12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Solomon Northrup's 12 Years a Slave. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Solomon Northrup

Solomon Northup was born in 1808 in Minerva, New York, where he grew up as a free man. His father, Mintus, was a slave but was freed following his master’s death. As a free man, Solomon lived as a farmer, a violinist, a husband to Anne Hampton, and a father to their three children, Elizabeth, Margaret, and Alonzo. Solomon and Anne eventually moved to Saratoga Springs, where they both worked several jobs. In 1841, Solomon met two men who recruited Solomon to join their circus as a fiddle player. Solomon was in need of work, so he agreed and traveled with the men from New York to Washington D.C. The circus turned out to be a sham, and upon his arrival in Washington D.C., Solomon was kidnapped, drugged, beaten, and sold into slavery. He spent the next twelve years of his life enduring the horrors of slavery in Central Louisiana—an experience he later recorded in his memoir, 12 Years a Slave. He was eventually freed from slavery with the help of two men: Samuel Bass, who was a Canadian carpenter visiting the plantation where Solomon was enslaved, and a lawyer named Henry B. Northup, who was a friend of Solomon and the grandnephew of the man who freed Solomon’s father many years prior. Solomon was officially freed on January 4, 1853. That same year, with help from a writer named David Wilson, Solomon published his experiences in 12 Years a Slave, which became a cornerstone text of the abolitionist movement. Solomon spent several years traveling for speaking engagements but later disappeared from the public eye, due to his work helping slaves escape to Canada via the Underground Railroad. Because he disappeared from the public eye, Solomon’s date and place of death is unknown. 
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Historical Context of 12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave was written in the midst of the American Abolitionist Movement. Rooted in the North, this movement sought to abolish slavery and racism completely and immediately. A resurgence of Protestantism known as the Second Great Awakening brought renewed interest in morality and sin, consequently bolstering the Abolitionist Movement’s claims that slavery was immoral. Between 1777 and 1804, slavery was abolished in the northern states, but slavery still had a firm grip on the South, as it was the economic foundation of eleven Southern states, be it through the production of cotton, sugar cane, or tobacco. 12 Years a Slave was preceded by the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which declared that runaway slaves were not to be allowed a trial by jury, let alone the ability to testify on their own behalf. The Fugitive Slave act also meant that all escaped slaves must be returned to their masters, even if they had escaped to a free state. Although the Fugitive Slave Act inflicted penalties on those who aided a slave’s escape, the act backfired in that it actually served to bolster Abolitionist sentiments, turning the people of the North further against slavery. Written in 1853, 12 Years a Slave appeared on the cusp of the Supreme Court case Dred Scott v. Sandford, and the subsequent Dred Scott decision, in which the Supreme Court declared that no black person is considered a U.S. Citizen, regardless of whether they are free or enslaved, and regardless of whether they are state citizens. This decision, written by Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney, meant that no black person could fight for their freedom in federal court. The publication of 12 Years a Slave precedes the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, and the American Civil War, which began the following year and lasted until 1865.

Other Books Related to 12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave is dedicated to Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin. The dedication reads, “To Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose name, throughout the world, is identified with the great reform: this narrative, affording another Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is respectfully dedicated.” Stowe’s A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin was published in 1853 and outlined the accuracy of the depiction of slavery in her novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, published the year prior. Published in 1852, just one year before 12 Years a Slave, Uncle Tom's Cabin is a sentimental novel that highlights the terrible realities of slavery as well as the healing power of Christian love. Uncle Tom's Cabin was widely read, and was the second bestselling book of the nineteenth century—the first being the Bible. Although Uncle Tom's Cabin is not a slave narrative, it shares many thematic similarities with 12 Years a Slave, including racism, Christianity, and empathy. 12 Years a Slave is also similar in content to The Narrative of Frederick Douglass, published in 1845. In the narrative, slave-turned-Abolitionist Frederick Douglass recounts his difficult path from slavery to freedom. Douglass’ narrative includes a similar strain of religious critique (directed at those who claim to be Christians while also being slave owners) to Northup’s narrative. In addition, Douglass’ book and Northup’s book both center on the concept of truth, emphasizing that their stories and experiences are true for the sake of showing the readership the brutal reality of slavery. Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, published in 1861, also contains accounts of brutality, especially the sexual abuse of female slaves by their masters, similar to those Northup gives in his narrative, chronicling the experiences of his fellow slave, Patsey. Like 12 Years a Slave, Jacobs’ slave narrative is meant to show white Northerners the heart-wrenching reality of slavery and does so by appealing to the reader’s sense of empathy.
Key Facts about 12 Years a Slave
  • Full Title: 12 Years a Slave
  • When Written: 1853
  • Where Written: New York
  • When Published: 1853
  • Literary Period: Abolitionist literature
  • Genre: Slave narrative; memoir
  • Setting: Central Louisiana (Red River region); New York; Washington D.C.
  • Climax: Solomon befriends Bass and convinces him to send three letters on his behalf
  • Antagonist: Solomon’s cruel masters (James Burch, John Tibeats, and Edwin Epps)
  • Point of View: First person

Extra Credit for 12 Years a Slave

On the Big Screen. 12 Years a Slave was adapted into a film in 2013, which won three Academy Awards and was nominated for another six.

Page One. The original title page of 12 Years a Slave gives a brief summary of the book. It reads, “Twelve Years a Slave 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.”