Some politically-minded thinkers have suggested that the founding generation of the United States did not mean to include African Americans when they declared, in Thomas Jefferson’s immortal phrase, that “all men are created equal.” That they saw no contradiction between uttering these words and owning slaves.
It is difficult to believe that any thoughtful person can think this, especially if they know the actual history. How do they explain the fact that within five years of Jefferson’s declaration, two states ended slavery and other states soon followed until the northern states had either abolished it or set slavery on the road to abolition? (Even South Carolina’s legislature was forced to vote on a bill that would have abolished slavery, but, of course, it did not pass.) Jefferson himself had mixed feelings about the institution, saying, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever. Commerce between master and slave is despotism. Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than these people are to be free.” Because of Jefferson’s qualms about slavery, Alexander Stephens, the vice-president of the Confederates States of America, later declared that no Southern gentleman should read Jefferson.
Benjamin Franklin was remarkable for being one of the most forward-thinking Founders despite being one of the oldest. At age 40, he owned a couple of slaves; at age 80, he not only no longer owned slaves but had become president of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery. On behalf of this society, Franklin submitted a petition to the First Congress of the United States asking that the government come up with a way of legally ridding the nation of slavery, “removing the Inconsistency from the Character of the American People.”
Perhaps nothing better illustrates the burgeoning awareness of an “Inconsistency” between liberty and slave ownership than the case of Massachusetts where a new state constitution in 1780 was broadcast and made citizens of the commonwealth fully aware 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.”
The conventional wisdom in some quarters is that the thought occurred to no one at the time that these high-sounding words had anything to do with the rights of those held in slavery in the newly-minted states. But the thought did occur to a slave woman known as Bett who was held by John and Hannah Ashley of Sheffield, Mass., when she heard the new constitution read in public. Further, she shared this thought with an attorney named Theodore Sedgwick*, who was convinced that Bett was onto something. He argued the case for Bett and another slave named Brom in county court in August 1781, and a jury declared that the Ashleys had no right to hold Brom and Bett in bondage under Massachusetts’s new constitution.
After a subsequent anti-slavery case, Walker vs. Jennison, was decided by the Massachusetts State Supreme Court in the slave’s favor (citing the Brom and Bett case as a precedent), slave owners in Massachusetts were on notice that their so-called property rights over their fellow human beings would no longer be upheld by the courts. They were forced to prepare to free their slaves or, at least, upgrade their status to that of indentured servant, which, while not an immediately improved condition, offered the promise that their status could not be enforced perpetually or be forced upon an indentured servant’s children. By 1790, there were virtually no slaves left in Massachusetts. Notably, the commonwealth never officially abolished slavery, but the constitutional argument was used to undermine the institution and force its rapid demise.
All of the most northern states took various steps to eliminate slavery by 1800. This did not mean that the end of slavery in all of these states actually coincided with the end of the eighteenth century. Some states dragged their feet by prohibiting or making difficult the acquisition of new slaves. Thus, on the eve of the Civil War, there were still a couple of elderly slaves living in New Jersey (according to the 1860 census). Delaware and Maryland, not being culturally really northern states, continued to hold slaves until the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, after the Civil War had ended. (There are records of Union officers from states such as Delaware marching off to battle with their slaves in tow.)
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Bett, upon gaining her freedom, changed her name to Elizabeth Freeman and became a wage-earning servant for the family of her former attorney. She is buried beside her close friend, Judge Sedgwick’s daughter, Catharine, and is, I believe, the only African American buried in the Sedgwick family plot in Stockbridge, Mass.
Catharine Sedgwick recorded Elizabeth Freeman’s memoirs. (Freeman herself was illiterate.) Occasionally, Sedgwick appears to have tried capturing the flavor of Freeman’s speech:
“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 a free woman— I would.”
As an amateur linguist, I am struck by what I presume is Sedgwick’s transcription of “earth” as “airth.” It could very well say as much about the speech of Sedgwick as it does about that of Freeman. It is my understanding that “airth” is considered to be an ancient, possible alternative spelling of the more standard spelling of “earth” but that no one is certain of this. By 1780, the modern spelling of the word was standardized, and as a highly educated woman from a highly educated family, Sedgwick would have known this. Apparently, she spelled the word “airth” in order to suggest her friend’s pronunciation. If this is so, then it implies that Freeman’s pronunciation was different from Sedgwick’s. Perhaps Sedgwick’s pronunciation of the word was very close to our modern pronunciation.
In Old and Middle English—the languages of “Beowulf” and “The Canterbury Tales,” respectively— “airth” would probably be, to our modern eyes and ears, a close approximation of how “earth” was pronounced. While the pronunciation of courtiers and other educated classes gradually grew to resemble the pronunciation of more modern, educated speakers, regional dialects tended to hold on to such pronunciations as “airth” for “earth.” If I am correct, then, Catharine Sedgwick is unwittingly telling us that she herself said “erth” while Elizabeth Freeman said “airth.” The stratification of American language along class lines—but often based on region of origin in the Old World—would continue throughout the history of the United States. Of course, while some African American’s speech probably bore some African influences, especially if they had actually been born in Africa, the kind of English that African Americans learned from lower-class Englishmen often constituted an even heavier influence. That appears to be what happened in the formation of Elizabeth Freeman’s dialect.
* Trivia: Theodore Sedgwick is the great-great-great-great grandfather of actress Kyra Sedgwick, star of one of my favorite TV series, “The Closer.”
Dec. 19 - Actress Meryl Streep told the story of Elizabeth Freeman last night on CBS's "60 Minutes." She thought, as many do, that Freeman was defending her sister when she was struck with a hot metal object and suffered serious burns at the hands of her mistress, Hannah Ashley. Apparently there is anecdotal evidence that Freeman was protecting her sister, but more solid evidence suggests that it was her daughter she was defending. Further, there is no evidence outside the anecdote there Freeman even had a sister.
Streep wants to help found a national women's museum, and it would undoubtedly include an exhibit on Freeman.