Summary and Analysis
On their way back to Saratoga Springs, New York, Solomon Northup and Henry B. Northup make two significant stops. First, in New Orleans, they secure an official certification from the State of Louisiana verifying that Solomon is indeed a free black man. Next, they travel to Washington, D.C., where they stay for a time in an attempt to pursue criminal prosecution against James H. Burch, the slave trader guilty of kidnapping and initially enslaving Solomon.
Burch’s trial is something of a circus. Faced with overwhelming evidence against him, Burch can’t deny that he kept Northup a prisoner. Remarkably, Burch is allowed to testify on his own behalf, but Northup, being black, is not. The white man’s defense, then, centers on the ludicrous assertion that the black Northup told Burch he was a slave and that “in fact he would like to go south.” The result is that Burch is absolved of all charges against him, and justice is left unsatisfied.
Unsuccessful in prosecuting his kidnappers, Northup continues upriver to New York, where he is finally reunited with his family and where he meets his grandson, Solomon Northup Staunton, for the first time. He closes his memoir with a few final comments and a wish “henceforward to lead an upright though lowly life.”
In Chapters XIX–XXI, Bass’ great abolitionist ideal, “These niggers are human beings,” comes to joyful fruition in Solomon Northup’s life. Chapter XXII, though, is a reminder that this ideal is still yet unrealized in its fullness, even in the life of the newly freed Solomon Northup. The charade of Burch’s trial is a clear example of that. Even after showing unequivocal proof of his status as a free man and proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that the white slave trader, Burch, did indeed hold him captive and sell him into slavery into the South, the black man is unable to secure justice. The court, treating the free, honest black citizen as less credible than the lying, white criminal, actively prevents Northup from testifying on his own behalf. Instead, the white man is given the privilege of putting absurd words in the black man’s mouth, stating in effect that Northup wanted Burch to sell him into slavery in the South. And the court believes the lies, providing one last example of the moral cost that slavery has exacted on both the black and white races.
In the end, Northup gives one final, forceful argument against the evils of the slave industry, pointing not to rhetoric or debates, but lifting up his own life story as a vivid commentary for readers to consider. He writes in closing, “I have no comments to make upon the subject of Slavery. Those who read this book may form their own opinions of the ‘peculiar institution.’”