One 50-minute class period

Taking Ownership of the Law

Essential Questions

  • What makes democracy work? 
  • How can individuals use the law to claim their rights within a democracy?


In our series, “What Makes Democracy Work?” we started with assumption that the work of democracy is never finished. As Justice William Hastie once observed, democracy is “becoming, not being,”and the actions of individuals are key to securing the promise of democracy for all—especially at a time like today, when rising political and social tensions have heightened the fragility of democracies around the world. 

This lesson explores how individuals lay claim to a nation’s laws and ideals to assert their own rights and freedoms, and in doing so, nurture democracy in the societies where they live. We begin with a podcast featuring scholar, Ben Railton, Professor of English Studies and American Studies at Fitchburg State University in Massachusetts. Railton tells the stories of Mum Bett and Quock Walker, two enslaved people who successfully sued for their freedom in the early years of the American republic.

Both Freeman and Walker were born into slavery when Massachusetts was still a British colony. By 1781, Massachusetts was part of a newly independent United States, but slavery was still legal, as it was in every other state. That year, in two separate cases, a woman called Mum Bett (later known as Elizabeth Freeman) and a man named Quock Walker won their freedom in court by appealing to the new Massachusetts Constitution which asserted that “All men are born free and equal.”  

In this lesson, we learn about the Freeman and Walker cases and consider Professor Railton’s assertion that they illuminate something important about what makes democracy work today. Teachers can extend this lesson to go deeper with historical readings and primary sources about the Freeman and Walker cases; the lesson can also be broadened to include other historical moments from U.S. history when people used the law to claim rights and assert their belonging in American society. This lesson works best if students have spent some time deliberating on the meaning of democracy itself. The first lesson in this series entitled Defining Democracy suggests activities to help students develop a working definition.  



  1. Listen to the podcast, Ben Railton on the Freeman and Walker Cases
    • As students listen to the 7-minute podcast, they can take notes on the following questions: How does Professor Railton define democracy? Who were Mum Bett and Quock Walker and what were they seeking in their legal cases? What was impact did these court cases have in Massachusetts?
    • Discuss the podcast and explore the essential question. 
      • What stood out the most about the stories of Mum Bett and Quock Walker? Did anything about these stories surprise you?  
      • What allowed Mum Bett and Quock Walker to sue for their freedom?
      • How does Professor Railton use these stories to explain what makes democracy work? What do you think these stories reveal about what it takes to sustain and grow democracy? 
      • In a healthy democracy, what relationship should individuals have to the law? 
      • Professor Railton says that democracy works best when individuals lay claim to a nation’s laws and ideals to assert their own rights and freedoms. Can you think of other historical or contemporary examples, of people using the law to claim their rights? How might you apply Professor Railton’s insight to advance an issue that you care about? 


  1. Deepen your discussion of the Freeman and Walker cases using these sources, including historical overviews and related primary documents:


  2. Connect to other moments in American history: The resources below help students see how people have used the law and American ideals to claim greater rights and equality for themselves and their communities throughout United States history.

    • The Lesson 9 entitled “Equality for All” in The Reconstruction Era and the Fragility of Democracy explores how several groups, including women, workers, African Americans, Chinese immigrants, and Native Americans attempted to claim their rights, and sometimes came into conflict with each other, in the 1870s.  
    • Episode 2 from the film “Becoming American: The Chinese Experience” describes the way Chinese Americans challenged discrimination and tells the story of Wong Kim Ark, who won a legal victory before the Supreme Court to claim U.S. citizenship. See the segment from 16:30-30:00. Our companion study guide includes more historical context, documents and teaching ideas.
    • The landmark legal decision in the Brown vs. the Board of Education case in 1954 was a pivotal moment when a coalition of civil rights groups effectively used the courts to overturn segregation in public schools. This story is told in the film The Road to Brown.


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