In 1841, Solomon Northup was an educated, free black man and a respected resident of Saratoga, New York. A couple of white strangers noticed Northup’s talent for playing the fiddle and engaged his services. Northup followed the two men to Washington, D.C. — and soon found himself drugged, beaten into insensibility, and confined in a slave mart in the shadow of the nation’s Capitol.
Northup describes his purchase by a slave trader and his journey to the swamps of Louisiana, where he became a slave on the cotton plantations of the notorious “Bayou Boeuf.” For twelve years he labored for a succession of masters, some cruel and some kind. Overwhelmed with the hopelessness of his plight, Northup sometimes despaired of ever seeing his family again. However, he refused to relinquish his status as a man, and once thrashed his master with a bullwhip in an astonishing display of defiance that almost cost him his life.
The story of Northup’s rescue and return to his family in 1853 is compelling, as is the thoughtful way he relates the details of his ordeal. Writing about the condition of slavery, Northup states: “There may be humane masters, as there certainly are inhuman ones. Men may … discourse flippantly from arm chairs on the pleasures of slave life. But let them toil with him in the field — sleep with him in the cabin — feed with him on husks; let them behold him scourged, hunted, trampled on, and they will come back with another story in their mouths.”