12 Years a Slave Essay Example


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12 Years a Slave Essay Example

12 Years a Slave Essay: Introduction

In his book "Twelve Years a Slave", Solomon Northup shares his family's disintegration under slavery. He was a free man, but later, he was drugged, kidnapped and sold as a slave, which lasted 12 years. In this process, his family has torn apart; he was separated from his wife and children for his owners' profit. By taking his experience, this paper analyzes the systematically forced separation of slave families by slave owners. Slavery caused African-American families to separate, although, at the time, the family was a sacred unit. It is evident that slavery tore apart African-American families systematically and made family life difficult for them in order to profit more from the slave trade.

Body Paragraphs

Solomon Northup was a free New Yorker; he was married and had three daughters, which was, for him, a perfect family. Later, he was taken away by Merrill Brown and Abram Hamilton and sold as a slave. After he was a property of different owners, he couldn't see his family for a long time under slavery. His family has torn apart for his owners' profit. At one point , he says, "Why had I not died in my young years before God given me children to love and live for? What unhappiness and suffering and sorrow it would have prevented." (Northup 89). Besides his experience, he also shares his slave friend Eliza's experience in which she was sold to another farm and separated from her two sons (Northup 60). She was devastated after the slave trade.

As can be interpreted, slave families being torn apart was a familiar scene in the antebellum. In Northup's slavery of 12 years, he witnessed two family's dissolution (one of which was his own) for the financial gains of white slave owners. West's research provides us with valuable data for this issue. Slave families usually had to struggle with forced separations due to slave trades, deceased owners or being given as a gift to another owner (West 214). As West suggests, at least 35% of black slave families were diminished through forced separation under slavery (218). Sometimes family members' farms were relatively close, so they were able to see each other. However, this wasn't always possible as they weren't free men, and by law, they had to do labour for their owners' benefits before their own interest.

On the other hand, most of these families didn't have a chance to see each other as a result of long-distance sales. Long-distance sales were feared the most by slaves as it meant the family's absolute annihilation (West 220). There was no regulation to prevent cross-state trades of slaves, and by the constitution, slaves couldn't get legally married because rights didn't apply to them. So, slave owners traded their slaves without any regard for family disintegration as these trades provided them higher profits. Although, West also states that hostility for owners by slaves increased as a result of the fear of family separation (215).

Opposing views also include this sense of hostility towards owners. Some can argue that this attitude caused losses for the slave owner. Some studies suggest the family formation of slaves was essentially encouraged by their owners. State laws dictated that children under ten couldn't be sold alone. Therefore, selling them as a family was the only possible way for owners to get rid of another slave who is no use for him. Also, Calomiris and Pritchett, whose study sheds light on this issue, states that slaves in the family groups were sold for higher prices (1009). Further, family sales formed 45% of total group sales (Calomiris and Pritchett 990). This shows us slave owners benefited from preserving family formation and didn't aim to destroy them.

However, unfortunately, this wasn't true in a broader sense. According to Pargas, especially between 1820-1860, 875.000 slaves were forced to move from the Upper South due to the rise of cotton in the southern interior; this forced migration caused an undeniable amount of slave family loss in the exporting states (257). Another striking fact comes from Dunaway's book about African-American families under slavery. Fifty percent of all the slave trades caused the separation of children from their parents (Dunaway 63). Stevenson also supports the reality of forced separation by stating that slave spouses didn't have the opportunity to live together due to indiscriminate separation. However, when we look at white families, they were able to control their domestic life and family structure (Stevenson, 161). White mothers were able to take care of their families. However, for a slave mother, her most important responsibility was the labour she had to do, not her family. White men provided for their family; however, a black slave did no such chance as they weren't getting paid. As can be said, slave families were destroyed systematically for greater profits and existing ones had difficulties living the family life. In contrast, the white family structure stood as they were free men.

Lastly, the abovementioned points are critical when reading Northup's story. It gives us an idea that Northup's experience was not occasional; forced family disintegration was an institutional tragedy applied to profit more from enslaved people. To analyze Northup's story, we need to understand the family structure during slavery and compare the slave families to white families.

12 Years a Slave Essay: Conclusion

In conclusion, Northup's non-fiction story tells the breakdown of his family by the hand of slavery. He was taken away from his daughters and his wife and sold. His experience generates the question of how the family life was for the slaves. To answer the question, this paper analyzes the institutional termination of slave families by their owners to profit more. Slavery caused African-American families to split up, despite the fact that family was a sacred entity at the time. Slavery clearly ripped African-American families apart and made family life miserable for them in order to profit more from the slave trade.


Calomiris, Charles W., and Jonathan B. Pritchett. “Preserving Slave Families for Profit: Traders’ Incentives and Pricing in the New Orleans Slave Market.” The Journal of Economic History, vol. 69, no. 4, Dec. 2009, pp. 986–1011, 10.1017/s0022050709001351. Accessed 1 Apr. 2021.

Dunaway, Wilma A. The African-American Family in Slavery and Emancipation. New York, Maison Des Sciences De L’homme/Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Northup, Solomon. Twelve Years a Slave. Mineola, Dover Publications, 2014.

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Zendaya Kane
Zendaya Kane
Content Lead at Tamara Research. Major in Advertising, loves working.

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