Analytical Biography of Solomon Northup

Northup, Solomon: born: Minerva, New York, 1808; died: unknown.

Now the focus of a major narrative on the silver screen, the life of Solomon Northup has intrigued and appalled viewers. Provoking tears and sorrow in millions, there possibly exists no single slave who holds greater fame. Ironically, perhaps, it was the desire for fame or simply wealth that began his tragic journey as a slave. Born a free man, the life of Solomon Northup and his capture into slavery is pertinent to modern slavery studies and the question of the significance of race over status. Whilst there exist a number of slave narratives coming from a range of backgrounds, that of Solomon Northup holds significance due to his unique perspective; ‘it comes from the perspective of a person who grew up free and therefore had the assumptions and values of a free society before he entered slavery.’[1] This biography will highlight key events in Northup’s life that illuminate the experience of the slave across antebellum United States.

Northup was born of slaves on the paternal side, from which he derived the name Northup.[2] It was common for slaves to maintain the surnames of their masters after emancipation if they had had little conflict with those masters, as a symbol of rejection of present or future masters, or for purposes of protection if those masters had been important people.[3] Northup’s father, Mintus, worked in agriculture, gaining the modest respect of those who knew him; as such Solomon was happy to follow in his footsteps.[4] Throughout his life, Northup had spent time reading and playing the violin in his leisure time and gained further work as a raftsman on the waterways of New York. He eventually married a mulatto woman named Anne, with whom he fathered three children, and it was at this point that his previously comfortable existence was set upon by the tornado that was the slave movement, ripping his family and life from underneath him.

The circumstances in which Northup was brought into slavery enable the historian to further comprehend how people outside of Africa were brought into slavery. Earning his notoriety as a fiddle-player, his talents soon proved the catalyst of his downfall. Having been offered substantial wages to join a travelling musical show in 1841, Solomon Northup quickly lost his freedom as he was drugged and sold into slavery. Historian Carol Wilson stated that it was an ‘all-too-common occurrence’ that free blacks would be sold as slaves, though it is little analysed by historians who are often too focussed on the lives of enslaved blacks in this period.[5] This, which Wilson refers to as an ‘ever-present danger’, proved a grave threat to the free blacks of nineteenth century America, and is the terrifying phenomena which Northup’s capture into slavery can enlighten us to.[6] It is especially Northup’s autobiography that provides a most useful source because it illuminates the emotions that run through the mind of a victim of kidnapping. Northup explains that whilst confused at first, believing that there must have been some sort of mistake, eventually a desolate sense of betrayal overcame him as he realised that he was being deliberately oppressed.[7] Northup’s capture allows historians a valuable emotional insight into the experiences of a kidnapped ‘free black’.

Northup’s experience also brings into question the issue of whether race or social class more greatly affected how Africans were viewed and treated in nineteenth century America. Regardless of region, slave status, lineage, wealth or career, blacks in America were affected by a common disadvantage; that being that they were ‘constrained by a lack of economic and educational opportunity, the absence of legal protection, overbearing legal restrictions, and the contempt of whites’.[8] As a result of this, Ira Berlin referred to free blacks as ‘slaves without masters’.[9] Whilst travelling with Brown and Hamilton, Northup demonstrates how restricted African Americans were whilst moving around the country. Northup has to go to great lengths to gain papers which prove his freedom, and have white colleagues provide testimony regarding his freedom.[10] Requiring such proof of identity is a restriction that is not forced upon Northup’s white companions – notably of the same travelling profession – in the same way, proving that Northup’s race is the most significant part of his character. This is illustrative of how blacks were treated across the country.

During Northup’s enslavement, he was held under the ownership of a number of masters, frequently changing hands. The way in which he was treated by these ‘owners’ offers some insight into the world of slaveholder brutality. Northup’s autobiography is one of many slave narratives that provide examples of brutal punishments and examples of plantation justice, enacted at the hand of the slaveholder. It has been argued by historians such as Dickson D. Bruce Jr. that such cruel violence ‘often slipped over into sadism: ingenious, gratuitous, even inflicted for pleasure’, as the ‘slaveholder seized upon the most trivial shortcomings as pretexts for “punishment.”’[11] One such example of this punishment is that inflicted upon Northup’s friend and fellow slave, Patsey. The scene played out with Master Epps ‘furious and savage as ever’, his mistress looking on ‘with an air of heartless satisfaction’ and Solomon’s ‘heart revolted at the inhuman scene’ as Patsey was mercilessly beaten to the point of unconsciousness.[12] Conflicting with some elements of plantation theory, it may not have been the case that masters held a patriarchal and paternal role amongst the slaves, protecting and leading them.

In studying the philosophy of economics, Margaret Schabas states that ‘plantation owners also recognized that slavery was most productive if their slaves were well-fed and clothed’, claiming that slaveholders were economically astute and recognised the investment value of slaves.[13] Reminiscent of, and quoting, Fogel and Engerman in her quantitative analysis of slavery, it is easy to rebut Schabas assertions about such topics, using slave narratives such as Twelve Years a Slave. The recorded lives and testimonies concerning the lives of slaves in particular enable the historian to quash false application of theses and misreading of events, through carefully chosen and powerfully emotive speech that tells the story of the slave. In this, Solomon Northup enlightens the historian to an almost incomprehensible truth – that human beings, when allowed control are capable of unthinkable and unpredictable acts of brutality that supersede intelligent theory. There is no conscious humanity or organised economic plan behind Epps’ merciless beating of Patsey as he ‘literally flayed’ the girl, simply hatred.[14] This level of brutality and inhumanity was possibly repeated in hundreds of plantations across the Americas; Northup’s account simply offers a unique look at the trauma of a master-slave relationship in microstudy.

In terms of reliability on the part of the slave narratives, it is difficult to ascertain whether there will ever be a source which is free from bias or misinformation. Accounts of this pre-Civil War era, especially drawing so close as Northup’s 1853 publication, are especially liable to influence by the abolitionist agenda. Many men were drawn to tell their stories through slave narratives and the structural and thematic sameness of the accounts is telling of their agenda; conventions of abolitionist pieces include the introductory material ‘customarily written by white abolitionist supporters, a short summary of the writer’s birth and parentage, followed by descriptions of education, auctions, and labours, all of which we can see in Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave.[15] Sterling Lecater Bland Jr. notes that narratives such as these were so formulaic in detail that they did little to reveal the ‘personal thoughts and desires of the narrator’ but instead highlighted a constructed plot that was useful to the abolitionist agenda.[16] Therefore, it is possible that Northup’s life offers the historian little of any reliability to study. Nevertheless, historians consistently work with ‘biased’ sources and this does not mean that they are of no use. Utility in these sources, even if written with an abolitionist agenda, can be found in analysing their purpose and what these constructed events in Northup’s life can tell us about the aims and nature of the abolitionist agenda – primarily, that it wished to portray the institute of slavery as cruel and inhuman.

To conclude, though it is not possible to critically analyse all the events of such a fascinating man’s life in such a short biography, the events that this study has highlighted demonstrate his importance in the study of slave history. Solomon Northup’s life and the accounts of it offer much in terms of enlightening the historian to the experience of slavery in the Americas. It is possible to study the emotional betrayal and prevalence of the kidnapping of free blacks, through Northup’s life. Northup also instructs academics about the inhuman world of slaveholder brutality, in the events witnessed and experienced by him.  Furthermore, even if one insists on questioning the authenticity and reliability of such an account, it is impossible not to appreciate Northup’s constructed life as a piece of evidence to illustrate the agenda of the abolitionist movement and how the movement attempted to rally support.

[1] D. Fiske, et al., Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave, (California: ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2013), p.4.

[2] S. Northup, Twelve Years a Slave, (London: William Collins, 2014), p.2.

[3] O. Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982), pp.39-44.

[4] Northup, Twelve Years a Slave, pp.2-3.

[5] C. Wilson, Freedom at Risk: The Kidnapping of Free Blacks in America, 1780-1865, (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2009), p.1.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Northup, Twelve Years a Slave, p.17.

[8] Wilson, Freedom at Risk, p.1.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Northup, Twelve Years a Slave, p.12.

[11] D. D. Bruce, Jr., ‘Politics in the slave narrative’, in., The Cambridge Companion to the African American Slave Narrative, ed. A. Fisch, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp.38-40.

[12] Northup, Twelve Years a Slave, pp.182-183.

[13] M. Schabas, ‘Parmenides and the Cliometricians’, in., On the Reliability of Economic Models: Essays in the Philosophy of Economics, (Norwell: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1995), pp.189-191.

[14] Northup, Twelve Years a Slave, p.183.

[15] S. Lecater Bland, Jr., African American Slave Narratives: An Anthology, vol.1, (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2001), pp.15-17.

[16] Ibid.

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