Solomon Northup’s 12 Years a Slave recounts the author’s life story as a free black man from the North who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the pre-Civil War South.
The son of an emancipated slave, Northup was born free. He lived, worked, and married in upstate New York, where his family resided. He was a multifaceted laborer and also an accomplished violin player. In 1841, two con men offered him lucrative work playing fiddle in a circus, so he traveled with them to Washington, D.C., where he was drugged, kidnapped, and subsequently sold as a slave into the Red River region of Louisiana. For the next twelve years he survived as the human property of several different slave masters, with the bulk of his bondage lived under the cruel ownership of a southern planter named Edwin Epps. In January 1853, Northup was finally freed by Northern friends who came to his rescue. He returned home to his family in New York and there, with the help of editor David Wilson, wrote his account in 12 Years a Slave.
Written by: Solomon Northup (as told to editor David Wilson)
Type of Work: Slave narrative
First Published: 1853
Setting (primary): The Red River region of Louisiana
Settings (secondary): Saratoga Springs, New York; Washington, D.C.; New Orleans, Louisiana
Main Characters: Solomon Northup (aka “Platt”), James H. Burch, William Ford, John M. Tibeats, Edwin Epps, Patsey, Mistress Epps, Mr. Bass, Henry B. Northup
Major Thematic Topics: Slavery as a moral cancer; freedom; injustice; the inherent dignity of all humanity; the place of women in society; religion and slavery; man’s inhumanity to man; slavery’s toll on servant and master alike
Major symbols: Chains; the whip; the Bible; water; the swamp
Movie Versions: 12 Years a Slave (2013)
The three most important aspects of 12 Years a Slave: 12 Years a Slave presents a startlingly accurate and verifiable account of the common slave experience in the United States in the antebellum (pre-Civil War) South. From start to finish, basic facts about the time, the places, the people, and the practices of the day are incorporated, sometimes in excessive detail, into Northup’s story. He speaks with authority on all subjects of his enslavement, naming names and pointing out landmarks along the way. In doing so, he dares skeptics to refute his story, knowing that public records and common knowledge would defend it. For example, when Northup accuses a wicked slave trader of keeping him captive in Washington, D.C., he not only names that slaver, he names the slaver’s accomplice, identifies exactly where the slave pen is hidden, and describes the physical structure of the slave pen in detail. The result? During the trial that took place after Northup had been freed, that slave trader couldn’t deny having kept Northup as his captive in that now-exposed slave pen. Additionally, the accuracy of and factual detail in 12 Years a Slave have kept this book prominent as a reliable historical reference on slavery for more than 150 years since it first debuted.
12 Years a Slave serves as a timeless indictment of the practice of “chattel bondage,” or human slavery. Northup’s detailing the abuses he endured—and those he was forced to inflict—provides a warning to all generations of the moral costs that slavery exacts from everyone involved. The slave himself or herself is degraded, made to suffer awful torments, and cruelly robbed of physical, emotional, and spiritual riches. Still, the slave is not the only one who suffers. By participating in slavery, the master is morally degraded and emotionally desensitized. His religion is made hypocrisy. His family legacy is robbed of basic human graces like love, justice, and integrity. In this respect, Northup’s 12 Years a Slave is notable for giving human faces to the evil that was once common practice, and for sounding a constant warning of the awful consequences of chattel bondage.
12 Years a Slave is a testimony to the power of the human spirit and the enduring determination of hope. Solomon Northup is deceived, kidnapped, abused, removed from family, deprived of identity, and beaten into a long, weary, unjustified submission. Yet he is never broken. Even in his worst days of sorrow lived under the cruelties of Edwin Epps, he never gives up hope that one day he will be free. He never loses faith in his friends, constantly assured that if he can only get word to the North then they will indeed come to his rescue. And they do. In the end, Solomon Northup’s heartbreaking journey uplifts because in his testimony is evidence that faith and hope can endure—and triumph.