This Day in History: Mum Bett fights slavery in Massachusetts
On this day in 1829, Elizabeth Freeman passes away. The woman better known as “Mum Bett” was the first woman to be declared free from slavery under the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780. That document joined the Declaration of Independence in declaring: “All men are born free and equal.”
In 1781, with mere months left in the American Revolution, Mum Bett decided to put those words to the test—in court. It couldn’t have been easy. Her owner, Colonel John Ashley, was a powerful judge in Sheffield, Massachusetts.
Interestingly, though, one of Ashley’s own projects may have prompted Mum Bett into action. Ashley was among those who worked on a 1773 document known as the Sheffield Declaration. Did Mum Bett overhear some of these conversations? Some historians think so.
“Mankind in a state of nature are equal, free, and independent of each other,” the Sheffield Declaration affirmed, “and have a right to the undisturbed enjoyment of their lives, their liberty and property.”
On the other hand, maybe an incident involving Mrs. Ashley pushed Mum Bett over the edge. Reportedly, Mrs. Ashley flew into a rage and tried to hit a slave named Lizzie with a hot kitchen shovel. The record is unclear, but it appears that Lizzie was either Mum Bett’s sister or daughter.
Mum Bett was quick on her feet. She intervened, preventing the blow from hitting its intended target. Mrs. Ashley struck and injured Mum Bett’s arm instead.
It was the last straw. Mum Bett couldn’t take it anymore. “Anytime,” Mum Bett later recollected, “anytime 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.”
Mum Bett ran away. She sought help from Theodore Sedgwick, a local attorney whom she may have known because of his work on the Sheffield Declaration. Sedgwick agreed to represent both Mum Bett and another slave by the name of Brom.
The surviving court records are not entirely clear, but it appears that Mum Bett’s main argument was that she wasn’t a “legal” servant of Ashley and that any law enabling him to make such a claim was “annulled by the new Constitution.”
In other words, she was claiming that the institution of slavery was illegal under the new Massachusetts Constitution. Thus, Mum Bett could not be a “legal” servant of Ashley, nor could he could not demand her return.
A jury agreed. Mum Bett was free! She renamed herself Elizabeth Freeman.
The Ashleys tried to get Mum Bett back as a paid domestic worker, but Mum Bett refused. Instead, she went to work for the Sedgwicks. She came to be a much loved member of that household. In fact, when she passed away in 1829, the family had her buried in the Sedgwick family plot.
Perhaps the tombstone that they created for her says it best:
“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, farewell!”
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Arthur Zilversmit, Quok Walker, Mumbet, and the Abolition of Slavery in Massachusetts (William and Mary Quarterly; Oct. 1968)
August 22, 1781: Jury Decides in Favor of Elizabeth “Mum Bett” Freeman (MassHumanities website)
Douglas R. Egerton, Death Or Liberty: African Americans and Revolutionary America (2009)
Jon Swan, The Slave Who Sued For Freedom (American Heritage; March 1990)
Massachusetts Constitution and the Abolition of Slavery (Commonwealth of Massachusetts website)
Mike Lee, Written Out of History: The Forgotten Founders Who Fought Big Government (2017)
The Oxford Handbook of the American Revolution (Edward G. Gray & Jane Kamensky eds. 2012)