Insights from 12 Years a Slave and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
Slavery in the U.S. during the 1800s
Slavery was a major issue in the 1800s in the U.S. The country was divided into the North and South, where slavery was legal in the South. Most people at this time tried escaping to the North to escape slavery. Solomon Northup’s 12 Years, a Slave and Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass tells the story of what slavery was really like at this time. They both explain how they became slaves, what their lives were like, how they were treated by their owners, and how finally, after years, they were able to escape slavery.
Northup’s Harrowing Journey in “12 Years a Slave”
Northup’s 12 Years a Slave is about how he was born a free man in New York and eventually was sold into slavery. Solomon was the son of a liberated slave. He had a wife, Anne, and three children. Solomon worked several jobs so that he could support his family. One day, he comes across two white men, Hamilton and Brown, and they offer him to play the violin in a few shows around the U.S. Solomon accepts this offer so that he can make a little extra money to help his family.
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However, this new job is not going very well since not too many people are showing up to the shows. They then decide they should probably try going south, so Solomon gets “free papers” to go with them without having any issues. Once they are in the South, they decide to go out and drink. After a few drinks, Solomon starts feeling ill and eventually loses consciousness. He wakes up days later, and he is in chains and imprisoned in a dark, little room. He notices that his “free papers” are stolen. He was captured by James Burch, a slave dealer.
Solomon spends a couple of weeks as a slave until he is transferred to Virginia, to a different family, where he meets Robert, another free man that was also kidnapped and forced into slavery. They are then transferred to New Orleans, where they are bought by Theophilus Freeman. Here, they meet another man, Arthur, and the three of them come up with an escape plan. However, Arthur is rescued by some friends, and Robert becomes ill and dies. Solomon is left alone but later meets a man who is able to send a letter to his friend, a lawyer, Henry B. Northup so that he can help Solomon escape.
Once Solomon is in New Orleans, he and the other slaves are bathed and dressed so that they can be sold again. This time, William Ford buys Solomon. This man is a Baptist preacher; he is more compassionate, treats his slaves better than previous owners, and teaches them about god. The only issue with this man is that he owes money to John Tibeats, so he decides to sell him to Solomon. Tibeats is rude, forces Solomon to work tirelessly, and threatens to whip him.
Solomon is then sold to two other people but ends up going back to Tibeats until he is sold to Edwin Epps. This man is worse than Tibeats; he is violent, only cares about profit, and “breaks” slaves. He has this woman as a slave, Patsey, who he rapes and mistreats often. Solomon has been a slave for about nine years at this point and still hasn’t been able to communicate with his family. When he finally gets the chance to write to them, Epps finds out and punishes him. He is forced to beat Patsey.
Epps decides to start a new project and hires a contractor, Bass, who is an abolitionist and decides to help Solomon and sends letters to his friends, who later contact Anne, his wife. Anne then talks to Henry B. Northup so that he can take Solomon’s case and free him from slavery. After several days, Northup is able to help Solomon, and he is released. They go back to New Orleans and make a case in which they complain about how a free man was sold into slavery. After this case and the charges are dropped, Northup and Solomon go back to New York, where Solomon decides to live a quiet life and humble life after suffering for 12 years as a slave.
12 Years a Slave shows how a man lived most of his life as a free man but ended up going through and experiencing the hardships of slavery. He was mistreated, beaten, and sold to multiple people. He had to wait years before he could finally get in touch with his family, and it took him a long time to get back his freedom. This story shows how hard it was to escape slavery and how miserable slaves’ lives were.
The Tortuous Path to Freedom: Douglass’ Experience
The Narrative of Frederick Douglass is another story about slavery and what it was like. However, this story’s perspective is a little different from Northup’s since Douglass was born into slavery and had to fight harder for his freedom. Frederick Douglass was separated from his mother when he was a little kid, and his father was his white master. He lived his first few years at a central plantation, “Great House Farm,” Colonel Lloyd’s plantation. He owned hundreds of slaves who were overworked, received little food, had no beds or clothes, and were beaten, whipped, and even shot by their overseers.
However, Douglass’ life was not as hard as other slaves. He worked in the household rather than out in the fields. He was sold to Hugh Auld and Sophia, his wife. She hadn’t had slaves before, so at first, she was kind and even taught him how to read. Unfortunately, as time goes by, she is not as nice to Douglass anymore, and he has to teach himself how to read and write. Learning how to read and write helps him understand how slavery works, and he finds out about the abolitionist movement. After Douglass’ father dies, he goes back to working for Thomas Auld. He doesn’t know how to manage Douglass and sells him to Edward Covey, who is known for “breaking” slaves. He beats up Douglass to the point that he is not interested in freedom or reading or writing anymore. However, Douglass is able to fight back, and Covey never touches him again.
Douglass is then rented to William Freeland. He treats him better and educates his slaves. During his time with Freeland, Douglass meets three other slaves, and they come up with a plan to escape. Unfortunately, they get caught and are sent to jail. Douglass is eventually sent back to Thomas and Hugh Auld, where he starts working in ship caulking. At this time, white workers started getting worried because they were working with free blacks and were scared they would take their jobs. Douglass deals with violence at this job, but since he is making some money, he is able to save it and eventually makes enough to escape to New York. Even though Douglass has escaped, he is scared he might get recaptured, so he changes his name from Bailey to Douglass. He eventually gets married to Anna Murray, a free woman.
The Struggle and Triumphs of Two Slaves
Both books, 12 Years a Slave and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, tell stories of what life was like as a slave. They explain how hard their lives were and how they were sold to different owners very often. Slaves were mistreated, beaten, whipped, had no beds, and got little food and clothes. Escaping slavery was usually very hard, and they were often caught during their attempts.
- Northup, S. (1853). Twelve Years a Slave. Auburn: Derby and Miller.
- Douglass, F. (1845). Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Boston: Anti-Slavery Office.