The details of Elizabeth Freeman’s life are hazy. We know for a fact that she was a key player in one of the most important legal cases of the American Revolution. But Elizabeth never learned to read or write, so her life story was recorded by the people who knew her, or historians who heard her story secondhand. This can make it difficult to know what motivated her, and how she felt about the events of her life. But sharing what we do know is important, because her choices changed the history of slavery in America.
Elizabeth was born into slavery in a small town in the New York colony around the year 1744. She was owned by Peter Hogeboom, a descendant of the original Dutch settlers of the area. He and his family called her Bett.
As an enslaved person, Elizabeth had no control over her own life. She and her sister were very young when they learned this lesson. They were sent to live with their owner’s daughter, Hannah, a woman who had married and moved away years before either Elizabeth or her sister was born. Elizabeth and her sister were forced to move and start a new life of servitude in Sheffield, the town where Hannah lived, thirty-four miles away from everything and everyone they had ever known.
Elizabeth and her sister were domestic servants. They were responsible for doing the hard labor of keeping Hannah’s home running smoothly. They looked after her four children, did the cooking and cleaning, and tended to the family garden. This kind of work was very physically demanding, and never let up.
Hannah was married to John Ashley, one of the most important leaders in western Massachusetts. He was a prosperous landowner, decorated war hero, representative in the colonial legislature, and local judge. But life in his household was not easy. Elizabeth was once hit with a hot coal shovel while trying to protect her sister from Hannah’s anger. She bore an ugly scar on her arm for the rest of her life.
Around the year 1765, Elizabeth gave birth to a baby girl, whom she also named Elizabeth. Elizabeth never named the baby’s father. Later in her life she told people that he was killed in the American Revolution, but she still never identified him. It is difficult to know what to make of this. Enslaved women were vulnerable to sexual abuse, so it is possible that Elizabeth kept his name a secret because the baby was the result of a traumatic experience. It is also possible that Elizabeth’s relationship with the man was consensual, but she feared that if the father’s identity was discovered he might be in trouble with the law. Regardless, little Elizabeth, as the daughter of an enslaved woman, was born and grew up enslaved in the Ashley household.
John Ashley played a central role in the politics of his community. In the lead-up to the American Revolution, all the most powerful men in western Massachusetts would gather at the Ashley home to discuss the events of the day and debate the appropriate response. On January 12, 1773, they took a daring stand by publishing the Sheffield Declaration in the Massachusetts Spy. The first resolution of their declaration stated “that mankind in a state of nature are equal, free, and independent of each other,” an idea that would appear in the Declaration of Independence three years later.
Elizabeth had plenty of opportunities to overhear the discussions of the men who drafted the Sheffield Declaration. Like many other enslaved people, she was probably inspired by the idea that all people were born equal and hoped that it would be applied to her. Many enslaved people in the thirteen colonies realized that the ideals of the American Revolution created an opportunity for enslaved people to assert their independence from those who claimed to own them. But they also knew that they needed to wait for the right opportunity, because slaveholders were likely to put up a fight, and if the enslaved people lost, they might never be free.
Seven years passed before Elizabeth found her opportunity. On June 15, 1780, Massachusetts passed its state constitution. Elizabeth attended a public reading of the new constitution, where she heard the words enshrined in the document’s very first article: “All men are born free and equal.” Unlike the Sheffield Declaration or the Declaration of Independence, which were public statements of the principals motivating the American Revolution, the Massachusetts Constitution was a legal document, and its very first article asserted freedom and equality for all. This idea was now the law of the land in Massachusetts, and Elizabeth knew that the time was right to try for freedom.
Elizabeth asked Theodore Sedgwick to be her lawyer. Theodore was a young lawyer who had participated in the meetings that led to the Sheffield Declaration years before. He agreed to help her, because he thought it was a good chance to challenge whether slavery was legal under the new state constitution. But Theodore added a second person enslaved in the Ashley household, a man named Brom, to the case. Historians think he did this to make sure the case wasn’t dismissed simply because Elizabeth was a woman.
Theodore and his partner argued that Elizabeth and Brom could not be slaves because of the new state constitution. Ashley’s lawyers argued that Elizabeth and Brom had been his property long before the constitution was passed. The courts sided with Elizabeth and Brom, agreeing that according to the constitution they had always been free. The court ordered Ashley to pay them a thirty-shilling fee and all their trial costs, to make up for enslaving them. Ashley appealed the decision, but dropped his case when two other freedom trials were decided in the same way, signaling that the practice of slavery was officially unconstitutional in the state of Massachusetts.
Many enslaved people realized that the ideals of the American Revolution created an opportunity for them to assert their independence from those who claimed to own them.
In the wake of her victory, Elizabeth changed her name to Elizabeth Freeman, and gave her daughter the same last name. John Ashley offered to pay her to continue working for his family, but she declined. Instead, she took a job as a paid domestic servant for Theodore Sedgwick, possibly because she was thankful for the great service he had rendered her.
Elizabeth became a beloved member of the Sedgwick household. Most of what we know about Elizabeth comes from the writings of Catharine Maria Sedgwick, Theodore’s daughter, who became a famous author. In 1853, she published an essay called “Slavery in New England,” which tells the story of Elizabeth Freeman’s life. She describes Elizabeth’s experiences with the cruelties of slavery, and the triumph of her trial (with her father as the hero, of course). It is through Catharine that we know that the Sedgwick family did not use Elizabeth’s chosen name, but instead called her Mumbet, short for “Mother Beth.” Elizabeth worked for the Sedgwick family many more years, keeping their home, caring for their children, and occasionally protecting the family from harm. Catharine fondly recalls when Elizabeth saved the family silver from marauders during Shay’s Rebellion by hiding it in her own trunk and then tricking the men into not searching it by mocking them for wanting the belongings of a Black woman. Catharine remembers this as an example of Elizabeth’s quick wit and nerves of steel, but the episode also reveals that Elizabeth knew racism was still widespread in her community, whether she was free or not.
When Elizabeth had saved enough money, she bought her own home, and lived there for the rest of her days. When she passed away on December 28, 1829, the Sedgwick family buried her in their family plot with a marble tombstone. She was the only Black servant honored this way by the Sedgwick family.
- domestic servant: A person who works in the home.
- Shay’s Rebellion: An uprising that took place in western Massachusetts after the end of the American Revolution. The participants wanted to stop the Massachusetts courts from repossessing farms that were in debt. This is considered one of the reasons the new U.S. Constitution was drafted.
- shilling: A British coin.
- Why is Elizabeth’s trial important in American history?
- What challenges do historians face when trying to learn about Elizabeth’s life?
- Why did Elizabeth’s lawyer believe it was necessary to add an enslaved man to her court case?
- What was the basis of Elizabeth’s court case? Why was this a persuasive argument in Massachusetts in 1781?