Frederick Douglass was a prominent abolitionist, a powerful force for the movement through his speaking and writing. His short story, The Heroic Slave, in conjunction with his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, help spread his ideals widely throughout the United States. In The Heroic Slave, Douglass writes about a white man who sees a slave toiling in the woods, and how this made him become an abolitionist. In chapter 10 of his autobiography, Douglass tells the story of his time as a slave and specific instances where he rebels. Both works have whites prominently featured if they are not the main character. Frederick Douglass wrote The Heroic Slave to obtain support from whites for the abolitionist movement and to show them how crucial their support was for the abolitionist movement.
One way that Douglas used his literature to gain support from whites was to humanize the slaves and show that they were as worthy of freedom as whites. One prevailing sentiment at the time was that blacks were created by God for slavery and that it was only natural that they are enslaved. To combat this, Douglas highlighted the humanity of the blacks in his stories. One example is how he characterized Madison Washington, the main character of The Heroic Slave. He says Madison’s eyes were “lit with emotion, kept guard under a brow as dark and as glossy as the raven’s wing”, and that he had, “A giant’s strength, but not a giant’s heart was in him. His broad mouth and nose spoke only of good nature and kindness” (The Heroic Slave 2). In Madison’s eyes, there is emotion–the emotions of a real person. He acknowledged that they looked guarded, which hints at the barriers that he must have put up against the hardships of his life, but the detail gives him the feel of a real person. He also imbues Madison with a good heart, to show the readers of the story that a black man can be a gentle, kind-hearted man in a time when blacks were regarded as beastly, uncivilized people. Douglas also describes the real people in his autobiography in a way that gives them humanity. He says, “Henry and John [his fellow slaves] were quite intelligent, and in a very little while after I went there, I succeeded in creating in them a strong desire to learn how to read” (Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass 11). Douglas spotlights the desire of his fellow slaves to learn To show whites that slaves wanted to be a part of society in a meaningful way. Being able to read and write to communicate is a building block of humanity, and drawing attention to the fact that slaves did not have that building block, but wanted it, brought attention to the reality that slaves were much more than the tools that they were used as. He also describes Henry and John as “intelligent”, which shows that slaves had personalities, just like white people, which was not generally recognized at the time. In both of his works, Douglass paints slaves as the humans they are, shedding light on the humanity of slaves.
Not only did Douglass illuminate the legitimacy of slaves as people, but he also called whites to action by showing how they could be a driving force in freeing slaves. He did this in abundance in both of his works, adding in both benevolent and malevolent white characters to highlight the good things that whites can do, as well as the bad. One malignant character that he references is his former master, Mr. Covey. He describes his former master, saying, “Mr. Covey’s forte consisted in his power to deceive. His life was devoted to planning and perpetrating the grossest deceptions” (Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass 2). He describes his former master as a man who loved to “deceive,” and liked “planning,” his “deceptions” against his slaves. This man had done terrible things to blacks, including Douglass. At the end of Mr. Covey’s part in Douglass’ story, Douglass has a physical altercation with him, out muscles him, and Covey no longer treats him cruelly. Douglass included this in the story to show his readers what being a bad owner, or master could drive a slave to do, and that eventually, that bad owner would get what he deserved. Another character that Douglass added to illuminate the role of whites in slavery was Mr. Listwell in The Heroic Slave. Listwell begins the story as a bystander and turns into an active helper of Madison because he realized that Madison deserved freedom as much as any white person. Listwell shows his compassion at the beginning of the story, saying, “It seemed that the very repetition of this, imparted a glow to [Madison’s] countenance. The hope of freedom seemed to sweeten, for a season, the bitter cup of slavery, and to make it, for a time, tolerable” (The Heroic Slave 3). Listwell listens to the slave, and in this listening, he learns the struggles of the slave and the reality that slaves are just as human as he is. Realizing this, he decides to become an abolitionist and helps Madison escape at the end of the story. Madison’s quest for freedom would have never come to anything if not for Listwell. Without the file that Listwell slipped him or the room and board that he provides, Madison’s story changes from one of a successful rebellion to another story of an escaped slave being caught. Listwell shows how one benevolent white person can change a slave’s life and shows that many whites would make the same decision if faced with the truth that slaves are people, as Listwell was. In this way, The Heroic Slave was a call for help from whites, urging them to take the path of Listwell, to listen to the slaves, to realize that they were deserving of liberty, and to commit themselves to the cause of abolishing slavery.
Lastly, Douglass’ stories presented the whites that read them with the cruelties of slavery. In both of the sources, slavery is correctly presented as an awful thing, which can never be swept under the rug, or turned a blind eye to. He does this by discussing the parts of slavery that were at the time glossed over. One such aspect is the horrible beatings that slaves were given. He talks about his own experience, saying, “Mr. Covey gave me a very severe whipping, cutting my back, causing the blood to run, and raising ridges on my flesh as large as my little finger” (Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass 1). Douglass minces no words talking about the punishments given to him. The grotesque manner in which he describes his wounds from the whipping gives a true indication as to how inhumanly the slaves were treated on a day to day basis. This forced the people who read the book to confront the harshness of slave life, and it became invalid to argue that slavery was not unusually cruel. Another example is when Madison describes the punishment that had occasioned his outbreak in the forest, which Listwell overheard. He says, “[I] 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” (The Heroic Slave 3). This is another example of the cruelty levied against slaves. Douglas included this detail to further his point that slavery was not a thing that anybody could support. The white self-professed abolitionists that read this book would have never done anything to stop this type of cruelty. By putting it in a book about a slave who was a human lent it an extra air of credibility, which Douglass used to demonstrate the savagery of those who controlled the slaves.
Frederick Douglass intended to get stronger support from whites when he wrote The Heroic Slave. He demonstrates how crucial the support of whites like Mr. Listwell was to the freeing of Madison. He also gives slaves undeniable humanity and shows how unbearable it is to keep people in as cruel conditions as they are. He urges whites to acknowledge the cruelty that is in their country and challenges them to take a stand against it, instead of letting it persist. He leaves an important message that in every hardship that humans go through, anybody who does not actively stand against it is complicit.