The following is an article from Uncle John's Curiously Compelling Bathroom Reader.
Colonel John Ashley House, Sheffield, Massachusetts. (Image credit: Daderot)
Eighty years before the Emancipation Proclamation freed American slaves, a Massachusetts woman helped free the slaves of that state …just by going to court.
In 1773 the leading citizens of Sheffield, Massachusetts, met in the home of Colonel John Ashley and drafted the document that some historians have called America's first Declaration of Independence, the Sheffield Declaration. "Mankind in a state of nature are equal, free, and independent of each other," it stated, "and have a right to the undisturbed enjoyment of their lives, their liberty, and property."
Ironically, as the men toiled over the document, which protested English tyranny, they were waited on by Betty Freeman (also called Elizabeth, or Bett), Colonel Ashley's slave. He'd bought several slaves when they were only babies, and they'd been held in involuntary servitude ever since.
Freeman overheard the repeated talk of liberty as the men drafted the Sheffield Declaration. She heard more of the same three years later, when Ashley and his associates discussed the Declaration of Independence, which stated, "we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." She got an earful in 1780, when Ashley and his friends mulled over the new Massachusetts constitution, which proclaimed that "all men are born free and equal, and have the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties."
These were noble words, but none of them were meant to apply to Freeman -not even after her husband, also a slave, gave his life fighting on the American side during the Revolutionary War. Born into slavery, Betty, her sister, and all their descendants would live in slavery forever if Colonel Ashley and others like him had their way.
THE "LADY" OF THE HOUSE
As deeply as she resented her lack of freedom, Betty got along with Colonel Ashley. Not so with his wife, Hannah, a petty tyrant who cruelly beat her slaves over the tiniest transgression. Once, when she had caught Betty's sister, Lizzie, eating leftover scraps of bread dough, Mrs. Ashley accused her of "stealing" food and swung at her with a hot shovel pulled from the fireplace. Betty blocked the blow intended for her sister and received a gash on her arm that cut all the way to the bone. She carried that scar for the rest of her life.
It wasn't long after that incident that Freeman happened to visit the village meeting house while the Declaration of Independence was being read aloud. Maybe it was the fresh wound on her arm, maybe it was hearing the words of equality and freedom spoken one more time …whatever it was, something clicked inside her. The next day, she left the Ashleys and walked over to the offices of Theodore Sedgwick, a lawyer and vocal opponent of slavery. Freeman knew him because he was one of the people who had helped draft the Sheffield Declaration.
"Sir," she asked, "I heard that paper read yesterday, that says all men are born equal, and that every man had a right to freedom. I am not a dumb critter; won't the law give me my freedom?"
EQUAL = EQUAL
Wouldn't it? How could a state that proclaimed "all men are born free and equal" and was part of a country that believed "all men are created equal" reconcile these statements with the institution of slavery? Sedgwick agreed with Freeman: It couldn't. He decided to help her by filing a lawsuit to win her freedom, on the grounds that the language of the new state constitution made slavery illegal.
The laws of Massachusetts at the end of the 18th century were quite peculiar by modern standards: They defined slaves as property, but also recognized that they are human beings, which meant that they had legal standing in state courts and could file lawsuits. In recent years a number of slaves had sued for their freedom and won, but not by challenging the legality of slavery directly. If a slave could prove that their mother had been born free, they could regain their freedom. Likewise, if a slave owner had made a promise to free a slave and then reneged, the slave could sue on the grounds of breach of promise. Freeman's lawsuit was different: It would be the first to challenge the legality of slavery itself.
SEE YOU IN COURT
The new state constitution had been in effect for less than a year when Sedgwick went to court in May 1781 and filed what was called a "writ of replevin." The writ ordered Colonel Ashley to surrender property -Betty and another slave, Brom, who had joined the suit- that wasn't rightfully his. When Ashley refused to obey the writ, a trial was scheduled for the following August.
Colonel Ashley probably didn't realize it at the time, but the odds were against him from the start. Although slavery was still legal in Massachusetts, it had become very unpopular. The case was going to be tried before a jury, at a time when citizens of Massachusetts were still fighting in the Revolutionary War. These people took their freedoms seriously. And sure enough, when the trial was over, the jury decided in favor of Betty and Brom. The court set both of them free and ordered Ashley to pay them 30 shillings in damages, plus court costs.
THE BEGINNING OF THE END
Brom and Bett v. Ashely was a lower court case and did not set much of a precedent -Brom and Betty were the only slaves freed by the decision. But it did set a precedent of another kind, demonstrating that if slaves went to court to win their freedom, juries were very likely to give it to them. Slavery began to die a death of a thousand cuts in Massachusetts as other slaves filed lawsuits or just walked away from their owners, knowing that the owners couldn't turn to the law for assistance. Owning slaves in the state had suddenly become a very risky business.
Another nail in slavery's coffin came as the result of a second lawsuit, filed in 1781 by a slave named Quock Walker, who sued his owner in civil court for assault and battery after the owner beat him for trying to escape. Walker not only won the case and £50 in damages, but the attorney general prosecuted his owner on criminal charges of assault and battery. The case went all the way to the Supreme Judicial Court, the state's highest court. Once again the jury sided with the slave, by finding his owner guilty and fining him 40 shillings.
Chief Justice William Cushing's instructions to the jury turned out to be even more important than their decision. He stated that "perpetual servitude can no longer be tolerated in our government; and …liberty can only be forfeited by criminal conduct or relinquished by personal consent." Cushing's words weren't legally binding but they may as well have been -they made it clear that the court was against slavery. Without the protection of the law, slavery was doomed in Massachusetts.
Theodore Sedgwick, the lawyer who had helped Betty Freeman, went on to an illustrious career in politics and law. He served in both houses of state government, as well as in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, where he was Speaker of the House from 1799 to 1801. In 1802 he became a justice of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, and served there until his death in 1813.
What happened to Brom is unknown; after the case ended he disappeared into history. We do know what happened to Betty, however. After Colonel Ashley lost the case, he asked Betty to come back and work for wages. Would you have accepted such an offer? Neither did Betty -she went to work for Theodore Sedgwick instead. After many years, she saved enough money to buy her own house and retire. When she died in 1829 at about the age of 85, she was buried in the Sedgwick family plot in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where her grave can still be seen today. One of her great-grandchildren was W.E.B. DuBois, one of the most important civil rights leaders of the 20th century.
THE MEANING OF FREEDOM
Many years after Betty's death, Theodore Sedgwick's daughter Catherine recounted Betty's explanation of what freedom meant to her: "Any time while I was a slave," she said, "if one minute's freedom had been offered to me, and I had been told that I must die at the end of the minute, I would have taken it just to stand one minute on God's earth as a free woman."
The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Curiously Compelling Bathroom Reader, a fantastic book by the Bathroom Readers' Institute. The 19th book in this fan-favorite series contain such gems like The Greatest Plane that Never Was, Forgotten Robot Milestones, Ancient Beauty Secrets, and more.
Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!