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The Slave Who Sued For Freedom
While the Revolution was still being fought, Mum Bett declared that the new nation’s principle of liberty must extend to her too. It took eighty years and a far more terrible war to confirm the rights she demanded.
March 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 2
Early during the year 1781, having heard a lot of talk about the “rights of man,” a black slave woman named Mum Bett walked out of her master’s house in western Massachusetts to tell a lawyer that she wanted to sue for her freedom. After asking her what had put such an extraordinary idea into her head and being satisfied by her reply, the lawyer agreed to represent her. The case is a reminder of the fact that slavery existed even in the cradle of abolitionism, and it is a testament to the hopes inspired by revolutionary rhetoric. But it is most fascinating, perhaps, for the glimpse it yields of a singular woman who was determined to be free.
Bett and a younger sister, Lizzie, grew up as slave children in Claverack, New York, about twenty miles south of Albany. Their owner was a Dutchman, Pieter Hogeboom. In 1735 his youngest child, Hannah, married John Ashley, the son of one of the original proprietors permitted by the General Court of Massachusetts to organize settlements along the Housatonic River.
The Ashleys had four children. Exactly when they acquired Bett and Lizzie is not known, but Hannah’s father died in 1758, when Bett was about fourteen.
By this time John Ashley had become an important figure in Sheffield, Massachusetts, the largest settlement in the western slice of Massachusetts that would later be called Berkshire County. In 1761 he was appointed judge of the Court of Common Pleas, a post he voluntarily resigned twenty years later, when his servant Bett’s case came before that court. Col. John Ashley was an honorable man.
She had overheard a town panel preparing a resolution that “Mankind in a State of Nature are equal, free and independent.”
Described as “patriarchal of appearance, of middling size,” according to an early biographical sketch, Ashley was also a cautious man. As a member of the Massachusetts Assembly, he signed a letter drafted by Samuel Adams in 1768 objecting to the “several acts of Parliament, imposing Duties & Taxes on the American colonys”; but, along with only a few of his colleagues, he subsequently bowed to the governor’s demand for a disavowal of the letter.
A town meeting held in Great Barrington, one of the three Berkshire County towns that Ashley represented, denounced him for repudiating the “highly approved circular letter.” Nevertheless, in the next election he was again chosen to represent the area, and when, in 1773, Sheffield appointed a committee “to take into consideration the grievances which Americans in general and Inhabitants of this Province in particular labor under,” Colonel Ashley was appointed chairman.
The meeting of that committee, held in Colonel Ashley’s home in early January of 1773, very probably was a turning point in the life of Mum Bett. She was now almost thirty years old. The committee’s clerk, Theodore Sedgwick, was the lawyer who would ultimately take her case. Sedgwick was only twenty-six. He had been expelled from Yale for unspecified “boyish gaities” but then studied law in Great Barrington and set up practice in downtown Sheffield. The meeting lasted for several hours, and Mum Bett presumably served refreshments—and perhaps listened in—as the men discussed the evening’s business in the pine-paneled study on the second floor of the Ashley house.
The result of that discussion was a document called the Sheffield Declaration. While duly respectful of the crown, it contained a resolution that read: “Resolved that Mankind in a State of Nature are equal, free and independent of each other, and have a right to the undisturbed Enjoyment of their lives, their Liberty and Property.” Clearly somebody there had read John Locke. Mum Bett had not—she never learned to read or even to write her name—but she seems to have taken the philosopher’s message more directly to heart than anyone else in the room.
The Sheffield Declaration, the first of its kind, was subsequently “twice Reade distinctly” at the Sheffield town meeting and unanimously approved. The following year—no doubt to the colonel’s consternation—the townspeople of Great Barrington, where Ashley sat as a judge, packed the courthouse so that no further business could be carried out until a state constitution had been drawn up and approved. Thereafter the so-called Berkshire Constitutionalists shut down courts throughout the county until 1780, the year Massachusetts finally approved its constitution.
The first article of the Declaration of Rights of the new constitution stated that “all men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and inalienable rights. …” Thus the sentiments expressed by the Sheffield Declaration and the Declaration of Independence were now the law of the state and county in which Mum Bett lived and worked.
A single, but dramatic, domestic scene apparently made her decide that the time had come to put those high-sounding words to the test. In “The Practicability of the Abolition of Slavery,” a lecture delivered fifty years after the event, Henry Dwight Sedgwick, one of Theodore Sedgwick’s ten children, recalled the episode.