John Stauffer and Robert S. Levine (Yale University Press, 2014)

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John Stauffer and Robert S. Levine

(Yale University Press, 2014)
On 25 October 1841, the slave ship Creole left Richmond, Virginia, for New Orleans, the largest slave-trading market in North America. The brig carried thirteen sailors and crew, six white passengers, numerous boxes of tobacco, and 135 slaves worth about $100,000 (nearly $10 million in 2014 currency). Eight days later, as the Creole sailed through the northern Bahamas, nineteen slaves rose up in revolt. Within a few hours they controlled the ship and forced a crewman to sail the brig to Nassau, the largest island in the Bahamas, populated chiefly by blacks who had been freed by Great Britain’s 1834 Emancipation Act. The Creole reached Nassau on November 9. The mutineers appealed to the British authorities, who within a week freed the 116 slaves not participating in the rebellion, while detaining the mutineers until March 1842, when they, too, were freed. The rebellion was comparatively peaceful[civil], with two slaves and one crewman killed. In terms of the numbers liberated versus those killed, it was one of the most successful slave revolts in North America.1

Twelve years later, in January 1853, Frederick Douglass published The Heroic Slave, an historical novella about the Creole mutiny, in Autographs for Freedom, a fundraising volume edited by his British friend and managing editor of his newspaper, Julia Griffiths [It works]. Douglass then serialized the novella in March 1853 issues of his newspaper, Frederick Douglass’ Paper. His only work of fiction, The Heroic Slave is one of the earliest examples of African-American fiction, and it has become part of an American canon that has been profoundly shaped by the historical fiction of James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Pauline Hopkins, and many others. Not only was the Creole rebellion important in American history and politics, it also had an impact on Douglass’s career, moving him toward a more radical position on the uses of violence to achieve black freedom. In his 1853 novella, Douglass addressed such issues as the abolitionist movement, the trans-Atlantic history of slavery, interracial friendship, black leadership, and the relationship between journalism, fiction, and history. With his skillful use of setting, point of view, and stylized theatrical dialogue, [I like it a lot!] Douglass also offered a rousing good read, making one almost lament that this is his only work of fiction. It is not surprising that over the past thirty years, The Heroic Slave has emerged as an essential text in the nineteenth-century American literary canon. This cultural and critical edition provides, for the first time, an authoritative text of The Heroic Slave, along with materials that will help readers to engage the novella in its historical, biographical, and literary contexts.


The Creole mutiny electrified the nation and helped escalate sectional tensions over slavery. Southerners were outraged that British authorities chose to free U.S. slaves, especially those who had taken violent action against their masters. They viewed the British as endorsing slave insurrections—their worst nightmare—while also denying Americans their legal right to the domestic slave trade. In response, many Southerners demanded war with England and threatened to start it themselves. The abolitionist newspaper the Liberator, reprinting an article from the Portsmith, New Hampshire Journal, summed up their position by imagining a particularly boisterous Southerner who announces to the nation: “’If you will not go to war to defend us in this right of slave-trading, we will begin the fight ourselves, and plunge you into a war, whether you will or no.’”2

Additionally fueling Southern fury was the decision by the Supreme Court just a few months before the Creole rebellion to liberate fifty-four African slaves who, having been illegally imported to Cuba, mutinied on the Spanish slaver Amistad before drifting into Long Island Sound. The leaders of the rebellion were jailed in Connecticut, and between 1839 and 1841 had become celebrities of sorts, as they were interviewed in their cells and then involved in court trials that made them sympathetic to many Northerners. The charismatic leader of the rebellion, Cinqué, a Mendi village leader from West Africa, helped to make the Amistad a cause célèbre in the U.S. and abroad. The black abolitionist Robert Purvis argued that Cinqué helped to inspire the leader of the Creole rebellion (see the Purvis selection in Part 4 of this volume). In both the Amistad decision and the Creole case, many Southerners concluded that judges in England and the United States endorsed slaves’ rights to rebel against their masters.3

The Creole mutiny underscored to Southern planters that their peculiar institution was under siege. Although they produced two-thirds of the world’s cotton and were the wealthiest Americans, they nevertheless felt deeply threatened by the swift rise of antislavery sentiment throughout the New World. For millennia, slavery had been an almost unquestioned institution, recognized as a byproduct of civilization. When the nation was founded, slavery had been legal everywhere in the New World. But in little more than two generations, the Northern states and most of Central and South American had emancipated its slaves. Southern slaveowners increasingly saw themselves as an island of slavery in a growing sea of freedom, and it horrified them.

Southern leaders sought to reverse this trend. Envisioning a future slave empire that extended into the Caribbean, they attempted to annex the slave republic of Texas, and succeeded in 1845, which helped spark a war with Mexico that brought millions more acres of slave territory into the United States. Additionally, many leaders wanted to annex the slave colony of Cuba. To support their dreams of expansion, Southern writers articulated a powerful proslavery ideology, drawing heavily on the Bible and other canonical texts, from Aristotle and St. Augustine to John Locke and Thomas Carlyle, to support their claim that slavery was socially and ethically beneficial to the expanding nation.4

Because they recognized how powerful antislavery testimony could be, Southern politicians did everything they could to censor antislavery writings and speeches. Their efforts to suppress civil liberties in the Northern free states largely failed. But throughout the slave states they banned the circulation of antislavery literature and criminalized antislavery utterances. In the U.S. Congress, Southern politicians during the 1830s worked with their Northern allies to implement the “Gag Rule,” [I can’t access #4 but “Gag Rule” is correct; I’ll change chronology.] a procedure that automatically tabled thousands of antislavery petitions in an effort to prevent debates over slavery in the House and Senate. This effort to cut off debate, which was strongly opposed by the former president and now congressman John Quincy Adams, further heightened sectional tensions and produced exactly what Southerners didn’t want, which was more debate about slavery in Congress.5

Ironically, Southerners’ outrage over the Creole rebellion would help to repeal the Gag Rule, which had been implemented in 1836. Joshua Giddings, an antislavery congressman from Ohio, joined with John Quincy Adams to protest the suppression of antislavery debate, In the wake of the Creole uprising, Giddings proposed resolutions supporting the black rebels. In response, Southern congressman censured Giddings, who immediately chose to resign in protest. Two months later, his constituents expressed their outrage over the suppression of free speech by reelecting Giddings in a landslide. When he reissued his resolutions, Southerners no longer tried to silence him, having recognized that “gagging” politicians greatly antagonized Northern voters. Although the Gag Rule remained on the books until 1844, it “morally ceased to operate” after the controversy over Giddings’ resolutions.6

Southerners’ belligerent responses to the Creole mutiny highlighted to antislavery Northerners the degree to which the “Slave Power,” an oligarchy of the South’s most powerful leaders, sought to nationalize slavery. Southerners expected the federal government (and foreign powers) to support their peculiar institution. But antislavery Northerners viewed such support as an affront to democratic and Christian values. William Ellery Channing, among the nation’s most prominent ministers and intellectuals, was especially troubled by Northern “doughface” politicians who placated Southerners as an expression of their loyalty to the Union. Southerners expected the federal government “to spread a shield over American slavery abroad as well as at home,” he noted in The Duty of the Free States, or Remarks Suggested by the Case of the Creole (1842). Such a perspective contradicted American jurisprudence and morality, Channing emphasized. Slavery was neither a national institution, nor could it be “recognized by the law of nations.”7

Borrowing from William Blackstone, the British legal theorist who profoundly shaped American jurisprudence, Channing and other antislavery leaders argued that the natural law of freedom trumped positive law, except in local municipalities and states. The Somerset case of 1772, which freed all slaves who set foot in England, did not recognize property in human beings. And the British Emancipation Act of 1834, which freed all slaves in the British West Indies, including non-British slaves who arrived there, operated according to a similar legal understanding. The articulation of “freedom national,” emphasized by Channing and others in the wake of the Creole rebellion, would become a foundational platform of the Republican Party when it formed during the 1850s.8

Antislavery Northerners, who were dismayed by Southerners’ attacks on the British for harboring the Creole rebels, were equally dismayed by Daniel Webster’s insistence that the British must return the slaves to their legal owners or else pay some form of restitution. Webster, the Secretary of State under President John Tyler and a former Whig Senator from Massachusetts, had long been regarded in New England as a great “champion of liberty.”9 But in his official letter to Edward Everett, the U.S. minister to England, he argued that the British had illegally freed the Creole slaves, whom he regarded as murderers, and that it was therefore incumbent upon Great Britain to make amends to the slaves’ owners. Whatever Webster may have thought of slavery itself, he believed that the Constitution and other U.S. legal documents protected Southern slave owners and that U.S. law should be honored on the high seas. Webster quickly softened his attack on the British while negotiating a treaty over boundary disputes with the British politician Lord Ashburton. As a result, the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842 did not prevent Britain from declaring future slave rebels free upon reaching British soil. Nevertheless, many antislavery Northerners concluded, well before the Compromise of 1850, that Webster valued the Union more than freedom and could no longer be trusted on the slavery issue.10

When it came to freedom, antislavery Northerners saw in the black leaders of the Creole parallels with the nation’s revolutionary heroes, especially given the resonant American Revolutionary name of the principal leader of the rebellion, Madison Washington. As reported in numerous antislavery newspapers, Washington was a Virginia slave who escaped to Canada and then returned to the plantation in an attempt to free his wife, only to be captured and re-enslaved. He was subsequently sold as a “dangerous slave” to the trader Thomas McCargo, who brought him aboard the Creole with other slaves to sell in New Orleans. To antislavery Northerners, Washington’s heroic and essentially nonviolent attempt to rescue his wife resembled his leadership during the rebellion, in which he coupled his desire for freedom with clemency toward his former captors. Even the Creole’s crew acknowledged that Washington had spared the lives of the ship’s captain, a French sailor, McCargo and another trader, and McCargo’s son. The newspaper article “The Hero Mutineers,” published in the 7 January 1842 Liberator, can be taken as representative of abolitionists’ sentiment toward Washington; the anonymous author called him “the master spirit” of the rebellion and likened him to the American Revolutionary founders whose names he bore. [Can’t access #5 but this looks fine.] Such journalistic portrayals encouraged slaves to strike for their freedom and suggested that rebel slaves were as worthy of citizenship as whites. No wonder that, in the wake of the Creole mutiny, a line from Lord Byron’s “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” (1818) became a common refrain for many black and some white radicals, including Frederick Douglass: “Hereditary bondsmen! know ye not / Who would be free, themselves must strike the blow?” Douglass used the line as an epigraph in The Heroic Slave, omitting the restricting “hereditary”: all bondsman seeking freedom must strike the blow.11


Frederick Douglass and Madison Washington became public heroes at almost precisely the same time. Washington was front-page news beginning in December 1841, after the crew of the Creole returned to New Orleans. Immediately he was cast as a hero by antislavery Northerners; and when stories of his attempt to liberate his wife became known in the spring of 1842, he was further celebrated. Douglass, having escaped from slavery in Maryland in 1838, settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts with his wife, Anna Murray, a free black woman. Already literate and skilled as an orator, he preached in the city’s A.M.E. Zion church while earning money as a day laborer. He subscribed to the Liberator, the Boston organ of the American Anti-Slavery Society, edited by the great abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison. He read the Liberator as devoutly as his Bible, “mastering” its contents each week. As he later remarked: “The paper became my meat and my drink.”12 In August 1841 he attended a national abolitionist convention in Nantucket, where he spoke to a mostly white audience of 500 people. On the strength of his speech, he was hired as a full-time paid lecturer for the American Anti-Slavery Society. In December 1841, the same month that the Liberator featured news of the Creole mutiny, a journalist termed Douglass “a hero” when describing his performance as a speaker: “This is an extraordinary man. He was cut out for a hero. . . . He has the ‘heart to conceive, the head to contrive, and the hand to execute.’” The assessment echoed descriptions of Madison Washington from antislavery journalists. In fact, in The Heroic Slave Douglass would portray Washington in almost identical terms: “He had the head to conceive, and the hand to execute.”13

Douglass resembled Madison Washington in other ways as well. Both were given names “unfit for a slave, but finely expressive for a hero,” as the newspaper article “The Hero Mutineers” said of Washington. Douglass had been born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, his two middle names reflecting great republican leaders. Like most fugitives, he had discarded his surname after reaching free soil, taking on the new surname of “Douglass”—the Scottish lord in Sir Walter Scott’s poem The Lady of the Lake (1810)—as a way of marking his social ascent.14

Then, too, they were both large, strong men who had fought their way to freedom while displaying leniency toward their oppressors. Madison Washington commenced the mutiny by throwing off two men who had seized him. The turning point in Douglass’s life as a slave, as he often noted, was his famous fight with Edward Covey, the “slave breaker” from Maryland’s Eastern Shore, to whom he had been hired out. During their epic, two-hour battle, Douglass could probably have killed Covey. But he went “strictly on the defensive,” as he later wrote, and after two hours, Covey gave up, having been “mastered by a boy of sixteen.” The effect was extraordinary; as Douglass noted in his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845) and My Bondage and My Freedom (1855): “I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact.” Covey never whipped him again. A slave who refused to be flogged was already more than “half free.”15

Douglass, who would have read accounts of the Creole rebellion in the abolitionist press, greatly admired Washington’s heroism. This was no doubt partly owing to their similarities. But it was also an age of “hero-worship.” Having read Thomas Carlyle’s hugely influential book on heroes, Douglass acknowledged that he, too, was a hero-worshipper, and Washington would emerge as one of his heroes.16 In the first few years after the rebellion, however, Douglass felt constrained against publicly lionizing Washington. His first public mention of Washington in a speech was in 1845, more than three years after the uprising.17 This silence stemmed partly from Douglass’s commitment during this time to the American Anti-Slavery Society’s emphasis on moral suasion as the sole means for ending slavery. Pacifism was the defining doctrine of the Society, and Garrison and his associates did not hesitate to criticize abolitionists—notably blacks and Liberty Party members—who condoned or sanctioned militancy. For example, when the black abolitionist Henry Highland Garnet, a minister and Liberty Party member, celebrated Madison Washington as a revolutionary hero in an address at an 1843 black convention, the American Anti-Slavery Society rebuked him: “trust not the counsels that lead you to the shedding of blood.” Douglass, who was at the convention, also dissented from Garnet’s militancy. There was “too much physical force” in his address, he said. He wanted “to try the moral means a little longer,” adding that Garnet’s address would lead to “insurrection,” which would be a “catastrophe.”18

Two years later, Douglass offered a dramatically different perspective on the Creole rebellion. During an October 1845 speech in Cork, Ireland, he transformed Washington from a violent insurrectionary into a revolutionary hero, now echoing Garnet’s praise for the man. “Madison Washington had in imitation of George Washington gained liberty,” he proclaimed, but white Americans “branded him as being a thief, robber and murderer.”19 Developing the parallels between U.S. Revolutionary heroes and Washington, he claimed that the condemnation of Washington that was rife among Southerners (and many Northerners, too) stemmed largely from racism, which kept them from seeing how Madison Washington acted in the tradition of such celebrated Virginia patriots as Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and George Washington.

Why this profound shift? Much had changed for Douglass between 1843 and 1845. In May 1845 he published his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, which made him nationally famous, virtually a household name; but it also greatly jeopardized his freedom. Fearing fugitive slave hunters, he fled to the British Isles for protection. No longer under the watchful eye of the American Anti-Slavery Society’s leaders, he could now speak his mind more openly. He had already been reprimanded by the Society, as he later remarked in My Bondage and My Freedom, “for insubordination to my superiors,” and he had discovered that most white abolitionists were not immune to the racial prejudice that pervaded the country. Many white colleagues patronized him: just “give us the facts,” said one; “we will take care of the philosophy.” But in the British Isles, Douglass experienced “a perfect absence of everything like that disgusting hate with which we are pursued in America.” Similarly, while many white Americans treated the Creole rebels as murderers, most Britons viewed them as heroes. As one British editorial writer proclaimed, they were as “justified in their actions as prisoners of war.”20

Douglass spent nearly two years touring the Britain Isles as an antislavery lecturer, and came close to remaining there permanently, following in the footsteps of Madison Washington, as it were. He was so popular in Britain that he regularly filled auditoriums, some of which held over seven thousand people. In his speeches he regularly invoked the heroism of Madison Washington and his fellow rebels. British sympathizers purchased Douglass’s freedom, much as they had given Washington his liberty; and they raised an additional $2,000 as a cushion for Douglass against money worries. After returning to the United States, Douglass chose to use that money for a printing press so that he could start up his own newspaper, the North Star, a decision that frayed his relationship with Garrison, the editor of the Liberator. Reunited with his family, Douglass moved to Rochester, New York, which lacked an abolitionist newspaper and yet was a Liberty Party stronghold and a hub on the Underground Railroad.

In Rochester, Douglass befriended people who had personally known Madison Washington. As a result of these friendships, he no doubt heard more stories about Washington. Hiram Wilson, a Quaker abolitionist living in Canada, had opened his home to Washington; and Douglass got to know him through their involvement in the Western New York Anti-Slavery Society. Lindley Murray Moore, a Rochester abolitionist, had harbored Washington as well, and had also raised money to help him on his journey back to Virginia to free his wife. Douglass and Moore lectured at many of the same events, including Rochester’s 1852 Independence Day celebration where Douglass gave his famous speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” And Moore contributed an essay to Autographs for Freedom, the collection of antislavery writings in which The Heroic Slave was first published.21

Douglass’s remarks on Washington between 1843 and the publication of The Heroic Slave in 1853 (which can be traced in Part 3 of this volume) reveal his growing fascination with the Creole rebellion. There was good reason for this: Douglass’s interest in Washington and the Creole uprising paralleled his loss of faith in peaceful means for ending slavery. The late 1840s, and then the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, radicalized countless abolitionists, such as John Brown, with whom Douglass became friends. In moving to Rochester, Douglass effectively abandoned the paternalistic influences of the American Anti-Slavery Society, which advocated nonresistance and considered politics, government, and violence equally corrupt. Initially his newspaper sought to bridge the divide between nonresistance and the Liberty Party, which justified the use of force by calling on every loyal American to interfere with slavery wherever it existed. But in 1851 Douglass officially turned his paper into an organ of the Liberty Party, changing its name from the North Star to Frederick Douglass’ Paper and switching his loyalties from Garrison to Gerrit Smith, a founder and three-time presidential candidate of the Liberty Party (and a wealthy benefactor who helped Douglass with some of the funding of his newspaper). Significantly, Gerrit Smith and Madison Washington are the only two historical characters in the Heroic Slave. In the novella Smith is described as “a devoted friend” of blacks, who would receive Washington “gladly.”22

Inspired by the Creole rebels, Douglass planned a trip to Nassau in February 1852, no doubt hoping to meet with Madison Washington. According to articles in his newspaper and in the New York Tribune, the purpose of the trip was to obtain “antislavery impressions,” which would have given him “ample materials” for writing an account of the rebellion. Included among these materials would have been the words of Madison Washington, for the article in Frederick Douglass’ Paper noted that “Nassau is the home of the heroes of the Creole. Madison Washington himself is there.” Although Douglass ended up not visiting Nassau, his plans suggest his continuing deep fascination with Washington—a fascination that eventually inspired him to write The Heroic Slave.23

The publication of The Heroic Slave in the January 1853 Autographs for Freedom coincided with the legal settlement of the Creole mutiny. England refused to pay restitution for the liberated slaves, but agreed on establishing an Anglo-American claims commission to assess the case. The umpire, Joshua Bates, was a Boston partner in the House of Baring, a British financial firm that had financed the Louisiana Purchase. On 8 February1853 Bates ruled that the authorities at Nassau had violated “the established law of nations,” and that Southern claimants were entitled to compensation for the loss of their property. Two years later, England paid the former owners a fair market value of $110,000 for their slaves. At the very moment in which the legal system declared a victory for Southerners, Douglass offered a literary brief declaring victory for the rebel slaves. From this perspective, he emphasized that fiction was more effective than law in representing the truth of the Creole affair.


What are the truths that Douglass explores in The Heroic Slave? One is that fiction has the potential to be more honest, or authentic, than nonfiction narratives of the Creole rebellion. The journalistic accounts of Madison Washington, both proslavery and antislavery, based their assessments of him on scant evidence from depositions taken by whites aboard the Creole. And this evidence was conflicting: Washington could reasonably be construed either as a temperate revolutionary hero fighting for his and his compatriots’ freedom, or a tyrant. According to some accounts of the rebellion, at its outset he shouted to his fellow rebels, “We have begun, and must go through,” followed by a threat to the other 116 slaves: “Come up, every one of you! If you don’t lend a hand, I will kill you all, and throw you overboard.” In describing Washington as a hero, antislavery journalists ignored evidence of such coercive threats. Douglass avoids the conundrum of parsing the scant historical record by acknowledging at the very beginning of The Heroic Slave that “glimpses” of Washington “are all that can now be presented. . . . We peer into the dark, and wish even for the blinding flash, or the light of northern skies to reveal him. But alas! he is still enveloped in darkness.” Having made this concession, Douglass can now portray Washington as a sublimely fascinating fictional character based on the historical record.24

Douglass had long recognized that truth-telling was, along with rhetoric (the art of persuasion), one of the abolitionists’ most potent weapons against slavery. Historical fiction enabled him to couple honesty with his rhetorical gifts. His planned trip to Nassau in February 1852 hints that he may have hoped to write a nonfiction account of the Creole rebellion, based on interviews with Washington and other participants, before recognizing, right around the time of the 20 March 1852 publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, that he could do even more through the power of fiction. Stowe’s novel, which Douglass greatly admired, sold an unprecedented 10,000 copies in its first week of publication, in large part because the serialization of the novel in the antislavery weekly the National Era from June 1851 to April 1852 had sparked interest in the book. Uncle Tom’s Cabin sold 300,000 copies in its first year and became the publishing phenomenon of the nineteenth century. As Douglass would do in The Heroic Slave, Stowe characterizes her narrative as based on historical facts, with the narrator declaring in the final chapter that the “separate incidents that compose the narrative are, to a very great extent, authentic, occurring, many of them, either under her own observation, or that of her personal friends.” Stowe further authenticated her novel in 1853 by publishing A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which presented the “facts and documents upon which the story was founded.”25

Douglass was one of the first newspaper editors to recognize the degree to which Stowe’s novel was converting millions of Northerners into antislavery advocates who resisted the fugitive slave law and heeded the “higher law” of God. In April 1852 his newspaper included an in-house review (probably by managing editor Julia Griffiths) that concluded: “We doubt if abler arguments have ever been presented in favor of the ‘Higher Law’ theory, than may be found here.” Over the next two years, Douglass publicized and promoted Stowe’s novel, hoping that Stowe would donate money earned from her novel and antislavery tours to help him create a black mechanics institute in Rochester. Flattered by Douglass’s attention, Stowe not only contributed a poem to the volume of antislavery writings in which The Heroic Slave appeared; she also gave the volume its title; as reported in the 13 August 1852 Frederick Douglass’ Paper, “the gifted authoress of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ has christened it ‘Autographs for Freedom.’” In essence, the success of Uncle Tom’s Cabin paved the way for The Heroic Slave, the first historical fiction by an African American.26 And though Stowe never did give Douglass the funds he was hoping for, they had a genuinely productive literary relationship. In The Heroic Slave, Douglass departs from Stowe’s idealization of the nonviolent, Christ-like Uncle Tom by depicting a black-skinned hero who is more than willing to use violence to gain his freedom from slavery. And in Stowe’s second antislavery novel, Dred (1856), she responds to Douglass’s conception of a more activist black heroism by creating her own black-skinned revolutionary hero, Dred, who, like Madison Washington, adopts violence in his war against white enslavers.27

A second large truth, or insight, that Douglass emphasizes in The Heroic Slave, going against the grain of his 1840s commitment to Garrisonian moral suasion, is the productive confluence between slave resistance and abolitionism. By the late 1840s and early 1850s, Douglass had come to recognize that slave resistance could play a crucial role in the antislavery movement. Slave resistance had inspired the formation of the first abolition societies by calling attention to the barbarities of the slave system that helped to give rise to such violence. As an ex-slave who often still defined himself as a fugitive, Douglass understood that slavery was what he called “a state of war” between master and slave. There could thus be no peace in the nation until slavery was abolished. The Creole rebellion had highlighted to him the problem of insisting upon pacifism as the sole means for ending slavery.28

Douglass’s Madison Washington seems to embody the essential abolitionist doctrine of slave resistance, summarized in Romans 13: “Resistance to tyrants is obedience to God.”29 But he isn’t simply physical in his resistance; he is eloquent as well. The only hint in the historical record of Washington’s oratorical skills is his brief, arresting address to his fellow mutineers to commence the rebellion, followed by his threat to the slaves. From the historical silences, Douglass uses fiction to give Washington the voice which dominates the novella. Washington’s eloquent defense of his rebelliousness enables Mr. Listwell, the white hero, to empathize with him. Mr. Listwell is aptly named; he can “listen well” to what this black leader has to say. In Part I of the novella, Listwell is literally politically transformed after eavesdropping on Washington’s eloquent words. Washington’s “soliloquy” rang “through the chambers of his soul, and vibrated through his entire frame.” “From this hour,” Listwell vows, “I am an abolitionist.” Washington even comes close to converting Tom Grant, the overseer on the Creole modeled on the historical William Merritt (see Merrit’s deposition in Part 2 of this volume). “The fellow loomed up before me,” Grant says of Washington. “I forgot his blackness in the dignity of his manner, and the eloquence of his speech. It seemed as if the souls of both the great dead (whose names he bore) had entered him.”30 Douglass suggests that rebellion alone will not convert whites into viewing blacks as equals and citizens. Effective abolitionism required rebellion plus truth-telling eloquence. His hero unites both rebelliousness and eloquence in order to undermine slavery and racism, much as Douglass was trying to do.

With his emphasis on the interracial dynamic of Washington’s eloquence, Douglass approaches black rebellion very differently from Herman Melville, whose Benito Cereno (1855) is the other great novella of black rebellion at sea published during the 1850s. Whereas Washington gains the allegiance of his main white character, in ways that Douglass hoped would gain the allegiance of his white readers, Melville chose to create a black rebel, Babo, who speaks ironically and archly and then, when captured, chooses not to speak at all. Melville works through irony and indirection; Douglass, as is consistent with his commitment to abolitionism, works more directly in articulating the themes and politics of his novella. However, as different as the novellas may seem, they are similarly committed to the use of theatrical form, in the sense that both works present blacks as performers in white slave culture. Melville philosophically explores the psychological interdependencies between masters and slaves; Douglass more directly challenges white mastery.31

This takes us to a third large truth, or insight, of The Heroic Slave: the willingness of slave rebels and abolitionists to embrace any society in which they can live as free and equal citizens. In his historical accounts and novella, Douglass presents Madison Washington as “protected” by the British lion’s “mighty paw from the talons and the beak of the American eagle.” Though Douglass invokes American Revolutionary ideals, his novella displays no overarching or unconditional loyalty to the United States; instead it is an uncompromising critique of American society and liberal (i.e. white man’s) democracy. Virginia itself, in Part III of the novella, is presented as having descended from the glory days of the American Revolution to the current moment of spittoons and heavy drinking, with the intemperate racist whites deluding themselves into a sense of self worth by thinking of themselves as superior to blacks. Emphasizing the fallenness of American culture and ideals, The Heroic Slave offers a powerful vision of black nationalism when the blacks of Nassau embrace the African Americans of the Creole. Douglass and his fictional hero would ideally prefer to remain in the United States, for it is their birthplace and the home of their families and friends. But the novella suggests that if this were not the case, that if the nation continues to fail to live up to its democratic ideals, then new nationalist realignments are in order.32

The black nationalism that emerges at the end of The Heroic Slave may seem at odds with our conventional understanding of Frederick Douglass, who is often cast as a “representative American,” an integrationist, a non-emigrationist, and (after the Civil War) a Republican party hack. But Douglass had a longstanding fascination with black history and black nations; he considered the possibility of emigrating to Haiti in the late 1850s when he was especially disillusioned about the prospects for blacks in the United States; and near the end of his life he held a consulship in Haiti and then represented Haiti at the 1893 World’s Columbia Exposition in Chicago.33 With its emphasis on violence and black community, The Heroic Slave speaks to values that Douglass had long embraced but had tempered while working for the American Anti-Slavery Society. Moreover, the novella offers insights that are at odds with the traditional historiography of abolitionism, which conceives of the movement as primarily white and nonviolent. Douglass recognized that abolitionists were radical critics rather than boosters of American society, and that blacks had absolutely crucial roles in the movement. Even Listwell, the white abolitionist who can seem relatively passive, becomes implicated in black violence and transnationalist dissent when he decides, at the very last minute, to give Washington “three strong files.”34 As conceived in The Heroic Slave, without those files Washington would have found it difficult to act; but without having listened to Washington in the first place, Listwell would not have offered those files. In this way, Douglass points to the crucial role of black oppositional voices to the abolitionist movement. Through the friendship between Listwell and Washington, he also points to the multiracial possibilities of the novella’s transnationalist vision.

* * *

Appearing in the 1853 Autographs for Freedom, which had American and British editions, and then serialized in Frederick Douglass’s Paper, The Heroic Slave had a considerable readership at the time of its publication. As an indication of its popularity, there was even a pirated edition, probably published in 1853.35 After that printing, there are just a few references to the novella prior to 1975, when Philip S. Foner included it in the Supplement to his five-volume The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass (1950-1975). In his 1891 biography titled Frederick Douglass: The Colored Orator, Frederick May Holland comments briefly on The Heroic Slave: “Early in 1853 he [Douglass] published in his own paper a highly wrought story, which had already appeared in ‘Autographs for Freedom,’ entitled ‘The Heroic Slave.’ It is based on actual adventures of Madison Washington, who set himself free by his own courage some ten years earlier.” Presumably these remarks would have inspired some admirers of Douglass’s writing to seek out his novella. Three decades later, The Heroic Slave makes an odd appearance in Alain Locke’s 1925 The New Negro: An Interpretation, an influential collection of essays on black art and culture published at the height of the Harlem Renaissance. The illustration accompanying William Stanley Braithwaite’s chapter on “The Negro in American Literature” depicts the cover page of the pirated edition of The Heroic Slave (see figure 1). Over the course of his essay, Braithwaite refers to Douglass’s autobiographies but not The Heroic Slave, so the illustration offered just a tantalizing glimpse of a Douglass text that probably most readers of The New Negro knew nothing about. It wasn’t until Foner’s 1975 reprinting of the novella that The Heroic Slave, over 120 years after its initial publication, was again widely disseminated.36

This cultural and critical edition of The Heroic Slave brings the novella to a new generation of readers. We begin with an authoritative text of The Heroic Slave, which corrects the errors in the first printing in Autographs for Freedom and draws on Douglass’s newspaper printing and the British edition of Autographs as well. In Part 2, we offer a representative selection of contemporary responses to the Creole rebellion, ranging from newspaper reportage to official depositions to political writings. Many of these texts served as important sources for Douglass, who spoke or wrote about Madison Washington a number of times from 1845 to 1861. Part 3 collects virtually everything Douglass had to say about the rebellion during that sixteen year period. Douglass wasn’t the only writer with an interest in the Creole rebellion. Part 4 presents six narratives of the uprising, including several that have not been republished since their first appearance in the nineteenth century. These narratives help us to better understand what Douglass chose to emphasize and leave out in his own telling of the story. Storytelling is key to Robert B. Stepto’s 1982 discussion of The Heroic Slave, and that essay, which initiated modern scholarship on Douglass’s novella, heads the cluster of criticism in Part 5 of the volume. Here critics address gender, black nationalism, violence, and other important topics, including matters of literary form and artistry. As the selected bibliography at the end of the volume indicates, The Heroic Slave has emerged as a major text in Douglass’s canon, a novella that continues to engage readers with its compelling vision of reform, black revolution, and the quest for human freedom.

 For good historical overviews of the Creole rebellion, see Howard Jones, “The Peculiar Institution and National Honor: The Case of the Creole Slave Revolt,” Civil War History 21.1 (1975), 28-50; and George Hendrick and Willene Hendrick, The Creole Mutiny: A Tale of Revolt aboard a Slave Ship (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2003). An important recent reassessment is Walter Johnson, “White Lies: Human Property and Domestic Slavery aboard the Slave Ship Creole,” Atlantic Studies 5.2 (2008): 237-63.

2 “Case of the Creole,” Liberator, 7 January 1842, 2.

3 Don E. Fehrenbacher, The Slaveholding Republic: An Account of the United States Government’s Relations to Slavery (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 195.

4 See Matthew Pratt Guterl, American Mediterranean: Southern Slaveholders in the Age of Emancipation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008).

5 See William Lee Miller, Arguing about Slavery: The Great Battle in the United States Congress (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996).

6 Joshua Giddings, History of the Rebellion: Its Authors and Causes (New York: Follet, Foster & Co., 1864), 197; James Brewer Stewart, Joshua R. Giddings and the Tactics of Radical Politics (Cleveland: The Press of Case Western Reserve University, 1970), ch. 4; Miller, Arguing About Slavery: The Great Battle in the United States Congress, 444-54. (A selection from Giddings is included in Part 2 of this volume.)

7 William Ellery Channing, The Duty of the Free States, or Remarks Suggested by the Case of the Creole, 2 vols. (Boston: William Crosby & Company, 1842), I, 8, 29; Charles Sumner, quoted in Edward L. Pierce, Memoir and Letters of Charles Sumner, vol. 2 (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1893), 200. Sumner, Channing's friend and protégé, suggested revisions on several legal points after reading a draft of The Duty of the Free States, which Channing adopted; see Pierce, Memoir, vol. 2, 194. (A selection from Channing’s Duty of the Free States is included in Part 2 of this volume.)

8 See James Oakes, Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865 (New York: W.W. Norton, 2013), 22-25. [I condensed here; I don’t think we need all these references, given that we’re not quoting in this paragraph; Oakes seems fine to me]

9 Rev. William A. Stearns, Sermon in Commemoration of Daniel Webster (Boston: James Munroe and Company, 1852), 26.

10 Jones, “The Peculiar Institution and National Honor,” 45.

11 “Madison Washington: Another Chapter in His History,” Liberator, 10 June 1842, reprinted in this volume, p. ?; “The Hero Mutineers,” Liberator, 7 January 1842, reprinted in this volume, p ? See John Stauffer, The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 113, 150-51, 187, 226.

12 Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom, ed. John Stauffer (1855; New York: Modern Library, 2003, 212; Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, ed. David W. Blight (Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2003), 119. [JOHN: COULD YOU CHECK THE NOTE. I DON’T HAVE THE 2ND EDITION OF BLIGHT’S NARRATIVE. WHAT’S ON P. 119? IT CAN’T BE FROM THE NARRATIVE BECAUSE YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT QUOTES AFTER THE NARRATIVE] [Bob: The quote on p. 119 of Blight’s edition of Narrative is Douglass saying of Garrison’s Liberator: “The paper became my meat and my drink.”

13 N. P. Rogers, Herald of Freedom (Concord, NH), 10 December 1841, qtd. in Philip S. Foner, ed., The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, 5 volumes (New York: International Publishers, 1950-75), 48; Douglass, The Heroic Slave, p. ? in this volume. The passage draws on a similar passage in Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1788).

14 “Hero Mutineers,” Liberator, January 7, 1842, reprinted in this volume, p. ?

15 Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom, 137, 138, 140, 141.

16 Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom, 211.

17 Douglass’s first mention of the Creole mutiny itself was in 1843 or 1844. During a speech in Pittsburgh, he burlesqued Webster’s, Clay’s, and Calhoun’s demands for restitution in the Creole case, but apparently without mentioning Madison Washington or violent means. See “Colored Orators,” National Era, 28 July1853, in which the journalist describes hearing Douglass on the Creole “at Pittsburgh, nine years ago [or] more.”

18 Henry Highland Garnet, “Address to the Slaves of the United States of America,” Minutes of the National Convention of Colored Citizens: Held at Buffalo, on the 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th of August, 1843 (New York: Piercy & Reed, 1843), 13 (a selection from the speech is in Part 2 of this volume); “The Buffalo Convention of Men of Color,” Liberator, 22 September 1843; Garnet, “A Letter to Mrs. Maria W. Chapman, November 17th, 1843,” Liberator, 8 December 1843.

19 Douglass, “American Prejudice Against Color,” p ? in this volume.

20 Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom, 215; The Frederick Douglass Papers, Series 1, vol. 2, ed. John W. Blassingame et al. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982), 59; “The Case of the Creole,” the London Times, 21 January 1842. See also “The Creole,” London Times, 3 February 1842; “The Creole,” London Times, 16 February 1842; “The Affair of the Creole,” London Times, 25 March 1842.

21 “Madison Washington: Another Chapter in His History,” Liberator, 10 June 1842, in this volume, p. ?; “Seventh Annual Meeting of the Western N.Y. Anti-Slavery Society,” the North Star, 23 January 1851; Lindley Murray Moore, “Religious, Moral, and Political Duties,” Autographs for Freedom (Boston: John P. Jewett and Company, 1853), 114-15; “Mass Anti-Slavery Convention in Rochester,” North Star, 20 March 1851; “Celebration of the National Anniversary,” Frederick Douglass’ Paper, 1 July 1852; “Editorial,” Frederick Douglass’ Paper, 27 May 1852.

22 Douglass, Heroic Slave, in this volume, p. ?

23 “Letter from Wm. C. Nell,” Frederick Douglass’ Paper, 18 March 1852; “Brooklyn Items,” New York Daily Tribune, 25 February 1852.

24 “Protest of the Officers and Crew of the American Brig Creole,” Liberator, 31 December 1841, in this volume, p. ?; Douglass, Heroic Slave, in this volume, p. ??

25 Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, ed. Elizabeth Ammons (New York: W.W. Norton, 2010), p. 400; Stowe, A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Boston: John P. Jewett & Co., 1853), title page; Joan D. Hedrick, Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 223; David S. Reynolds, Mightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America (New York: W.W. Norton, 2011), 126-67. See also Thomas F. Gossett, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and American Culture (Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1985).

26 “Literary Notices,” Frederick Douglass’ Paper, 8 April 1852; “Second Anti-Slavery Festival,” Frederick Douglass’ Paper, 13 August 1852. See also Robert S. Levine, Martin Delany, Frederick Douglass, and the Politics of Representative Identity (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997), 71-75.

William Wells Brown’s Clotel, first published in England in November 1853, similarly defines itself as a historical novel. Much like Stowe, the narrator asserts the historical authenticity at the opening of the last chapter: “Are the various incidents and scenes related founded in truth? I answer, Yes. I have personally participated in many of those scenes. Some of the narratives I have derived from other sources; many from the lips of those who, like myself, have run away from the land of bondage.” See Brown, Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States, ed. Robert S. Levine (2000; Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2011), 226.

27 Stepto, “Storytelling in Early Afro-American Fiction: Frederick Douglass’ ‘The Heroic Slave,’” The Georgia Review, 36:2 (Summer 1982): 355-68; Levine, Martin Delany, Frederick Douglass, 144-176.

28 Douglass, “Slavery, the Slumbering Volcano” (1849), Frederick Douglass Papers, series 1, II, 153. On slave resistance as central to abolitionism, see Douglas R. Egerton, Death or Liberty: African Americans and Revolutionary America (New York, 2009); Gary B. Nash, The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America (New York, 2005); Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Boston, 2000); David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770-1823 (Ithaca, N.Y., 1975); Seymour Drescher, Abolition: A History of Slavery and Antislavery (New York, 2009); and Manisha Sinha, The Slave’s Cause: Abolition and the Origins of American Democracy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014).

29 Douglass captures Romans 13 in his address to Tom Grant in The Heroic Slave: “You call me a black murderer. I am not a murderer. God is my witness that LIBERTY, not malice, is the motive for this night’s work [the rebellion].” A few months after publishing The Heroic Slave he employs the exact quote, common among abolitionists, in a lecture; see Douglass, “The Claims of Our Common Cause” (1853), Foner, ed., Life and Writings, II, 255; Douglass, The Heroic Slave, in this volume, p. ?

30 Douglass, Heroic Slave, in this volume, p?

31 See Maggie Montesinos Sale, The Slumbering Volcanoa: American Slave Ship Revolts and the Production of Rebellious Masculinty (Durham: Duke University Press, 1996 [a selection from Sale is in Part 5 of this volume]); Eric J. Sundquist, To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 1998), ch. 2; Maurice S. Lee, “Melville’s Subversive Political Philosophy: ‘Benito Cereno’ and the Fate of Speech,” American Literature, 72:3 (2000): 495-520; John Stauffer, “Interracial Friendship and the Aesthetics of Freedom,” Frederick Douglass & Herman Melville: Essays in Relation, eds. Robert S. Levine and Samuel Otter (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008), 134-43; Stauffer, Black Hearts of Men, 190-94;

32 Douglass, The Heroic Slave, in this volume, p. ?. On black nationalism in the novella, see Krista Walter, “Trappings of Nationalism in Frederick Douglass’s the Heroic Slave,” African American Review 34.2 (2000): 233-47; and Ivy G. Wilson, “On Native Ground: Transnationalism, Frederick Douglass, and “The Heroic Slave,” PMLA, 121:2 (2006): 453-68. (A selection from Wilson’s essay is reprinted in Part 5 of this volume.)

33 See Robert S. Levine, Dislocating Race and Nation: Episodes in Nineteenth-Century American Literary Nationalism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008), ch. 4.

34 Douglass, The Heroic Slave, in this volume, p. ?

35 See Celeste-Marie Bernier, “A Comparative Exploration of Narrative Ambiguities in Frederick Douglass’s Two Versions of The Heroic Slave (1853, 1863?), Slavery and Abolition 22.2 (2001): 69-86. (That second version of The Heroic Slave is almost certainly a pirated version, as Bernier suggests, despite the title of her essay.)

36 Frederick May Holland, Frederick Douglass: The Colored Orator (1891; New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1895), 220; Alain Locke, ed., The New Negro: An Interpretation (New York: Albert and Charles Boni, 1925), 28). Important subsequent reprintings of The Heroic Slave include Michael Meyer’s Frederick Douglass: The Narrative and Selected Writings 1984), Ronald T. Takaki’s Violence in the Black Imagination: Essays and Documents (1993), and William L. Andrews’s The Oxford Frederick Douglass (1996).

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