12 Years a Slave

by

Solomon Northrup

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12 Years a Slave: Chapter 2 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
One morning, in March of 1841, Solomon walks around the Saratoga Springs village, thinking of ways to make a little extra money. Anne is at work twenty miles away with Elizabeth, while Margaret and Alonzo are at their Aunt’s house. As Solomon walks around the town, he comes across two men, Merrill Brown and Abram Hamilton, who claim to have heard of Solomon’s extraordinary fiddle-playing abilities.
Even in his downtime and when his family is out of town, Solomon is still thinking of ways to better support his wife and children so that they can live their best possible lives. The extent of Solomon’s talent on the fiddle is also alluded to, considering that two strangers know of his abilities.
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Brown and Hamilton explain that they’re affiliated with a circus based in Washington D.C. but are in New York to do some sightseeing. They tell Solomon that they’re paying their travel expenses by putting on small shows along the way but have found it difficult to find a musician to accompany them. They ask Solomon to travel with them to New York City as their fiddle player in return for wages. Solomon quickly agrees. Since the whole trip will be short, he decides not to write to Anne about where he is going.
Since Solomon’s family is out of town and he was serendipitously just thinking of how he can make a little extra money, Solomon agrees hastily to travel with the men and play fiddle for them. Solomon is quick to trust the strangers because it’s his nature to treat everyone as family.
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The three men travel by carriage to Albany, and Solomon takes part in that night’s performance—the only performance that Hamilton and Brown put on during the entire time Solomon is with them. The show, which includes “causing invisible pigs to squeal” and “frying pancakes in a hat,” is attended by a handful of people and pulls in very little money.
Hamilton and Brown’s single performance is just a handful of random, bizarre tricks like making pig noises and pancakes, raising the question of whether the men really are from a circus or if they throw together whatever tricks they can manage just to make money.
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The following day, the men depart from Albany and reach New York City. Hamilton and Brown urge Solomon to accompany them all the way to Washington D.C. to take part in their circus, which is going to travel north. Hamilton and Brown offer Solomon high wages (and many compliments), so Solomon accepts the offer.
Hamilton and Brown prove themselves amateur psychologists. Using the foot-in-door technique, the men convince Solomon to first travel with them to New York City before asking him the big request of traveling to Washington D.C.—further suggesting that they may not be entirely trustworthy.
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The next morning, Hamilton and Brown tell Solomon to get his free papers, since the group will be traveling to Washington D.C., a slave state. Solomon thinks the papers are a waste of money, and wouldn’t have thought to get the papers if his new friends hadn’t suggested it. Upon retrieving the papers, Solomon places them in his pocket and returns with his new friends to the hotel.
Solomon’s surprise over having to get free papers points back to the fact that he was born free and has lived as a free man in the North for thirty years. He thinks the papers are a waste of money, suggesting that he doesn’t think they’ll be necessary in the South, even though he’s never been there.
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The group arrives in Washington D.C. a few days later. Hamilton and Brown pay Solomon a generous forty-three dollars—more than their agreed-upon rate—claiming that they haven’t put on as many shows during their travels as they intended but still wish to pay Solomon well for accompanying them. They also say that the following day is a big event in the city—General Harrison’s funeral—so the circus will delay its travels northward by a day.
General Harrison (William Henry Harrison) was the ninth president of the United States. He died on April 4, 1841, the same year Solomon traveled to Washington D.C., affirming the validity of Solomon’s story.
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Solomon interjects, explaining to the reader that during this time, he believed that Hamilton and Brown were sincere in their kindness to him, and he trusted them entirely. Between their suggestion that Solomon obtain free papers and the “hundred other little acts” they did for him, Hamilton and Brown appeared as kindly friends committed to keeping Solomon safe and happy. Solomon writes that at the time, he had no idea the men were “subtle and inhuman monsters in the shape of men,” capable of the “great wickedness” that was about to unfold.
In this passage, Solomon the author and narrator explains what Solomon the character doesn’t yet know: that Hamilton and Brown are shady men who manage to conceal their bad intentions in befriending Solomon by showering him with generosity. Calling them “inhuman monsters” capable of “wickedness,” Solomon introduces the idea that slavery brings out the worst in humanity.
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Solomon is shown to his room at the back of the hotel. The following day, he watches General Harrison’s funeral unfold in the company of Hamilton and Brown. Throughout the day, the men frequent several bars but drink with moderation and always pour out some alcohol for Solomon, who also drinks moderately and does not get drunk. That night, Solomon grows increasingly ill, plagued by nausea and a pounding migraine. Returning to his sleeping quarters, Solomon tries to sleep off his sickness.
This passage is brimming with small details that read like clues in a crime scene. First, Solomon’s room is at the very back of the hotel, meaning that it’s isolated and private, which will be important later. Secondly, Hamilton and Brown drink small amounts of alcohol all day, each time giving some to Solomon. Although Solomon doesn’t become drunk, he grows violently ill, suggesting that Hamilton and Brown had several chances to slip a drug into Solomon’s drink.
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Sometime after midnight, Solomon hears several people enter his room. The people tell Solomon that he needs to see a doctor immediately, so he follows them out into the street but soon loses consciousness. In hindsight, Solomon cannot remember if Hamilton and Brown were among them. He tells the reader that his memory of the entire situation is now “altogether indefinite and vague, and like the memory of a painful dream.”
Solomon has a hazy idea of what is happening and can’t even discern people’s faces, further strengthening the possibility that Hamilton and Brown drugged him. Since Solomon’s room is on the ground floor and at the back of the hotel, he is easily and quickly ushered from the premises without anyone else seeing.
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When Solomon wakes up, he finds himself imprisoned by chains in a small, dark room. He tries to remember how he arrived at this place and where Hamilton and Brown are, but he realizes that there is a huge gap in his memory. Feeling his pockets, Solomon realizes his free papers are gone and that he has been kidnapped. He thinks there must have been some mistake, considering he is a free citizen of New York with a clean criminal record. Solomon begins to weep and pray to God, realizing there is no “trust or mercy in unfeeling man.”
The gap in Solomon’s memory verifies that he was drugged. Robbed of his free papers, Solomon is also stripped of his identity as a free man of the North. Even though he lived as such for thirty years, his freedom is swiftly taken from him, just like his free papers that were easily snatched from his pocket. The chains are reflective of Solomon’s new, inescapable reality of slavery.
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