12 Years a Slave

by

Solomon Northrup

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12 Years a Slave: Chapter 4 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
One night, close to midnight, Burch and Radburn order the slaves to get up and follow them through the dark city. The slaves are handcuffed together as they are ordered to march “through the Capital of a nation, whose theory of government, we are told, rests on the foundation of man’s inalienable right to life, LIBERTY, and the pursuit of happiness! Hail! Columbia, happy land, indeed!”
With heavy sarcasm, Solomon references the Declaration of Independence and the patriotic song, “Hail, Columbia,” which both center on America’s commitment to freedom and liberty. Through these references, Solomon shows how the institution of slavery is incongruent with a nation supposedly founded on freedom.
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Related Quotes
The group reaches a steamboat and is hurried aboard. Solomon is committed to keeping his spirits up and vows to himself to keep his past freedom a secret, knowing now that it will only earn him harsher treatment. Eventually, the slaves reach Richmond, Virginia, and are housed in a slave pen overseen by a notorious slave dealer named Goodin, whose skin is almost as dark as that of his slaves.
This passage contains the first of many instances of slave owners having skin as dark as their slaves or slaves having skin as white as their owners. Throughout the narrative, Solomon uses these instances to build on the idea that in many cases, racism doesn’t have to do with skin color as much as it does with hatred and human wickedness.
Themes
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Examining the slaves that Burch has brought, Goodin asks Solomon where he comes from. Solomon accidentally answers that he is from New York—much to Burch’s horror—but quickly covers up his mistake. Regardless, Burch later threatens again to kill Solomon if he ever mentions his freedom. Solomon knows that Burch is fully aware of the repercussions of selling a free man into slavery.
Burch’s reaction to Solomon almost letting it slip that he was a free man emphasizes that Burch is fully aware that Solomon was free, and knows that selling a free man into slavery is illegal and comes with a harsh punishment—but apparently the potential profit is worth the risk.
Themes
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Solomon is handcuffed to a large man named Robert, who, like Solomon, was born free and was kidnapped and sold into slavery. The following morning, the slaves are forced to continue on their journey, save for Clemens Ray, whom Burch decides to take back to Washington D.C. Solomon tells the reader that although he never saw Clemens Ray again, he later found out that Ray escaped slavery and traveled to Saratoga to tell Solomon’s family about his circumstances.
Robert’s life story almost mirrors that of Solomon, revealing that kidnapping free black men—an evil practice by any standard—was not an uncommon way for white men to make money. This passage also contains the first instance of Solomon’s family being notified of his enslavement—however, since Solomon is on a boat for New Orleans where he will be auctioned off to a slave owner in any Southern state, Solomon’s family has no way to locate him.
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Burch returns to Washington D.C. with Clemens Ray, while the rest of the slaves board a large ship that departs for New Orleans. Solomon interjects, saying that Burch will reappear by the end of the narrative, “not in the character of a man-whipping tyrant, but as an arrested, cringing criminal in a court of law, that failed to do him justice.”
Solomon foreshadows the end of his narrative when he sees Burch in court. By illustrating Burch’s swift descent from “man-whipping tyrant” to “cringing criminal,” Solomon underscores that Burch is guilty of his inhuman crimes and shows remorse only when he is on the verge of being punished for them.
Themes
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