Elizabeth and Hannah, whom Elizabeth called “Madam,” continued to have conflicts in the home, but this event established a hard line. “Madam knew when I set my foot down, I kept it down,” Catharine recorded her saying.
This played out one May, “just at the time of the apple blossoms,” when a “smallish girl…not over fifteen” came to talk to John Ashley. Hannah wanted to send her away immediately, but Elizabeth put her foot down. She tried to feed the scared girl and give her comfort until John, whom Elizabeth called “master” or “my old master” until the end of her days, arrived at home.
John seems to have been a kinder brand of slaver than his wife. He welcomed the girl in and heard her tearful story. She’d been abused and sexually assaulted by her father, the girl said. Elizabeth and John did what they could for her. Later, the girl “was sent off to a distant province where it was understood she died not long after.”
Catharine wrote, “Mumbet had a clear and nice perception of justice, and a stern love of it, an uncompromising honesty in word and deed, and conduct of high intelligence, that made her the unconscious moral teacher of the children she tenderly nursed... I do not believe that any temptation could have induced Mumbet to swerve from the truth... Truth was her nature—the offspring of courage and loyalty.”
The Ashley home saw many visitors, most of them important political figures of Boston during the foundational days of the United States. “When Bett wasn’t cooking, cleaning, washing clothing, dipping candles, making soap, baking bread, or taking care of Hannah Ashley’s herb garden at the rear of the house, she was pouring beverages for John Ashley’s guests or bringing them food,” Mary wrote.
Elizabeth freshened drinks for the men writing The Sheffield Declaration, or the Sheffield Resolves, a 1773 petition against British tyranny, which was drafted there in the drawing room. Carole noted, “Some historians dismiss the Sheffield Resolves; others call them the first American Declaration of Independence.” Among the men was John’s friend and Catharine’s father, a local attorney named Theodore Sedgwick. Elizabeth likely overheard the discussions and drafts read aloud. One resolution of the Sheffield Declaration stated, “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.”
After the Revolutionary War, Elizabeth heard such sentiments again. It might have been in the Ashley home or somewhere in public—Catharine says that “she chanced at the village ‘meeting house,’ in Sheffield, to hear the Declaration of Independence read.” Others say Elizabeth instead heard the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, one of the oldest constitutional documents in the world. The difference is minute when the meaning is consistent.
Article I of the Massachusetts Constitution read, “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…”
The Declaration of Independence read, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…”
Elizabeth may not have been able to read or write, but she understood full well what those words meant. The next day, she walked to the law offices of Theodore Sedgwick. Of that moment, Catharine wrote, “‘Sir,’ said she, ‘I heard that paper read yesterday, that says, all men are born equal, and that every man has a right to freedom. I am not a dumb critter; won't the law give me my freedom?’ I can imagine her upright form, as she stood dilating with her fresh hope based on the declaration of an intrinsic, inalienable right. Such a resolve as hers is like God's messengers—wind, snow, and hail— irresistible.”
Irresistible, indeed, as Theodore soon took up her case. They were not alone.
As explored in the trial case of Celia, an enslaved woman who murdered her rapist in 1855, the legal rights of the enslaved were often contradictory and dubious, and they were challenged frequently. Such cases are important to recall as time can foreshorten history into simply Slavery and Post-Slavery, and bad-faith actors often try to spin narratives of happy enslaved people who never wished for freedom.
“Africans acted with profound agency,” wrote Gloria J. Browne-Marshall, playwright and a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, in 1619-1819: Tell Them We Fought Back, a Socio-Legal Perspective. “They fought, escaped, and demanded and petitioned the courts, unrelentingly, with courage and creativity.”
As once-British citizens began to speak loftily of freedom and independence, those enslaved in this “new land” seemed suspended in limbo as both people and property, depending on the case, the state, and the year. Massachusetts was special in the burgeoning United States as it allowed enslaved people to bring lawsuits against others in court.
According to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ website, “Slaves could institute and prosecute lawsuits in the courts against their master (the defendant) who would be obliged to demonstrate their lawful title to ownership of their slave. By 1780, nearly thirty slaves had sued their master for their freedom, most during the years following 1764.”
Elizabeth’s case, however, was unique because, as the Massachusetts site explained, “in contrast to prior freedom suits, there was no claim that John Ashley, the slave owner, had violated a specific law [such as theft or homicide]. This case was a direct challenge to the very existence of slavery in Massachusetts.”
Theodore teamed up with fellow lawyer Tapping Reeve to develop their legal argument. Their strategy began in the details of the filing itself. “One of the first decisions the legal team made was to get one of the Ashleys’ male slaves to join the suit. The thinking was that an enslaved woman would not have the same credibility as a man. Given the attitudes of the time, this was probably a sound tactic,” wrote history professor Suzanne Geissler Bowles in “Tapping Reeve and Mumbet: Abolishing Slavery in Massachusetts.”
By some tellings, it was Elizabeth herself who suggested or even encouraged Brom to join. He did and the case became Brom & Bett vs. J. Ashley Esq. John Ashley Junior was included to ensure the end of the Ashley family’s ownership claims outright. John Ashley Senior, now in his 70s, was then instructed to hand over Elizabeth and Brom.
For all his apparent kindness, John refused. He insisted they were his legal property, so Theodore and Tapping filed a Writ of Replevin in May 1781. The use of this writ—which is an order for the seizure of illegally withheld property—highlights again the limbo in which enslaved people existed. Even in the preamble to this case to claim their rights as free people, their lawyers could deem Elizabeth and Brom as property in a different filing.
While Elizabeth certainly found strong allies in her fight, in her article Gloria called attention to the ways even the most well-meaning white person was far from the revolutionary that Elizabeth was forced to be. “She believed in herself when the laws relegated her to an object unworthy of protection,” she wrote. “Self-professed liberal witnesses did nothing, as Colonel Ashley could have intervened to stop his wife’s tantrums and did not. He saw the gash on Mum Bett’s arm. Yet he did nothing to protect her or Lizzie. Sedgwick was an abolitionist and gladly assisted after being asked. However, Mum Bett sought him out. Without her tenacity and creativity, he would not have thought of such a legal theory or filed these cases.”
Now forced by the law, the Ashleys surrendered Elizabeth and Brom. Both went to live with the Sedgwick family until the trial began on August 21, 1781. Neither Elizabeth nor Brom testified on their own behalf. In the courtroom, the lawyers did all the talking. According to the Berkshire County Courthouse records, the court “determined that the said Brom & Bett are not, nor were they at the time of the purchase of the original writ the legal Negro of the said John Ashley during life, and that the said Brom & Bett do recover against the said John Ashley the sum of thirty shillings lawful silver Money, Damages, and the Costs of this suit Paned at five pounds fourteen shillings and four pence[.]”
“We do not know how long the jury deliberated, but the verdict was that Brom and Bett were free persons and had never legally been the property of Ashley,” explained Suzanne. John Ashley intended to appeal the case the following October, but the verdict of a number of other trials—all finding in favor of the enslaved—led him to accept the changing tides. He dropped the appeal.
Now a free woman, Mumbet claimed the name Elizabeth Freeman. John Ashley asked her to come back to and work for him, this time for pay. Elizabeth declined. (It’s uncertain what happened to Brom or to sister Lizzie after these events.)
Elizabeth took up paid work in the home of Theodore Sedgwick and his wife Pamela, helping raise Catharine and care for the family. Later, Catharine would write that it wasn’t awe of her “kind master,” nor “fear of her despotic mistress” that drove Elizabeth to petition for her freedom, “but it was the galling of the harness, the irresistible longing for liberty. I have heard her say, with an emphatic shake of the head peculiar to her: ‘Any time, any time 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 on God's airth a free woman—I would.’”
She was indeed free, though that freedom was deeply, tragically limited. As Mary wrote, “The U.S. Constitution, when ratified, had not abolished slavery. … The Civil War was more than 30 years in the future and the Civil Rights movement was a century away. In Massachusetts, Blacks may not have been slaves but they were second-class citizens.” Those who owned slaves, like John, fought, cheated, and schemed to keep them. “Some sent pregnant women out of state so that their children could not claim freedom under new abolition statues. Some slavers went as far as seizing Blacks on the streets and exporting them south.” Others would declare the enslaved were “indentured servants,” and then sell them to states where slavery was still legal.
Fortunately, Elizabeth seems to have been happy and safe with the Sedgwicks. Theodore traveled often as his legal career flourished and Pamela suffered from a chronic illness, possibly depression. She and Elizabeth developed a close friendship. “Mumbet was the only person who could tranquilize my mother when her mind was disordered,” Catharine recalled, “the only one of her friends she looked to have about her.”
She became protector once again, this time for a whole family, when looters came to the house during the Shay’s Rebellion, an uprising motivated by the debt crisis in 1787. Elizabeth hid the family away, then cleverly distracted the men with beer and deceived them by hiding the Sedgwick’s valuables in her own trunk. The belongings of a Black servant would not be so highly prized. She mocked the men, who had been calling her slurs. “You are not above rummaging my chest,” Catharine quoted her saying. “You will have to break it open to do it.” Believing the home to be worthless to them, the looters soon left.
The rest of Elizabeth’s days were far more peaceful and mundane. Catharine said she had “a regal love of the solid and splendid,” and collected chintzes and silk. She saved up her money to buy a small house of her own, near the Sedgwicks. She enjoyed frequent visits from her daughter Betsy and grandchildren. She may have even remarried, though this is unconfirmed; civil rights activist W.E.B. DuBois would later say she’d been the wife of his great-grandfather Jack Burghardt.
“Not only did [Elizabeth’s] suit free her from bondage, it also provided the gateway to freedom for the rest of the state’s enslaved population by setting the precedent that would be used in future cases to finally declare slavery unconstitutional,” Gabrielle wrote. “Ultimately, Elizabeth Freeman’s brave decision to sue for her freedom had profound effects on both her personal life and the lives of other enslaved persons, eventually resulting, through many drawn out legal proceedings, in the freedom of many people.”
Elizabeth died a free woman on Dec. 28, 1829. To Betsy, she left her home, her life savings of $1,000, and her collection of chintzes and silk. She was buried in the “Sedgwick Pie” area of the Stockbridge Cemetery, a space reserved for family.
The epitaph on Elizabeth’s grave concludes, “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.”
Mumbet.com: Mumbet’s grave, Mumbet court records
Sedgwick Stories: The Periodical Writings of Catharine Maria Sedgwick: Slavery in New England
Mumbet: The Life and Times of Elizabeth Freeman: The True Story of a Slave Who Won Her Freedom by Mary Wilds
No Superiors and Few Equals: How Elizabeth Freeman Helped to End Slavery in Massachusetts by Gabrielle Lucas [link will automatically download PDF]
Wikipedia: Elizabeth Freeman
Mass.gov: Massachusetts Constitution and the Abolition of Slavery
Will of Pieter Hoogeboom
The Trustees.org: Ashley House History
The Berkshire Edge: ‘The Resolves’ of Sheffield, hotbed of insurrection
1619 to 1819: Tell Them We Fought Back, A Socio-LegalPerspective by Gloria J. Browne-Marshall
Princeton & Slavery: Tapping Reeve and Mumbet: Abolishing Slavery in Massachusetts