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African American Lit: “The Heroic Slave” by Frederick Douglass Essay

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Updated: Mar 11th, 2022


Freedom is the desired value but is not always easily attained. Freedom does not just come, people have to work for it; it is achieved not imposed. In Frederick Douglass’ The Heroic Slave, Douglass presents the reader with Madison Washington, a loving father, and a husband who is determined to become a free man and free those whom he loves. Frederick Douglass’ The Heroic Slave demonstrates the inconceivable and unimaginable struggle one suffers to obtain the simple right of freedom. The Merriam-Webster dictionary provides one definition of freedom as the liberation from slavery, restraint, or the power of another. Freedom is not that simple, thus Frederick Douglass saw fit to write The Heroic Slave in which he portrays this vision for freedom; the idea of becoming a free man, and using the struggle he encountered as a lesson to empower the abolitionists. The theme of this masterpiece is the journey towards freedom. Douglas seeks to compel abolitionists to carry on with their noble cause of pressing for freedom irrespective of the cost involved.

The Heroic Slave

The journey to freedom is a long one full of mountains, valleys, thickets, disappointments, and all sorts of heartbreaks. In order to overcome the struggles for freedom, one must place a high value on self and the betterment of society. The Heroic Slave outlines the cruelties of slavery, “heart-touching narrations of his own personal suffering, intermingled with prayers to the God of the oppressed for help and deliverance” (Douglass 180). While faithplaysy only a minor role in Madison’s path to deliverance, the courage, audacity and willingness to take risks or the physical work necessary to obtain freedorestts on his shoulders alone. Douglass presents Madison Washington with a powerful mindset; entangled between the desire for freedom and intense loyalty to his family. He is determined to flee for his freedom; he understands it will not be simple because he will be leaving his wife and kids.

It is either he frees himself first and come back for them or stay with his family and remain a slave; the one thing he fears the most, the loss of freedom. “If I am caught, I shall only be a slave. If I am shot, I shall only lose a life that is a burden and a curse. If I get clear, (as something tells me I shall,) liberty, the inalienable birthright of every man, precious and priceless, will be mine. My resolution is fixed. I shall be free” (Douglass 178). By using repetitions, I shall, only, and I will Madison create a mental scene to emphasize how strongly he feels. His mind is made up, if he is caught he will remain a slave, if he is shot he will only lose his own life but would influence his family’s life. Moreover, if he becomes a free man he would become part of humanity; will be a part of the world that shall live freely and happily as the rest. Madison sees freedom as a necessary part of humanity, the ability to live life according to his morals, values, and desire for self-fulfillment. Douglass seeks to influence the audience by coming out clearly on what he is willing to sacrifice for the sake of freedom; that is, his life. The audience will want to know more about a person who will sacrifice everything to gain freedom.

The Heroic Slave states about Madison that, “his high resolution clung to him;—for he ended each speech by an emphatic declaration of his purpose to be free” (Douglass 180). This statement is supposed to arouse within you the desire to be free from all obstructions. Madison gives a forceful speech from the heart. His heart desires nothing else but the opportunity to be able to live a purposeful life free from injustice. Although, Madison Washington does not have a strong relationship with God, he appears to be a good Christian man who prays for guidance and later risks his life to free his family from the oppressor. “His broad mouth and nose spoke only of good nature and kindness. But his voice, that unfailing index of the soul, though full and melodious, had that in it which could terrify as well as charm” (Douglass 179).

A man of such intelligence not only understands the importance of freedom, is also aware of what it takes to execute the mission and the bravery must come within to conquer the obstacles to meet one’s end. His thoughts are a powerful force. His appearance is nothing comparing to his words because they only suggest of his kindness, but his wisdom of words can change a person’s thought and empower if it will or become damaging if necessary. “Liberty I will have, or die in the attempt to gain it” (Douglass 178). Madison would rather die trying to escape than live unfulfilled life. These utterances emphasize the need of freedom. The fact that Madison was ready to lay down his life for the sake of freedom makes the theme of journey to freedom central in this masterpiece. What is more precious than life? Nothing; in writer’s view, willingness to lose life pursing freedom underlines the reason why the theme holds such a central role in the author’s writing.

Frederick Douglass’ intention to allow the readers to sympathize with Madison Washington goes undoubtedly seen. “I had, on the previous Saturday, suffered a cruel lashing; had been tied tip to the limb of a tree, with my feet chained together, and a heavy iron bar placed between my ankles. Thus suspended, I received on my naked back forty stripes, and was kept in this distressing position three or four hours, and was then let down, only to have my torture increased; for my bleeding back, gashed by the cow-skin, was washed by the overseer with old brine, partly to augment my suffering” (Douglass 188). Douglass describes in detail Madison’s struggle, the brutality of a human being. Madison received a cruel lashing; he was tied up to a tree with his feet chained together. He was striped forty times on his naked body and left there for hours. Douglass does not hold anything back. He wants to force the audiences to visualize the horrendous scene; he wants to evoke emotions in the audience so they can sympathize with Madison. Such description created by Douglass evokes sympathy toward the abolitionist who is determined to help the slaves escape. By Evoking sympathy from the audience, the author expects to influence the reader to understand the meaning of freedom. Freedom is not a matter of talk but actions.

In his writing, Douglass challenges both the white and black audience through his narrative. The author challenges the white readers to consider injustice, avoid hypocrisy, and fully realize the free nation they claim to be. The story is especially meant to encourage abolitionists to continue being active in their cause to free the slave. The fact that Douglass includes a white character such as Mr. Listwell, who throughout the narrative greatly sympathizes with Madison and helps him escape from slavery, is more specifically to reach out to his white audience.

Although most blacks were not educated at the time, Douglass still wanted to challenge the black readers to be understanding of his writing. He encourages them to stand up for themselves and move toward change away from obstruction of justice. He encourages the slaves to continue seeking freedom no matter the cost. The movement toward change and freedom allows both audiences to sympathize with Douglass.

The road to freedom is long whether one is walking from slavery like Madison or from any other form of oppression that people face in their daily lives. Think of this scene, “Here were one hundred and thirty human beings,—children of a common Creator—guilty of no crime—men and women, with hearts, minds, and deathless spirits, chained and fettered, and bound for the market, in a Christian country. Humanity converted into merchandise, and linked in iron bands, with no regard to decency or humanity…all huddled together, on their way to market to be sold and separated from home, and from each other forever” (Douglass 216). This scene serves to emphasize on how the journey to freedom is long and bumpy. However, Madison is determined to pay the cost only to enter gates of freedom with cheerfulness and hope for a better future in his heart. This narrative becomes significant because it references back to Gates argument about the idea of repetition. Douglass presents several repetitions in his writing.


Douglass writes from a perspective of a man who appears to understand both sides so he can appeal to the white and black audiences. He presents Madison as an intellectual man with feelings, emotions, anger, and hopelessness at the same time. He uses repetition to show that Madison’s determination for freedom and the attempt to gain more trust from the abolitionist. Douglass also emphasizes the parallel between good and evil; white versus black, which holds a central meaning to the narrative in influencing the white audience. The theme comes out clearly and the audience can now understand the nature of journey to freedom; the cost and sacrifice involved. Freedom is necessary; nevertheless, people craving for it should be prepared to pay the cost and not be scared, not even about their death.


Douglass, Frederick. “The Heroic Slave.” Griffiths, Julia. Ed. Cleveland: John P. Jewett & Company, 1853.

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