Born 1744? (Claverack, New York?)
Died December 28, 1829 (Stockbridge, Massachusetts)
Slave, freewoman, nursemaid, nanny, housekeeper
On December 6, 1865, eight months after the conclusion of the American Civil War (1861–65), Congress ratified the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, banning slavery in the United States. Eighty-four years earlier, in 1781, a determined black slave, Elizabeth Freeman, brought a lawsuit against her master, John Ashley, in a Massachusetts county court and won her freedom.
Freeman could neither read nor write, but she had listened attentively to community leaders' discussions about freedom at meetings held in Ashley's Sheffield, Massachusetts, home. In the spring of 1781, she happened to hear a reading of the Declaration of Independence at a town meeting. She reasoned that the Declaration's statements about freedom and equality applied to her along with everyone else living on American soil. Careful consideration of the ideas expressed in the Declaration prompted Freeman to file her lawsuit seeking freedom.
"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."
From 1781 until her death in 1829, Freeman lived as a free woman. She was employed in the home of lawyer Theodore Sedgwick (1746–1813), who had represented her in court. Her case on its own did not abolish slavery in Massachusetts, but it helped set a court record for freeing slaves. A series of cases concerning Quock Walker, a slave living in Barre, Massachusetts, led to the banning of slavery in the state in 1783 (see box).
Freeman left no record of her life, no letters or diaries. Instead, those who knew her wrote what historians have learned of her life. Catharine Sedgwick (1789–1867), daughter of Theodore and one of the children Freeman helped raise in the Sedgwick home, wrote a brief biography of Freeman. Members of the Sedgwick household called Freeman "Mammy Bet" ("Bet" was short for Elizabeth), and at some point Freeman acquired the nickname Mumbet, most likely a children's mispronunciation of Mammy Bet. Freeman became known as Mumbet throughout the community.
The end of slavery in Massachusetts came about after a series of legal cases concerning Quock Walker, a slave in Barre, Massachusetts. Although the 1780 Massachusetts constitution did not specifically ban slavery, the state's supreme court ruled in 1783 that slavery was inconsistent with the constitution's Declaration of Human Rights. This decision served notice that slavery would no longer be supported by Massachusetts state courts.
Quock Walker was ten years old when his original master, Mr. Caldwell, died. Caldwell had promised Quock that he would free him at the age of twenty-four or twenty-five. After Mr. Caldwell's death, Quock became the property of Mrs. Caldwell, who promised him his freedom at age twenty-one. Mrs. Caldwell then married Nathaniel Jennison. Jennison refused to abide by the promises and would not free Quock. In the spring of 1781, a few months before Elizabeth Freeman won her suit, Quock ran away from Jennison to a farm owned by John Caldwell, brother of Quock's original master. John Caldwell agreed to hire Quock as a paid laborer on his farm.
Jennison found Quock and with several friends severely beat him and took him back to his farm. In June 1781, Quock sued Jennison for assault and battery and for his freedom. In Quock Walker v. Jennison, the county court ruled in favor of Walker. The court decided that Walker had been promised freedom by his former owner and that it was a contract that could not be broken without Walker's approval. Therefore, Walker was legally a freeman (a citizen with full rights) and not a slave of Jennison; it also awarded Walker financial damages.
Angered, Jennison then sued Caldwell for interfering with his property (Walker) and stealing the slave from him. In Jennison v. Caldwell, the lower court ruled in favor of Jennison and awarded him 25 pounds in damages. However, in an appeal of the case, the decision was reversed; the court ruled that Caldwell was not guilty. The final case came before the Massachusetts Supreme Court in 1783. In Commonwealth v. Jennison, Jennison was charged with assault and battery against Walker. The attorney general argued that the promises of freedom made to Walker made him a freeman; therefore, Jennison had attacked a freeman, not a runaway slave.
The court ruled against Jennison and against slavery. Chief Justice William Cushing (1732–1810) eloquently explained the court's decision in the following words (reprinted from Mumbet: The Life and Times of Elizabeth Freeman by Mary Wilds): "I think the idea of slavery is inconsistent with our conduct and constitution and there can be no such thing as perpetual servitude of a rational creature."
Elizabeth Freeman was most likely born in Claverack, New York, in 1744 and brought as an infant to the home of John and Hannah Ashley in Sheffield, Massachusetts. Freeman apparently was owned by Hannah's family, the wealthy Hogebooms of Claverack, and sold or transferred to the Ashleys. No birth certificate or record of sale exists, so it is impossible to know Freeman's precise birthday or time of arrival in Sheffield.
While Freeman was living at the Ashley house, she got married and had a baby daughter. It is unclear when she took the name Freeman—perhaps when she married, perhaps after her husband's death. Freeman's husband fought and died in the American Revolution (1775–83), America's war for independence from British rule. His name is not known. No one officially recorded Freeman's marriage or the birth of her daughter; records were generally not kept for slaves. While deeds of sale were sometimes recorded, a slave's birth, marriage, and death dates were not.
Slavery in Massachusetts
Slaves were considered property, items that could be bought and sold. In 1765, only 5,298 slaves lived in Massachusetts, 2.2 percent of the colony's population. In her writings, Catharine Sedgwick explained that most slaveowners in Massachusetts treated their slaves with parental kindness. Masters and slaves had clearly defined duties, but they often worked side by side; their children played together; and everyone ate the same food.
Slaves enjoyed a few legal rights in Massachusetts. They could own some personal property, generally clothing. A master could not take away a slave's property. Instead, he was required to purchase it if he wanted it. If a master unlawfully took a slave's property, the slave could sue in court for its return and have the case go before a jury. Slaves could also sue a master if he had promised freedom to the slave at a future date and then refused to grant the freedom when the time came. The right to sue had been used infrequently but successfully by slaves in the state since the early 1700s, and Freeman had heard about their lawsuits.
The Ashley home
John Ashley Jr. was a prominent and well-liked citizen of Sheffield. He was a well-educated man who worked as a lawyer. He also owned a gristmill (a mill that crushes wheat into flour), a cider mill, and ironworks, and he had acquired considerable property in and around the community. By nature, Ashley was kind, generous, forgiving, and tolerant, and by all accounts he treated his slaves well. The Ashley house was large and elegant and provided a comfortable home for John, his wife, their four children, and the slaves who belonged to the household.
Ashley's wife, Hannah, was a fiery and demanding mistress. A slave's smallest mistake could throw Hannah into a rage. An example of that ill temper involved Freeman. Her sister Lizzie also lived at the Ashley house and Freeman was highly protective of her. One day, Lizzie was hungry and stole some food left over from the Ashleys' meal. This infuriated Hannah. She grabbed a red-hot fireplace shovel and was ready to strike Lizzie with it, but Freeman jumped between them and received the blow instead. It cut her arm to the bone. As Freeman's wound healed, it left a terrible scar. Although Hannah apologized, Freeman rather enjoyed replying to inquiries about her wound by saying "ask missus."
John Ashley's prominence in the community led him to be elected moderator or leader of Sheffield's town meetings. In Massachusetts, town meetings were held to decide important community and colony matters. After discussing a particular issue or problem, eligible voters could vote to determine a final decision or solution. Meetings other than town meetings were held in the huge library at John Ashley's house and attended by prominent Sheffield citizens. In the winter of 1772–73, such a meeting took place and resulted in the writing of the Sheffield Declaration of Independence, which was then adopted at a town meeting on January 12, 1773. This document is considered the first formal declaration of independence from Britain written by American colonists. The Sheffield citizens who wrote it declared that humans should be free and equal.
While serving the guests at the Ashley house meetings, she overheard considerable talk of freedom and equality. Throughout the eventful 1770s, she listened. She heard discussions about Sheffield's Declaration of Independence and America's Declaration of Independence from Britain in 1776. The American Revolution began in 1775; colonies, by then calling themselves states, looked to the day when they would be independent of Britain. Massachusetts approved its state constitution in 1780. It contained the words "all men are created equal." Yet slavery remained in place; whites still owned black slaves and clearly did not consider them to be equals. But despite her slave status, Freeman felt inferior to no one. She was a determined person and was now close to taking action on her own behalf. Catharine Sedgwick, in Wilds's book, described Freeman:
Action was the law of her nature—conscious of superiority to all around her, a state of servitude was intolerable. It was not the work, work was play to her. Her power of executive [carrying out the tasks of the household] was marvelous. Nor was it awe of her kind master or fear of her despotic [tyrannical] mistress. But it was the gulling [tugging] of the harness [that motivated her], the irrepressible longing for liberty.
Taking action: a lawsuit for freedom
In the spring of 1781, Freeman happened to hear a reading of America's Declaration of Independence. The next day, she went to the law office of Theodore Sedgwick, who was considered the leading attorney in Sheffield. Sedgwick would one day become Speaker of the House in the Massachusetts state legislature and later a justice on the Massachusetts Supreme Court.
Mumbet presented her case simply. She told Sedgwick she had heard many of Ashley's guests speak of equality and freedom for all people, that they believed people were all born free and equal. She also told him she had heard the words of the nation's Declaration of Independence. In her proud and forthright manner, she told Sedgwick she was not dumb and that the law should grant her freedom. Sedgwick was a neighbor and good friend of John Ashley, but despite this friendship, he decided to take on Freeman's case. Historians suggest he wanted to challenge slavery in his state and believed Freeman's case might be winnable. Connecticut lawyer Tapping Reeve (1744–1823), one of the best attorneys in America at the time and Sedgwick's mentor (teacher), agreed to help Sedgwick and Freeman in a lawsuit for Mumbet's freedom.
Sedgwick filed the suit in the Berkshire County Court of Common Pleas on May 28, 1781. He filed on behalf of Freeman and another of Ashley's slaves, known as Brom, who also desired his freedom. Sedgwick argued that Freeman and Brom were not lawful property of his neighbors, the Ashleys, because slavery itself was not lawful. Other suits for freedom brought by slaves in Massachusetts had been based on slaveowners' broken promises of freedom. Ashley had never promised Mumbet or Brom freedom, so the court would have to decide whether slavery itself was unlawful.
Sedgwick asked that Ashley release the two slaves. Ashley was a kindly person, but he had no intention of releasing his slaves; he considered them his rightful property. The court soon ordered their release and set a jury trial date for August 21, 1781. The case was recorded as Brom and Bett v. J. Ashley, Esq.
Before the jury, Sedgwick argued that no law had established slavery. He said laws that seemed to support slavery were in error and pointed out that the new Massachusetts constitution would negate any such laws. The jury quickly decided that Brom and Freeman were not legal slaves of Ashley. Ashley was ordered to pay 30 shillings (British monetary unit) to each and to pay court costs. Freeman had won her freedom.
Joining the Sedgwicks
Theodore Sedgwick hired Freeman to run his busy and demanding household. Paid as a household servant and nanny, she lived the rest of her long life as a free woman. As Sedgwick advanced in his public career, he was often in Boston and entrusted his family to Freeman. She managed the Sedgwick household, including the ten Sedgwick children, with efficiency and care.
Sedgwick's wife and mother of his children, Pamela, apparently experienced bouts of depression or some other type of mental illness. Catharine Sedgwick wrote that Freeman became Pamela's best friend and, except for her husband, the only one who could soothe her. Freeman lovingly and firmly raised the Sedgwick children. They in turn loved and respected her, considering her a member of their family.
Economic troubles for farmers
By 1785, economic troubles had beset the nation's farmers, who made up over 90 percent of the population. Farmers in the Northern states were hardest hit. During the American Revolution, they supplied food to the South, because the war had disrupted food production there. After the war ended, however, Southerners no longer needed to buy food from the North. As a result, Northern farmers experienced a severe drop in income. Further, many farmers who had fought in the war were waiting for payments for their service, promised by the national government. They were depending on this money to repay wealthy private citizens who had loaned them money for their land, tools, and seed. But despite its promise, the government did not send the war veterans any payments.
In Massachusetts, the situation escalated to a crisis when the wealthy lenders demanded that farmers repay their loans. The farmers asked the government and courts for help, but none was forthcoming. In August 1786, Massachusetts farmers took matters into their own hands. Led by war veteran and farmer Captain Daniel Shays (c. 1747–1825), they began marching across Massachusetts and protesting in front of state courts. The activity became known as Shays's Rebellion. Armed with pitchforks, boards, and old muskets, they closed courts in Concord, Great Barrington, Northhampton, Worcester, and Springfield. They intended to force state leaders to respond to their plight. The wealthy citizens of Massachusetts, the people who had loaned the farmers money and never been repaid, considered these men mere scoundrels and feared that mob rule would take over the state.
The rebellious farmers were soon joined by thieves and troublemakers, who began to loot the homes of the wealthy. One of the places the looters struck was Stockbridge, the town where the Sedgwicks had recently moved. When the looters came to the Sedgwick home, Freeman acted as defender and protector and met them at the front door with a steely expression on her face. She had herded the little Sedgwicks into their mother's room and hidden a few family valuables in her own clothes chest. The rebels entered the home and demanded fine liquor, but Freeman served them old bitter beer, pretending that this was the best beverage in the Sedgwick home. When they spit it out, Freeman sarcastically commented that she was not surprised that they had no taste for gentlemen's drink. When they could not find any valuables in the house, they saw Freeman's clothes chest and demanded she open it. She again outsmarted them, shaming them into backing down. She reminded them of ugly names they called her because of her skin color and chided them for now wanting to go through her things. The men left having done no damage to the home.
On another occasion the captain of a group of rebels came to the Sedgwick home to steal Sedgwick's fine gray mare, Jenny Gray. Freeman managed to open a gate and send her galloping away out of the reach of the captain. However, as Catharine Sedgwick reported, Jenny Gray was stolen from the stable one night and was last seen being ridden by a rebel leader into the state of New York as he fled the law.
A settled, comfortable life
Freeman's life settled down after Shays's Rebellion. She continued to run the Sedgwick household, and she lived comfortably. She loved fine fabric and silk clothing. With money she had saved, Freeman eventually purchased a small house of her own. Her biological family—a daughter, a granddaughter, three great-granddaughters, and a great-grandson—reportedly lived nearby and played a central role in her life as she aged. When Freeman was in her sixties, Susan Sedgwick, the wife of Theodore Sedgwick Jr., painted a small portrait of her. The portrait is in the Massachusetts Historical Society's permanent collection.
Freeman was a well-known, respected, and beloved member of the Stockbridge community. When she died on December 28, 1829, she was buried near the center of the Sedgwick family's circular plot in the Stockbridge cemetery. Charles Sedgwick, one of the Sedgwick children raised by Freeman, wrote the following words, which were inscribed on her marble gravestone (the stone can still be viewed in the Stockbridge cemetery):
ELIZABETH FREEMAN, (known by the name of Mum-bet), died Dec. 28th, 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 neither superior nor equal: She neither wasted time, or 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!
By her own determined efforts, Freeman won her freedom and fashioned a comfortable life. She filed her suit eight decades before slavery was banned in the United States and nearly two centuries before the American civil rights movement sought equal rights for African Americans in the United States. At the time Freeman sued for her freedom, women could not vote, serve on juries, or run for any political office. Her courageous effort in 1781 helped end slavery in Massachusetts and ultimately throughout the United States.
For More Information
Bennett, Lerone, Jr. Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America. 7th ed. Chicago: Johnson Pub., 2003.
Felton, Harold W. Mumbet: The Story of Elizabeth Freeman. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1970.
Kaplan, Sidney, and Emma Nogrady Kaplan. The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution. Rev. ed. Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 1989.
Wilds, Mary. Mumbet: The Life and Times of Elizabeth Freeman: The True Story of a Slave Who Won Her Freedom. Greensboro, NC: Avisson Press, 1999.
The Massachusetts Historical Society.http://www.masshist.org (accessed on August 13, 2005).
"Slavery in New England." Sedgwick Society.http://www.salemstate.edu/imc/sedgwick/slavery.html (accessed on August 13, 2005).