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Solomon Northup’s book Twelve Year’s a Slave covered the story of Northup himself as he was kidnapped and forced into slavery. He worked as a slave for 12 years before the government was able to locate and free him. Solomon Northup’s story was relevant when it was written and is still relevant today. At the time it was written, it exposed the hardships and cruelty of slavery to the general public, and today Twelve Year’s a Slave serves as an important historical document–a primary source for information on the conditions slaves lived in during the 1840’s.
Solomon Northup was a free man living in New York State. He was well known locally for his skills as a violinist. In 1841, he was approached by two men claiming to belong to a traveling circus. They wanted him to accompany them on their way to Washington D.C. and offered to pay him for every night he played his violin. They drugged him once they got to D.C. and he woke up in a slave pen beneath the city streets. It’s here the dirty truth of slavery begins to show itself to the reader. Solomon Northup refused to comply with the slaver, insisting instead that he was a free man with rights. The slaver beat Solomon Northup with a wooden paddle until he stopped speaking of being born free. Solomon was then moved to New Orleans with a few other slaves where they were auctioned off. Solomon Northup was sold to Mr. Ford who he worked under for two years before moving to Epp’s plantation. Solomon Northup worked at Epps’ plantation for 10 years before he was eventually located and freed.
This book was written at a time when slavery was a very controversial issue. Northup’s story was very helpful to the abolitionist movement as it showed America slavery from a slave’s perspective. “Still he plied the lash without stint upon my poor body, until it seemed that the lacerated flesh was stripped from my bones at every stroke. a man with a particle of mercy in his soul would not have beaten even a dog so cruelly” (Northup 17). Often times pro-slavery advocates would use the defense that slaves were treated well; Solomon Northup provided solid evidence against that argument in his novel. Northup made a point of showing that while some slave owners might have been good to their slaves, like William Ford, many were not as the practice of slavery is inherently evil.
Solomon Northup described the brutal process he went through when he was kidnapped and forced into slavery in a way that garnered empathy from many of his readers. He also described the hardships he witnessed other slaves go through, at one point focusing on the agony of a woman named Eliza “‘I will not go without her. They shall not take her from me,’ she fairly shrieked, her shrieks comingling with the loud and angry voice of Freeman commanding her to be silent” (Northup 39). Northup also depicted the various physical exams slaves went through to assess their value before being sold, and how they were organized when shown to customers: “The men were arranged on one side of the room, the women on the other. The tallest was placed at the head of the row, then the next tallest, and so on in the order of their respective heights” (Northup 35). At the time 12 Years a Slave was written, the main focus of this scene would’ve been on Northup’s thoughts as he was put on sale. To contemporary readers, there is added depth as there is interest not only in the thoughts of Solomon Northup, but also in the things people may have considered mundane when the book was originally published, such as the everyday lives of people in the 1840’s. Northup’s description of the everyday lives of people, plantations, and the conditions slaves lived under can all be referenced for historical documents as his firsthand account is one of the most reliable.
An aspect of Twelve Years a Slave relevant both today and when it was first published is how it covers the relationship between a slave and his master. This is the story of slavery told not from the perspective of a scholar but from the perspective of a slave. Solomon Northup made a point of stating:
I can speak of Slavery only so far as it came under my own observation—only so far as I have known and experienced it in my own person. My object is, to give a candid and truthful statement of facts: to repeat the story of my life, without exaggeration, leaving it for others to determine, whether even the pages of fiction present a picture of more cruel wrong or a severer bondage. (Northup 3)
Such an account of slavery told from the slave’s perspective is very rare, as few slaves were literate and even fewer shared their stories with the world. 12 Years a Slave fueled the fires of abolitionism in 1853 and today provides valuable insight into the harrowing lives that slaves lived.
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