Through The Heroic Slave, Frederick Douglass achieves a dynamic protagonist that encapsulates readers as his motivation for freedom develops within the story. Madison Washington’s journey to freedom and rise to heroism can be broken down into three phases. At the end of each phase, there starts to be a focus more on the bigger picture: freedom for all. Phase one is gaining his own personal freedom, phase two is returning to save his wife and helping her achieve her freedom, and phase three is the slave rebellion. His experience during these phases alter his goals, and then influence his actions. Madison Washington becomes a hero by achieving his own goals while selflessly helping those around him. Madison is determined to be free from the very beginning of the novel, and while his determination never falters, his motives and goals for freedom become more selfless and pure as he traverses onward to becoming the heroic slave.
Madison begins as an isolated man, reflecting on the meaning of freedom. He first becomes aware of how unfair and unethical his situation is during his first soliloquy. In the woods, Madison observes the various animals, but focuses on the birds and snakes. He begins by asking himself “What, then, is life to me?” and informs us that his situation is “aimless and worthless, and worse than worthless” (5). He realizes that the seemingly insignificant animals have more freedom than he does, because “They live free… They fly where they list by day, and retire in freedom at night (5).” He then comes to the realization that he desires that same liberty and freedom. He states:
“Liberty I will have, or die in the attempt to gain it… I have nothing to lose. If I am caught, I shall only be a slave. If I am shot, I shall only lose a life which is a burden and a curse. If I get clear, (as something tells me I shall,) liberty, the inalienable birth-right of every man, precious and priceless, will be mine. My resolution is fixed. I shall be free” (6).
In this moment, he has only one mindset; and that is to gain his own personal freedom. His motives only involve him, because he states how only his resolution will be fixed, only he will have gained freedom. After finally gaining his own freedom, the transition into phase two begins. Even after successfully escaping to Canada, he realizes that there is more to it than his own freedom. He learns that freedom is worthless if others, like his wife, are still enslaved. This realization changes his view on freedom, as he then works to gain hers.
Phase two of Madison’s motives are also for his family and wife, because without them, he would have less to push himself towards his true desire for freedom. During the second part of the story, he describes how awful it is to think about leaving his wife and children behind, saying it “caused [him] indescribable anguish” and that he couldn’t possibly take the journey towards freedom without thinking of all of them being free as well (14). Later in the story, Madison returns back to his wife, despite the fact that they are not supposed to see each other at this moment. The two of them are able to meet in secret, and agree that it would be best if Madison should “remain on the vicinity” and not leave completely (16). Here, Madison is seen caring for his wife and wanting to secure his promise to her that if he left he would come back for her. Once Madison is able to get to Canada with the help of Mr. Listwell, he realizes how much he misses his wife and how unfair he believes it is that she is not there with him. He explains that his “thoughts turned to [his] poor wife, who had well deserved [his] love by her virtuous fidelity and undying affection for [him]. [He] could not bear the thought of leaving her in the cruel jaws of slavery, without making an effort to rescue her” and then he plans out how he is going to go get her and how he will successfully do so (37). Once he explains missing her dearly, he explains the unfortunate events of losing her, saying that the dogs came after them and as they ran away she was shot and killed by those coming after them.
The death of Madison’s wife is a major turning point in the story. This turning point is the beginning of phase three. After she is shot, he is captured, but he doesn’t go down without a fight. Although the death of his wife devastates him, he never loses his will to become a free man. He is captured, given sixty lashes, chained, degraded, and sold back into slavery in the New Orleans market (38). Once thrown into the slave gang, Madison becomes a beacon of hope among the other slaves, calming them with his natural leadership and authority (36). With his wife gone, Madison finds a new purpose by guiding others who also yearn for freedom. Madison’s quest of freedom is ultimately put to the test when he implements his plan of overtaking the slave ship in order to free the entire slave gang. Not only does he pick the locks of his own chains and fetters, he releases the other slaves from their shackles as well. He, with the help of eighteen others, manage to take control of the entire slave ship without killing all of the white traders on board:
“ Men! the battle is over,–your captain is dead. I have complete command of this vessel. All resistance to my authority will be in vain. My men have won their liberty, with no other weapons but their own BROKEN FETTERS. We are nineteen in number. We do not thirst for your blood, we demand only our rightful freedom. Do not flatter yourselves that I am ignorant of chart or compass. I know both. We are now only about sixty miles from Nassau. Come down, and do your duty. Land us in Nassau, and not a hair of your heads shall be hurt”(49).
Here, Madison’s journey in becoming the heroic slave is complete. He gains freedom not only for himself, but his fellow enslaved brethren. His motives for freedom are purified as they stray from his own personal desires, as seen in the beginning of the novel. He becomes a true hero among his people as he is driven by a yearning to free himself and his fellow man, not by revenge. By the end of the story, Madison proves himself to be a selfless and heroic man.