J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, September 01, 2022

Elizabeth Freeman and the Talk of Liberty

In 1781 Elizabeth Freeman initiated a freedom suit, suing to be released from bondage to John and Hannah Ashley.

(Though John was Freeman’s legal owner, she spoke fondly of him in later years. She described Hannah, on the other hand, as tyrannical, violent, and cold-hearted to others.)

As I quoted on Tuesday, in 1838 Harriet Martineau wrote that Elizabeth Freeman filed her suit after hearing people discuss the Massachusetts constitution of 1780.

In 1853 Catharine Maria Sedgwick wrote that Freeman took action after hearing the Declaration of Independence. Sedgwick also said this happened “soon after the close of the revolutionary war,” which doesn’t match the timing of the lawsuit.

Our most recent tradition says that Freeman heard John Ashley, Theodore Sedgewick, and other Sheffield men discussing natural rights in January 1773 as they formulated resolutions for the town meeting to adopt.

So which statement of natural liberty prompted Elizabeth Freeman to act?

I think all of them did. Or to put it differently, over the years she heard many conversations in which men like Sedgewick and Ashley proclaimed their belief in liberty for all people. She may have figured out that the Massachusetts constitution had more legal weight than a town resolution and the Congress’s Declaration. But I doubt she would have gambled based on overhearing one discussion.

As many contemporaries described, and the printed record bears out, there was a lot of talk about liberty and injustice in those years. Ebenezer Fox was a farmboy in Roxbury in 1775, and in his memoir he described how he and other working boys saw parallels between the colonies’ complaints and their own:
Almost all the conversation that came to my ears related to the injustice of England and the tyranny of government. It is perfectly natural that the spirit of insubordination, that prevailed, should spread among the younger members of the community; that they, who were continually hearing complaints, should themselves become complainants. I, and other boys situated similarly to myself, thought we had wrongs to be redressed; rights to be maintained; and, as no one appeared disposed to act the part of a redresser, it was our duty and our privilege to assert our own rights. We made a direct application of the doctrines we daily heard, in relation to the oppression of the mother country, to our own circumstances; and through that we were more opposed than our fathers were.

I thought that I was doing myself great injustice by remaining in bondage, when I ought to go free; and that the time was come, when I should liberate myself from the thraldom of others, and set up a government of my own; or, in other words, do what was right in the sight of my own eyes.
Fox grabbed freedom by running away to Rhode Island. Freeman sought legal help from Sedgewick—a process that took longer but was more permanent and had far-reaching consequences.

One detail of Freeman’s story appears in both Martineau’s and Sedgwick’s accounts: she felt she had to argue for her very humanity.
  • Martineau: “She replied that the ‘Bill o’ Rights’ said that all were born free and equal, and that as she was not a dumb beast, she was certainly one of the nation.”
  • Sedgwick (published version): “‘I am not a dumb critter; won’t the law give me my freedom?’”
The Sheffield town meeting, and even Ebenezer Fox and his chums, didn’t have to start there.

The town of Sheffield has just recognized Elizabeth Freeman’s move toward freedom by unveiling a bronze statue of her, shown above, along with a college scholarship in her name. I understand the statue, by artist Brian Hanlon, stands on land owned by the church where the town meetings of 1773 occurred, bringing the conversation about natural liberties full circle.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very interesting! Elizabeth must have been a brave woman to come forward for herself. I'm glad she is being remembered.