Mumbet's Quest for Freedom
Updated: Jul 12, 2021
Brom and Bett V. Ashley, more commonly known as the Elizabeth Freeman case, challenged the very legitimacy of slavery less than one year after the adoption of the Massachusetts Constitution when the two plaintiffs claimed that they were not the legitimate property of their owner in 1781.
During the 1770s, Elizabeth Freeman, better known as Mumbet, was owned by prominent Colonial John Ashley, who also served as a judge at a Berkshire County court. It was during this time that Freeman was first introduced to Theodore Sedgewick, a prominent attorney and author of the Sheffield Declaration. The declaration, believed to have been drafted in Ashley’s house, petitioned against British sovereignty and tyranny, calling for the protection of individual rights through a list of resolves approved by the nominal town.
There are several varying theories as to why Elizabeth Freeman ultimately sued for freedom. The first, supported by the writing of employer Catharina Sedgewick, hypothesizes that conversations of individual rights and liberty at the Ashely dinner table, where prominent judges and attorneys discussed the Declaration of Independence and the Sheffield Declaration, inspired her to take action with her own suit against slavery. Another focuses on reports that when Mrs. Annette Ashley, her mistress, attacked her sister with a hot shovel, Freeman intervened and was badly burned in the process, causing her to never regain full motion of her arm. Others further speculate that she, along with fellow plaintiff Brom, was selected by fellow abolitionists specifically to challenge the legitimacy of slavery. It is important to highlight that all accounts we have of Mumbet’s reasoning are hearsay, due to the fact that the only primary sources we have of her story have been provided by the courts, her owners, and employers, all privileged white members of society, a recurring theme in this period
Regardless of her motivation, Mumbet approaches Thomas Sedgewick for legal counsel, and the civil suit begins.
The case began in May of 1781 with the creation of a Writ of Replevin. The writ, a legal remedy to recover property, alleged that Bett and Brom were not Ashley’s property, to begin with, because slavery was not a legitimate source of property. Ashley refused to follow the Writ and release the two slaves, and the case went to court at the County Court of Common Pleas in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.
In August of 1781, the court determined that Brom and Elizabeth Freeman were NOT John Ashley’s property, a decision that was made on the argument that the Massachusetts Constitution had in fact outlawed slavery. The two were freed and Ashely paid 30 shillings in damages.
Following the pursuit and win of her freedom, Elizabeth “Mumbet” Freedman spent the rest of her days in the employment of the Sedgwick family, until her death in 1829. She was buried in the innermost part of the Sedgewick plot, and as her gravestone reads, “in her own sphere she had no superior or equal.”
Her supposed age was 85 Years 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 nor equal. 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. - Charles Sedgewick