Summary and Analysis
Chapter XXI is a flashback that tells the story of Bass’ letters from the Northern side, filling in the gaps that Platt and Bass couldn’t know from their location in the South. Bass’ letters arrived in Saratoga Springs, New York, and were immediately forwarded to Northup’s wife, Anne. She, in turn, shared them right away with Henry B. Northup, a lawyer and relative of the family that had once owned Solomon’s father, Mintus. Henry Northup spent several months preparing the case to prove Solomon’s status as a free man and, with the support of the governor of New York and other government officials, traveled to Louisiana to rescue Solomon.
In Louisiana, a chance meeting with Bass provided the critical information Henry Northup needed to find Solomon on Epps’ plantation. Enlisting the help of the local sheriff, he went there and rescued Solomon on January 3, 1853, over Epps’ great objections and threat of legal action. On January 4, 1853, they boarded a steamer headed for the North. Solomon Northup was finally free.
Aside from the great triumph of Solomon Northup finally being rescued out of slavery by Henry B. Northup, the important thematic element in Chapter XXI is one that returns to an earlier theme presented by both editor David Wilson and Solomon Northup himself: credibility. It’s important, in the telling of his emancipation, for Solomon—and his abolitionist helpers—to provide a sound legal foundation for the slave’s release. This was no “runaway slave” story, and Solomon’s exit from Epps’ ownership was not to be regarded as anything except what it was: justice, finally and fairly executed.
To this end, Northup explains at great length the legal proceedings taken to prove, and then secure, his freedom. For example, he cites the New York statute that expressly criminalized the kidnapping and enslavement of free black men from that state; he includes its full text as an appendix at the end of the memoir. He details the involvement of prominent government officials on his behalf, including the governor of New York, the United States Secretary of War, a senator from Louisiana, and even a United States Supreme Court Justice. He reports the authority of local law enforcement (the sheriff) as an ally, and describes the “test” he had to pass as evidence that he was the man that Henry B. Northup claimed him to be. In every instance, he stacks up the evidence to prove the credibility of his claim to freedom and the justice involved in his subsequent rescue from Edwin Epps. In doing that, he adds final legitimacy to his narrative as a whole, proving once and for all that he has, as he claimed earlier, given “a candid and truthful statement of facts” about his experience for 12 years as a slave.