How Massachusetts Ended Slavery, Part Eight

John Adams

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

Chief Justice Parsons of Massachusetts wrote in 1806 that some case he declined to name then held that slavery could not square with John Adams’ Declaration of Rights in the state constitution of 1780. Therefore, the Bay State had abolished it. This would have surprised Adams, as well as all the people who kept buying and selling other people after that date. Parson’s failure to cite a case further raises questions. As a judge on a high court, he ought to know his precedents. That he refused to cite one might mean that he didn’t know himself and repeated only accepted legal wisdom of the time, or may point to an awareness of the ambiguity in how Massachusetts came to report zero enslaved people in the 1790 census. By keeping things vague, he could immunize himself from criticism that referring to a specific authority might invite.

That said, we have two possible cases that Parsons might have had in mind and which subsequent historians have guessed either did the job or, much more likely, opened the legal floodgates that then accomplished abolition. We usually cite Quock Walker first, so let’s give pride of place this time to Elizabeth “Mumbet” Freeman. Much of her life story comes down to us as family reminiscences written down well after the events in question, but like most enslaved people Freeman left few other traces of herself in the record. A Dutchman enslaved her and her sister in New York, later making wedding presents of them John Ashley of Sheffield, Massachusetts. Ashley married his daughter.

They remained with the Ashleys for around forty years before the woman of the house, Annetje Ashley, took it on herself to beat Freeman’s sister with a shovel. Elizabeth objected and got in the way of the blow, suffering permanent disability to her arm for the trouble. Or maybe she heard a public reading of the Declaration of Independence and got inspired. The latter story comes from Freeman’s white advocates, but also neatly flatters the noble whites who get to both tell the ignorant black woman of this thing called freedom and then give it to her. Maybe it happened that way, but probably Elizabeth and her sister suffered a long series of abuses that culminated in the attack with the shovel. At best, the changed political environment of the Bay State might have helped make freedom seem a more realistic hope once that happened.

Freeman sought help from Theodore Sedgwick, who brought a freedom suit on behalf of her and an enslaved man named Brom. Sedgwick got a court order for Ashley to surrender property he had come into illegally. Ashley refused to comply and the fight was on. Sedgwick argued that he held illegal property in the form of Freeman and Brom and pointed to the Declaration of Rights as the proof. A jury -not the judge- agreed with him and awarded Freeman and Brom their freedom plus trial costs and damages.

Receiving that verdict didn’t end things for John Ashley. In 1781, he thought he had a chance still and appealed to the state’s Supreme Judicial Court. He later withdrew the appeal without having a trial. He didn’t leave us any explicit reason why, but obviously he thought his chances much worse on further consideration. The only clear signpost we have for changing times in this front comes in the form of Quock Walker’s case.

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