History of American Slavery, Episode 3: Slavery during the Revolutionary War and the life of Elizabeth Freeman.

Why America’s Revolutionary Fight for Freedom Failed Its Slaves

Why America’s Revolutionary Fight for Freedom Failed Its Slaves

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June 17 2015 3:25 AM

The Hypocrisy of America’s Revolution

History of American Slavery, Episode 3: Slavery during the Revolutionary War and Elizabeth Freeman’s groundbreaking “freedom suit.” 

Elizabeth Freeman
Mum Bett, aka Elizabeth Freeman, circa 1812.

Painting by Susan Ridley Sedgwick via Wikimedia Commons

In Episode 3 of The History of American Slavery, a Slate Academy, hosts Rebecca Onion and Jamelle Bouie explore the shape of slavery during America’s Revolutionary War.

They discuss how the enlightenment ideas that helped found our government both inhibited and encouraged the spread of American slavery. They also talk about the divergent ways the early Northern and Southern states handled slavery in their courts. And they begin their conversation by remembering the life of Elizabeth Freeman (1742?-1829), an enslaved servant whose victory in one of the first “freedom suits” helped lead to the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts.

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Our guests this episode are:

Douglas R. Egerton, professor of history at Le Moyne College and currently the Merrill Family Visiting Professor of History at Cornell University.

Read an excerpt of Egerton’s book, Death or Liberty: African Americans and Revolutionary America.

Emily Blanck, associate professor of history at Rowan University.

Read an excerpt of Blanck’s book, Tyrannicide: Forging and American Law of Slavery in Revolutionary South Carolina and Massachusetts.

Here are some of the links discussed in Episode 3:

  • Thomas Paine’s “African Slavery in America” can be read at Constitution.org.
  • Find the four 18th-century petitions made by enslaved persons to colonial and state assemblies at History Is a Weapon.
  • Elsewhere in the Slate Academy, here are 10 surprising facts about the demographics of American slavery.
  • Access all features of the Slate Academy at Slate.com/Academy

Who was Elizabeth Freeman?

We don’t know Elizabeth Freeman’s exact birthday, but it was probably in 1742. She was born in Claverack, New York, to enslaved parents whose origins are lost to us. As an infant she was sold to the magistrate and soldier John Ashley, in the western Massachusetts town of Sheffield. During her enslaved life she was known as “Bett,” no last name. Later, after she had a daughter, she came to be known as “Mum Bett.”

John Ashley’s house was a place where people talked with great passion about the new ideas in the air surrounding the time of the Revolutionary War—of “Natural Law,” and of the ideas of Locke, Montesquieu, and other enlightenment philosophers. Attending to Ashley’s table, Freeman heard discussions of the Sheffield Resolves, which were a locally published precursor to the Declaration of Independence, and of the new Massachusetts Constitution, which was adopted in 1780. Later, she attended a public reading of Jefferson’s Declaration, in Sheffield. Freeman wondered why these new ideas didn’t apply to her own life. She came to the conclusion that her enslavement was wrong under Massachusetts’ new laws.

After coming into conflict with her mistress one too many times, she left the house and asked an abolition-minded lawyer, Theodore Sedgwick, to help her sue for freedom. Another enslaved servant in the Ashley house joined her suit. Sedgwick brought the case to the county court, where it succeeded. It became an important precedent to a later superior court case that established the illegality of slavery in Massachusetts.

After winning her suit, Mum Bett took the name Elizabeth Freeman. The Ashleys asked her to come back and serve in their household as a paid servant. She declined. Instead, she worked for the Sedgwicks, the family of her lawyer.

She died in 1829 in her eighties. Her children inscribed this on her gravestone in the Stockbridge Cemetery:

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 or 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.

Find the complete Episode 3 transcript later this week at Slate.com/Academy.

Next time, on Episode 4 of The History of American Slavery, Jamelle and Rebecca remember the life of Joseph Fossett (1780-1858). They’ll talk to Heather Andrea Williams and Annette Gordon-Reed about slavery in the early republic. Your homework, should you choose to accept it: Read an excerpt from Williams’ book, Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery.

You can post your feedback on this episode in the comments section below or email us at historyacademy@slate.com.

And you can talk to other Academy classmates in our members-only Facebook group. This week, we’re asking you to share a memory of how you were taught the history of American slavery in your early education.