About this Quotation:
A number of liberal minded Europeans visited America in the 1830s and 1840s hoping to discover more about the new American experiment in democracy, republicanism, and individual liberty. The best known is Alexis de Tocqueville, whose Democracy in America is being newly translated by Liberty Fund. Others of note include his friend and travelling companion Gustave de Beaumont who wrote a book on American slavery Marie: ou l’Esclavage aux États-Unis (1835), and Harriet Martineau who wrote Retrospect of Western Travel (1838). Martineau casts her eye, as they all did, on the glaring contradiction between the principles behind the Delaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights and the existence of slavery. Martineau was able to find a feisty black women, Mum Bett, and let her speak in her words. Mumm Bett came upon the principles of individual liberty by overhearing the conversations of the “gentlemen” she had to serve at table and thinking them through at her leisure. Note how Frederick Douglass came upon these same ideas - by reading the speeches of famous English authors and politicians, even though learning to read for black slaves was illegal for just this very reason.
25 August, 2008
Read the full quote in context here.
The popularizer of political economy, Harriet Martineau (1802-1876), in her account of her travels in the U.S. in 1834-36, relates the story of a slave woman, Mum Bett, who resisted a beating by her owner and demanded her liberty in the name of the Bill of Rights
Mum Bett called on Mr. Sedgwick, and asked him if she could not claim her liberty under the law. He inquired what could put such an idea into her head. She replied that the “Bill o Rights” said that all were born free and equal, and that as she was not a dumb heast, she was certainly one of the nation.
The full passage from which this quotation was taken can be be viewed below (front page quote in bold):
A woman once lived in Massachusetts, whose name ought to be preserved in all histories of the State, as one of its honours, though she was a slave, Some anecdotes of her were related in a Lyecum lecture delivered at Stockbridge in 1831. Others were told me by the Sedgwicks, who had the honour of knowing her best, by means of rendering her the greatest services. Mum Bett. Whose real name was Elizabeth Freeman, was born, it is supposed, about 1742. Her parents were native Africans, and she was a slave for about thirty years. At an early age she was purchased, with her sister, from the family into which she was born, in the States of New York, by Colonel Ashley, of Sheffield, Massachusetts. The lady of the mansion, in a fit of passion, one day struck at Mum Bett’s sister with a heated kitchen shovel. Mum Bett interposed her arm, and received the blow, the scar of which she bore to the day of her death. “She resented the insult and outrage as a white person would have done.” Leaving the house, and refusing to return. Colonel Ashley appealed to the law for the recovery of his slave. Mum Bett called on Mr. Sedgwick, and asked him if she could not claim her liberty under the law. He inquired what could put such an idea into her head. She replied that the “Bill o Rights” said that all were born free and equal, and that as she was not a dumb heast, she was certainly one of the nation. When afterwards asked how she learned the doctrine and facts on which she proceeded, she replied. “By keepin’ still and mindin’ things.” It was a favourits doctrine of hers, that people might learn by keeping still and minding things. But what did she mean, she was asked, by keeping still and minding things, Why, for instance, when she was waiting at table, she heard gentlemen talking over the Bill of Rights and the new constitution of Massachusetts; and in all they said she never heard but that all people were born free and equal, and she thought long about it, and resolved she would try whether she did not come in among them.
[More works by Harriet Martineau (1802 – 1876)]