Summary and Analysis
Now begins Solomon Northup’s true 12-year agony, initiated by the appearance of James H. Burch. Following the night of being ill, Solomon awakens in a cell where he is held captive in chains. In time, his cell opens and a harsh-looking man enters: “James H. Burch…a well-known slave-dealer in Washington.” Burch is accompanied by his lackey, Ebenezer Radburn. Northup immediately begins protesting his imprisonment: “Again and again I asserted I was no man’s slave.” In response, Burch beats Northup mercilessly with a wooden paddle and a “cat-o’-ninetails” whip until Solomon is completely subdued. Then Burch threatens to murder Solomon if Solomon ever mentions freedom again.
Over the next several days, Solomon is allowed to move around. He discovers that he is being held in “William’s Slave Pen” in Washington, D.C. He meets other captives, including Clemens Ray, Eliza Berry, and Eliza’s children. Northup finishes this chapter by briefly summarizing Eliza’s story. She had been the slave and mistress of a rich white man who also fathered Eliza’s daughter, Emily. Her master promised that, upon his death, Eliza and her children would be set free. After his death, though, his son-in-law reneged on that promise and instead sold Eliza and her children to Burch, leaving her only to mourn the impending separation of her family at a future slave sale. Northup ends this chapter with the heartbreaking news that “Eliza is now dead…all her fears were realized.”
At first glance, Chapter III seems to set forth what will become the recurring theme of “man’s inhumanity to man,” perpetrated with vigor through the corruption of the slave trade. Northup himself refers to this in his dealings with Burch, writing, “Alas! I had not then learned the measure of ‘man’s inhumanity to man,’ nor to what limitless extent of wickedness he will go for the love of gain.” Still, Northup’s narrative goes deeper than simply decrying the horror of people treating each other cruelly. He seems to present the idea that the real travesty of slavery lies in the fact that it requires white slave masters to actively ignore the truth of man’s humanity—that is, that all men (and women) are human and therefore deserving of dignity. The degrading, bestial treatment that slavery requires is, in view of this truth, both unnatural and unproductive.
For example, slave trader James H. Burch is a white man highly regarded by American society—and also a liar prone to blasphemous profanities and wicked violence. On the other hand, the lowly black slave Clemens Ray is a kind, dignified person of intelligence and wisdom. Likewise, Eliza represents the best of humanity: motherhood and family. She longs simply to care for her children and to keep her family together. These basic human values are abused and ignored by the supposedly nobler white race that lies to, sells, and separates this loving mother from her children. Northup’s narrative contrasts between Burch and his slaves, showing the dignity of man’s humanity shining through every black face—and damnably absent from their white masters.