Summary and Analysis
12 Years a Slave begins with a short preface from Solomon Northup’s editor, a white man named David Wilson.
Wilson offers introductory notes for the reader, affirming that he accurately took down Northup’s dictations and pointing out that Northup’s story can be corroborated by public evidence. Wilson also offers his own endorsement of Northup and states his belief that the former slave “has adhered strictly to the truth.” As a precursor to what will follow, Wilson briefly identifies the setting of Northup’s tale in the “Pine Woods” and “Bayou Boeuf” (which he apparently assumes most readers will know are in Louisiana). Finally, Wilson declares his integrity and purpose for this work: “The only object of the editor has been to give a faithful history of Solomon Northup’s life, as he received it from his lips.”
David Wilson’s involvement and endorsement of Solomon Northup’s story is brief, but it was crucial to getting 12 Years a Slave accepted publicly during the time when it was published.
Northup’s testimony was damning evidence against the entire system of slavery in practice at that time in the southern United States. Yet, as a black man and former slave, Northup’s accusations of white cruelty would have been subject to great skepticism, even in the North. The “Editor’s Preface” Wilson provided was a preemptive attempt to counter accusations that Northup had simply exaggerated or “made it all up” as fiction. By including this preface, Wilson lent the weight of his reputation as a respected white man, scholar, and editor to Northup’s story, saying in effect that to call Northup a liar was to call Wilson, himself, a liar as well. Additionally, by declaring up front that Northup’s statements were “corroborated by abundant evidence,” Wilson delivered a not-so-subtle legal challenge to would-be opposition. If pro-slavery apologists intended to discredit Northup’s historical record, he warned, then they’d better be ready to address the evidence that Wilson and his abolitionist colleagues had already collected as proof.
The point Wilson seems to be making with both his endorsement and challenge is this: “Solomon Northup is telling the truth.”