The Slave Who Sued For Freedom

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However, the duc de la Rochefoucauld-Liancourt, who visited Sedgwick in Stockbridge, provided in his Travels an outline of the argument that Sedgwick and Reeve presented. They pleaded, he wrote: “(1) That no antecedent law had established slavery, and that the laws which seemed to suppose it were the offspring of error in the legislators …” and “(2) That such laws, even if they had existed, were annulled by the new Constitution.”

In any event, the jury was persuaded. Not only did “Jonathan Holcomb Foreman & His Fellows” find that Brom and Bett “are not and were not at the time of the purchase of the original Writ the legal Negro Servants of him the said John Ashley during life,” but they ordered Ashley to pay thirty shillings’ damages and the cost of the suit—five pounds, fourteen shillings, and four pence.

Ashley appealed, but then a few months later he dropped the appeal. Moreover, as Zilversmit has pointed out, “he confessed judgment—that is, he assented to the lower court ruling that Brom and Bett were not slaves.” Why? Because, in the intervening months, the state’s supreme court had ruled, in another case, that slavery was unconstitutional in Massachusetts. That decision, in Caldwell v. Jennison, was a murky one, and some have argued that because no legislation banned slavery in the state, it was strictly legal until 1866—though not practiced.

Mum Bett changed her name to Elizabeth Freeman, and for the rest of her working life she served as a paid domestic in the household of Theodore Sedgwick and his second wife, Pamela—first in Sheffield and then in Stockbridge, where the family moved in 1785.

Mum Bett was “the main pillar of the household,” according to Pamela’s lastborn daughter, Catharine Maria. Pamela slipped into severe depression, and Mum Bett was “the only person who could tranquilize my mother when her mind was disordered. … She treated her with the same respect she did when she was sane … her superior instincts hit upon the mode of treatment that science has since adopted.”

 
 

When, in the winter of 1785, followers of Shays’ Rebellion broke into the house demanding the family silver, Mum Bett faced them down. With Theodore Sedgwick away, she had hid the silver in her own chest of drawers; after leading the unruly men from room to room she shamed them out of looking in her chest by urging them to do so. “Oh, you had better search that—an old nigger’s as you call me.” Thus she saved the family silver.

At what age Mum Bett retired is unknown. But she did have enough money to buy herself a home—a “little hut,” Catharine Sedgwick called it. Catharine recalled that when she visited Mum Bett there daily during her final illness, “I felt as awed as if I had entered the presence of Washington. Even protracted suffering and mortal sickness … could not break down her spirit.”

On October 18, 1829, Elizabeth Freeman signed—with her mark—her last will and testament. It alone reveals that at some point she was married and that she had children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

Elizabeth Freeman died on December 28, 1829. Her tombstone stands in the Stockbridge cemetery beside that of her friend Catharine, in the innermost circle of a plot known as the Sedgwick Pie. In the center of the pie are the tall monuments inscribed with the names of Theodore and Pamela Sedgwick; buried in concentric circles around them are generations of Sedgwicks by birth or marriage, all facing in toward the center so that, it is said, on the Day of Judgment, when the dead shall rise, they shall see no one but other Sedgwicks. The only person who is not a Sedgwick is Elizabeth Freeman—an exception in this as in so many other ways. She is also the only black among all those whites.

The inscription on her tombstone is exceptional too—longer than the others and revealing a personal and profound affection. It was written by Catharine’s brother Charles and it reads: “ ELIZABETH FREEMAN, known by the name of MUMBET died Dec. 28 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 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 fare well.”