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Twelve Years a Slave is the remarkable Narrative of Solomon Northup, a citizen of New York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841 and Rescued in 1853 from a Cotton Plantation near the Red River in Louisiana.
One of the worst fears of Northern Abolitionists was realized in 1853, when Solomon Northup described his ordeal of being kidnapped and sold into slavery. Held at the Williams Slave Pen that is located steps from the Capitol building, Northup protested his detention, only to be beaten into silence with a paddle (until it broke) and a cat-o-nine-tails. Northup spent twelve years in bondage, most of them working for a hard master named Epps on a cotton plantation in Louisiana.
Like most slave narratives, this one has been attacked for its veracity. During the Civil War, troops from the 114th Regiment of the New York State volunteers discovered old Mr. Epps right where Northup said he was. According to the soldiers who met with Mr. Epps, the planter confirmed that Northup worked for him and said that Northup's story was more or less true. The critics levied three charges against Northup's story: 1) Northup arranged to be sold into slavery for his own pecuniary reasons 2) The collaborator David Wilson twisted the story for abolitionist propaganda, and 3) Patsey was not whipped.
David Fiske refuted all three arguments in an article that he published, which he provided on a website about Northup. 1) The two men called Brown and Hamilton were discovered after Northup published his book - they were actually named Abraham Merrill and Joseph Russell. 2) Wilson was not fervent about his moderate anti-slavery views. He was more interested in accurately communicating the story that Northup had been telling in front of live audiences to the reading public. 3) The doctor who claimed he examined Patsey could only say that the brutal whipping of Chapter XVIII had not occurred 'six or twelve months' before Northup was freed.
Twelve Years a Slave is an entertaining and informative first-hand account about slavery that does not come off as bitter. Unlike other slave narratives, Northup did not escape from slavery or commit any illegal action, so he did not need to justify his actions. He told of his experiences in the peculiar institution, good and bad. Had William Ford been his only master, Northup might have written a different book.
Of the many details that Northup provided, his description of the daily life of a slave was illuminating. Southern defenders of slavery stated that they provided for their work force better than the wage labor system of the north. However, Northup described a life lacking small comforts that even marginally-employed wage earners could access. Slaves used gourds as bowls and pitchers, because they had no access to pottery. Primitive kitchen utensils such as forks and spoons were a purchase that slaves had to save for, if they could. Most ate their food with their hands and prepared food as best as they could with limited utensils. Slaves lacked the nutrition of a proper balanced diet and often had to forage to supplement rations provided by the master. Slaves worked longer hours and received less from their masters than the goods bought from wages paid by the stingiest of capitalists.
Northup's story confirmed many of the fears abolitionist had about the slave trade in Washington, DC. Some reasons why the California Compromise included a provision to abolish the slave trade in Washington, DC came out in this story. Northern congressmen could hardly avoid noticing the Williams Slave Pen, in plain view of the Capitol, and considered it an eyesore. There were rumors that slave traders impressed free blacks into slavery. Northup was not only proof that they did, but he described conversations with others who were also forced into slavery.
In 2013, Steve McQueen adapted the book into a movie that could serve as a proxy for reading the book. There are a few differences in the story between the two mediums. In the movie, Northup disclosed his former status as a freeman to Ford, but he did not do so in the book. In the movie, Tibeats opposed Northup's plan to use rafts to deliver lumber to Lamourie, but it was actually Adam Taydem who pronounced the plan visionary. In the movie, Tibeats sang an entertaining but threatening ditty to the slaves about the paddy rollers, but in the book, Northup called them patrollers.
Both the movie and the book are recommended slave narratives. The book is in the public domain, so you can download it for free from Project Gutenberg. There are a few minor differences between the version of the book that I read and the version of the book on Project Gutenberg. The major difference is that the paperback version of the book has a short introduction by Philip Foner. There is a section after this review that discusses the minor differences. Foner probably said it best about this book when he stated, 'Northup's account is considered one of the most authentic descriptions of slavery from the viewpoint of the slave himself.'
I believe that there are two errors in the text of Foner's book. The phrases in question are listed here and you can decide whether they are errors or not. Project Gutenberg agreed with me that Judge Tanner in Chapter 14 was an error. If you download a version of this book from Project Gutenberg after 8/1/2014, you will find the Judge Tanner error corrected. Here are the errors, with the page numbers where you can find the sentence in the paperback book by Foner serving as a header:
I know not but they were. I know not but they were innocent of the great wickedness of which I now believe them guilty.
** The first 'I know not but they were.' seems like a printer error to me but Project Gutenberg is not convinced. The fact that Foner did not make any adjustment to the sentence probably tipped the scales in favor of making no change. You will find this fragment in both Foner's book and in the e-book that you download from Project Gutenberg. I believe the first 'I know not but they were.' should be eliminated.
Before the cutting was over, however, Judge Tanner transferred me from the field to the sugar house, to act there in the capacity of driver.
** Change Judge Tanner to Judge Turner. If you start from the beginning of the paragraph, you will see that Northup is talking about Judge Turner the whole way through. There was a character named Tanner who was the brother in law of William Ford mentioned much earlier in the story. By this time, Tanner was out of the story, and anyway, he was not a Judge. Foner did not correct this error but Project Gutenberg has updated the e-book.