12 Years a Slave

by

Solomon Northrup

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12 Years a Slave: Chapter 21 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Solomon writes that Bass sent the three letters, including one to Parker and Perry, on August 15, 1852. The letter to Parker and Perry arrives in early September, and the men immediately forward it to Anne. Upon receiving the letter, Anne brings it to Henry B. Northup to ask for his help. During his research, Northup discovers “an act providing for the recovery of free citizens from slavery,” which requires the Governor to be involved in the process.
The act was passed on May 14, 1840, and was called “An act more effectually to protect the free citizens of this State [New York] from being kidnapped, or reduced to slavery.” Solomon explains this act to the reader to show that kidnapping and injustice is extremely prevalent in the North and must be stopped. This act predates Solomon’s situation by twelve years—almost exactly aligning with Solomon’s years in slavery.
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For Solomon’s case to be accepted and aided by the Governor, Henry B. Northup must prove that Solomon is a free citizen of New York and that Solomon is being “wrongfully held in bondage.” The Governor takes interest in the case and grants Northup the legal power to restore Solomon to freedom.
The Governor takes personal interest in Solomon’s case, which shows empathy, and does everything in his power to help restore justice, which shows integrity. Solomon wants his white Northern readers to follow suit by doing everything they can to fight for justice for their fellow humans.
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Henry B. Northup leaves New York in December. He first stops in Washington D.C., where he receives written support from a Senator who takes personal interest in restoring Solomon to freedom. Northup continues his journey to the Red River region of Louisiana, where he stops in the town called Marksville, where the letter to Parker and Perry was postmarked. There, he is aided by a local lawyer named John Waddill, who, “in common with others of like elevated character, looked upon the kidnapper with abhorrence.”
Along with the Governor, the Washington D.C. Senator and John Waddill are presented as role models to the reader because they act on their anti-slavery convictions and are dedicated to justice. As a Southerner, Waddill may not oppose the institution of slavery entirely, but he does see the injustice in a free man being kidnapped and sold into slavery, which shows that he has “elevated character.”
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Since the letter made mention of Bayou Boeuf, Henry B. Northup and Waddill plan to begin their search there, though the area is expansive and home to several thousand slaves. Solomon interjects in the narrative, commenting that the task at hand was even more complicated than Northup and Waddill realized at the time, since Solomon was known exclusively to slaves and slave owners alike as Platt, not Solomon Northup.
It’s clear that Burch’s earlier renaming of Solomon was a way to cover his tracks, ensuring that Solomon’s kidnapping is never tied to him and that Solomon is never found.
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Waddill asks Henry B. Northup about Northern politics and tells Northup that he only knows one abolitionist in the area, a carpenter named Bass. Waddill “falls into a reflective mood” and asks his brother, Young Waddill, to find out where Bass worked the previous summer. When it’s revealed that Bass worked on Bayou Boeuf during that time, Wadill is confident that Bass is the one who can help them find Solomon.
Waddill can only think of one abolitionist in the entire area, which provides a telling picture of Southern attitudes toward the Abolitionist Movement in the North, and the divisions that culminated in the Civil War.
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After many inquiries pertaining to Bass’s whereabouts, Young Waddill and Henry B. Northup find Bass and confront him about the letter. At first, Bass is standoffish, claiming the letter is none of their business. Northup quickly explains his intentions in finding Solomon, and Bass tells him to go to Epps’ plantation and ask for a slave called Platt. Northup and Young Waddill first return to Marksville to make sure all of the legal requirements are in order.
Bass is initially cold to Young Waddill and Henry B. Northup, thinking that they have come to get revenge on him for helping Solomon. Bass’s initial anxieties highlight that sending a letter on Solomon’s behalf was risky, even if it was done for the sake of justice.
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Related Quotes
The documents are completed by midnight, but progress is paused until the following day. Meanwhile, Waddill finds out that there is a rumor floating around that he is after one of Epps’ slaves. Knowing Epps will soon hear the rumor and get rid of Solomon, Waddill convinces the sheriff and judge to act immediately. With the judge’s signature in hand, Henry B. Northup and the sheriff depart for Epps’ plantation by carriage shortly after midnight.
Waddill, a lawyer, knows that Epps will try to block justice, implying that Epps may have a reputation for trying to evade the law. Meanwhile, the sheriff and the judge show a commitment to justice and use their power to uphold and restore it.
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The carriage arrives at Epps’ plantation right as Epps goes inside the house to find a whip. Henry B. Northup and the sheriff walk to the cotton fields, where the sheriff asks the slaves which one of them is Platt. When Solomon steps forward, the sheriff asks him if he knows the man accompanying him, gesturing to Henry B. Northup. Solomon is overwhelmed with joyful tears, knowing that he is finally being rescued.
Solomon’s rescue comes right as he’s about to be punished by Epps for no reason (in yet another moment of Epps using slavery to justify being barbaric), contrasting the justice of freedom with the injustice and cruelty of slavery.
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The other slaves are shocked to discover that Solomon was a free man, since he painstakingly hid his true identity from them. Meanwhile, Henry B. Northup, the sheriff, and Solomon make their way to Epps’ house to finalize Solomon’s freedom. As they walk, Northup gently tells Solomon that his mother has since died, but that his wife and children are safe and healthy.
The slaves’ surprise shows how well Solomon has concealed his true identity for twelve years in order to keep himself safe—a lesson Burch instilled in him. The sheriff and other Southerners working to rectify Solomon’s situation don’t seem to see the cognitive dissonance in their actions—if one black person is a human being with the accompanying rights as a U.S. citizen, then so are those others born into slavery the South. The status of humanity is inherent, not contingent on being north or south of an arbitrary border.
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Henry B. Northup and the sheriff speak with Epps and read their legal documents proving Solomon’s right to freedom. Enraged, Epps asks Solomon why he didn’t tell him he was a free man. Solomon replies, “Master Epps, you did not take the trouble to ask me,” and tells him that when he spoke of his freedom to Burch immediately after being kidnapped, he was “whipped almost to death for it.”
Solomon’s bold statement to Epps points to how Epps purchases slaves without caring if they were previously free—meaning that he doesn’t care if the sale is illegal or morally wrong. By tying Burch into the conversation, Solomon points out how such unconcern is widespread in the South.
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Epps demands to know who wrote the letter to Perry and Parker, and Solomon refuses to tell him. Epps vows to bring “bloody and savage vengeance” upon whomever wrote the letter. He also tells Henry B. Northup that if he had just an hour of advanced notice that Northup was coming, he would have hid Solomon out in the swamp so that he couldn’t be found. Meanwhile, Mistress Epps says a tearful goodbye, regretful to be losing such a talented fiddle player. The following day, Epps appears in court at Marksville, and Solomon is officially freed.
Epps’ violent threats to bring “bloody and savage vengeance” upon whoever wrote the letter gestures back to Solomon’s earlier explanation to the reader as to how the institution of slavery makes slaveholders more barbaric. He admits, almost proudly, that he would have hid Solomon so that he wouldn’t be free, once again showing the extent of his insensitivity and wickedness.
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