“All men are born free and equal.”
— Massachusetts Constitution of 1780
“I heard that paper read yesterday. Won’t the law give me my freedom?”
— Elizabeth Freeman
Bet had never known freedom. Born as a slave on a farm in New York state, her owner had given her as a wedding gift to his daughter when Bet was just 7 years old. She moved with the bride to a new home in Massachusetts, married, and had a child. Her new owner, Col. John Ashley, was a prominent figure in his community, and the local men of political influence frequently gathered at Ashley’s home during and after the Revolutionary War.
Bet’s husband left to fight in the revolution and was killed in action. Now a young widow, she was often present in the home when people gathered in the Ashley residence to discuss politics. And there, she frequently overheard discussions about the drafting of the new Massachusetts state constitution.
It was 1780 when the final draft of the document was read aloud during a meeting in the Ashley home. One of the passages struck Bet like a bolt of lightning. It read, “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 words stuck with her, and she ran them over and over again in her mind. Finally, she worked up the nerve to ask Col. Ashley whether those words applied to her, as well. Though Ashley had a reputation as a kind man, he explained that the document did not apply to slaves.
But Bet wasn’t convinced. On a warm day in the summer of 1781, she packed a bag, and carrying her young child, she walked four miles to the home of a man whom she frequently saw during those meetings at the Colonel’s house — a lawyer by the name of Theodore Sedgwick. He knew who she was and was shocked to see her standing there. When he asked why she had come to his home, she replied, “I want you to go to the law and make me free.” Sedgwick told her that he was unsure how Massachusetts courts would rule, and she reminded him that when the passage had been read aloud in the Ashley home, he was one who exclaimed, “Good! The Supreme law of Massachusetts.”
He told her that he would consider it, but that he had to see her home to Col. Ashley’s for the time being. The more he thought about her situation, the more he became convinced that the Massachusetts Constitution had to apply to everyone. He enlisted the help of another prominent local lawyer, Tapping Reeve, and made the decision to sue his friend Col. Ashley for Bet’s freedom.
The case went to trial in August of 1781, and Ashley enlisted the financial support of other local slave owners, eventually hiring high-powered lawyers of his own. All the while, Bet had to continue to serve Col. Ashley in his home. The case was eventually submitted to a jury, which concluded that the newly adopted Massachusetts Constitution could only be read to strictly prohibit one person from owning another. They ordered Bet’s freedom and awarded her financial remuneration, both for her years of service, and her costs in bringing her case.
Every person involved in the matter had significant connections to history. Bet took the name Elizabeth Freeman, turned down an offer to continue working for Col. Ashley for wages, and instead served as governess to the Sedgwick children, who called her “MumBet.” Her case inspired the legislatures of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island to explicitly outlaw slavery, beginning the legal aspect of the abolition movement in America. W.E.B. DuBois claimed that she was his step-great-grandmother.
Sedgwick served as speaker pro-tempore of the U.S. Senate and as the fourth speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. He served as a justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court from 1802 until his death in 1813. He is the fourth great-grandfather of Emmy Award winning actress Kyra Sedgwick.
Tapping Reeve served as a law professor and tutor in addition to his law practice. Among his earliest students was his brother-in-law, a man by the name of Aaron Burr. Amazingly, Burr was one of two future U.S. vice presidents who were students of Reeve, as John C. Calhoun also studied with him. Reeve also played a pivotal role in bringing the Rev. Lymon Beecher to Connecticut. Beecher brought his daughter, Harriet Beecher Stowe, with him. Tapping spent the final years of his life as a justice of the Connecticut Supreme Court.
Much can be said for the place that Elizabeth Freeman holds in history and for her bravery and foresight in seeking her freedom. But much can also be said for the impact she had on the lives of those around her. So beloved was she by the Sedgwick children that upon her death in 1829, they buried her in the family cemetery and paid to have a tombstone erected that reads, “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.”
David Hejmanowski is judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas, where he has served as magistrate, court administrator, and now judge, since 2003. He has written a weekly column on law and history for The Gazette since 2005.