Elizabeth Freeman: The Enslaved Woman Who Sued For Her Freedom and Won | History Hit

Elizabeth Freeman: The Enslaved Woman Who Sued For Her Freedom and Won

Lily Johnson

29 Mar 2021
Elizabeth Freeman, also known as 'Mum Bett', aged around 70. Miniature portrait by Susan Ridley Sedgwick, c.1812.
Image Credit: Susan Anne Ridley Sedgwick, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

‘Any time, any time while I was a slave, if one minute’s freedom had been offered to me & 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’

Elizabeth Freeman – known to many as Mum Bett – was the first African American to file and win a freedom suit in Massachusetts, paving the way for the abolition of slavery in that state and the wider USA. Bett used the new Constitution’s assertion that ‘all men are born free and equal’ to win her independence, as America itself was forming a new independent identity.

Though the historical record on Bett is somewhat hazy, having spent almost half of her life in slavery, here is what we know about this courageous, trailblazing woman.

Early life

Elizabeth Freeman was born around the year 1744 in Claverack, New York, and given the name ‘Bett’. Born into slavery, Elizabeth grew up on the plantation of Pieter Hogeboom, before at the age of 7 being given as a wedding gift to his daughter Hannah and her new husband Colonel John Ashley.

She and her sister Lizzy moved to the Ashley household in Sheffield, Massachusetts where they were enslaved as domestic servants, and would remain so for almost 30 years. During this time Bett is said to have married and given birth to a daughter named ‘Little Bett’, and later in life stated that her husband left to fight in the American War of Independence, and never returned.

Colonel John Ashley’s House, where Bett was enslaved for almost 30 years.

Image Credit: I, Daderot, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Strong personality

If some of Bett’s biographical information remains unknown, one feature of her story has certainly survived the historical record – her unwavering spirit. This is seen resolutely in her time at the Ashley household, in which she was often in the troublesome presence of Hannah Ashley, its ‘hurricane of a Mistress’.

During one altercation in 1780, Bett intervened as Ashley was about to strike a young servant – either Bett’s sister or daughter according to the historical record – with a red hot shovel, suffering a deep wound in her arm that would leave a lifelong scar.

Susan Schulten presents a selection of maps from the fascinating collection of maps that feature in her book 'A History of America in 100 Maps'.
Watch Now

Determined to make the injustice of such treatment known, she left the healing wound exposed for all to see. When people would ask what happened to her arm in the presence of Ashley, she would respond ‘ask Missis!’, stating that in her shame ‘Madam never again laid her hand on Lizzy’.

In another anecdote from her time with Hannah Ashley, Bett was approached at the plantation by a bedraggled young girl in desperate need of help, seeking to speak with John Ashley. As he was not home at the time, Bett sheltered the girl inside the house, and when the mistress demanded she be turned out, Bett stood her ground. She later stated:

‘Madam knew when I set my foot down, I kept it down’

The road to freedom

In 1780, the new Massachusetts Constitution was released in the wake of the Revolutionary War, sending the state abuzz with new ideas of liberty and freedom. Sometime during this year, Bett heard an article of the new Constitution read out at a public gathering in Sheffield, setting her mission for freedom in motion. It stipulated that:

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.

— Massachusetts Constitution, Article 1.

Always holding an ‘irrepressible longing for liberty’, the words of the article struck a chord in Bett, and she immediately sought the counsel of Theodore Sedgwick, a young abolitionist lawyer. She told him:

‘I heard that paper read yesterday, that says, all men are created equal, and that every man has a right to freedom. I’m not a dumb critter; won’t the law give me my freedom?’

Brom and Bett vs Ashley, 1781

Sedgwick accepted her case, alongside that of Brom – a fellow enslaved worker at Ashley’s household – for fear that as a woman Bett may not be afforded her freedom alone. The founder of Litchfield Law School in Connecticut, Tapping Reeve, also joined the case, and with two of the best lawyers in Massachusetts it was presented to the County Court of Common Pleas in August, 1781.

The pair argued that the Constitution’s statement, ‘all men are born free and equal’, effectively made slavery illegal in Massachusetts, and thus Bett and Brom could not be Ashley’s property. After a day of adjudication, the jury ruled in Bett’s favour – making her the first slave to be freed by the new Massachusetts Constitution.

David Lammy, whose urgent question to Amber Rudd in the House of Commons provoked an international response, talks to Dan about how British history is colonial history, and what histories currently aren't told in our national story.
Listen Now

Brom too was given his freedom, and the two were awarded 30 shillings in compensation. Though Ashley briefly attempted to appeal the decision, he soon accepted that the court’s ruling was final. He asked Bett to return to his household – this time with wages – however she declined, instead accepting a job in the household of her lawyer Theodore Sedgwick.

Mum Bett

After gaining her freedom, Bett took the name Elizabeth Freeman in triumph. From this time onwards she became renowned for her skills as a herbalist, midwife, and nurse, and for 27 years kept her position at Sedgwick’s house. 

Working as a governess to his small children, who called her Mum Bett, Elizabeth appeared to make a large impact on the family, in particular their youngest daughter Catharine. Catharine would later become a writer and put Bett’s autobiography to paper, from which most of the information we now know about her survives. 

Catharine Sedgwick, illustration from Female Prose Writers of America by John Seely Hart, 1852.

Image Credit: engraving after W. Croome, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The admiration Catharine held for Bett is clear, as she wrote in this striking passage:

‘Her intelligence, her integrity, her resolute mind were apparent in her deportment, & gave her an unquestioned ascendancy over her companions in service, while it made those above her feel that their superior station was but an accident.’

Final years

Once the Sedgwick children had grown up, Bett purchased a home for herself and her daughter with the money she had saved, living there for many years along with her grandchildren in happy retirement.  

On 28 December, 1829 Bett’s life drew to a close at around the age of 85. Before she died, the clergyman present asked whether she was afraid to meet with God, following which she replied, ‘No, sir. I have tried to do my duty, and I am not afeard’.

She was buried in the Sedgwick family plot – the only non-family member to reside there – and when Catharine Sedgwick died in 1867 she was buried alongside her beloved governess. Written by Charles Sedgwick, Catharine’s brother, on Bett’s marble tombstone was inscribed the words: 

‘ELIZABETH FREEMAN, also known by the name of MUMBET 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 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, farewell.’

A strong-minded and inspiringly brave woman, Elizabeth Freeman not only took back control of her own life, but also set the precedent for many others to do the same in Massachusetts. Though only fragments of her remarkable story remain, the spirit and tenacity felt in what does survive paints the picture of a fiercely protective, highly intelligent, and deeply determined woman.

Lily Johnson