Bett Mum: The Woman Who Ended Slavery Long Before Lincoln
When libertarians talk about competition in the free market, many think only of competition between providers of goods and services. What they often forget is that, as the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises once explained, economics “is about human choice and action.”
In a hampered environment where institutions put in existence long before our conception set the rules, a free individual will often feel overwhelmed by the many restrictions imposed on his or her natural rights. And sometimes in history, many individuals like us were so restricted that they had even lost their claim to self-ownership long before their very birth.
Also in history, we see examples of individuals who, faced with this reality, chose to not abide by it, regardless of the consequences. Their courageous stand for integrity would often spark a fire in others. And, inspired by their peaceful resistance, others would soon follow, offering a competing philosophy that would soon shatter the immoral structure of authoritarianism.
This is what happened to Elizabeth Freeman, or Mum Bett, as many have known her.
The first black slave to file and win a freedom suit in the state of Massachusetts lifted no weapons against her oppressors. After all, she was outnumbered and would have been killed if she had. Instead, she did what she could at the time and headed to court. With that, she effectively ended slavery in the Bay State without spilling one drop of blood.
As she heard that “[a]ll men are born free and equal,” and that they “have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties,” she was suddenly taken by the idea of fighting for these rights.
Reaching out to Theodore Sedgwick, an abolition-minded lawyer, she told him she wasn’t a “dumb critter.” Then proceeded to ask, “won’t the law give me my freedom?”
Sedgwick finally accepted her case, adding Brom, another slave, to the suit.
As the Brom and Bett v. Ashley case was heard in August 1781, the jury ruled in Bett’s favor, making her the first African-American woman to be set free under Massachusetts’ constitution.
The Ashleys even paid her damages.
With her newly gained freedom, Bett changed her name to Elizabeth Freeman. She went on to take paid jobs and save enough money to buy her own home, where she later died.
She once defended her search for freedom with the following words:
“Any time, any time while I was a slave, if one minute’s freedom had been offered to me, and I had been told I must die at the end of that minute, I would have taken it—just to stand one minute on God’s airth [sic] a free woman— I would.”
Thankfully, she was able to finally enjoy this freedom she had been so in love with without waging war over it. And by helping to provide a competing narrative to establishment practices, she helped others see that there were other ways to fight the state without spilling anybody’s blood in the process.