Solomon Northup's Twelve Years a Slave: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Matthew Hill
The narrative Twelve Years a Slave is a mesmerizing memoir of the life of Solomon Northup. Born free and illegally kidnapped, he spends 12 years in slavery before achieving his freedom.

Biography of Solomon Northup

The narrative Twelve Years a Slave tells the incredible story of Solomon Northup. Solomon Northup was born to a free family in July 1808 in Minerva, New York. His father, reared in slavery, was freed after his master's death. The young Northup grew up on his father's farm and received a basic education. He married Anne Hampton in 1828, and they later moved to Saratoga, New York. He was a talented fiddler and was offered a job in a traveling circus by two gentlemen. Traveling to Washington D.C., he was drugged, sold into slavery in Richmond, and then shipped to slave markets in New Orleans. He spent the next 12 years as a slave in Louisiana with various masters before finally securing his release. His book, Twelve Years a Slave was published in 1853, an insider account of his experiences.

Solomon Northup
Solomon Northup

General Experiences

In his book, Northup tells his harrowing tale of his experience with slavery. His first owner, William Prince Ford, treats him fairly well, according to Northup. Mired in debt, Ford sells him to John M. Tibaut in 1842, who is relentlessly cruel. Oddly, Ford still retains 40 percent of Northup given his debt was less than the value of Northup. Northup recounts that one day, Tibaut tries to whip him, but he resists so much that Tibaut tries to lynch him, or kill without a fair trial. Anderson Chaffin, who works for Ford, rescues Northup. After a second altercation, Tibaut sells Northup off to someone else.

Northup is then sold to Edwin Epps, who he works under for the next ten years. Epps is cruel as well, and often leases Northup to other plantations, using him to oversee other slaves. The wily Northup escapes several times but is always re-captured. His fortune suddenly changes in 1852 when an unlikely visitor comes upon the plantation, as we shall soon see.

New York Governor Washington Hunt
Washington Hunt

Profile of Plantation Life

A good way to understand Northup's viewpoint is to let him speak for himself. Compared to Tibaut and Epps, Northup writes charitably of Ford. He describes Ford as 'kind, noble, and candid' though he admits that 'He never doubted the moral right of one man holding another in subjection. Looking through the same medium with his fathers before him, he saw things in the same light. Brought up under other circumstances and other influences, his notions would undoubtedly have been different.' Ford then, is kinder than the others, but limited in his moral vision.

Northup is less charitable toward Tibaut for good reason. Describing the first incident when Tibuat tries to beat him, he writes: 'He was my master, entitled by law to my flesh and blood, and to exercise over me such tyrannical control as his mean nature prompted; but there was no law that could prevent my looking upon him with intense contempt. I despised both his disposition and his intellect.'

His longest relationship is with owner Epps, but even his first impression is negative. He states that: 'He has the sharp, inquisitive expression of a jockey. His manners are repulsive and coarse, and his language gives speedy and unequivocal evidence that he has never enjoyed the advantages of an education.' Given his horrid treatment of Northup and others, Northup seemingly has him pegged correctly.

Louisiana Senator Pierre Soule
Louisiana Senator Pierre Soule

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