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The sudden good that courts can do

I choked up this morning at the quote at the very end of this editorial from the Boston Globe:

It may never be a day off for state workers, but it is an increasingly important holiday for Massachusetts residents who take their state’s history seriously: Aug. 21. On that day in 1781, a young woman from Sheffield was the first slave to use the Massachusetts constitution of 1780, with its stirring language of “all men are born free and equal,’’ to win freedom in court. Her case was a precursor to a 1783 decision by the state’s highest court that ended slavery in Massachusetts.

Last Saturday, more than 100 people gathered in Sheffield to honor that woman, Mumbet, who took the name Elizabeth Freeman after her emancipation. The event was at the Ashley House, the home of Mumbet’s owner, Colonel John Ashley. To help in her case, Mumbet had enlisted a lawyer, Theodore Sedgwick. Once free, she worked as a midwife, nurse, healer, and employee of the Sedgwick family.

The Ashley House and Mumbet’s grave, in Stockbridge with the rest of the Sedgwicks, are stops on the Upper Housatonic Valley African-American Heritage Trail. Other trail high points include the site of black historian W.E.B. DuBois’s childhood home in Great Barrington and the Pittsfield house of the Reverend Samuel Harrison, a chaplain in the 54th Massachusetts Regiment in the Civil War.

“Any time while I was a slave,’’ Mumbet once said, “if one minute’s freedom had been offered to me, and I was told I would die at the end of that minute, I would have taken it, just to stand on God’s green earth a free woman.’’ The heritage trail and Aug. 21 holiday keep that spirit alive.

I think there are two reasons why Mumbet’s words make me well up, besides the fact that I feel a personal connection to that beautiful part of my freedom-loving state.

First, slavery is so unimaginably, grindingly, persistently evil yet it failed to crush her hope. How can that be?.

Second, it took so little to end that massive evil. It took a judge and a pen.

Of course, the judge could have that effect because he was part of a state constitutional system that put courts between laws and the people they govern. Our imperfect system is structured to allow the sudden assertion of human good.

Then and now when that happens – and we look mainly to the courts for it – rejoicing and tears run together.

One Response to “The sudden good that courts can do”

  1. If liberty is properly recognised as inalienable, perhaps you can explain why so many seem ready to believe it should be within the power of the individual to alienate themselves from it through contract?

    When I try to persuade people that NDA’s cannot actually bind them to silence (though they can condition continued employment), they act as if I’d deny them their liberty to surrender what is theirs to surrender, or worse, deny them the opportunity to demonstrate due loyalty to their employer (“Yes, I shall keep your trivial secrets and respect your petty embargoes on pain of jail and/or bankruptcy”).

    I have a hunch people would gladly sell themselves into slavery if there wasn’t a blasted law against it.

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