“Twelve Years a Slave”: Was the Case of Solomon Northup Exceptional?

The voices and words of people from the past ground us in actual lived experience as refracted through individual memory, challenging what we think we know about the past and opening our eyes to our common humanity across distances of time and space.

—Dr. William L. Andrews

This lesson focuses on the slave narrative of Solomon Northup, a free black living in the North, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the Deep South. Slave narratives are autobiographies of former slaves that describe their experiences during enslavement, how they became free, and their lives in freedom. Because slave narratives treat the experience of one person, they raise questions about whether that individual’s experiences exceptional.

In addition to being kidnapped, Northup served for eight years as a slave driver on a cotton plantation. “Drivers” were enslaved men responsible for getting maximum productivity from their fellow slaves by force of whip, if necessary. This role had high status and it came with special privileges. Northup whipped slaves harshly at times, yet at other times he risked being whipped himself and even risked losing his privileged position by faking whippings and refusing to whip.

Was it rare for a free black like Northup to be kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South? Was Northup’s approach to being a slave driver exceptional?

In this lesson, students learn how to take evidence from a slave narrative and other sources and use them to make inferences about roles, relationships, and experiences that were part of the “lived experience” of slavery. They examine two of Northup’s experiences—his kidnapping and his role as slave driver—in conjunction with other sources, and from these cite what the texts say explicitly and also draw inferences from what the texts imply.

Guiding Questions

How can we determine how widespread or typical experiences reported in a slave narrative such as Twelve Years a Slave actually were?

Why is it important to know how to make inferences from a set of historical evidence or from a set of evidence about current events?

Learning Objectives

To cite evidence from the Solomon Northup’s narrative and other primary and secondary sources about Northup’s experiences (as a kidnap victim and as a slave driver) and to use this evidence to make inferences.

To describe free black kidnapping and the role of plantation slave driver, citing evidence from Northup’s narrative and other primary and secondary sources.