Walker's Appeal (American History Through Literature)
Walker's Appeal, in Four Articles, Together with a Preamble, to the Coloured Citizens of the World, but in Particular, and Very Expressly, to Those of the United States of America had a huge impact. First published in 1829, it urged "coloured citizens of the world" to do everything necessary to abolish slavery and oppose white racism. Whitesven the antislavery Quaker Benjamin Lundy (1789839)esponded with "condemnation"; African Americans read the pamphlet "until [Walker's] words were stamped in letters of fire upon our soul" (Lundy, p. 107; Amos Beman, quoted in Hinks, "Introduction," p. 109).
DAVID WALKER'S LIFE
Walker's date of birth is uncertain. In 1848 the black abolitionist Henry Highland Garnet's "Brief Sketch of the Life and Character of David Walker" proposed 1785, but tax records, Walker's absence from the 1810 census, and his probable age at his death in 1830 indicate 1796 or 1797 as more likely. He was born free in Wilmington, North Carolina, because his mother was also free (black southern children took their mother's status). His father, however, was probably not free,
Meaningful black freedom at this time scarcely existed in Wilmington. Walker's mother or "The Associates of Dr. Bray" (founded in 1723) may have educated him rudimentarily, but his erudition would have been largely self-acquired (perhaps explaining why the Appeal emphasizes education's importance so heavily). Walker witnessed slavery's excesses in Wilmington and again in Charleston, South Carolina, where he moved between 1815 and 1820. Charleston offered employment opportunities and possessed a large free black community that governed its own churches. Although Walker probably belonged to a black congregation in Wilmington, he would have been attracted by free blacks' long commitment to emancipation in Charleston. In particular, Charleston's African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church was militantly antislavery. It had been founded in 1817, following the AME's establishment in Philadelphia by Richard Allen (1760831) in 1816. Walker deeply respected Allen, as his Appeal makes plain (pp. 602), and he probably quickly joined the AME Church.
Charleston's AME Church also figures in history. Denmark Vesey's (c. 1767822) 1822 conspiracy against slavery centered upon this church; possibly as many as forty members were involved. After a black informant betrayed Vesey (perhaps accounting for Walker's contempt for black collaborators) and the AME Church was destroyed, Walker left Charleston. He departed just after Vesey's trial in 1822, perhaps because he was a coconspirator. The tenor of his explanation for his departure suggests this: "If I remain in this bloody land, I will not live long. As true as God reigns, I will be avenged for the sorrow which my people have suffered" (quoted in Garnet, p. 7).
Possibly following some southern and western traveling, Walker settled in Boston. Although appalled by Boston's racism (pp. 36, 42, 56), he opened a clothing shop there in 1824 and married Eliza Butler, daughter of a well-established black Boston family, in 1826. The Walkers probably had three childrenwo sons and one daughter. Walker's used-clothing business did well, despite an unsuccessful prosecution over a false charge of selling stolen goods, and he became Boston agent for John Russwurm and Samuel Cornish's Freedom's Journal, the first black journal, launched in 1827. Walker contributed to Freedom's Journal until it folded in 1829 (and supported Cornish's short-lived anti-colonizationist journal, The Rights of All, 1829. 1830). When the Massachusetts General Colored Association (MGCA) was founded in 1828, Walker became a leading member (alongside his involvement with Boston's Prince Hall African Masonic Lodge, from 1826 onward, and May Street Black Methodist Church). The MGCA offered a unique platform for open public commitment to the immediate abolition of slavery. An address by Walker to the MGCA in 1828 (reproduced in Freedom's Journal) urged that "it is indispensably our duty . . . to hasten our emancipation," thereby foreshadowing his Appeal's radicalism (Hinks, "Introduction," p. 87). Possibly the Appeal also took inspiration from Robert Alexander Young's Ethiopian Manifesto, published in early 1829, an allusive apocalyptic call for international black unity foreseeing the abolition of slavery and racial oppression. Publication of the incendiary Appeal, in three editions between September 1829 and June 1830, was quickly followed by Walker's death, on 6 August 1830.
The cause of Walker's death remains mysterious. He possibly died from tuberculosis, as his death certificate records "consumption"; his daughter had died from this only one week before and it was a common cause of death at the time. But Walker may have been the victim of a conspiracy, with the (white) coroner falsifying the document. A contemporary allegation was that $3,000 had been offered for his death (The Liberator, 22 January 1831). Garnet's "Sketch" also mentions, if skeptically, a death plot by southerners. Southern alarm concerning black militancy was widespread: Vesey's 1822 conspiracy and the inspiration it drew from the successful revolt in Saint-Domingue (1791804) was a recent memory; Gabriel Prosser's 1800 rebellion in Richmond, Virginia, was not forgotten; and shortly after Walker's death, in 1831, Nat Turner (1800831) led his uprising in Southampton, Virginia. Such alarm could have led proslavery whites to plot Walker's death; it certainly explains the scale of attempts to stifle his Appeal.
Walker endeavored to circulate his pamphlet widely during his life, but Walker's bold attempts to increase his Appeal's circulation were systematically blocked. The mayor of Savannah and the governors of Virginia and Georgia in 1830 even wrote to the mayor of Boston asking him to curtail Walker's activities. Yet, seemingly, the Appeal was read extensivelyeing linked, for example, to an uprising in New Bern, North Carolina, in December 1830, during which sixty slaves were killed. White southerners became so alarmed after sighting Walker's Appeal that laws were passed in Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and North Carolina to prevent African Americans from becoming literate or obtaining antislavery literature. In this climate, Walker's forecast seems reasonable: "I do not only expect to be held up to the public as . . . disturber of the public peace . . . [but also to be] put in prison or to death" (p. 4). Since the Appeal was viewed as seditious by white southerners, and they knew fully about Walker's attempts to circulate it in the U.S. mail and by hand (mostly using Atlantic coast sailors, some of whom were black), assassination cannot be ruled out as a cause of death.
David Walker's Appeal stands as an innovative fusion of counter-history, prophetic history, advocacy of human rights, and theological arguments. Its central call is for whites, as well as blacks, to observe key ethical and political values: justice, righteousness, freedom, and dignity. But in Walker's view, continuing abysmal failure by whites to observe these human values legitimized action by blacks to take control of their lives and enforce these values' preeminence as a God-sanctioned mission. Sometimes Walker seems to advocate awaiting the rise of a leader, or for God to take vengeance upon whites for their willful failings. But predominantly he calls for direct action. He clearly argues that if whites were not prepared to emancipate blacks, then blacks should seek their own release, renouncing "death-like apathy" (pp. 54, 65, 79). Walker is scathing about black collaboration with whites, defining any such acts as "servile deceit" (p. 29). Prophetic calls for black unity as a means of opposing white oppression are his constant burden.
Walker's Appeal is always prophetic. It stresses God's call for justice and righteousness and his care and concern for enslaved blacks. Such sentiments are shaped by the discourses and rhetoric of Old Testament prophets such as Malachi ("ye have not kept my ways, but been partial in the law. . . . hath not one God created us? why do we deal treacherously every man against his brother?" 2:90). Such rhetoric infuses the Appeal, as slavery is represented as an abomination before the Lord. Walker's Appeal is thoroughly millenarian in toneinking the pamphlet not only to Isaiah and Jeremiah but also to New England millenarian revivals of the late 1820s and early 1830s (mentioned in Walker's third edition).
Yet the Appeal interweaves such religious prophecy with a passionate engagement with contemporary cultural politics. Following a "Preamble" the pamphlet is divided into four "Articles" detailing African American sufferings at the hands of "Slavery," "Ignorance," "the Preachers of the Religion of Jesus Christ," and "the Colonizing Plan." Excoriating attacks are launched in turn upon slavery's barbaric cruelty, blacks' educational deprivations, white Christian theological hypocrisy, and the way that African colonization, by reducing free blacks' population levels, undermined their ability to promote effective resistance ("you must go to work and prepare the way of the Lord . . . by teaching . . . [slaves] they are MEN . . . and must be FREE," pp. 32, 49). Although the predominant invocation is to God, in ways laying the foundations of a black liberation theology, the Appeal also consistently invokes the natural-rights discourse of the Enlightenment. Thus, whites are represented in the Appeal not only as "backsliders" from the ways of mankind's common creator but also as "natural" enemies.
Such discursive hybridity means that the Appeal, read in one sitting, does not always develop a settled logic. This has been seen as a limitation (see Wilentz, p. xix). But it is necessary to read such crosscutting in Walker's argument as tactical. Shifts of emphasis in the Appeal's argument, as successive editions were published, support this idea. For example, the Appeal comes to reassess whites' largely undifferentiated identification as "enemies" in the first edition. Instead, the last two editions give implicit recognition to the growing strength of white abolitionism in Britain, about to bear fruit in Thomas Buxton's Emancipation Bill, passed by the British Parliament in 1833, abolishing slavery throughout the British colonies. Walker in 1830 would have been aware of this trend, promoted by the Anti-Slavery Society, founded in 1823 by Thomas Clarkson, William Wilberforce, and others. Although carefully noting Britain's nefarious colonial practices, the Appeal's later editions nevertheless increasingly seek to make common cause with such transatlantic allies: "the English [are] our real friends and benefactors," Walker claims in 1830 (p. 51). Such a repositioning is strategic. It not only highlights the geopolitical dimensions of slavery and racism, their evil and unnatural consequences, and the rise of worldwide resistance, but also embarrasses white America by highlighting how Britons could be held to support liberty in 1830 much better than did unre-generate proslavery Americans.
Such tactical astuteness is a recurrent modus operandi. Definitively, it is used to counter U.S. whites' incoherent allegations about black entitlements and intellectual capacities. White proslavery arguments proposed that blacks were intellectually weak, indolent, and primitive yet also somehowven in the selfsame accountsunning, dissembling, and violently predatory (especially sexually). Such racist arguments characteristically incorporated the paradoxical proposals that blacks were enslaved because of the benevolence of white slaveholders who were paternalistically concerned to watch over their welfare and that slaves were somehow also held in bondage at the direction of the Lord. Walker's goal was to counter such incoherent arguments, part theological, part "natural," and based in placing distorted biblical readings of Genesis alongside "scientific racism"acism drawing on scientific discourse to support its bigoted allegation that blacks were "different species of the same genius [read "genus"]" (Jefferson, [mis]quoted in Walker, p. 29; Jefferson, p. 243). Walker had to discover a means of advancing beyond simple outrage, as when confronted by Thomas Jefferson's suggestion that female Africans mate with "Orang-Outangs": "O! My God! I appeal to every man of feelings not this insupportable?" (p. 12).
Walker achieves this by first identifying Jefferson as a hugely influential opponent, one whose support legitimated contemporary white attacks on African American's capacities by endorsing the idea that "nature" is a root cause of blacks' enslavement: "nature has been less bountiful to them in the endowments of the head" (Jefferson, p. 242). Walker then stresses the importance of countering such a prominent voice: "unless we try to refute Mr. Jefferson's arguments respecting us, we will only establish them" (pp. 178). So Walker's 1830 Appeal adds a commentary on the Declaration of Independence, aimed at exposing the hypocritical way in which whites read the United States's founding document only partially. Walker seeks to suborn Jefferson's Lockean philosophy to his side: "Compare your own language . . . from your Declaration of Independence, with your cruelties and murders . . . 'But when a long train of abuses and usurpation . . . evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government'" (pp. 789). In adopting this counterstrategy, Walker anticipates later black abolitionists including Frederick Douglass (1818895) and William Wells Brown (c. 1814884).
Walker's Appeal confronts racists' discursive resources and rebuts or transforms them. As such, his Appeal is part of a long tradition of African American intellectual challenges to white epistemic authority. His multiply stranded tactical argumentation can also accommodate a range of African American political positions and even allow through the backdoor sympathetic whites: "Treat us like men, and there is no danger but we will all live in peace and happiness together" (p. 73). Even though Walker expected his primary audience to be black, he was well aware that whites would take an interest: "I am awfully afraid that pride, prejudice, avarice and blood, will, before long prove the final ruin of this . . . land of liberty!!!! . . . Oh [white] Americans! Americans!! I warn you in the name of the Lord . . . to repent and reform, or you are ruined!!!" (p. 42).
Such outbursts fire up Walker's arguments. At one high point, Walker records how he must break off: "Here I pause to get breath" (p. 54). An emotively charged reasonableness results, aimed primarily at African Americans and taking as its burden, "we are MEN" (p. 8). The whole pamphlet stands as a self-reflexive demonstration of blacks' essential humanity by offering an admixture of emotions (anger, hate, love), argument, and reason. Walker's implicit point is that African Americans both experience human emotions and exercise reason perfectly well. By making an "appeal" to these capacities, Walker demonstrates that African Americans self-evidently possess them, despite the rise of scientific racism's propaganda.
The pamphlet makes plain the consequences that flow from his analysis. Blacks must fight ideologically, politically, and even physically to oppose racism and secure freedom. To do this is mere self-defense. Such self-defense must depend upon unity and be accompanied by systematic education to counter ignorance and repair psychological trauma. These steps must be accompanied by a profound skepticism concerning the motives of American whites theme that intensifies as the Appeal evolves through its second and third editions, which increasingly often level at whites the charge of hypocrisy, particularly Christian hypocrisy.
The Appeal thus stands as an early manifestation of radical black Christianity, even down to its incorporation of the rhetorical tropes of the African American sermon (rhetorical questions, anaphoras, and calls for response). Its rhetorical brilliance contributes to its effectiveness. Its arguments were taken up by such writers as Maria W. Stewart (1803879), who, in "Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality" (1831), regarded Walker as "noble, fearless, and undaunted" (p. 30) and Henry Highland Garnet (1815882), who reprinted Walker's Appeal in 1848. Walker may only develop black nationalist thought rather than found it (Hinks, To Awaken My Afflicted Brethren, pp. 17195, 249), but his Appeal's publication marks a decisive advance in militant African American abolitionist and antiracist campaigning.
See also Abolitionist Writing; Blacks; Slave Narratives; Slave Rebellions
Garnet, Henry Highland. "A Brief Sketch of the Life and Character of David Walker." In Walker's Appeal, in Four Articles [by] David Walker [and] An Address to the Slaves of the United States of America. 1848. New York: Arno Press, 1969.
Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia; Written in the Year 1781. In The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson, edited by Adrienne Koch and William Peden, pp. 17367. New York: Modern Library, 1998.
Lundy, Benjamin. "Walker's Boston Pamphlet." In The Genius of Universal Emancipation, April 1830. In Walker, pp. 10708.
Stewart, Maria W. "Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality [on Which We Must Build]." 1831. In Maria Stewart, America's First Black Woman Political Writer: Essays and Speeches, edited by Marilyn Richardson, pp. 300. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.
Walker, David. David Walker's Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World. 1829830. Edited by Peter P. Hinks. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000.
Young, Robert Alexander. The Ethiopian Manifesto. New York: Robert Alexander Young, 1829.
Burrow, Rufus, Jr. God and Human Responsibility: David Walker and Ethical Prophecy. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 2003.
Ernest, John. Liberation Historiography: African American Writers and the Challenge of History, 1794861. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
Hinks, Peter P. "Introduction." In David Walker's Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000.
Hinks, Peter P. To Awaken My Afflicted Brethren: David Walker and the Problem of Antebellum Slave Resistance. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997.
Wilentz, Sean. "Introduction." In David Walker's Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World, but in Particular, and Very Expressly, to Those of the United States of America. New York: Hill and Wang, 1995.
R. J. Ellis