Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 486
Because he was born to an enslaved African man and a free African woman in North Carolina, Walker’s free status was determined by the law that stated that the status of the mother determined the status of the child. In 1815 he relocated to Boston, where he became heavily involved in the radical abolitionist movement. Fourteen years later he published, at his own expense, a pamphlet, Appeal to the Colored People of the World, which urged slaves to armed revolt. It was widely distributed and had great influence on African American social and political thought in the North and the South. More and more African American leaders were to echo Walker’s words as they, too, called for resistance, violent if necessary, to slavery. Henry Highland Garnet acknowledged Walker’s influence on his own political philosophy when he included Walker’s text in his own militant manifesto, Address to the Slaves of the United States of America, in 1848.
Among white Americans, reception of Walker’s Appeal was much less cordial than that of African Americans. Northern white abolitionists, committed to a philosophy of moral suasion rather than physical resistance, were appalled by Walker’s violent rhetoric. For example, Benjamin Lundy, a leading white Quaker abolitionist, denounced it in the April, 1830, issue of his newspaper, The Genius of Universal Emancipation: “I can do no less than set the broadest seal of condemnation on it.” William Lloyd Garrison, the leading white abolitionist, called the tract “a most injudicious publication,” while acknowledging that slaveholders brought Walker’s condemnation on themselves by their own violent actions.
White Southerners acted to suppress the pamphlet and blunt its impact. Because they considered the tract seditious, Georgia and North Carolina enacted laws against incendiary publications, making their possession and publication a capital offense. The mayor of Savannah and the governor of Georgia wrote to the mayor of Boston, demanding that Walker be arrested and his pamphlet suppressed. Boston mayor Harrison Gray Otis recognized the rights of Walker by refusing their demands, while noting that he personally held Walker’s pamphlet in “deep disapprobation and abhorrence.” Georgia went on to offer a ten-thousand-dollar reward to anyone who captured Walker alive and returned him to the South, and one thousand dollars if he were killed.
More stringent laws against teaching African Americans to read and write were enacted in several Southern states. Four African Americans were arrested in New Orleans for circulating Walker’s tract. Louisiana passed a law that ordered the expulsion of all free blacks who had settled there since 1825 after copies of the tract were found throughout the state.
Walker realized the risk he was taking in producing such a document. He wrote that he “not only expect[ed] to be held up to the public as an ignorant, impudent and restless disturber of the peace [but] perhaps put in prison or to death.” He died under unexplained circumstances in Boston in 1830.
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