John Ashley House in Sheffield where Mum Bett was enslaved
John Ashley House, Sheffield
In 1780, slavery was legal in Massachusetts, as in every other state. In 1781, a court case in Massachusetts challenged the lawful existence of slavery under the new Massachusetts Constitution. Article I of the Declaration of Rights proclaimed that all men are born free and equal.*

Mum Bett was a slave in the home of John Ashley, a patriot who resided in Sheffield, Massachusetts.

Assisted by Stockbridge attorney Theodore Sedgwick, Mum Bett brought a lawsuit against Ashley in which she claimed that her enslavement was unlawful. Sedgwick family lore holds that Mum Bett approached Sedgwick after mistreatment by her mistress and after hearing the new Massachusetts Constitution read aloud to and discussed by the residents of Sheffield. Mum Bett believed that the promises of liberty and equality set forth in those documents should free her from slavery.

The case was tried in August 1781 before the County Court of Common Pleas in Great Barrington. Sedgwick reportedly argued to the jury that the Massachusetts Constitution had outlawed slavery, and that Mum Bett should be freed. The jury agreed, and Mum Bett won her "freedom suit."**

Ashley initially appealed the verdict to the state's highest court, the Supreme Judicial Court, but abandoned his appeal several months later.

Mum Bett, who now took the name of Elizabeth Freeman, became the beloved housekeeper for Theodore Sedgwick's family. Sedgwick later became a member of the House of Representatives and United States Senator before being appointed to the Supreme Judicial Court, where he served from 1802 - 1813.

Upon her death in 1829, Mum Bett was buried in the Sedgwick family plot in Stockbridge. Her gravestone includes the words, "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 or equal."

 



 


* When the Massachusetts Constitution was ratified, few expressed the view that Article I required the liberation of slaves. The provision was rather regarded as a more general statement of moral truth. However, some recognized its potential usefulness in "freedom suits."

** Two slaves, Mum Bett and Brom, were named in the lawsuit. The jury verdict also freed Brom.