The Immigrant Story Behind Twelve Years a Slave


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The new film Twelve Years a Slave is a narrative of a real slave’s life. Last year’s Django Unchained was a fantasy of a slave’s deliverance and revenge. Wildly different films, they have one thing in common, the agent of freedom in both films is an immigrant.

Django is freed by the German dentist turned bounty hunter King Schultz played by Christoph Waltz. Schultz is a German Liberal traveling through a land of slavery. Solomon Northup, the subject of Twelve Years a Slave, is helped in securing freedom by Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt), a Canadian immigrant who traveled for twenty years in the United States without ever accepting its system of black bondage.

Immigrants rarely headed South in the 1840s and 1850s. Some immigrants disdained it because they hated slavery, others because they did not want to have to work for wages below the cost of keeping a slave. There were many German immigrants in parts of Texas and Missouri who risked their lives to help escaping slaves. Hatred of slavery was a motive for the St. Louis German community’s rush to the colors in support of the Union in 1861. They were also critics of President Lincoln’s seemingly slow walk to emancipation.

During the 1850s Irish immigrants were much less likely than the Germans to take a stand for abolition, however, their position on the bottom of the social scale left them in a peculiar position. Since they often did the same work as slaves, slave masters suspected that they helped blacks escape either out of friendships formed on the job or because they had been paid by the escapees.
slavery-1860Samuel Bass, the enslaved Solomon Northup’s deliverer, was a real Canadian immigrant. Northup wrote that Bass was “one to whom I owe an immeasurable debt.” “He was, ” Northrup wrote, “my deliverer-a man whose true heart overflowed with noble and generous emotions.”1

According to Northup, Bass had no family in the area along the Red River where the New York-born Northup was enslaved. This may have freed Bass to act in his dangerous way. Loc. 3005 Northrup also said the Canadian had “no permanent abiding place” but instead that his habit was “wandering from one state to another, as his fancy dictated.” Like many immigrants, Bass did not feel the parochial pull of any particular locale in the United States.

Northup described Bass as “liberal to a fault” and said that he “unceasingly combated” the conservative “sentiment” of the white community near the Epps plantation where Northup was held. Although Bass had the convictions of a critical outsider he was not an outcast. Northup says that Bass “through his many acts of kindness and transparent goodness of heart” was “popular in the community.” 2

“Whither [Bass] has now gone, I regret to be obliged to say, is unknown to me,” wrote Northup. The former slave wrote that Bass “gathered up his effects and quietly departed Marksville,” where he was staying near the Epps Plantation, “the day before I did.” Northup says that “my liberation rending such a step necessary for the commission of a just and righteous act he would have undoubtedly suffered death had he remained within reach of the slave-whipping tribe.”3

In his book, Northup recalls his memory of an argument about slavery and between Bass and Northup’s “owner” Epps. Bass delivered his opinion of slavery saying “Its all wrong-all wrong sir-there’s no justice nor righteousness in it.” He announced that “I wouldn’t own a slave if I was rich…which I am not, as is perfectly well understood, …particularly among my creditors.” He apparently felt the need to add a little humor to soften the blow.4

In a dialog remembered by Northup, Bass demands of Epps “what right have you to your nig——ers?” Epps responded “What right?…Why I bought ‘em and paid for ‘em.” Bass did not accept this answer:

Of course you did. The law says you have a right to hold a nig——, but begging the law’s pardon, it lies. Yes Epps, when the law says that its a liar. Is every thing right because the law allows it? Suppose they’d pass a law taking away your liberty and making you a slave?” “Oh that ain’t a supposable case,” said Epps…laughing, I hope you don’t compare me to a nig——, Bass.”

“Well, Bass answered gravely, “no, not exactly. But I have seen nig—-s before now as good as I am, and I have no acquaintance with any white man in these parts that I consider a whit better than myself. Now in the sight of God, what is the difference, Epps, between a white man and a black one?”

“All the difference in the world,” replied Epps. “You might as well ask what the difference is between a white man and a baboon. Now, I’ve seen one of them critters in Orleans that knowed as much as any nig——I’ve got. You’d call them feller citizens, I s’pose?”-and Epps indulged in a loud laugh at his own wit.

“Look here, Epps,” continued his companion, “you can’t laugh me down in that way. Some men are witty and some ain’t so witty as they think they are. Now let me ask you a question. Are all men created free and equal as the Declaration of Independence holds they are?”

“Yes,” responded Epps, but all men, nig—-s and monkeys ain’t,” and hereupon he broke into a more boisterous laugh than before.

“There are monkeys among white men as well as black when you come to that,” coolly remarked Bass. “I know some white men that use arguments no sensible monkey would. But let that pass. These nig—-s are human beings. If they don’t know as much as their masters, whose fault is it? They are not allowed to know anything….You’d whip one of them if caught reading a book.”5

Standing outside of the assumptions of the country in which he lived, Bass told Epps “There’s a sin, a fearful sin, resting on this nation, that will not go unpunished forever.” In a passage that presaged the Civil War uttered a decade before it began, Bass predicted “there will be a reckoning…there’s a day coming that will burn as an oven…it’s a coming as sure as the Lord is just.” Bass even challenged the notion of race itself. He pointed out that many “black” slaves, were in fact fathered by white slave owners and were “as white as either of us.” The practice of plantation owners enslaving their own sons and daughters, whipping them, and selling them, was both unacknowledged and common.  Bass said that “the whole system is as absurd as it is cruel.” With all of the arguments by “Christian” slave owners for the divine sanction of slavery, Bass asked Epps “what difference is there in the color of the soul?” 6

Bass played the key role in the rescue of Solomon Northup. You can read the book or see the film to find out how.

Solomon Northup said that he never knew what became of Sam Bass, but later research indicates that he died in Louisiana from natural causes in 1853, around the same time Twelve Years a Slave was published. He told a lawyer that he was an immigrant who was from “Upper Canada”, now called Ontario. He said he had left his wife there and that his “only complaint against her was that she had such a temper as to preclude any man from living with her.”7

Like many Southern immigrants, Bass had not arrived in the United States with preconceived assumptions about the white supremacy of the right of white men to enslave blacks. In helping to free Solomon Northrup, he helped one black man escape slavery. When that man went on to write a best-selling book about slavery and became a leading abolitionist, Samuel Bass played a role in ending slavery in the United States.

VIDEO: The Story Behind the Movie

‘12 Years a Slave’ Featurette: A Portrait of Solomon Northup from Sari Chile on Vimeo.


Here is link to a free online copy of the book Twelve Years a Slave.


1. Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup (1853)- Enhanced Kindle Edition by Dr. Sue Eakin Kindle Location 2966, 2996
2. Twelve Years a Slave – Enhanced Kindle Edition by Dr. Sue Eakin Kindle Location 3008.
3. Twelve Years a Slave – Enhanced Kindle Edition by Dr. Sue Eakin Kindle Location 3011-3014.
4. Twelve Years a Slave – Enhanced Kindle Edition by Dr. Sue Eakin Kindle Location 3017
5. Twelve Years a Slave – Enhanced Kindle Edition by Dr. Sue Eakin Kindle Location 3030-3040
6. Twelve Years a Slave – Enhanced Kindle Edition by Dr. Sue Eakin Kindle Location 3040
7. Twelve Years a Slave – Enhanced Kindle Edition by Dr. Sue Eakin Kindle Location 5945.

The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that examines the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear twice monthly between 2011 and 2017. Here are the articles we have published so far:

1. Immigrant America on the Eve of the Civil War – Take a swing around the United States and see where immigrants were coming from and where they were living in 1861.

2. 1848: The Year that Created Immigrant America – Revolutions in Europe, famine and oppression in Ireland, and the end of the Mexican War made 1848 a key year in American immigration history.

3. Carl Schurz: From German Radical to American Abolitionist– A teenaged revolutionary of 1848, Carl Schurz brought his passion for equality with him to America.

4. Immigrant Leader Carl Schurz Tells Lincoln to Stand Firm Against Slavery.

5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants

6. The Rabbi Who Seceded From the South

7. The Fighting 69th-Irish New York Declares War

8. The Germans Save St. Louis for the Union

9. New York’s Irish Rush to Save Washington

10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.

11. Carl Schurz Meets With Lincoln To Arm the Germans

12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?– The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.

13. Why the Germans Fought for the Union?

14. Why Did the Irish Fight When They Were So Despised?

15. The “Sons of Garibaldi” Join the Union Army

16. The Irish Tigers From Louisiana

17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers

18. The St. Louis Germans Set Out To Free Missouri

19. Wilson’s Creek Drowns Immigrant Dream of Free Missouri

20. English-Only in 1861: No Germans Need Apply

21. After Bull Run: Mutineers, Scapegoats, and the Dead

22. St. Louis Germans Revived by Missouri Emancipation Proclamation

23. Jews Fight the Ban on Rabbis as Chaplains

24. Lincoln Dashes German Immigrants Hopes for Emancipation

25. When Hatred of Immigrants Stopped the Washington Monument from Being Built

26. Inside the Mind of a Know Nothing

27. The Evolution of the Know Nothings

28. The Know Nothings Launch a Civil War Against Immigrant America

29. The Know Nothings: From Triumph to Collapse

30. The Lasting Impact of the Know Nothings on Immigrant America.

31. Lincoln, the Know Nothings, and Immigrant America.

32. Irish Green and Black America: Race on the Edge of Civil War.

33. The Democratic Party and the Racial Consciousness of Irish Immigrants Before the Civil War

34. The Confederates Move Against Latino New Mexico

35. Nuevomexicanos Rally As Confederates Move Towards Santa Fe—But For Which Side?

36. The Confederate Army in New Mexico Strikes at Valverde

37. The Swedish Immigrant Who Saved the U.S. Navy

38. The Confederates Capture Santa Fe and Plot Extermination

39. A German Regiment Fights for “Freedom and Justice” at Shiloh-The 32nd Indiana under Col. August Willich.

40. The Know Nothing Colonel and the Irish Soldier Confronting slavery and bigotry.

41. Did Immigrants Hand New Orleans Over to the Union Army?

42. Did New Orleans’ Immigrants See Union Soldiers As Occupiers or Liberators?

43. Union Leader Ben Butler Seeks Support in New Orleans-When General Ben Butler took command in New Orleans in 1862, it was a Union outpost surrounded by Confederates. Butler drew on his experience as a pro-immigrant politician to win over the city’s Irish and Germans.

44. Union General Ben Butler Leverages Immigrant Politics in New Orleans

45. Thomas Meager: The Man Who Created the Irish Brigade

46. Thomas Meagher: The Irish Rebel Joins the Union Army

47. Recruiting the Irish Brigade-Creating the Irish American

48. Cross Keys: A German Regiment’s Annihilation in the Shenandoah Valley

49. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Richmond-The Irish brigade in the Peninsula Campaign from March 17 to June 2, 1862.

50. Peninsula Emancipation: Irish Soldiers Take Steps on the Road to Freedom-The Irish Brigade and Irish soldiers from Boston free slaves along the march to Richmond.

51. Slaves Immigrate from the Confederacy to the United States During the Peninsula Campaign

52. The Irish 9th Massachusetts Cut Off During the Seven Days Battles

53. Union Defeat and an Irish Medal of Honor at the End of the Seven Days

54. Making Immigrant Soldiers into Citizens-Congress changed the immigration laws to meet the needs of a nation at war.

55. Carl Schurz: To Win the Civil War End Slavery

56. Carl Schurz: From Civilian to General in One Day

57. Did Anti-German Bigotry Help Cause Second Bull Run Defeat?

58. Immigrant Soldiers Chasing Lee Into Maryland

59. Scottish Highlanders Battle at South Mountain

60. Emancipation 150: “All men are created equal, black and white”– A German immigrant reacts to the Emancipation Proclamation

61. The Irish Brigade at Antietam

62. Private Peter Welsh Joins the Irish Brigade

63. Preliminaries to Emancipation: Race, the Irish, and Lincoln

64. The Politics of Emancipation: Lincoln Suffers Defeat

65. Carl Schurz Blames Lincoln for Defeat

66. The Irish Brigade and Virginia’s Civilians Black and White

67. The Irish Brigade and the Firing of General McClellan

68. General Grant Expells the Jews

69. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Its Destruction At Fredericksburg.

70. Fredericksburg: The Worst Day in the Young Life of Private McCarter of the Irish Brigade

71. Forever Free: Emancipation New Year Day 1863

72. Private William McCarter of the Irish Brigade Hospitalized After Fredericksburg

73. The Immigrant Women That Nursed Private McCarter After Fredericksburg

74. Nursing Nuns of the Civil War

75. The Biases Behind Grant’s Order Expelling the Jews

76. The Jewish Community Reacts to Grant’s Expulsion Order

77. Lincoln Overturns Grant’s Order Against the Jews

78. Irish Families Learn of the Slaughter at Fredericksburg

79. Requiem for the Irish Brigade

80. St. Patrick’s Day in the Irish Brigade

81. Student Asks: Why Don’t We Learn More About Immigrants in the Civil War?

82. Missouri’s German Unionists: From Defeat to Uncertain Victory

83. Missouri Germans Contest Leadership of Unionist Cause

84. German Leader Franz Sigel’s Victory Earns a Powerful Enemy

85. Immigrant Unionists Marching Towards Pea Ridge

86. German Immigrants at the Battle of Pea Ridge: Opening Moves

87. Pea Ridge: The German Unionists Outflanked

88. German Immigrants at the Battle of Pea Ridge

89. The Organization of the “German” XI Corps

90. The Irish Brigade on the Road to Chancellorsville

91. The “German” XI Corps on the Eve of Chancellorsville

92. The “Germans Run Away” at Chancellorsville

93. The New York Times, the Germans, and the Anatomy of a Scapegoat at Chancellorsville

94. An Irish Soldier Between Chancellorsville and Gettysburg

95. Lee’s Army Moves Towards Gettysburg: Black Refugees Flee

96. Iron Brigade Immigrants Arrive at Gettysburg

97. Iron Brigade Immigrants Go Into Battle the First Day at Gettysburg

98. The “German” XI Corps at Gettysburg July 1, 1863

99. An Irish Colonel and the Defense of Little Round Top on the Second Day at Gettysburg

100. A Prayer Before Death for the Irish Brigade at Gettysburg: July 2, 1863

101. The Irish Regiment that Ended “Pickett’s Charge”: July 3, 1863

102. Five Points on the Edge of the Draft Riots

103. Before the Draft Riots: The Cultivation of Division

104. The New York Draft Riots Begin

105. Convulsion of Violence: The First Day of the New York Draft Riots

106. The Draft Riots End in a Sea of Blood-July 14-15, 1863.

107. Pat Cleburne: The Irish Confederate and the Know Nothings

108. Killing Pat Cleburne: Know Nothing Violence

109. Pat Cleburne: Arresting a General, Becoming a General

110. The Immigrant Story Behind “Twelve Years a Slave”


Painting of the Return of the 69th from Bull Run Unearthed

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Professor Behind No Irish Need Apply Denial May Have Revealed Motive for Attacking 14 Year Old Historian

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Patrick Young blogs daily for Long Island Wins. He is the Downstate Advocacy Director of the New York Immigration Coalition and Special Professor of Immigration Law at Hofstra School of Law. He served as the Director of Legal Services and Program at Central American Refugee Center (CARECEN) for three decades before retiring in 2019. Pat is also a student of immigration history and the author of The Immigrants' Civil War.

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