This post is by Rebecca Newland, the 2013-2015 Library of Congress Teacher in Residence.
Currently 12 Years a Slave, the film version of the true story of Solomon Northup, is showing in theaters. His account is a powerful one: A free African American, Northup was kidnapped in 1841 and taken from New York to Washington, D.C., then to New Orleans, where he was sold into twelve years of slavery. A study of primary sources from the Library of Congress indicates that Northrup’s experience was far from unique.
Such kidnappings and attempted kidnappings happened more frequently than is usually known. Stories are reported in newspapers of the time. Personal liberty laws in states such as Michigan and Wisconsin gave free people legal recourse if kidnap attempts were made, or if they were able to make contact with friends or family after being kidnapped.
Fugitive slave laws allowed African Americans who could not prove their free status to be taken into slavery. What does the political cartoon suggest about negative effects these laws had both on escaped slaves and African Americans like Solomon Northup who were born free?
Northup’s story brought the issue to a wider audience when it was released as a book in 1853. The Anti-Slavery Bugle quoted from an assortment of reviews of the narrative published in various American newspapers. Many of these excerpts focus on the strong reaction reviewers had to the Northup’s traumatic experience as someone ripped away from his home and family and forced into slavery with all its horrors. More than one reviewer compares his true tale to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s fictional Uncle Tom’s Cabin. (However, for a happy ending to the story, you might visit this 1999 gathering of Solomon Northup’s descendants.)
Primary sources such as these can provide many additional accounts that add depth and context to stories such as Solomon Northup’s. What questions do they also raise about the individuals whose stories cannot be found in the historical record?