Last fall I took my legal history class to see 12 Years a Slave. I think I can only sit through that movie once — it’s just too violent for me to want to see again. But then I suppose that’s part of the story of the movie and of our nation’s long history with the institution of slavery.
But amidst all the violence I want to talk about something that seems, perhaps, strange in that story: the role of law and its critique of law. The movie is based on a narrative by the same title published in 1853. The story is about the kidnapping of a free man from Saratoga, New York, Solomon Northup. Two men who first promised to employ Northup in Washington, D.C., drug him, then sell him into slavery. Thence followed a trip south to New Orleans and from there to rural Louisiana, where he first is “owned” by a relatively kind man, William Ford. At one point, when Ford gets into financial difficulties, Northup is sold to another man, Tibeats, with whom Northup has a fight (though Ford still has a mortgage on him) and that leads to one of the most harrowing scenes in the movie: that man ties up Northup and hangs him for hours from a tree. Eventually Northup is cut down by Ford, who as a mortagee also has a property interest in him. In the wake of this he is sold to the vicious plantation owner Edwin Eppes in Louisiana’s Red River district.
While 12 Years a Slave is designed to critique the institution of slavery, it was also a critique of the law of slavery. There are a lot of references to the law that permitted people to be sold, then failed to protect families, that permitted slave owners essentially uncontrolled authority over the body of their slaves. In this regard it was a successor to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s wildly successful novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was published in 1852. In fact, when Stowe published her non-fiction A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1853 she cited newspaper accounts of Northup’s case. Then, later in 1853, Northup published 12 Years a Slave and dedicated the novel to Stowe. In fact, Northup’s narrative reads a lot like a non-fiction version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, for just as “Uncle Tom” had a series of kind owners, at the end of the novel he had a vicious owner, from Louisiana’s Red River, who murdered him. Readers of those two books would see obvious and important parallels in the critique of how much the law of slavery permitted extraordinary abuse.
There were, however, some places where enslaved people received some protection by law — not much, but some. One of them was a New York statute that required the governor of New York to take efforts to free New York residents who had been kidnapped and dragged into slavery. Northip’s narrative reprints the statute, which was passed in 1840, as an appendix. It is testimony to how important law could be to the anti-slavery cause. Law, as abolitionists were aware, could sometimes be a vehicle for liberation, even though it most frequently was the basis for protecting owners and releasing them from liability for abusing slaves.
There were some other cases — though they were rare — where enslaved people were able to claim freedom through the courts. There’s one I’m deeply interested these days from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, nearly two decades before Northrup’s book was published. It involved a ten year old child who was freed through a lawsuit brought by two Methodist ministers. I’m going to talk more about that soon.