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Films >> 12 Years a Slave (2013) >>

See the extensive bibliography (divided into print, video/audio, and online resources) below the essay.

[1] Solomon Northup is the representative hero for a lesser-known piece of our nation’s history. He was born a first-generation free black man in July 1808. Northup’s father, Mintus Northup, had gained his freedom upon the death of his owner roughly twenty years before Northup’s birth. Northup lived in upstate New York and worked with his father on local farms. He then married Anne Hampton in 1829, and they had three children, Elizabeth, Margaret, and Alonzo. Northup was a successful violinist, while Anne was a respected cook in the Saratoga area.

[2] In March 1841, Northup was introduced to two businessmen, Merrill Brown and Abram Hamilton, who offered him a job playing violin with their traveling circus. Motivated by the generous wages and by the temporary absence of his family, Northup accepted the position. Once they arrived in Washington D.C., however, Brown and Hamilton drugged him and sold him into the Louisiana slave trade.

[3] Northup’s plight was shared by many free black Americans: inter-regional kidnapping was a far-reaching epidemic, driven by economic factors and facilitated by Constitutional provisions.

[4] Article IV, Section 2 of the Constitution includes a clause allowing for the capture and return of runaway slaves if they escaped to another state. Slave catchers for hire commonly possessed only a name and a vague description of the runaway. Not concerned with finding the correct person, a slave catcher would kidnap any free black person who resembled the description and return him or her to the slave owner, falsely claiming that the free person was the escapee.

[5] Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution allowed the Federal government to begin restricting the importation of slaves in 1808. When the provision came into effect, Congress banned the importation of slaves, effectively ending the transatlantic slave trade in the United States. This ban did not end slavery in the U.S.: Americans then turned to the domestic slave trade as their source of slave labor. This trading of enslaved peoples domestically was made simpler owing to the ever-increasing slave population and the demand for agricultural goods.

[6] These economic factors also drove the internal slave trade. As food demand increased, many farmers began growing wheat, which was less labor-intensive. As less labor was needed, those owners sold their slaves to expanding Southern plantations, which still had a great need for workers on their cotton fields. The increase in slave trading to the Deep South made a profitable venture of the kidnapping and selling of people of color.

[7] The capture of free African Americans also increased after the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850. The act outlined the process by which fugitive slaves, escaping into a free state, could be captured and returned to their owners. An owner would put a notice with a description of the slave. He then could either apprehend the fugitive and appear before a federal judge or have the federal government apprehend the slave for him. The “description” could be used to apprehend any person who looked like the fugitive; thus any free black could be abducted and easily sold into servitude.

[8] This process by which free black people living in northern states could be forced into a life of slavery led to heartbreaking and traumatic experiences. After 1808, most slaves were born within the United States, meaning that there now existed many families within the U.S. slavery system. These familial relationships were often broken apart when members were sold to different slave owners. The familial separation was a common reason that many slaves attempted to escape from their owners. In Northup’s case, memories of his family motivated him to endure his captivity so he might return to the family he once had.

[9] Solomon Northup was a black man in the white man’s world: despite his legal freedom, he and many like him were still vulnerable to this inter-regional trafficking. Most Americans today know about the Underground Railroad: stories of Southern fugitive slaves who escape to Northern freedom are well known and celebrated. What happened to Northup inverts this familiar story and geographic trajectory: Northup’s is the story of a Northern free man sold into Southern slavery, and endurance rather than flight is his only option (despite the misleading image on the film poster). While he was restored to freedom through the determined legal advocacy of his friends in New York, most of his fellow “free slaves” would not be so fortunate.

Print Resources

Cheathem, Mark R. "The Domestic Slave Trade and the United States Constitution." Rev. of Slavery and the Commerce of Power: How the Struggle against the Interstate Slave Trade Led to the Civil War, by David L. Lighter. Reviews in American History 35.3 (2007): 374–79. Web. 17 Feb. 2016.
In his review of Slavery and the Commerce of Power: How the Struggle against the Interstate Slave Trade Led to the Civil War, Cheathem tackles the subject of the domestic slave trade, analyzing its political history, psychological significance, and the debate that led to war. Cheathem also provides a helpful historiography of the domestic slave trade, highlighting the lack of publications on the subject from 1931 to 1989. The review includes subjects such as the "1808 clause," which "provided abolitionists with some of their most important arguments against the domestic slave trade." The disagreement between the North and the South on the issue of slavery as well as the political interpretation of the Constitution would lead to the Civil War. This review provides important scholarly context for understanding Northup's experience.
Fiske, David. Solomon Northup's Kindred: The Kidnapping of Free Citizens before the Civil War. Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2016. Print.
Fiske enlightens readers that Solomon Northup's kidnapping was not an isolated event in the antebellum United States. Fiske examines the pre-Civil War era's far-reaching domestic slave trade, using multiple accounts of other free African Americans being kidnapped and sold into slavery as evidence, while simultaneously exposing the role the government played in turning a blind eye to these crimes. He furthermore explains the details of how these crimes could be carried out, as well as how the legal ramifications could be avoided. This book provides essential context for Northup's story.
Fuller, Richard. "The Reverend Richard Fuller: A Christian Defense of Slavery." Gale U.S. History in Context. Detroit: Gale, 2015. U.S. History in Context. Web. 15 Feb. 2016.
This is a primary document, a letter written by Reverend Richard Fuller in 1845 to defend the morality of slavery. Fuller makes a proslavery argument using Biblical reasoning, citing many passages from both the Old and New Testaments. These kinds of proslavery Biblical passages play a role in 12 Years: there are several scenes featuring "proslavery" scripture readings used to promote control of the slaves and to assert that slavery had God's blessing.
Gould, Virginia Meacham. "Louisiana." Encyclopedia of the United States in the Nineteenth Century. Ed. Paul Finkelman. Farmington: Gale, 2000. Credo Reference Web. 17 Feb. 2016.
This encyclopedia entry describes the history of Louisiana and the centrality of slavery to the state's economy. After Napoleon sold the region to America, French- and English-speaking residents were initially divided. They did not understand one another because they did not speak the same language. But they both agreed that plantation agriculture with slave labor would be the future of the region's economy. As a result, the New Orleans area became centered economically on agriculture manned by slave labor. The state's planter class benefited greatly from slavery: the state's economic output increased greatly between 1812 and 1869.
"Slavery." The Reader's Companion to American History. Eds. Eric Foner and John Arthur Garraty. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2014. Reference. Web. 17 Feb. 2016.
This article provides an overview of the evolution of slavery in the United States. Slavery in the U.S. was unique compared to other nations; slaves were able to form families and, over time, became more and more American culturally. They spoke English, and some even learned to read and write despite laws to the contrary. But the cruel treatment of owners and overseers led to slaves' attempts to improve their situation, and slave resistance is also part of the history of American slavery. The slave population within the United States grew at an increasing rate up to 1860, and it would take a Civil War to end chattel slavery. A good introduction for readers unfamiliar with this history.
Walker, David E. "Slavery." The American Economy: A Historical Encyclopedia. Ed. Cynthia L. Clark. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2011. Credo Reference. Web. 17 Feb. 2016.
This entry provides a history of slavery and politics from 1619 until 1865 and discusses the South's motives for defending slavery. Southerners argued that both the Southern and the Northern economies needed the forced labor from millions of enslaved people. They feared that without slavery their agrarian economic system would collapse and lead to the South's ruin.
Wilson, Carol. Freedom at Risk: The Kidnapping of Free Blacks in America, 1780-1865. Lexington: University of Kentucky, 1994.
Wilson presents an in-depth study of primary sources such as newspaper articles, court records, memoirs, letters, and government documents to investigate the many ways free-born African American people in 18th and 19th century America were subject to being kidnapped, despite even generations of freedom, and sold into slavery. She brings up the fact that there were many ways these people could be taken, from phony job offers to forced abduction. Wilson confirms that no black person, free or slave, was safe in the United States during the antebellum era.
Worley, Sam. "Solomon Northup and the Sly Philosophy of the Slave Pen." Callaloo 20.1 (1997): 243–59. Print.
Worley contends that Northup's narrative has been underrated in comparison with the texts by Frederick Douglass and other fugitive narrators. Worley analyzes the metaphorical aspects of Solomon's memoir, such as its references to space and geography, and how these recurring themes play into Solomon's survival. According to Worley, Northup's memoir lacks the traditional structures present in other acclaimed slave accounts, but these differences are what make it an important text.

See Also

Bancroft, Frederic. Slave Trading in the Old South. N.p.: U of South Carolina, 1931. Print.

Deyle, Steven. Carry Me Back: The Domestic Slave Trade in American Life. New York: Oxford UP, 2005. Print.

Gudmestad, Robert H. A Troublesome Commerce: The Transformation of the Interstate Slave Trade. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 2003. Print.

Johnson, Walter. Soul by Soul: Life inside the Antebellum Slave Market. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1999. Print.

Johnson, Walter. The Chattel Principle: Internal Slave Trades in the Americas. New Haven: Yale UP, 2004. Print.

Rothman, Adam. Slave Country: American Expansion and the Origins of the Deep South. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2005. Print.

Tadman, Michael. Speculators and Slaves: Masters, Traders, and Slaves in the Old South. Madison: U of Wisconsin, 1989. Print.

Online Resources

Abolition of the Atlantic Slave Trade in the United States http://www1.american.edu/ted/slave.htm
The source provides some statistical information about the slave trade as well as some background about the abolition of the Atlantic Slave Trade, a factor that would lead to an increase in the domestic slave trade, thus increasing the abduction of free blacks.
The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. In Motion: The African American Migration Experience. The New York Public Library, 2005. Web. 29 Mar. 2016. http://www.inmotionaame.org/home.cfm
"In Motion presents a new interpretation of African-American history, one that focuses on the self-motivated activities of peoples of African descent to remake themselves and their worlds. Of the thirteen defining migrations that formed and transformed African America, only the transatlantic slave trade and the domestic slave trades were coerced, the eleven others were voluntary movements of resourceful and creative men and women, risk-takers in an exploitative and hostile environment." The first three sections--the Transatlantic Slave Trade, the Domestic Slave Trade, and Runaway Journeys—are of particular interest to readers hoping to better understand the events that surround Solomon Northup's story on a macro level.