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Modern Voices
Margaret Washington on Elizabeth Freeman
Resource Bank Contents

Q: What's the significance of Elizabeth Freeman successfully suing for her freedom in Massachusetts?
Margaret Washington

A: Acts in places like Massachusetts, by people like Elizabeth Freeman and other African Americans who petitioned the Massachusetts General Court, these kinds of maneuvers are what eventually led to the Massachusetts General Court, by virtue of the constitution of Massachusetts, saying that all men are created equal, which implied and was interpreted by the court as saying that there was to be no slavery, "all men" being all women. But if we can imagine this woman, this slave woman, reading a constitution and saying, "Well, if everybody is created equal, then that includes me, too," and challenging the state government on this issue -- it was acts like that, that forced the Massachusetts legislature to look long and hard at the whole contagion of liberty.

And there were other African Americans who did similar kinds of acts. Paul Cuffe and his brother refused to pay their taxes. They were landowners, they were fairly wealthy African Americans, and yet they had no rights. They were jailed for this. But they were eventually let out of jail. And, these kinds of acts, these kinds of challenges to the state governments, eventually led to massive emancipation for people in various states in the North. So in that sense, even those who didn't serve in the army, either in the British or in the American army, still worked to bring about their own freedom.
Margaret Washington
Associate Professor of History
Cornell Universiy

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