They are deceived who flatter themselves that the ignorant and debased slave has no conception of the magnitude of his wrongs. They are deceived who imagine that he arises from his knees with back lacerated and bleeding, cherishing only a spirit of meekness and forgiveness. A day may come -- it will, if his prayer is heard, a terrible day of vengeance, when the master in his turn will cry in vain for mercy.
- Solomon Northup, 1854
When discussing the history of slavery in the United States prior to the Civil War, many events stand out. Nat Turner's uprising. The Missouri Compromise of 1850. Dred Scott. The election of Abraham Lincoln.
One event that doesn't get a great deal of mention, however, is what happened quietly in the town of Marksville, Louisiana on January 4, 1853. On that day, Solomon Northup was released from slavery. Northup was not the first man to be released from slavery, but there was something special about him: he was not born a slave, and in fact spent the first thirty three years of his life as a quiet free man in New York.
Solomon Northup was a living example of the excesses of slavery. He was kidnapped in 1841 by slave traders and spent twelve years in the South working in involuntary servitude. During this experience, Solomon made a number of astute observations about the state of slavery, and thus when he was freed in 1853, he wrote a memoir of his days as a slave, entitled Twelve Years A Slave, and with the help of a gifted editor, David Wilson, the book became something of a bombshell upon its release in late 1853, committing more people to the abolitionist movement.
Think of it: For thirty years a man, with all a man's hopes, fears and aspirations--with a wife and children to call him by the endearing names of husband and father--with a home, humble it may be, but still a home...then for twelve years a thing, a chattel personal, classed with mules and horses. ... Oh! it is horrible. It chills the blood to think that such are.
Solomon Northup was born a free man in New York in 1808. Solomon's father, Mistus, was a slave during his early days; he was an indentured servant of the Northup family of Rhode Island, who were mostly involved in small-scale agriculture and law. As was tradition, Mistus acquired his last name from the Northups and kept it as his own.
In principle, Mistus was set free by the Northups shortly after the Revolutionary War, as he was allowed to move to Rensselaer County in New York to start his own farm while still legally considered to be a slave of the family. However, once the patriarch of the family died, the will formally emancipated all of his slaves, meaning Mistus was a free man. He married his long-time love and from this union came Solomon.
Solomon's childhood was pretty typical of farm children in the Northeast at the time. Solomon was taught how to read by a local tutor and afterwards was largely on his own. His life primarily ebbed and flowed through the seasons of the farm: young Solomon would be busy with farm work during the spring and fall, but during the cold winter and long summer, he was mostly free to follow his own endeavors.
For Solomon, following his own endeavors mostly meant reading every book he could get his hands on and playing his violin, which he took great pride in. After a brief flirtation with a musical career, Solomon instead married Anne Hampton in 1829, and the couple had three children, Elizabeth, Margaret, and Alonzo.
Solomon worked hard to keep food on the table for his young family, and he worked in a number of jobs throughout the 1830s to make a living, from lumber to ironwork to a bit of farming; a constant was the violin, which Solomon played on occasion for a few odd cents. However, he dreamed of bigger things, and he wanted to give his family the kind of life that Solomon's father had told Solomon about as a boy, the kind of life that the Northups of Rhode Island had.
With the American dream in his heart, in 1841 Solomon jumped at the chance to build this dream for his family. Unfortunately, things would go much differently than he expected.
1841: A Chance Encounter
By 1841, Solomon had a steady job working for a sawmill in Saratoga Springs, New York. While on his lunch breaks, Solomon would often play his violin for the other workers, sometimes getting a few pennies as a tip.
One day, two white men approached Solomon and claimed to be employed by a traveling circus. They claimed that they would be able to pay Solomon $1 a day and $3 per performance to play music for the circus, which was top money in those days. The men told Solomon that the circus was currently in Washington, DC, but it would be traveling through the northern states in the next few months, and they invited Solomon to come to Washington to play. Solomon knew that he could make a great deal of money in just a few months playing for the circus at that rate, so he agreed to play.
In 1841, Washington DC still allowed slavery, so in order to travel safely to Washington, Solomon had to acquire papers from the state of New York certifying that he was a free man, and in April 1841, he acquired the proper documentation. So, in late April 1841, Solomon and the two men from the circus headed to Washington, DC. It would be the last time for twelve years that Solomon would set foot on free soil.
When the trio arrived in DC in late April, they met with the circus employees and discussed plans to move through the New England states during the summer, intending to leave immediately. However, the circus employees decided to stay in town another day in order to pay respects to William Henry Harrison, the President of the United States, who had just passed away. After watching a funeral procession for the President, Solomon and several of the circus workers went to a local saloon, where several of the people drank themselves into a stupor.
Solomon, however, was pretty unlucky. He got quite intoxicated, and by the time he returned to his hotel room, he was quite clearly sick, suffering from an intense headache. He passed out on his bed and later became violently ill and had a number of hallucinations. Was Solomon poisoned by the circus people at the saloon? It's impossible to tell; he may have become sick for unrelated reasons, or he may have been poisoned by a third party.
Regardless, Solomon lay in his room very ill that night, when suddenly a number of people entered his room, taking him away for "medicine." Unfortunately for Solomon, he wasn't to receive medical treatment and then be sent home.
1841-1853: In Chains
When Solomon finally recovered from his stupor after a fog of several days, he found himself in chains in a stone-walled room. He had no possessions at all: his papers stating his status as a free man and all of his money had been taken from him.
Solomon soon found that he was in a slave holding pen owned by a man named James Burch. Burch was an unsavory character, which isn't too surprising given the nature of his business. Burch proceeded to use basic brainwashing techniques on Solomon, telling him that he was not a free man, never was a free man, and was in fact a runaway slave from Georgia. If Solomon disagreed with this story, Burch beat Solomon severely with a paddle, as it was less likely to leave permanent markings than a whip or a belt.
Eventually, Burch broke Solomon enough so that he was afraid to mention to anyone that he was in fact a free man. When Burch observed this, he then put Solomon up for sale on the trading block at an auction in New Orleans, Louisiana. There, Solomon was purchased for $1,000 by William Ford, a devout Baptist, who took him to Marksville, Louisiana to work as a carpenter. Compared to the treatment Solomon received under Burch, Ford treated him extremely well, and thus Solomon worked very hard in the carpentry trade for Ford. Even though Solomon respected Ford, he never was able to shake the fear that Burch had put into him, and did not tell Ford his true identity.
Eventually, Ford sold Solomon to John Tibeats, who was looking for a strong carpenter and apparently paid handsomely for Solomon. Unfortunately for Solomon, Tibeats found Solomon's carpentry work to be very lacking, and regularly beat Solomon. After several of these beatings, Solomon finally resisted a beating in 1843 and swung back at Tibeats.
In 1843 Louisiana, such an action was punishable by death, and Solomon was about to receive that punishment until Ford intervened. He worked out an arrangement with Tibeats in which Tibeats sold Solomon instead of pressing charges. After a series of rapid buying and selling, Solomon wound up in the possession of Edwin Epps, a man who treated his slaves quite poorly.
Epps would own Solomon for ten years, and during those years, Solomon got a long, hard look at Southern cotton plantation life through the eyes of a slave. Solomon, along with the other slaves, was made to work three hundred and sixty three days a year (they were allowed Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day off) from the break of dawn until blackness filled the sky. Under Epps, slaves were whipped for offenses as simple as stopping to take a rest or not picking the same amount of cotton as the previous day. Needless to say, Solomon's work on the plantation was motivated by fear of whipping.
In 1852, a man that Solomon identified as "Bass" appeared on the Epps plantation to do some carpentry work. Bass was Canadian and was quite outspoken about the terrible condition that was slavery. Unsurprisingly, Epps considered the man a fool and thus he often did not pay Bass appropriate wages, calling him all sorts of names. Solomon, however, saw Bass for what he was: a sign of hope in a barren landscape. By the summer of 1852, Solomon had built up the courage to tell Bass his story, and when Bass heard it, he immediately wrote dozens of letters to offices in New York hoping to find someone that could identify Solomon and prove his story.
Eventually, one of these letters wound up in the hands of his wife, Anne, who took the letter to Henry Northup, a young lawyer in the family that had previously owned Solomon's father. Henry reviewed the slave laws and discovered a statute passed in 1840 that stated that any free black man of New York taken into slavery must be recovered, and thus he alerted the governor about the situation. The governor then appointed Henry with the task of recovering Solomon, and thus on the morning of January 4, 1853, with several sheriff's deputies looking on, Solomon Northup was taken into the custody of Henry Northup in the town of Marksville, Louisiana.
1853 onwards: Free Again
On the return trip to New York, Solomon recounted many of his experiences to Henry, who strongly encouraged Solomon to write a book about his situation. Upon returning to New York, Henry introduced Solomon to David Wilson, who was able to encourage Solomon to write down all of the things that had happened to him in the South; Wilson was then able to take these notes and convert them into a memoir.
Twelve Years A Slave was published in late 1853 and was an instant best seller, quickly appearing on bookshelves next to Uncle Tom's Cabin among abolitionists. Northup spoke at abolitionist rallies throughout the northern states for the next several years. He made a great effort to seek out his captors and have them brought to trial, but rather abruptly in 1859, all records of Solomon Northup disappear. It is believed that he was lured into a situation to discover the true identity of his captors and then lynched, and that the crime was never reported.
Solomon Northup's legacy
Northup's story is an inspirational one, and one that also provides a window into a very dark period in the history of the United States. Twelve Years A Slave is a very good memoir, occasionally casting glimpses of greatness, if for nothing else than it depicts a great tragedy with light at the end of the tunnel.