We are all taught that slavery in America ends with the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln delivers the Emancipation Proclamation and by 1865 freedom is given to all those in bondage. This is semi true as slavery did end but other restrictive laws were than imposed on the African American population for the next 100 or so years. But what if I told you slavery could have ended earlier than 1865 and the words "all men are created equal" would have rang true throughout our history. The story of Elizabeth Freeman is a story of triumph for equality and freedom, but why didn't it change the course of American History?
A short 10 cent biography of Elizabeth Freeman would read something like this, born into slavery in 1742 in Claverack, NY, married around 1778ish, widowed by 1781 and freed in 1783. Freed? From Slavery? Yes, in 1783 that Bett would change History. By the time of the Revolution, Bett was a house servant to Colonel John Ashley of Ashley Falls, Mass. Ashley wasn't a bad guy, he was known for treating his slaves better then other slave owners, educating them and giving them proper housing, clothing, food, etc. But the ideas of freedom, independence & equality were sweeping the colonies and was topic number one amongst the colonists. The ideas reached everyone from the wealthiest families of Virginia and Massachusetts to the poorest of the poor and even to the every growing population of slaves. Bett would hear these words and ideas frequently spoke of amongst Col. Ashley and his guests, and they took root in her as they did in so many others. Bett heard the talk of "the inalienable rights of men" & "All men are born and created equal." The words could not escape her thoughts and Bett would approach Col. Ashley to ask if those words applied to her, in which Ashley would explain that it did not. But that did not deter Bett, and she wouldn't take no for an answer. She then backed her bags and set out on what should have changed the course of American History.
Bett set out on a four mile hike to visit one Theodore Sedgwick, a local lawyer and friend of Col. Ashley. Sedgwick originally wishing not to offend his friend the Ashley, he sent Bett back home. However, her words stuck with him and he began to see that the words that the new nation would be based on did apply to all those in America. These words came flowing from the newly written Massachusetts State Constitution and the more Sedgwick read it the more Bett's request made sense but more importantly that the ideas in the document were a legally binding. That said Sedqwick built a case for Bett and filed a lawsuit against his old friend Ashley in the Court of Common Please in Great Barrington, Mass. The trial began in August of 1781 and was in short a big deal inside the state of Massachusetts. Ashley hired himself the best lawyers in the state to defend him against Sedgwick's arguments. The case was argued by both sides, the jury heard each side and weighed the evidence. The verdict? Well in the case of Brom & Bett vs. Ashley the jury found Bett a free woman under the contexts of the State Constitution. Ashley had no legal rights to hold Bett in servitude for life. The decision also called for Ashley to compensate Bett with thirty shillings in silver for damages and five pounds, fourteen shillings & four pence for costs. But with the case setting a precedent how did slavery continue to exist?
You have to first look at the date to see why slavery continued to exist, 1781. At the time the newly forming nation was united under the Articles of Confederation which was just a loose tying agreement between the states. It is that reason that slavery did not become abolished nationally as the U.S. Constitution would not be ratified until 1788. However, in Massachusetts the institution of slavery did become outlawed in the wake of the decision, 1783. In the following years the Northern states followed the example, Connecticut, then Rhode Island and so on. As for Bett, she would work for wage in the Sedgwick home as a care giver for the Sedgwick children. After the children had grown, Bett bought her own home in Stockbridge and lived out the rest of her life until her death in 1829. The story of Bett is an intricate part of the History of Slavery in America. The case set a standard for the words Liberty, Freedom and Equality. Yes, after the case of Bett many slaves were freed from bondage in the Northern states but it would still take almost another 50 years until the institution of slavery was completely eradicated from the United States. Bett should be held as a pioneer in so many aspects of our History and deserves to be remembered, along with the work of Theodore Sedgwick, as being the candle in the dark room, pushing the ideas of abolitionism into the forming of State governments and eventually onto the national stage in ending the institution all together.