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The Macksey Journal

Abstract

Freedom suits were used by some slaves to gain their freedom through the courts, and they often utilized the ideas of freedom and equality that became popular during the Revolutionary War to make the case for individual emancipation. With the help of her lawyer, Elizabeth Freeman, a slave in Sheffield, Massachusetts during the American Revolution, sued for her freedom using arguments inspired by Revolutionary rhetoric, the Declaration of Independence, and the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780. Using those documents and other eighteenth-century legal opinions and court cases, this research shows how Freeman’s case (Brom and Bett v. Ashley, 1781) set a precedent for other freedom suits in Massachusetts. Scholars who have addressed these suits often discuss them in the context of their impact on the individual slaves, rather than their overarching influence on slavery as a whole. Freedom suits, specifically Elizabeth Freeman’s, served to highlight the growing contradictions between slavery and post-Revolution American founding principles. Freeman’s case specifically succeeded in helping to abolish slavery in the state of Massachusetts, setting the precedent that slavery was unconstitutional according to the state constitution.

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