Desire for a Better Life

Elizabeth (Bet) Freeman was born a slave on the farm of Pieter Hogeboom. While she never learned to read or write, she had a strong sense of herself and would leave a legacy in the fight for civil rights.

Hogeboom gave Bet to his daughter, Hannah, when she married. Bet was around 7 years old at the time. As Bet became older, she became more conscious of her status and had a desire to change it.

Hannah’s husband, John Ashley, was a leader in the fight for American independence, and his home became a meeting place for drafting earlier versions of the Declaration of Independence. Bet overheard the discussions and was struck by the phrase: “All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights…”

After American independence was later declared, Bet went to Theodore Sedgwick (1), a young lawyer to see if she could sue for her freedom. Sedgwick accepted her case. The case was heard in Massachusetts because that’s where Bet was living at the time. Bet won the case, effectively ending slavery in Massachusetts. Ashley initially appealed the ruling, but later withdrew his appeal.

Following the ruling, Bet changed her name to Elizabeth Freeman. Elizabeth, with her freedom, went on to become known for being a healer.

Elizabeth’s legal case subsequently became the precedent for other legal cases for ending slavery. While little is about her today, Elizabeth Freeman became the icon for the fight for civil rights that continues today (nearly 250 years later). It’s perhaps fitting that a woman who was never taught to read and write would have the intelligence, spirit, bravery, and desire to start the process of gaining equal access for rights for all Americans.

Being an icon for possibility does not spring forth from privilege. It’s the result of a desire for a better life for yourself and others. But iconic status will often require the support of others, in this case her lawyer, Theodore Sedgwick. Icons not only transform their lives, and others like them, they impact the lives of others. Theodore Sedgwick became a delegate to the Continental Congress, the 4th Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, and served on the Massachusetts’s Supreme Court.

Just imagine how symbolic it is that a woman with no basic rights started the process of gaining rights and possibilities for so many other Americans? Just imagine how those with virtually no status in our society can become the spark for changing our society? Just imagine how the words that became the beginning of our Declaration of Independence would inspire changes in our society that continue today.

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“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
– Eleanor Roosevelt

(1) Theodore Sedgwick is the 4th great-grandfather of actress Kyra Sedgwick.

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