As the new year began, I found myself reflecting on the story of Mum Bett and the meaning of liberty.
Mum Bett is credited with ending slavery in Massachusetts through a successful lawsuit to gain her freedom.
Here’s the story in brief:
Born into slavery in mid-18th century New York, she was given as dowry to a wealthy Massachusetts man who’d married her master’s daughter.
Years later, Mum Bett stepped into a scalding hot kitchen shovel being swung at her own daughter. The attack left a disfiguring scar on her face and a permanently broken arm.
But it also prompted Mum Bett to start actively seeking her freedom.
She soon came upon a public reading of the Massachusetts constitution and was reminded that
All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.
Mum Bett persuaded a young lawyer, Theodore Sedgwick, to sue her master for freedom.
The case was decided in her favor in 1781. She was awarded 150 shillings (~$400 today) as part of the judgment, nearly all of which went to legal fees and court costs.
Nevertheless, Mum Bett became a free woman by the age of 40 and thereupon changed her name to Elizabeth Freeman. She built a house for her family and lived in peace and freedom until her death in 1829.
Her case had no immediate impact on others because the defendant — the man who claimed her as property — chose not to appeal.
But the case of Quock Walker borrowed from her victory. And when the Massachusetts Supreme Court heard it in 1783, their decision abolished slavery throughout the state.
I think of all the big cases that have shaped our lives, whether for labor and environmental rights, women’s rights, indigenous treaty rights, civil rights for ethnic and sexual minorities, and so on.
The individual stories behind these cases are no different from the stories behind our own debt collection and foreclosure cases, our employment and tort claims, our divorce and child support issues.
To be sure, we face nothing in our civil claims as consequential as slavery, our own or that of others. But on the other hand, few of us are actually free.
We each have our own concepts of liberty. I know I haven’t reached mine.
But what got me thinking of Mum Bett in this new year was the recognition that she had a little freedom all along, just not enough.
She had the freedom to take that blow for her daughter, but not enough freedom to strike back, or to remove her family from that constant threat of legalized violence.
She had the freedom to find a lawyer to take her case, but not the freedom to represent herself in court or to even testify on her own behalf.
She had the freedom to fight for her freedom. But of course that meant some of her freedom was missing.
And that’s where we in 2017 find common ground with Mum Bett as she worked to become Elizabeth Freeman.
No matter our circumstances, we all have the freedom to fight for freedom.
What I wish for each of us in this new year is progress on the path to freedom, whatever that looks like in your life.
And to the extent your civil case is a part of your progress, we hope to help you take the right steps.
Happy New Year!