Although 12 Years a Slave commends telling the truth, considering it a sign of integrity and strength, the book also explores the complexity involved in telling the truth in nineteenth-century America. Racism means that truth coming from a slave is deemed worthless, limiting a slave’s ability to seek justice. Further, telling the truth can be dangerous or deadly for an innocent person in this toxic environment. In this case, Solomon Northup maintains, it is appropriate to lie for safety’s sake. At the same time, the book is careful to point out that lying is still immoral when it’s done by someone who is trying to cover up their crimes.
12 Years a Slave reveals that racism imposes limits on truth and justice. For example, John Tibeats, one of Solomon’s several cruel masters, frequently tries to murder him, but Solomon knows, “Had he stabbed me to the heart in the presence of a hundred slaves, not one of them, by the laws of Louisiana, could have given evidence against him.” Likewise, when Solomon is eventually freed and brings the slave dealer James Burch to court, Burch is allowed to testify as a witness on his own behalf, but Solomon is not given the same privilege. Burch is found innocent, and the court deems Solomon’s evidence “inadmissible.” Solomon points out that racism stood bluntly in the way of justice: “I was rejected solely on the ground that I was a colored man—the fact of my being a free citizen of New York not being disputed.”
The narrative also highlights that in an unjust society, sometimes what is lawful is immoral, and vice versa. For an innocent person, telling the truth can be dangerous and even deadly. In these cases, lying or breaking the law is justified and doesn’t reflect a moral lapse. Imprisoned in Burch’s slave pen in Washington D.C., Solomon quickly learns that telling the truth of his status as a free man kidnapped into slavery only earns him harsher treatment: “But I would not be silent, and denounced the authors of my imprisonment…as unmitigated villains. Finding he could not quiet me, he flew into a towering passion.” Since it’s illegal to buy a slave who is actually a free man, Burch fears punishment and consequently beats Solomon more severely with every assertion of his identity as a free man from New York. Similarly, even though Solomon’s first master, William Ford, is kind and gentle, Solomon knows “well enough the slightest knowledge of my real character would consign me at once to the remoter depths of Slavery,” and that he would be sold on the other side of the border, “disposed of as the thief disposes of his stolen horse.” Later, when Solomon serves a vicious, evil man named Edwin Epps, Solomon learns that telling the truth about anything—not just his identity as a kidnapped free man—can be dangerous: “It is not safe to contradict a master, even by the assertion of a truth.”
However, the narrative asserts that it is immoral and unjust to lie in order to escape punishment for one’s crimes. Solomon tells the story of a man named Lew Cheney, a slave from a neighboring plantation who organizes a revolution with the goal of fighting the opposition all the way until they reach the Mexican border. Realizing his plan is destined to fail, Lew turns in all of the people who were part of his organization—making himself look innocent. All people involved in the planned revolt, as well as many innocent people, are hanged. Solomon says that even at the time of his writing, Lew Cheney’s “name is despised and execrated by all his race.” Similarly, when Burch is deemed innocent in court, Burch tries to turn the charges around on Solomon, claiming that Solomon “conspired with the two white men to defraud him.” When Solomon is consequently arrested and brought to court (with Henry B. Northup as his lawyer), Burch drops the charges, knowing they are baseless.
Solomon Northup’s slave narrative shows the messy complexities of truth-telling for a slave in nineteenth-century America. In showing how difficult it is for an innocent slave to tell the truth and receive justice, Northup seeks to elicit empathy from the reader and turn them against slavery. Even in the narrative itself, Northup frequently interjects with direct addresses to the reader, declaring that all of the experiences laid out in the pages of 12 Years a Slave are entirely accurate and truthful. By firmly declaring that all of his recollections are true, Northup helps the reader see 12 Years Slave for what it is—an actual, firsthand account of the real-life horrors of slavery unfolding under the reader’s nose.
Truth and Justice ThemeTracker
Truth and Justice Quotes in 12 Years a Slave
Thus far the history of my life presents nothing whatever unusual—nothing but the common hopes, and loves, and labors of an obscure colored man, making his humble progress in the world […] Now I had approached within the shadow of the cloud, into the thick darkness whereof I was soon to disappear, thenceforward to be hidden from the eyes of all my kindred, and shut out from the sweet light of liberty, for many a weary year.
The idea struck me as a prudent one, though I think it would scarcely have occurred to me, had they not proposed it […] I must confess, that the papers were scarcely worth the cost of obtaining them—the apprehension of danger to my personal safety never having suggested itself to me in the remotest manner.
Then did the idea begin to break upon my mind, at first dim and confused, that I had been kidnapped. There must have been some misapprehension—some unfortunate mistake. It could not be that a free citizen of New-York, who had wronged no man, nor violated any law, should be dealt with thus inhumanly […] I felt there was no trust or mercy in unfeeling man.
Though suspicions of Brown and Hamilton were not unfrequent, I could not reconcile myself to the idea that they were instrumental to my imprisonment. Surely they would seek me out—they would deliver me from thraldom. Alas! I had not then learned the measure “man’s inhumanity to man,” nor to what limitless extent of wickedness he will go for the love of gain.
So we passed, hand-cuffed and in silence, through the streets of Washington—though 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!
The influences and associations that had always surrounded him, blinded him to the inherent wrong at the bottom of the system of Slavery. He never doubted the moral right of one man holding another in subjection. Looking through the same medium with his fathers before him, he saw things in the same light. Brought up under other circumstances and influences, his notions would undoubtedly have been different.
He was my master, entitled by law to my flesh and blood, and to exercise over me such tyrannical control as his mean nature prompted; but there was no law that could prevent my looking upon him with intense contempt.
I must toil day after day, endure abuse and taunts and scoffs, sleep on the hard ground, live on the coarsest fare, and not only this, but live the slave of a blood-seeking wretch, of whom I must stand henceforth in continued fear and dread. […] I sighed for liberty; but the bondman’s chain was round me, and could not be shaken off.
[…] it had fallen to her lot to be the slave of a licentious master and a jealous mistress. She shrank before the lustful eye of one, and was in danger even of her life at the hands of the other, and in between the two, she was indeed accursed.
The existence of Slavery in its most cruel form among them has a tendency to brutalize the humane and finer feelings of their nature. Daily witnesses of human suffering—listening to the agonizing screeches of the human slave—beholding him writhing beneath the merciless lash—bitten and torn by dogs—dying without attention, and buried without shroud or coffin—it cannot otherwise be expected, than that they should become brutified and reckless of human life.
It is not the fault of the slaveholder that he is cruel, so much as it is the fault of the system under which he lives. He cannot withstand the influence of habit and associations that surround him. Taught from earliest childhood, by all that he sees and hears, that the rod is for the slave’s back, he will not be apt to change his opinions in mature years.
No man who has never been placed in such a situation, can comprehend the thousand obstacles thrown in the way of the flying slave. Every white man’s hand is raised against him—the patrollers are watching for him—the hounds are ready to follow on his track—and the nature of the country is such as renders it impossible to pass through it with any safety.
It was the Sabbath of the Lord. The fields smiled in the warm sunlight—the birds chirped merrily amidst the foliage of the trees—peace and happiness seemed to reign everywhere, save in the bosoms of Epps and his panting victim and the silent witnesses around him. The tempestuous emotions that were raging there were little in harmony with the calm and quiet beauty of the day. I could look on Epps only with unutterable loathing and abhorrence, and thought within myself—“Thou devil, sooner or later, somewhere in the course of eternal justice, thou shalt answer for this sin!”
If they are baboons, or stand no higher in the scale of intelligence than such animals, you and men like you will have to answer for it. There’s a sin, a fearful sin, resting on this nation, that will not go unpunished forever. There will be a reckoning yet—yes, Epps, there’s a day coming that will burn as an oven. It may be sooner or it may be later, but it’s a coming as sure as the Lord is just.
He spoke of himself in a somewhat mournful tone, as a lonely man, a wanderer about the world—that he was growing old, and must soon reach the end of his earthly journey, and lie down to his final rest without kith or kin to mourn for him, or to remember him—that his life was of little value to himself, and henceforth should be devoted to the accomplishment of my liberty, and to an unceasing warfare against the accursed shame of Slavery.
The secret was out—the mystery was unraveled. Through the thick, black cloud, amid whose dark and dismal shadows I had walked twelve years, broke the star that was to light me back to liberty.
I was then offered as a witness, but, objection being made, the court decided my evidence inadmissible. It was rejected solely on the ground that I was a colored man—the fact of my being a free citizen of New-York not being disputed. […] Burch himself was offered as a witness in his own behalf. It was contended by counsel for the people, that such testimony should not be allowed—that it was in contravention of every rule of evidence, and if permitted would defeat the ends of justice. His testimony, however, was received by the court!
I have no comments to make upon the subject of Slavery. Those who read this book may form their own opinions of the “peculiar institution.” What it may be in other States, I do not profess to know; what it is in the region of Red River, is truly and faithfully delineated in these pages. This is no fiction, no exaggeration. If I have failed in anything, it has been in presenting to the reader too prominently the bright side of the picture.