Patrick Henry, the famous Virginian orator and attorney, once bellowed,“Give me liberty or give me death!” The Heroic Slave tells the story of another Virginian whose story, the text claims, has gone untold until now, and whose accomplishments are equally as laudable as those not only of Patrick Henry, but also the titular character’s namesakes, James Madison and George Washington.
It is no accident that this apparently unsung hero is named after these two founding fathers, in particular. In fact, these are two of the original founding fathers, each of whom has been branded with a corresponding moniker from which their identities cannot now be separated. James Madison is the “Father of the Constitution,” the document that outlines the rights and liberties of each and every American. George Washington is the “Father of Our Country,” in which he is believed to embody liberty, justice, and equal rights. However, in this text, both of these names are borne by a man who is not allowed the liberty and justice that the Constitution and Country claim are “for all.” Instead, they are bestowed to a slave, who has to starve, bleed, and fight for the rights for which the founding fathers were supposed to have already fought. The text constructs this parallel to highlight the dissonance — the outright irony — between what is outlined in the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights, and what was actually enacted every day during the brutal years of slavery.
The text deplores the fact that “a man who loved liberty as well as did Patrick Henry, — who deserved it as much as Thomas Jefferson, — and who fought for it with a valor as high, an arm as strong, and against odds as great, as he who led all the armies of American colonies through the great war for freedom and independence, lives now only in the chattel records of his native State.” (Douglass 1). This passage describes Madison’s love and desire for freedom, and the bravery and fortitude with which he fought for it. It expresses indignation at the injustice of such an act of heroism not making it into the history classrooms where the praises of Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, and the other founding fathers of Virginia are always sung. The effect created here is to the potentially uncomfortable task of viewing a black, enslaved man as being on the same pedestal as those to whom they are taught to owe America’s freedom, justice, and equality.
Interestingly, the story is told in third person omniscient perspective, so the reader is occasionally privy to the thoughts of each character, but the white characters’ thoughts and actions are the ones most present in the text. However, the story still revolves entirely around the brave and heroic actions of Madison Washington. This functions in the text to provide some illuminating perspectives from white people on the conditions of slavery, and on the heroic slave himself.
One fascinating viewpoint comes from the first mate of the ship Madison hijacks, who says that “‘It was not that his principles were wrong in the abstract; for they are the principles of 1776. But I could not bring myself to recognize their application to one whom I deemed my inferior’” (Douglass 27). This passage describes the mate’s perception of Madison’s behaviors, and how he does not believe that a man’s thirst for liberty is wrong, so Madison’s actions cannot be branded as wrong. However, a sort of conflict takes place for the man when he attempts to equate what he knows are his own rights to those of a man he believes is much less of a man than he is.
The mate himself states that Madison is merely acting with the same ideals that founded America, the same ideals that inspired Thomas Jefferson to pen the Declaration of Independence, the same ideals that make American hearts swell with pride and patriotism on July Fourth. These are what inspired Madison Washington to take over the ship and lead other slaves to freedom. Even the first mate cannot call this inspiration wrong.
The text reminds readers of the “principles of 1776,” and then applies them to a slave. This is jarring enough to shed light on the injustice of slavery, and, perhaps more painfully, the sharp irony of a man being so desperate to taste freedom that he has to hijack a ship just to escape from a country that claims, above all else, to be free.
Douglass, Frederick. The Heroic Slave. Boston, John P. Jewett and Co., 1852.