Monday, March 31, 2014

Mum Bett - The Elizabeth Freeman Case

Elizabeth Freeman (Mum Bett) - Source
New England, and Massachusetts inparticular, is not  well known for its history of slavery or its slave narratives. No stories like Uncle Tom’s Cabin expound upon the horrors experienced by the New England slave. Yet, despite the assumptions that we Yankees have always been more high-minded when it came to involuntary servitude, slavery does have a long history in the northern states. 

Unfortunately there are few New England slave stories which survive the editing of text book writers. Hence, the perception of New England as having escaped that particular historic guilt. However, in reality New England both participated in and profited from the trade of African slaves. Still, in New England the movement to end slavery on a state level began much earlier than it did country wide. In fact, one of the most famous New England slaves was a woman named Elizabeth Freeman who is well known for her fighting spirit and for being one of the first to sue her master for her freedom.

Elizabeth Freeman, more well known by the name Mum Bett, never learned to read or write. Any historic sources about her seemingly come from interviews or whatever as written about her by family and friends. Two of the most used sources appear to be an 1853 article in Bentley’s Miscellany, written by Catherine Maria Sedgwick, and the 1838 Retrospect of Western Travel by Harriet Martineau. 

According to both sources, Mum Bett was a slave of pure African ancestry, who was owned by the Ashley family of Massachusetts. Bett was born sometime around 1742 in New York. As and adult she became the house slave of John Ashley of Sheffield, Ma. Sedgwick writes that the Ashleys also owned Bett’s sister Lizzie, though some sources claim Lizzie was actually Bett’s daughter. 

One of the most repeated stories about Mum Bett concerns a physical altercation she had with her master’s wife, Hannah Ashley. Compared to John Ashley, Hannah did not seem to be very kind or understanding. Neither author writes of her in complimentary way. According to the story, at one time Mistress Ashley attempted to strike Bett’s sister (maybe daughter) with a heated iron shovel. Lizzie had been accused of stealing dough to make a small cake. However, Bett stepped in between the two and it was she who was struck instead. The attack cut and damaged her arm for months, leaving a scar for life. However, Sedgewick quotes Bett as saying:
“Madam never again laid her hand on Lizzy. I had a bad arm all winter, but Madam had the worst of it. I never covered the wound, and when people said to me, before Madam, ’Why Betty, what ails your arm?’ I only answered, ‘Ask misses.’”
Thus Bett seems like she must have been a real fighter who was often at odds with the lady of the house. In fact, Sedgwick describes Hannah Ashley as an untamable shrew and mentions several times that Bett willfully disregarded the commands of Mrs. Ashley. Still, Sedgwick also writes that Bett spoke kindly of John Ashley for the remainder of her life.

According to another story described by Sedgwick, John Ashley acted as the local magistrate in Sheffield during the years leading up to the Revolution. At one time, a teenage girl came to the Ashley home, seeking help from Mr. Ashley. The young girl was illegitimately pregnant and it appeared the father of the child was a close relative who had attacked her. Mrs. Ashley attempted to kick the girl out of the house, calling the child every awful thing she could imagine. Mum Bett shielded the girl and kept her in the house until Mr. Ashley arrived home. John Ashley listened to the girl’s testimony and did his best to save her from her situation.
The John Ashley House - Sheffield, Ma
It is unclear as to when exactly Mum Bett began to consider fighting for her freedom. Perhaps it was something that was always on her mind. Sedgwick quotes Bett as having said, “Any time, any time while I was a slave, if one minute’s freedom had been offered 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.” Perhaps, having endured servitude and the ill treatment of her master’s wife, she was just waiting for the right time.

The right time presented itself soon after the end of the Revolutionary war. During the bud up to the Revolution, the Ashley House had been a meeting place for Sheffield colonists to discuss their grievances against Britain and the king. It was at the Ashley House that the colonial documents called the Sheffield Resolves were discussed and written in 1773. These documents outlined complaints against the British government and listed individual rights that all citizens should be granted.

The resolves use language similar to that of the Declaration of Independence, which must also have been a subject of discussion at a home like the Ashley’s. Though the resolves do not mention slavery or slaves, it states in article 1, “RESOLVED, That 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.” It is conceivable that Bett was present during the meetings that resulted in the Sheffield Resolves.

However, Martineau states that Bett had overheard a man reading the newly written constitution of Massachusetts. The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts became law in 1780 and uses language similar to both the Resolves and the Declaration. According to Article 1:
“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.”
No matter where exactly her inspiration came from, when Bett was later asked by Martineau where she learned of the ideas of freedom expressed in these documents, Bett replied, “By keepin’ still and mindin’ things.”  Though Mum Bett could neither read nor write, she was certainly intelligent, and understood that these words should in theory apply to her. Thus, Bett soon contacted a local lawyer named Theodore Sedgewick (father of Maria Sedgwick). She reasoned with Sedgewick that the words she had overheard suggested that she should be a free person. Apparently, Mr. Sedgewick agreed and soon filed a suit against the Ashley’s to secure Bett’s freedom.

According to Berkshire County Court records, the case was decided in May of 1781 (Yorktown had only occurred in October). At the time, these newly formed United States were being governed under the Articles of Confederation, which left most of the sovereignty to each independent state. In addition, the Articles of Confederation did not recognize slavery at all, and certainly made no attempt at limiting it. Though many people, even in the southern colonies, believed slavery to be evil, there was the legitimate fear that legislating against the culture of slavery would doom the confederation right from the start.

Despite the uncertain future of the United States, the Berkshire court decided that at the time of her purchase Bett was not legally a slave and could not legally become the property of the Ashley family. Though the court record is not exact in its rationale, Bett was theoretically freed due to the language of the state constitution, claiming that all people are born free and equal. In addition, the court awarded Bett 30 shillings for the years she had been in servitude. According to Martineau, Bett first ensured her lawyers were paid well, then saved the rest of her money for when she wanted it.

After winning her freedom Bett took the name Elizabeth Freeman. She was asked by Mr. Ashley to return to his service as a wage earner. Bett declined and instead became the employee of her lawyer, Theodore Sedgewick. She served as a kind of governess, helping to raise the Sedgwick children. It was during her time with the Sedewick family, that Bett was nicknamed Mammy, and eventually Mum Bett.

Of course Bett lived at a very chaotic time in New England, and her adventures did not end with the Revolutionary War or the fight for her freedom. As Bett and the Sedgewicks lived in Berkshire County, they became subject to the turmoil of the armed uprising called Shays’ Rebellion.

Following the war and under the inadequate Articles of Confederation, Massachusetts and other states entered into a post-revolution economic depression. War veterans found themselves no better off after having secured independence. Many found themselves in debtor’s prison, unable to repay loans or pay newly levied taxes. The rebellion, named after leader Daniel Shays, lasted from 1786 to 1787. It pitted the more agricultural Western Massachusetts against what was perceived to be the more affluent Eastern coastal regions.
Daniel Shays - Left
Specifically the rebels felt oppressed by the taxes and debt collection policies of the Massachusetts state government in Boston. The Shaysites (as the rebels were called) marched on Massachusetts court houses in an attempt to end the prosecution of debtors. The rebels marched on the Springfield armory, hoping to bring the Massachusetts government to heel by force of arms. However, the Shaysites were defeated in February of 1787, resulting in the arrest of the rebel leaders.

As residents of Stockbridge, Bett and her employers were right in the middle of the conflict. In her writing, Maria Sedgwick is not highly complimentary of the Shaysites. She says, “Instead of exemption from taxation, which the ignorant had expected, a heavy imposition was necessarily laid upon them, and instead of the license they had hoped from liberty, they found themselves in legal restraints.” Of course, as her father was a member of the Massachusetts state legislature, and not one of those placed in debtor’s prison, she had a very specific point of view. However, Sedgwick also mentions that those who were deemed wealthy or “ruffled-shirts” were often victimized, imprisoned, and stolen from by either rebels or people taking advantage of the chaos.

During the rebellion most of the Sedgewick children were relocated to a safer area. However, the servants, including Mum Bett, stayed behind to keep the property of their employers safe. Bett must have felt particularly loyal to her employers, as she is said to have nightly defended her house with a kettle of boiling beer and a pair of loaded pistols. 

Still, those who claimed to be part of the rebellion and some who just took advantage of the chaos did cause some trouble to the Sedgewick household. Rebels successfully stole Mr. Sedgewick’s horse named Jenny Gray. In addition, would-be rebels once invaded the house, led by a local broom maker, attempting to take anything worthwhile, including possible prisoners. Bett had previously secured her most valuable property, as well as that of others, in a locked chest to keep it safe.

The marauders demanded that Bett take them to the basement to find whatever was hidden there. On the way, according to Sedgewick, Bett made sure to point out the poorly made brooms made by the leader of the small rebel party. When the group came to the  locked chest, they demanded access to its treasures. Bett put her foot down, calling them by name, as they were all well known to her. She explained that if they wanted what was inside, they would have to break it themselves. According to Bett, they slunk away like whipped dogs.

In time Bett was able to purchase a house of her own for her and her children. At the end of her life, when visited by local clergymen, she was asked if she was afraid to die. “No sir,” she said, “I have tried to do my duty, and I am not afeared.” Her very matter of fact reply is reminiscent of the way she lived. Upon her death in 1829, at about the age of 85, she was buried in the Sedgewick family plot in Stockbridge. Her tombstone stands as a touching reminder of the connection she made with the family she helped to raise. It reads:
"She was born a slave and remained a slave for nearly 30 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 truth, no failed to perform a duty. In every situation of domestic trial she was the most efficient helper and tenderest of friend. Good mother, farewell!"
The Freeman case and others like it set the precedent for future suits in New England. Massachusetts did not officially abolish slavery until the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. However, after 1781 the practice of slavery declined in Massachusetts, until it was nearly extinguished by about 1790. Therefore, by the end of the Civil War, slavery had been extinct in Massachusetts regardless of written law.

Shamefully, I had not heard of Elizabeth Freeman until I began this research. Once again, her story reminds me that many very important pieces of history have been left out of text books. Though both the Sedgwick and Martineau sources have strange inaccuracies, I think Martineau said it best when she said, “A woman once lived in Massachusetts whose name ought to be preserved in all histories of the state as one of its honours.”  

Certainly, Mum Bett's story is a valuable reminder that Massachusetts has not always been a haven for escaped slaves and freed men and woman. It should also remind us of the price our country paid for putting off the decision over the slavery issue for a future generation. However, it should truly inspire us to observe what this tough as nails woman was able to accomplish by just observing her surroundings and taking a chance. Imagine what we could all accomplish if we, as Bett would say, just kept still and minded things.