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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
“Slavery in New-York and New-England,” he first explained, “was so masked, that but a slight difference could be perceived in the condition of slaves and hired servants. … The younger slaves not only ate and drank, but played with the children. They thus became familiar companions with each other. The black women were cooks and nurses, and as such assisted by their mistresses. … In this state of familiar intercourse, instances of cruelty were uncommon, and … caused a degree of indignation not much less than if committed upon a freeman.
“Under this condition of society, while Mum Bett resided in the family of Col. Ashley, she received a severe wound in a generous attempt to shield her sister. Her mistress in a fit of passion [had] resorted to a degree and mode of violence very uncommon in this country: she struck at the weak and timid [Lizzie] with a heated kitchen shovel: Mum Bett interposed her arm, and received the blow; and she bore the honorable scar it left to the day of her death.”
After this incident, according to the lawyer’s son, Mum Bett set off to consult Theodore Sedgwick. By now Bett was about thirty-seven years old; Sedgwick was thirty-four. He had seen action in the Revolutionary War and in 1780 had been elected to the first General Court held under the new state constitution.
The conversation between the slave and the lawyer was preserved by Harriet Martineau, a novelist with strong abolitionist views who visited the Berkshires a couple of years after Mum Bett’s death in 1829 and who was, for a time, a close friend of the Sedgwicks. According to her account, when the lawyer asked the slave how she had learned “the doctrine and facts on which she proceeded, she replied, ‘By keepin’ still and mindin’ things.’” And when pressed to explain to what things she had paid mind, she replied that, “for instance, when she was waiting at table, she heard gentlemen talking over the Bill of Rights and the new constitution of Massachusetts; and in all they said she never heard but that all people were born free and equal, and she thought long about it, and resolved she would try whether she did not come in among them.”
Her lawyers argued that no law had ever established slavery, and that it couldn’t be constitutional anyway.
“By keepin’ still and mindin’ things” sounds authentic. So does a long sentence recollected by Theodore Sedgwick’s daughter Catharine: “Anytime, 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, I would have taken it just to stand one minute on God’s earth a free woman—I would.”
In 1781 it seemed to her that she could hope for more than just a single minute of freedom—if Sedgwick would consent to take her case. Just why he agreed to do so, given his close friendship with Colonel Ashley, whose generally conservative views he shared, remains something of a mystery. The historian Arthur Zilversmit has speculated that some Berkshire County residents seized upon the case as a means of testing the constitutionality of slavery in Massachusetts.
What effect Sedgwick’s acceptance of the suit had on his friendship with the Ashleys is unknown. If Colonel Ashley was, as Catharine Sedgwick described him, “the gentlest, most benign of men,” while his wife was “a shrew untamable” and “the most despotic of mistresses,” it would seem likely that he viewed the whole matter more philosophically than she did—as an interesting case, an important case, which just happened to involve a woman whom his wife may have regarded as a valuable part of-her inheritance.
Nor do we know why a coplaintiff—another Sheffield slave, a man named Brom—came to be involved in the case. A surviving record of the case calls it Brom & Bett v. J. Ashley Esq. Brom is described simply as “a Negro Man … of Sheffield” and a “Labourer”; Bett, as “a Negro Woman … of Sheffield” and a “Spinster.” And that’s all we learn about Brom.
The case was set in motion when Sedgwick obtained a writ of replevin—a form of action taken for the recovery of property—from the Berkshire County Court of Common Pleas. The property in this case was two humans who claimed they were being illegally detained. At least two such writs were sent to the colonel and also to his son, John Ashley, Jr. (in whose household Brom may have been employed). After the Ashleys refused to release the two slaves, the court ordered the sheriff to issue a summons to both father and son to appear at its next session. The case was heard in Great Barrington on August 21, 1781.
Both sides brought in prominent counsel. Sedgwick had enlisted the assistance of Tapping Reeve, of Litchfield, Connecticut, who later founded the Litchfield Law School; the Ashleys were represented by David Noble, who subsequently became a judge, and John Canfield, a respected lawyer from Sharon, Connecticut.
Noble and Canfield argued that “the said Brom and Bett, are and were at the time of Issuing the original Writ [or replevin], the legal Negro Servants of the said John Ashley during their Lives” and that this could be proved; thus the suit should be dismissed. Sedgwick and Reeve countered by insisting that the plaintiffs were not the servants of John Ashley “during their Lives,” but on what legal ground they based this assertion the record does not make clear.