it, decided she would see whether she did not come in among them.”
“So, won’t the law give me my freedom?” Bett asked Sedgwick. She was determined to obtain her freedom now based on these documents. Sedgwick agreed to take her case, along with that of Brom, another slave of Ashley’s, using the defense “all men are born free and equal.” The case of Brom and Bett v. Ashley was heard before the County Court of Common Pleas in Great Barrington. Theodore Sedgwick based his case on two arguments. The first was that there was no law in Massachusetts that ever established slavery. And second, that even if such a law existed, it would be annulled by the new Constitution.
The court found that the state Constitution of 1780 nullified slavery, according to Article I: “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.”
The jury ruled in Bett’s favor, and she became the first African American woman set free under the Massachusetts constitution. The jury found that Brom and Bett had been illegally detained in servitude by the Ashleys and awarded Bett compensation for her years of labor from the age of twenty-one. Judge Ashley was ordered to pay damages of thirty shillings and costs, and she became a free woman, taking the new name, Elizabeth Freeman. She took a job for wages in the Sedgwick home until 1808, where she was senior servant and governess to the Sedgwick children. It was these children who called her Mum Bett. Catharine Sedgwick grew up to become a successful author and wrote an account of the freed slave’s life. Elizabeth Freeman was widely admired for her skills as midwife and nurse, and eventually, she and her daughter set up a house of their own.
Judge Theodore Sedgwick, later a member of Congress and state supreme court justice, called the former slave “a practical refutation of the imagined superiority of our race to hers.”
Years later, regarding her court case, Bett famously said: “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 to stand one minute on God’s earth a free woman, I would.
When Elizabeth Freeman died in 1829 at about 87 years, she was buried in the Sedgwick family plot in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Her tombstone reads: ‘ 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.’
I thought this short bio was a great addition to what we know about the struggles and achievements of lesser-known African Americans before, during, and after the Civil War. I’d love to know more about the ways white gentlemen did think about the “humanness” of their slaves and the status of women when they are sitting around the dining table talking about the rights of “men”. Elizabeth’s powers of observation also reinforce the comment often made these days that black people spend more time observing white people than vice versa! I wish I’d learned whether Elizabeth’s husband had died fighting for North or South as there were some black Southern soldiers – another great research question is “What brought these black men to fight for their oppressors?” I was also moved by the image of Elizabeth as a fugitive having to only observe her children playing outside her window. And I wondered – did they know she was in hiding? What might Elizabeth’s thoughts and feelings have been then? A good read that moves me to more thinking about the lives of such unsung heroes.