Elizabeth Freeman couldn’t read the Massachusetts Constitution, but she understood its declaration that ‘all men are free and equal’ applied to her.
Though an illiterate slave, she went to court to prove the correctness of her view. In August of 1781, she won. Her case set the legal precedent that abolished slavery in Massachusetts.
Born a slave around 1742, she served in the household of John Ashley, a wealthy patriot in Sheffield, Mass. Her nickname, ‘Bett,’ evolved into ‘Mumbett.’ She married and had a daughter, Betsy. Her husband then died fighting the American Revolution.
Ashley’s wife Hannah harshly treated Mumbett and her daughter. Once, when Hannah Ashley tried to strike Betsy, Mumbett stood between them and suffered a deep wound to her arm.
Revolutionaries gathered at the Ashley home, the birthplace of the Sheffield Resolves in 1773. The Resolves anticipated the Declaration of Independence. Mumbett overheard the patriots’ discussions of freedom and equality.
Free and Equal
After Massachusetts approved the Constitution of the Commonwealth in 1780, she went to Ashley’s friend Theodore Sedgwick. Mumbett asked him to help her assert her right to freedom under Article I. John Adams, who opposed slavery, had written it.
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.
Sedgwick, an abolitionist, had written the Sheffield Resolves. He agreed to take Mumbett’s case along with Brom, another Ashley slave. Sedgwick then enlisted Tapping Reeve to argue the case. (Reeve established the country’s first law school in Litchfield, Conn.)
The lawyers then argued their freedom suit in the county common pleas court in Great Barrington, Mass. The jury sided with Mumbett and Brom. Not only did the jury declare Mumbett free, it ordered compensation for her labor.
The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts then upheld the decision in later freedom suits, effectively abolishing slavery in the commonwealth.
After Mumbett gained her freedom, she 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 airth [sic] a free woman— I would.
She took the name Elizabeth Freeman and went to work for the Sedgwicks as governess and head servant. She also had three more children. The Sedgwicks esteemed her as a healer, nurse and midwife. One of the Sedgwick children, Catharine, grew up into a widely read novelist and wrote about Elizabeth Freeman’s life.
Good Mother, Farewell
In 1808, Elizabeth Freeman and a daughter bought their own house in Stockbridge, Mass.
She died Dec. 28, 1829 at about 85 years old, and the Sedgwicks buried her in the family plot in Stockbridge. The Sedgwicks provided a tombstone that read,
“ELIZABETH FREEMAN, left behind 4 children but is also known by the name of MUMBET died Dec. 28th 1829.”
The epitaph continues, “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.”
Further, it said, “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.”
The Col. John Ashley House is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Photo: ‘Mum Bett, aka Elizabeth Freeman, aged 70.’ Painted by Susan Ridley Sedgwick, aged 23. Watercolor on ivory, painted circa 1812. Photo courtesy of Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. Detail, ‘Theodore Sedgwick,’ by Edgar Parker. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. John Ashley home By I, Daderot, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2523950.
This story was updated in 2020.