12 Years a Slave

by

Solomon Northrup

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12 Years a Slave: Chapter 3 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The next morning, a door opens, revealing two white men—the infamous, cruel slave dealer named James Burch, and his assistant, Ebenezer Radburn. Solomon notes that Burch’s “whole appearance was sinister and repugnant.” Solomon also notes in hindsight that at the time of his writing, both Burch and Radburn still live in Washington D.C.
Solomon makes a point of telling the reader that Burch and Radburn still live in Washington D.C., which points back to his political and legal purposes in detailing the real people, places, and facts of his kidnapping and enslavement.
Themes
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With the door open, Solomon is able to get a better look at his surroundings, and he realizes that all of the doors are made of iron and the small windows are barred. Solomon likens it to a “farmer’s barnyard” that was constructed so “the outside world could never see the human cattle that were herded there.” Solomon explains to the reader that the exterior of the building looked like a quiet family home and sat “within plain sight” of the Capitol. He writes, “The voices of patriotic representatives boasting of freedom and equality, and the rattling of the poor slave’s chains, almost commingled.”
This passage contains the first of many comparisons between slaves and livestock. The slave pen is a cross between a prison and a barn, revealing that the slaves are treated as a cross between criminals and farm animals—not as human beings deserving of freedom. Solomon also underscores the extreme irony in the slave pen’s proximity to the Capitol building.
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Burch gruffly tells Solomon that he is now his slave and will be sent to New Orleans. Solomon declares that he is a free man from New York, but Burch denies this, claiming that Solomon came from Georgia. Solomon continues to assert his freedom and demands that Burch remove his chains. Burch screams at Solomon, calling him a liar “and every other profane and vulgar epithet that the most indecent fancy could conceive.”
Solomon quickly learns that now that he is in slavery’s grasp, there is no such thing as justice. In this situation, telling the truth about his identity only makes the situation more dangerous. Burch’s violent reaction to Solomon’s assertion of his freedom suggests that Burch knows that selling a free man into slavery has major repercussions, though he chooses to do so anyway.
Themes
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Burch orders Radburn to retrieve the paddle and whip, and Burch proceeds to beat and whip Solomon severely, increasing the severity and power of his blows every time Solomon insists that he is free. With his flesh hanging off of his body, Solomon thinks that “A man with a particle of mercy in his soul would not have beaten even a dog so cruelly.” Before departing, Burch threatens to kill Solomon if he ever tries to assert that he is free. An hour later, Radburn appears with water and a meager meal. Radburn tries to be kind to Solomon and tells him that keeping quiet about his identity as a free man will be much safer for him than telling the truth.
This passage details Solomon’s first experience being whipped, which sticks with him throughout the entire narrative. Suffering under Burch’s abuse, Solomon learns that telling the truth about his identity is dangerous and is not worth the subsequent punishment. Radburn echoes this later in a flimsy effort to be kind and compassionate to the very man he is imprisoning against his will. Burch beats Solomon so relentlessly, it is clear he is using racism and slavery as a means to act on his most brutal, violent impulses.
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Solomon’s wounds are so severe that he can’t rest in any one position for more than a few moments. When he does manage to sleep, he dreams of his family. In his waking hours, he weeps and thinks about how his escape will come soon, deeming it impossible “that men could be so unjust as to detain me as a slave, when the truth of my case was known.” He also thinks of his overwhelming suspicion that Hamilton and Brown are to blame for his newfound imprisonment.
Solomon gains comfort from dreaming about his family, who remain at the forefront of his mind throughout his entire enslavement. By detailing his suffering and the way he has been torn from his family, Solomon seeks to elicit empathy from his white readership enjoying freedom in the North.
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Related Quotes
After several days, Solomon is allowed “the liberty of the yard,” where he meets three other slaves: Clemens Ray, John Williams, and a little boy named Randall. Clemens Ray tells Solomon that they are in Williams’ Slave Pen and will be sent to New Orleans to be auctioned off. Meanwhile, Randall just cries for his mother, clearly “too young to realize his condition.”
After enjoying thirty years of freedom in New York, Solomon is only given the “liberty” of being held in the backyard of the slave pen rather than inside his cell. Solomon and the other slaves are treated like farm animals, brought inside and outside at their owner’s whim.
Themes
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Solomon reaffirms to the reader that his goal is to “present a full and truthful statement” of his experiences and to accurately depict the institution of slavery. He asserts that “what I am about to say, if false, can be easily contradicted.”
Solomon’s comment to the reader regarding his narrative’s validity reads like a legal statement—a reminder that Solomon’s goal in recording his “full and truthful statement” of slavery is to support political and legal action against the practice.
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During his two weeks in Williams’ Slave Pen, Solomon meets Eliza, the mother of the young Randall whom Solomon had met previously, as well as a young, beautiful, light-complexioned girl named Emily. Eliza explains that she was the slave of a rich man in Washington D.C. named Elisha Berry. Elisha and his wife had separated, so he built a new house and invited Eliza to live with him, promising that she and her children would be freed upon his death. Eliza lived a happy, lavish life with him for nine years, much to the horror of Elisha’s estranged wife and daughter. Eventually, Elisha’s daughter married a man named Jacob Brooks, and somehow Eliza became Brooks’ property rather than that of Elisha.
Eliza’s situation blurred the line between slave and wife. Even though she lived like the pampered wife of a rich man for nine years, her status as a slave ultimately deemed her property, not a person, and so all her rights and privileges were only on loan.
Themes
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Eliza recounts how Brooks (Elisha’s daughter’s husband) tricked her by telling her that she would be freed. When Brooks took her into town to secure free papers, he promptly sold Eliza and her children to James Burch. Listening to Eliza’s story, Solomon is overcome with grief and empathy, declaring Eliza’s story “enough to melt a heart of stone.” Solomon then tells the reader that at the time of his writing, Eliza has died from “the burden of maternal sorrow.”
Similar to Solomon’s situation, Eliza was deceitfully sold to Burch, likely for financial gain. In both situations, free papers gave a false sense of confidence and safety—for Solomon, thinking that his free papers would keep him safe in Washington D.C., and for Eliza, thinking that she was going into town to obtain free papers. In both cases, free papers (or the promise of free papers) proved flimsy.
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