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Freeman’s case wasn’t the only time an enslaved person had used the legal system to argue for their freedom. One man named Quock Walker sued because he was supposed to be granted freedom when he turned 25, but the man who inherited him after his original owner died did not free him even though he was 28. Walker ran away, but was caught and beat by his new owner. He sued for assault and battery, eventually winning the case and damages. However, Freeman’s case was even more radical because she wasn’t merely stating that her enslavement was unjust - she was saying all enslavement was unjust. Her case was also effective. A jury of twelve locals - all white men - ruled in her favor, awarding her her freedom as well as 30 shillings worth of damages. The first thing she did was to change her name to one that celebrated her new freedom.
In 1780, Massachusetts’s newly ratified constitution was read out loud in the town of Sheffield, Massachusetts. When the line “all men are born free and equal,” was read in the central square, one listener was enraged. Elizabeth Freeman, an enslaved woman, heard the irony in the declaration right away. The white men around her were declaring freedom from oppression - as the Revolutionary War raged - and she felt she should be able to do the same.
Nonetheless, Freeman’s case was different because she did not argue based on a loophole, but questioned slavery itself. Freeman had been enslaved by John Ashley from 1746 until her court case. Ashley’s wife was known for being incredibly cruel and one day exploded at an enslaved girl named Lizzie. She took an iron shovel from the oven and was about to bring it down on Lizzie - who historians believe was likely Freeman’s daughter or sister - when Freeman jumped in front of Lizzie. The shovel sliced Freeman’s arm down to the bone, scarring her for life. Being near the Ashley family allowed Freeman to view the American revolution, which may have inspired her own personal rebellion. Eight years before her case, some of Sheffield’s most influential men met in the Ashley house to write their grievances against the tyrannical British rule. The man chosen to draft the statement was Sedgwick himself, who would become a senator, Speaker of the House, and a judge on the Massachusetts Supreme Court in addition to representing Freeman. Among other things, the Sheffield Declaration stated that all men are “equal, free, and independent, and have a right to the undisturbed enjoyment of their lives, their liberty, and their property.” Some say Freeman was present when the Sheffield Declaration was being written, serving the men as they drafted it.
Freeman marched to the house of local lawyer Theodore Sedgwick, and declared that she wanted to sue the state for her freedom. Sedgwick agreed to represent her, and her trial the following year was groundbreaking. Massachusetts state law was interesting because it recognized enslaved people as both property and people, meaning they could prosecute their owners and require they prove lawful ownership. Nearly 30 enslaved people had sued for their freedom by 1780 on the base of technicalities such as an illegal purchase.
Image Credit: John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe/Getty Images
Image Found: History.com
MLA Citation: Higgins, Abigail. “Meet Elizabeth Freeman, the First Enslaved Woman to Sue for Her Freedom-and Win.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 22 Mar. 2019, www.history.com/news/elizabeth-freeman-slavery-case-dred-scott-freedom.
Higgins, Abigail. “Meet Elizabeth Freeman, the First Enslaved Woman to Sue for Her Freedom-and Win.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 22 Mar. 2019, www.history.com/news/elizabeth-freeman-slavery-case-dred-scott-freedom.
Freeman and Walker’s cases helped end slavery in Massachusetts. By 1790, there were no longer any slaves in the state, making it the first state to completely abolish slavery. Freeman ended up working for the Sedgwicks, becoming like a member of the family. From her will, it appears that she ended up owning a house, 20 acres of land, 300 dollars, and many possessions. When she died in 1829 - well into her 80s - hundreds of people attended her funeral. Her headstone, which is still in the Sedgwick family cemetery today, is inscribed with the following message: “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.”