Why didn’t Solomon Northup make any attempt to communicate his situation to William Ford, whom he describes as his kindest master and a very kind man?

Oct 2017
Australia 🇦🇺
I hope this thread hasn’t turned out to be too long. If it’s too long to read, the main discussion question is the thread title itself, or I can make a summary post. But I do urge you to read below at your own convenient pace.

You should definitely read Twelve Years a Slave if you haven’t already.

Unlike the 2013 award-winning film version, where he is hushed by William Ford for communicating his background, Solomon made every attempt to conceal his true identity in his narrative.

Ever since I first read the narrative, I’ve wondered why Solomon never made any attempt to reveal or even vaguely or indirectly communicate his dire situation to William Ford, whom Solomon claims as having “had an opportunity of learning well his character and disposition, and it is but simple justice to him when I say, in my opinion, there never was a more kind, noble, candid, Christian man than William Ford”.

Not only would William Ford turn out to be Solomon’s kindest master, but arguably also the kindest white person he was to ever become acquatinted with during his ordeal, arguably making him what would have been Solomon’s best opportunity at relieving his situation.

Indeed, Solomon claims that:

“Sometimes, not only then, but afterwards, I was almost on the point of disclosing fully to Ford the facts of my history. I am inclined now to the opinion it would have resulted in my benefit. This course was often considered, but through fear of its miscarriage, never put into execution, until eventually my transfer and his pecuniary embarrassments rendered it evidently unsafe. Afterwards, under other masters, unlike William Ford, I knew well enough the slightest knowledge of my real character would consign me at once to the remoter depths of Slavery. I was too costly a chattel to be lost, and was well aware that I would be taken farther on, into some by-place, over the Texan border, perhaps, and sold; that I would be disposed of as the thief disposes of his stolen horse, if my right to freedom was even whispered. So I resolved to lock the secret closely in my heart—never to utter one word or syllable as to who or what I was—trusting in Providence and my own shrewdness for deliverance.”

There are plenty of cases of other kidnap victims of color who communicated their situation to their masters, with varying results of course. Many were punished for it, while others were re-sold several times, while others suffered combinations of both fates. Some kidnap victims did manage to receive legal processes, with various results, some managed to prove their status as freemen and were released, while others failed to do so and were returned to slavery. Some, however, did arouse the interest and sympathy of their masters or other whites, who helped them regain their liberty.

I can provide certain cases if desired.

I don’t know about you, but if I found myself in Solomon’s situation, I would have done absolutely anything and everything in my power that I could think of that would relieve my dire situation in any way, provided it was reasonable & beneficial of course, which is what we’re discussing in this thread isn’t it? Wouldn’t you yourself have done likewise? It’s definitely a life-threatening survival situation to be in isn’t it?

There is the conspiracy theory that Solomon might have been a willing accomplice to Russell and Merrill. In other words, Solomon might have planned, with the two men, to go with them and allow them to sell him into slavery, with the idea that they split the sales money with him after they arranged for him to be freed, but ended up disasterously for Solomon, either the purchaser was too sharp for him, or that he was betrayed by his two companions. I’ve long wondered whether this conspiracy was true, and if it was whether it would have anything to do with Solomon’s apparent lack of communication to anyone about his situation.

This theory is reflected in a couple of newspaper columns of the time.

What do you think about this conspiracy theory?

However, how Solomon ended up in slavery isn’t relevant for him to communicate with Ford, or others he feels he may risk trusting, about his situation and request or beg to have a letter sent to his acquaintances up north, as demonstrated when he finally had the opportunity with Samuel Bass, which brings us back to the original question.

So, what are your thoughts as to why Solomon never communicated his situation to Ford or anyone else at all, about the conspiracy theory, and what would you have done if you were Solomon Northup?
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Bart Dale

Ad Honorem
Dec 2009
Perhaps he thought that Ford wouldn't believe him, and was afraid Ford might react negatively to him if Ford thought he was lying. There probably was no way he could prove his story about how he became a slave, and it no one replied to his letter, then he could be worse off then before.

As for sending the letter later, he might have became more desperate over time, wne more willing to take a chance.

Of course, if he was part of his own enslavement, that .ight be why he kept quiet, because it would expose as being involved in a fraud. Perhaps Mr. Ford would have realized this if Solo.on bought up his predicament to Mr. Ford. If Ford thought he was involved in some.con, then not only might Ford not help him but could treat him worse. His partner in the fraud could have still been around, and expose what Solomon had done. After that, he did not have a chance until much later.

A third possibility was that he knew William.Ford had money problems, and he was afraid if he told Mr. Ford, Ford would sell him to another master to prevent possible financial loss, and this new master might be worse than Mr. Ford. That concern was what prevented him from telling later Master's. Later on, he realized he probably should have taken a chance with Mr. Ford and trusted in his kindness and goodness to do the right thing.

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