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The Constitution begins with the words “We the People.” But just who were these people
who wanted to “secure the Blessings of Liberty”? In 1787, “We the People” excluded more
than half the population, including African Americans and women. What were the framers
Mum Bett had had enough. Born into slavery, she had served in the home of John Ashley of
Sheffield, Massachusetts, for more than 30 years. When Mrs. Ashley hit her with a hot kitchen
shovel one day in 1781, Mum Bett fled and refused to return.
Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, MA, USA / The Bridgeman Art Library
Mum Bett was a slave who went to court to gain her freedom. In 1781, a Massachusetts court
ruled that she was, in fact, free. But when the U.S. Constitution was written a few years later, it
excluded both women and African Americans.
Instead, Mum Bett asked a lawyer, Theodore Sedgwick, to represent her in court. Mum Bett
wanted to be free, and she believed the courts would recognize that she had the right to freedom.
Sedgwick took her case.
Mum Bett, who later changed her name to Elizabeth Freeman, knew about the Massachusetts
state constitution. It had been ratified in 1780. Mum Bett had heard that it said that “all people
were born free and equal.” She believed that “all people” included her and that she had a legal
right to her freedom. The court agreed, and Mum Bett became a free woman. John Ashley, her
former master, had to pay her 30 shillings in damages.
Though the court ruled in favor of Mum Bett, the problem of just who would be included in “We
the People” did not go away. It surfaced again just a few years later. In 1787, the leaders of the
United States met in Philadelphia. They wrote a constitution for their new country. But they did
not pay attention to the Massachusetts court’s decision that Mum Bett was free. Initially, the U.S.
Constitution excluded women and African Americans from enjoying the full benefits of liberty.
The colonies had fought the revolution to gain their freedom. They created a democracy, but
many people were disallowed from participating in it. Neither African Americans nor women
could vote or hold office. These groups had to fight for many years to gain the right to take part
in these democratic processes. But the question arises: why were they excluded in the first place?
The Responsibilities of Freedom
The 55 white men who wrote the U.S. Constitution were a privileged group. More than half of
them had been to college, 34 had studied law, almost half had been in Congress, and at least 20
owned slaves. The delegates were hardly typical of the larger American population at the time.
But, in many ways, they reflected the general beliefs of 18th-century American society.
The framers of the Constitution believed that only certain people could handle the
responsibilities of freedom. The way they viewed it, only people who controlled their own lives
should have a say in the government. Dependent people—those who didn’t own property or who
worked for someone else—could not exercise their own free will, the framers reasoned. If they
voted, they would cast their ballots as they were told to. The framers believed that the votes of
such people would damage the entire country.
To the framers, as to many Americans in those days, only a property owner could be an
independent thinker. That excluded more than half of the population. “We the People” were
white, male, and propertied.
Some of the excluded could eventually join fully in civic life. For example, indentured servants
completed their service after a number of years. They might eventually own property. Some
women might inherit property from their husbands. But few women were likely ever to enjoy all
the rights the Constitution promised.
And many people were completely locked out of economic opportunity. Slaves could never own
property. They could never be independent and free. The American system made it impossible
for them to share as citizens in the new United States.
Neither women nor African Americans simply accepted their exclusion, however. For many
years, until they were successful, both women and African Americans would argue that they
should be able to participate fully in American democracy.
Margaret Brent requested voting rights more than 100 years before the colonies declared
independence. In 1648, she asked the Maryland Assembly to grant her two votes—one for
owning land and one for being Lord Baltimore’s legal representative. The governor refused her
The Rights of Women
Perhaps the most famous woman to speak out for women’s rights at the time was Abigail
Adams. Her husband, John Adams, would become the second president of the United States. In
the spring of 1776, when John was a delegate to the Continental Congress, Abigail wrote to him,
In the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for
you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies . . . Do not
put such unlimited power into the hands of husbands. Remember,
all men would be tyrants if they could.
Abigail Adams knew that in the 18th century, women had legal status only through their
husbands. A married woman was called a feme covert, a legal term that comes from the French
words for “covered woman.” Women were “covered”—invisible as far as the law was
concerned— by their husbands. Abigail warned her husband that women would not follow any
laws that did not guarantee their rights. They would not be “bound by any laws in which we have
no voice or representation.”
Abigail Adams was an independent thinker who had strong ideas about women’s rights. In 1787,
she was in Great Britain, where John Adams was serving as the representative of the new United
John Adams, however, feared that expanding freedom would lead to chaos. He told Abigail that
women had more power over their husbands than they realized. That being true, he believed that
men would be better off excluding women from the new country’s laws. “Depend upon it,” he
wrote, “we know better than to repeal our masculine systems.”
Nonetheless, some women did vote during the republic’s early years. A New Jersey law, passed
in 1790, identified voters as “he or she.” Historians disagree about why. Some point out that
New Jersey was home to many Quakers, who believed in equality. Others call attention to the
fact that only some counties granted women the vote and say it was more about political power.
These counties, they say, hoped women’s votes would affect election outcomes in their favor.
Whatever the reasons, women voted in New Jersey until the law was repealed in 1807. It would
take more than 100 years—and a hard fight—to pass an amendment to the Constitution that
granted women the right to vote.
Library of Congress
Benjamin Banneker published six almanacs between 1792 and 1797. A self-educated scientist,
he included information on tides, astronomy, and eclipses that he calculated himself.
The Rights of African Americans
When the war ended, many African Americans left the United States. They feared that the new
democracy would not include them. Some went to England. Others went to Canada or the West
Indies. Most of those who left were fugitive slaves. By some accounts, 30,000 African
Americans left Virginia. Another 25,000 left South Carolina.
The majority of the African Americans who stayed were slaves. But some were not. The 1790
census reported that there were about 59,000 free blacks living in the United States. Among them
was Benjamin Banneker. Banneker was a Maryland tobacco farmer, a scientist, and a surveyor.
He wrote a well-known almanac. He also wrote a letter to Thomas Jefferson. In it, he explained
why African Americans should have the same rights as whites.
Banneker wrote the letter in 1791, the year in which he surveyed the land for the new national
capital. At the time, Jefferson was secretary of state. Banneker explained that both blacks and
whites were created by God. “However variable we may be in society or religion,” he wrote,
“however diversified in situation or color, we are all of the same family.” He went on to quote
the Declaration of Independence— to the man who wrote it.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created
equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable
rights, and that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit
of happiness.”
Banneker explained that African Americans deserved those rights, just as whites did. He even
went so far as to accuse Jefferson of using “fraud and violence” to keep blacks enslaved.
Although a slaveholder himself, Jefferson wrote back that “No body wishes more than I do, to
see such proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given to our black brethren talents equal to those
of the other colors of men.” But slavery continued in the South until the Civil War.
The freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution would not be extended African Americans for
many years. African American men gained the right to vote in 1870. It would take another 50
years before all women, including African Americans, were granted voting rights. And not until
the 1960s were laws passed giving all African Americans the legal protection to exercise their
right to vote.
The words “We the People” still begin our Constitution. More than 200 years later, their
meaning has changed in ways that Mum Bett, Abigail Adams, and Benjamin Banneker would