Summary

Solomon Northup was a free African American man who lived in the North in the early 19th century, building a life with his wife Anne Hampton as an industry laborer, well-known fiddle player, and his wife's work as a renowned chef. In March of 1841, Merrill Brown and Abram Hamilton hired him to play music for their circus exhibit. However, Solomon never returned from this trip, drugged during a night out with the two, misleadingly led to a physician, and woke up in chains. Two men entered his cell, James H Burch, a well-known slave dealer, and his lackey, beating him to submission to the point “a human face was fearful to him, especially a white one.”

Eventually he was taken out of the slave pen and marched through the streets of Washington, thinking of the irony of walking through the capitol of a country built on liberty. On a boat South, he formulated an escape plan with two other freemen he met in the brig - unfortunately the plan fell through when one of them contracted small pox and died. In New Orleans, Theopilus Freeman gave him the name Platt and prepared him and the other slaves to be sold. Selling was a particularly inhuman process of feeling the arms and body and inspecting mouths and teeth just as a jockey examines a horse. Solomon was eventually sold to William Ford for $1k (about $20k in 2020).

According to Solomon, William Ford was a kind master. He observed this kindness was effective in getting the best labor as he would often do extra work to get Ford’s kind words. Unfortunately, financial issues forced Ford to sell Solomon to John Tibeats. Solomon and Tibeats got into a fight that almost led to Solomon’s death and left him tied up in the field during a hot Louisiana summer day. Ford luckily held the mortgage, which would be lost if Tibeats killed Solomon. The overseer Chapin stopped Tibeats from hanging Solomon but for some reason left Solomon tied up. Solomon and Tibeats eventually got into another fight where Tibeats almost beat him with a hatchet. Solmon ended up running away through the snake and alligator infested bayous of Louisiana. Eventually he returned to Ford’s plantation. Ford forced Tibeats to sell or hire out Solomon, leading Solomon to be sold to Edwin Epps.

In these final chapters, Solomon toils for his final master in the cotton fields and shares his insights on the cruelties of slavery:

  • You'd wake up an hour before sunrise, pick cotton until a 15 minute break to eat cold bacon for lunch, and then pick until the moon was out.
  • You would be measured against yesterday's work. Pick less than that you would be whipped. Pick more, and you'd set a new standard.
  • Plantations were structured where an overseer used whips, pistols, and dogs to keep slaves working and drivers were slaves who were given a whip to keep their gang working. Solomon was a driver, but was a master of the whip and could get so close to the ear or back without actually touching. The slaves would pretend to screech and complain about him to the master to complete the deception.
  • You could be whipped for anything - 25 lashes for a dry leaf in the cotton or breaking a branch, 100 lashes for standing idle in the field, 500 for running away.
  • Slavery made people insensitive to human suffering and reckless towards human life. An example Solomon had was white Southerners battling out arguments with a hack knife.
  • The only days off slaves got were 3-6 days during the Christmas holiday.
  • Slaves could keep wages they earned on the Sabbath. This allowed them to get "luxuries" like a knife, utensils, and a cup because originally, they are only given a blanket.
  • The fiddle helped get Solomon through slavery - got him out of working the fields many days, helped him become well-known throughout the town, and played through happy and sad times.
  • Sending mail as a slave was impossible without permission from the owner. This made it extremely challenging for Solomon to send a letter back to his friends in the North.

Ultimately, Solomon was freed because he was able to get a letter North through Bass, a carpenter who was working on the Epps plantation. Northup, his father's owner, came down to rescue him, eventually finding Bass through the postmaster Waddell, who told him that he could find Solomon (who was under the name Platt) on the Epps plantation.

3 Quotes

  1. Solomon’s perspective of slavery before he was taken captive for 12 years:

    Having all my life breathed the free air fo the North, and conscious that I possessed the same feelings and affections that find a place in the white man's breast; conscious, moreover, of an intelligence equal to that of some men, at least, with a fair skin, I was too ignorant, perhaps too independent, to conceive how anyone could be content to live in the abject condition of a slave. I could not comprehend the justice of that law, or that religion, which upholds or recognizes the principle of slavery.

  2. The contrast of happiness during the few days slaves were "free" for the Christmas holiday:

    If ye wish to look upon celerity, if not the poetry of motion - upon genuine happiness, rampant and unrestrained - go down to Louisiana and see the slaves dancing in the starlight of Christmas night.

  3. On the misconception that slaves did not understand freedom or were too submissive to fight back:

    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 come, if his prayer is heard - a terrible day of vengeance when the master in his turn will cry in vain for mercy.

1 Takeaway

This book shows the extreme absurdity of slavery from a first person perspective. The cruelty shown towards slaves exceeds even the cruelty shown towards animals. The expectation of labor exceeds even the expectations placed on farm animals.

This felt apparent from the beginning when Radburn first beat Solomon. In Solomon's words: "A man with a particle of mercy in his should would not have beaten even a dog so cruelly." This is far from an isolated incident. The cruelty that Solomon would experience through the next 12 years is paralleled only by the most condemned actions in history, like the Nazi concentration camps. Yet the institution of slavery feels rarely regarded on that level.

Seeing slavery through Solomon's perspective, slavery felt like more than just viewing African-Americans as not people. It felt like a systematic approach to oppression and a psychotic obsession with cruelty and power - a system designed to keep a whole group of people down.

Solomon describes plantation owners banding together to patrol for runaways. Slaves not being allowed to read or write, send letters, go anywhere without a pass from their owner. Being given only a blanket on arriving and having to work on Sundays to buy essentials.

The story and insights Solomon shares are important to read because these are the toils that this country is built on. We may have abolished slavery over a hundred years ago, but we have yet to right many of the wrongs, as the human rights movements springing up across this country are showing.

Aspiring to build your own startup?

Subscribe to Thought Bytes to get lessons from my journey as Edith's technical co-founder delivered straight to your inbox every Thursday.

;