Contemporaries knew Frederick Douglass as a resolute individual who freed himself from slavery and joined one of the most progressive movements in American history. His biting rhetoric, his stylistic prose, even the mere presence of his powerful being moved mountains in the fight for Black freedom. Today, the world notes Douglass’s power and stature at a time when his most foundational works remain relatable in today’s world. However, a little piece written in 1853 garnered less attention than his more famous works; “The Heroic Slave” was a short story unlike any of Douglass’s other works.
Before Frederick Douglass became a famous abolitionist, he spent time in Great Britain outrunning and outwitting slavery. His two-year journey, 1845-1847, provided Douglass opportunities to mingle with English abolition circles and make friends, especially one Miss Julia Griffiths. Griffiths became a vital link in the ascension of Douglass from abolitionist co-speaker to abolitionist leader. When Douglass returned to the United States in 1847, Griffiths followed. In Rochester, New York, Griffiths helped Douglass achieve his dream of running a newspaper, titled The North Star, and became a crucial savior of his paper on numerous occasions.
On one such occasion, Griffiths published Autographs of Freedom, which generated funds to keep Douglass’s North Star afloat. Autographs was a collection of essays, lectures, broadsides, editorials, and stories promoting abolition, accompanied by facsimile signatures (autographs) of each author. In 1853, Douglass’s short-story, “The Heroic Slave,” appeared in a copy of Griffiths’ Autographs.
“The Heroic Slave” is best understood as a piece of historical fiction. The main character, Madison Washington, escapes his enslavement aided by a self-proclaimed abolitionist in Ohio. The Ohioan, Mr. Listwell, offers Washington a place to stay and the following morning, Listwell assists Washington finding him passage on a boat to Canada, where many escaping slaves found freedom in the 1850s. The second chapter in Douglass’s work ends with Washington’s freedom in Canada.
Douglass’s narrative continues into the following year where Mr. Listwell, on the road between Petersburg and Richmond, runs into Washington as part of a slave coffle heading to a dock in Richmond. Washington was recaptured while attempting to free his wife. The failure results in the death of Washington’s wife, his torture, and eventual sale to a slave trader heading to New Orleans. While Washington retells his story, Listwell looks for a solution but finds none. In a desperate attempt to assist Washington, Listwell sneaks three files into the enslaved man’s pocket before boarding the slaver.
In the final act, Douglass manufactured a conversation between two white Southerners, one being the first mate aboard the slaver which carried Washington. These two men, caught in an argument, discuss the slave revolt aboard the Creole, led by Madison Washington. The first mate recounts the insurrection as if he, once again, was aboard the slaver. The vessel left Hampton Roads in late October with nothing amiss, but on November 7, Washington frees himself and 18 other companions before leading an attack against the small white crew. In the ensuing fight, Washington and his men kill one, wound another, and take firm control of the ship. Eventually, Washington convinces the white crew to sail the Creole into Nassau where Washington and 129 other enslaved souls find freedom from American slavery.
As mentioned before, Douglass’s work is a piece of historical fiction. Although based on actual events the dialogue between characters is fictional. Douglass wrote this short story to sell copies, but, on another level, it displayed similar themes to his other works and demonstrated his evolution as an abolitionist.
The most noticeable connection between “The Heroic Slave” and Douglass’s other works is the concepts of freedom and slavery from an enslaved point of view. “What, then, is life to me?” Madison questions openly in Douglass’s opening act.
“It is aimless and worthless, and worse than worthless. Those birds…They live free…They fly where they list be day, and retire in freedom at night. But what is freedom to me, or I to it? I am a slave, – born a slave, an object slave, – even before I made part of this breathing world, the scourge was plated for my back; the fetters were forged for my limbs.”
Washington’s words are very reminiscent of Douglass’s own words in his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass an American Slave. While rented out to Mr. Covey, Douglass was defeated, much like Washington. “Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me. I was broken in body, soul, and spirit,” Douglass wrote at his lowest under Covey’s manufactured power. This sense of brokenness is displayed while Douglass watches white sails of ships freely enter and leave the Chesapeake Bay. “You are loosed from your moorings, and are free; I am fast in my chains, and am a slave! You move merrily before the gentle gale, and I sadly before the bloody whip! You are freedom’s swift-winged angles, that fly round the word; I am confined in bands of Iron!”
Both scenes show a simple, yet tangible essence of slavery in the United States. Slavery took away all form of natural human freedom.
Beyond the similarities of Douglass’s previous works, “The Heroic Slave” is important for the noted shift in Douglass’s abolition mentality. It is well known that around the 1850s, Douglass became more aggressive in his notions for freedom which differed from his early teachings under William Lloyd Garrison. Garrison preached nonviolence and believed emancipation could be achieved only through moral suasion. Douglass learned under Garrison and therefore embodied these themes throughout his early career, but as he became more independent, Douglass broke from Garrison and argued for aggressive action and violence, if needed. This new approach is on display in a speech countering the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.
Nothing is to be gained by a timid policy, Douglass stated, instead, “The only way to make the Fugitive Slave Law a dead letter is to make half a dozen or more dead kidnappers. A half dozen more dead kidnappers carried down South would cool the ardor of Southern gentlemen, and keep their rapacity in check. That is perfectly right as long as the colored man has no protection.” Douglass’s aggressive tone is also embodied by Washington.
“I could not bear the thought of leaving her in the cruel jaws of slavery, without making an effort to rescue her,” Washington told Listwell upon their meeting in Virginia. Washington, while in Canada, attempted to raise funds to purchase his wife’s freedom, but the “process was slow.” Thoughts of Washington’s wife haunted him and he felt it necessary to take more decisive actions for her freedom. His attempt to gain her freedom ultimately failed and results in her death. With nothing left to lose, Washington resolved to forever gain his freedom through aggression. This occurred aboard the Creoleas the slaver headed for New Orleans. After taking the ship, Washington tells the first mate, “I am not a murderer. God is my witness that LIBERTY, not malice, is the motive for this night’s work…We have struck for our freedom…We do not thirst for your blood, we demand only our rightful freedom.”Douglass’s short story revels his new stance that aggressive action, and sometimes violence, was necessary to achieve freedom.
Historically, “The Heroic Slave” gains little attention. The work was outshined by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabinand even falls short of other Douglass works. One, therefore, cannot help to wonder why such a gifted individual and powerful abolitionist failed to captivate an audience with Madison Washington’s tale. From one perspective, it may be that Douglass did not have the talent for short stories. Another reason for the lack of notoriety may be the purpose in which “The Heroic Slave” was written. If Douglass set out to fill the pages of a friend’s anti-slavery publication, he may not have been fully invested in the work. Therefore, what we see in “The Heroic Slave” is a media to recycle known material to known anti-slavery followers. In either instance, Douglass’s foray into historical fiction seems to be of little consequence, a footnote in history, compared to his other works that continue as relevant work to this day.
Palmer, Erwin. “A Partnership in the Abolition Movement.” University of Rochester Library Bulletin. Accessed March 29, 2021. https://rbscp.lib.rochester.edu/3476.
Douglass, Frederick. “The Heroic Slave,” in Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings, edited by Philip S. Foner and Yuval Taylor. Chicago, IL: Lawrence Hill Books, 1999, 219-47.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave.InFrederick Douglass Autobiographies. Edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. New York, NY: Library Classics of the United States, Inc., 1994.
Frederick Douglass, “The Heroic Slave,” inFrederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings, ed. Philip S. Foner and Yuval Taylor (Chicago, IL: Lawrence Hill Books, 1999), 221.
Frederick Douglass,Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American SlaveinFrederick Douglass Autobiographies, ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr. (New York, NY: Library Classics of the United States, Inc., 1994), 59.
Frederick Douglass, “The Heroic Slave,” 221.