I confess I have yet to see 12 Years a Slave. It is not from a lack of interest. I long ago read Solomon Northup’s book on his kidnapping and enslavement, and I have seen the Avery Brook’s made-for-television adaptation, Solomon Northup’s Odyssey, which originally appeared on PBS in 1984. Director Steve McQueen’s theatrical adaption was finally released nationwide last Friday, and one of these days soon, like a year ago when Spielberg’s Lincoln came out, I will shell out some money and let everyone know what I think. The early signs, to judge from comments from other scholars of American slavery on Facebook, are generally favorable, but I will reserve judgment until I see the film for myself.
Yet in considering the case of Solomon Northup, it is important to realize that although his case was unusual, it was not unique. African Americans in the antebellum North shared the same vulnerability as Northup, especially after the passage of 1850’s Fugitive Slave Act, which on its face would have seemingly made it possible for any white American willing to perjure themselves to claim any African American in the North as their slave, since the black person in question would not be permitted to testify, and the compensation scheme for federal officials hearing cases of alleged fugitives was designed to favor the supposed slave owner.
It is uncertain whether any free persons of color in the North were enslaved under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Yet there is evidence that the kidnapping of African Americans from the North continued as late as Autumn 1863. On October 23, 1863, David L. Phillips, U.S. Marshal for the Southern District of Illinois sent the following letter to Abraham Lincoln (who had appointed Phillips to his post). It read:
I have Just received a letter from Hon. Chauncy I. Filley, Mayor of St Louis, enclosing an open letter from Major Easton U. S. Army, addressed to Gov. Yates, both relating to, what Seems to be, a very extensive Scheme of Kidnapping of free Negroes, and Negroes freed by the proclamation, and their removal to Kentucky through Illinois and Indiana by the Ohio and Miss. R. R. to Seymour and thence by the Jeffersonville R. R. to Louisville where they are sold for from $200. to $300, each into Slavery. It is said that the parties who are engaged in this nefarious traffic, generally, have permits from Some one in or about the Provost Marshal’s Office in St Louis.
You know the law of Illinois touching such a traffic and therefore I will say nothing as to the legal questions of the Case. That the traffic is going on to quite an extent seems beyond any reasonable question.
I enclose to you a Slip from the Chicago Tribune which I have Just Seen. It explains itself. I do not know what evidence the Tribune people have in their possession. Gov. Yates being in Washington I have taken the liberty of calling attention to the matter, knowing that you alone can, by an order to Gen. Schofield, Stop a trade which is not only legally a crime, but an outrage on humanity and an insult to the States of Illinois and Indiana.
So, with slavery on the ropes in the South in Autumn 1863, it is fascinating and chilling that there were still persons at that late date evidently kidnapping free persons of color in the North and selling them into slavery. As Kentucky was exempted from the Emancipation Proclamation, it is an understandable destination for such nefarious activity. Clearly, even in the wake of Lincoln’s proclamation and significant Confederate defeats in Summer 1863, some people were still betting on slavery’s survival, and willing to defy the federal authorities to kidnap northern blacks, much as had happened to Solomon Northup decades before.