Twelve Years a Slave

memoir of Solomon Northup

Twelve Years a Slave is a book written by Solomon Northup. It was published in 1853.[1] It is a true story. Northup was a free black man living in New York before the American Civil War. He was kidnapped and sold as a slave to Louisiana in 1841. 12 Years a Slave was made into a movie in 2013.



In the 1840s, it was legal for people in Southern states to buy and sell enslaved people who had been born to enslaved mothers. But it was not legal to take a free person, pretend they were a slave, and sell that person. This is what happened to Solomon Northup.

After he was rescued in 1853, Solomon Northup traveled around the United States making speeches about his twelve years in the South. He did this because he wanted American voters to stop slavery.[2] Later, he wrote down his speeches as a book. Editor David Wilson helped Northup write the book. Some people have asked whether Wilson wrote most of the book for Northup. But Wilson said that he heard Northup tell the story out loud many times without ever making a mistake or changing it and that he, Wilson, only helped Northup write it all down.[2]

The book is true, but Northup and his publisher, Derby, were influenced by Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, which was published one year earlier. The book is dedicated to Harriet Beecher Stowe.[2] They marketed the book as "another Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin," meaning that, like Stowe's book, A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, it explained and supported Uncle Tom's Cabin, proving that Stowe had not lied about how bad slavery was.[1]

For many years, people forgot about 12 Years a Slave. Historian Sue Eakin found a copy in 1930 when she was twelve years old. When she grew up, she collected proof that Northup's story was true. For example, she talked to people who had known Edwin Epps, and they said Epps had told them the story was true.[1]



The first chapters of the book talk about Northup's family and his life as a free man in New York. He is married and has children. His wife is a cook. He has had many jobs, as a farmer and carpenter, but he can also play the violin well.

While his wife is away on a cooking job, Northup meets men who say they want him to travel with them as a musician. He agrees. He makes sure he has papers proving he is a free man before traveling with them to Washington D.C. But when they are in the city, the men drug him and steal the papers. He wakes up in a cell because they have sold him as a slave.

Northup is taken south on a boat. Some of the other captives have been slaves all their lives, but others are kidnapped free men like Northup. Some of them plan to take over the boat and escape, but then they get sick and cannot. Northup, who can read and write, writes a note to a white friend in New York saying what has happened to him. One of the sailors promises to mail it for him.

In the rest of the book, Northup talks about living as a slave, about the people he meets, about the work he does, and about what he does to try to get home. The slavers give Northup the fake name "Platt." Northup says that the first man who bought him, named Ford, was not very bad. But the second man who bought him, named Tibeats, was cruel. The third man, named Epps, was even worse. He would hit and whip slaves no matter what they did. He would wake them up and make them dance at night. The next day, Epps would beat them if they did not work as hard as if they had had a full night's sleep. Epps would force the slaves to beat and whip each other while he watched. Northup talks about coming back to his cabin to find his cabinmate, Abram, covered in blood because Epps had stabbed him with a knife. Northup talks about Patsey, a slave woman, whom Epps forces to have sex with him. Northup talks about how Epps' wife hates Patsey even though it was not her fault. One time, Patsey has gone to a friend to get a bar of soap. Epps forces Northup to whip Patsey.

Northup always wants to go home to his family in New York. Because he is legally a free man, his friends from New York can come and bring him home. Northup must find a way to tell them where he is. Northup tries to steal paper and ink so he can write a letter to his family in New York. But he cannot go to the post office to send a letter himself. He needs a white person to send the letter for him. The first man he asks tells Epps, and Northup barely manages to talk his way out of trouble. After some years, Northup finds a Canadian man who will send the letters for him. The Canadian does so.

Northup's friends and family get the letter. They talk to a white lawyer, Henry B. Northup, who talks to the governor of New York. Henry Northup is given official permission to go to Louisiana to look for Solomon Northup and bring him back to New York. Henry Northup travels to Washington D.C. to talk to a senator from Louisiana first then goes to Louisiana to talk to judges and officials. He has trouble finding Solomon Northup because he does not know he is being called "Platt." Eventually, they find the Canadian, who tells them Solomon Northup's fake name. Henry Northup finds Solomon Northup and shows the county sheriff proof that Solomon Northup really is a free man. Solomon Northup goes north with Henry Northup.

Solomon and Henry Northup stop in Washington D.C. and the men who kidnapped Solomon are put on trial. He is not allowed to testify. The men are not convicted. Then Solomon Northup goes home to his family.

Critical analysis


12 Years a Slave was a best seller. It sold 25,000 copies in the first two years. It was not as popular as Uncle Tom's Cabin but many people read it.

In modern times, book reviewers, for example the Los Angeles Review of Books, have examined and studied 12 Years a Slave.[2]

Other websites



  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Sarah Churchwell (January 10, 2014). "12 Years a Slave: the book behind the film". Guardian. Retrieved June 2, 2021.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Heidi Kim (February 17, 2014). "How Twelve Years a Slave was made, 150 years before "12 Years a Slave"". Law Review of Books. Retrieved June 2, 2021.