Brom and Bett v. Ashley

Background

Elizabeth Freeman, Mum Bett, was born into slavery in New York during the mid-18th century but spent most of her life in Sheffield Massachusetts (Zilversmit 1968, 619). Sheffield was known for its patriotic zeal and in 1773 issued the Sheffield Declaration resolving that the natural state of mankind is “equal, free, and independent of each other” (Massachusetts Constitution and the Abolition of Slavery). At the time of the Declaration’s issuance, Mum Bett was owned by Colonel John Ashely a judge and moderator on the committee which drafted the Sheffield Declaration. Thus, it is plausible that Mum Bett was privy to the debates surrounding the Sheffield Declaration. Some stories speculate that it may have in part inspired her freedom suit while others claim she initiated the suit after Ashely’s wife struck Bett with a hot shovel (Massachusetts Constitution and the Abolition of Slavery). Freeman may have also been the beneficiary of a group of abolition-minded citizens of Sheffield who brought a freedom suit on her behalf (Zilversmit 1968, 619). Although Bett’s motivations may be unclear, court documents show that she did initiate a freedom suit, along with co-plaintiff Brom of whom little is known, against Ashely in 1781, a year after the Massachusetts State Constitution was ratified (Massachusetts Constitution and the Abolition of Slavery).

Image o the Ashely Home in Sheffield, MA
https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/ashley-house

The Suit

A brilliant young lawyer from Sheffield, Theodore Sedgewick, represented Brom and Bett in their freedom suit. The suit began with a writ of replevin from the Berkshire Court of Common Pleas mandating the emancipation of Bett and Brom, but Ashely refused to comply (Massachusetts Constitution and the Abolition of Slavery). Sedgewick then brought the case to the County Court of Common Pleas in Great Barrington where he successfully argued that the state constitution outlawed slavery after which the jury decided that Bett and Brom should be freed and compensated 30 shillings (Massachusetts Constitution and the Abolition of Slavery). The brevity of this suit which was resolved in under a year and the decision of Ashley not to continue the appeals process suggests that Massachusetts’ judiciary overwhelmingly favored Sedgewick’s interpretation of the state constitution as it pertained to slavery.

Verdict from the Brom and Bett v. Ashely Suit
   https://www.mass.gov/guides/massachusetts-constitution-and-the-abolition-of-slavery#-the-mum-bett-case-

Impact

Brom and Bett v. Ashley set a powerful precedent in the state of Massachusetts that ultimately contributed to the abolishment of slavery in the state (Schweninger 2014: 37). Bett’s success in the court demonstrated that enslaved people could successfully use the judicial system and the privileged right established in the state constitution to appeal for freedom. Brom and Bett, as well as the growing unpopularity of slavery in the state, contributed to the rapid decline of slavery in the state and the1790 census recorded no slaves (Massachusetts Constitution and the Abolition of Slavery). Mum Bett worked for the remainder of her life in the Sedgewick house where Catherine Sedgewick told Bett’s story in a paper titled “Slavery in New England.” (Zilversmit 1968, 619). Clearly, the Sedgewicks were instrumental allies in Bett’s freedom suit, but this does not diminish the significance of Bett’s prominence in the narrative of Massachusetts abolition of slavery. The available accounts on her life suggest Bett was likely aware of the changing political landscape in Massachusets, and, exercising a great deal of courage and agency, she capitalized on the opportunities available to her to petition for her freedom.

Drawing of plaintiff Mum Bett

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