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Walker's Appeal title page section

 Walker's Appeal in Four Articles, Together With a Preamble to the Colored Citizens of the World, But in Particular, and Very Expressly to Those of the United States of America (Boston : Published by David Walker, 1829. ) [E446.W15 1829]

 

Walker's Appeal has been described as "for a brief and terrifying moment ... the most notorious document in America."

 

Who was David Walker?
David Walker (ca. 1796-June 28, 1830) was born near Wilmington, N.C. to a free mother and an enslaved father. Walker lived for a time in Charleston, S.C., the home of a large and vibrant free black community. It is possible that Walker knew some of the principals involved in Denmark Vesey’s abortive insurrection in Charleston in 1822. By 1825, Walker was living in Boston, Mass. where he ran a used-clothes store. Walker was one of the founders of the Massachusetts General Colored Association and served as the Boston agent for Freedom’s Journal, the first African American newspaper.

 

What is the overall significance of this book?
Walker’s Appeal was published in Boston in 1829. It is extraordinarily rare and is considered one of the foundational texts of African American political thought and rhetoric. It was the very first document in the United States to call for the immediate, uncompensated abolition of slavery. Walker urged slaves to rise up against their owners, and argued for the abolition of slavery on moral and Christian theological grounds.


How did the tract circulate?
It is possible that the Appeal was sewn into the linings of clothes (from Walker’s store) which were then given to African American sailors. When the sailors arrived in Southern ports, the pamphlet could be smuggled in an attempt to ensure its distribution despite the states' efforts to find and destroy it.


How did abolitionists view this book?
It alarmed many in the North because of radical language like this:

“and believe this, that it is no more harm for you to kill a man, who is trying to kill you, than it is for you to take a drink of water when thirsty; in fact, the man who will stand still and let another murder him, is worse than an infidel, and, if he has common sense, ought not to be pitied."

In the second issue of his anti-slavery newspaper, The Liberator, William Lloyd Garrison denounced Walker's call for violence. Nevertheless, Garrison acknowledged that slaveholders and other slavery proponents bore the blame for violent reprisals. "Every sentence they write -- every word they speak -- every resistance they make. . .," Garrison said, "is a call upon their slaves to destroy them."

 

How did this influence black people of his time?
Three months after Walker died, the Boston Evening Transcript reported that blacks regarded the Appeal “as if it were a star in the east guiding them to freedom and emancipation.”


How did Southern leaders react to it?
The tract's circulation alarmed slave owners and Southern politicians, and cash rewards were offered for Walker's death. Walker’s Appeal was a major factor behind the passage of legislation aimed at controlling slaves and free blacks, including laws penalizing anyone who taught black people how to read as well as banning the distribution of anti-slavery writings.


What did Walker say about Thomas Jefferson’s views of black people?
Walker uses the words of the Declaration of Independence to call for a revolution of slaves against slaveholders and specifically takes Jefferson to task for his public assertions that blacks were inferior to whites and should be “removed beyond the reach of mixture.” Walker recognized that a strengthening racist ideology, articulated and encouraged by a man of Jefferson’s stature, posed a powerful long-term threat to the black community and to the promise of real democracy. He writes: “I say, that unless we refute Mr. Jefferson’s arguments respecting us, we will only establish them.”


How did later civil-rights supporters view this text?
Herbert Aptheker writes:

"Walker’s Appeal is the first sustained written assault upon slavery and racism to come from a black man in the United States. This was the main source of its overwhelming power in its own time; this is the source of the great relevance and enormous impact that remain in it, deep as we are in the twentieth century. Never before or since was there a more passionate denunciation of the hypocrisy of the nation as a whole – democratic and fraternal and equalitarian and all the other words. And Walker does this not as one who hates the country but rather as one who hates the institutions which disfigure it and make it a hissing in the world."


How did Walker die?
Walker died in 1830 and was reportedly found dead slumped in a doorway on his street. According to urban legend and even some earlier historians, he was poisoned by an agent of one of the Southern states. Historians today believe Walker died a natural death from tuberculosis, as listed in Boston city records. The disease was rampant at the time and had claimed Walker’s only daughter the week before.


Was Walker’s Appeal published after his death?
Walker published two other editions of the pamphlet in 1830. It was subsequently reissued in 1848 but it was not reprinted again until 1965.


How many copies of the first edition survive?
The copy acquired by the University of Virginia Library is one of only seven currently known to exist. The other six copies are at:

Harvard University, Houghton Library
Boston Public Library
New-York Historical Society
Library Company of Philadelphia
Ohio State University
Library of Virginia (Richmond, Va.)

 

(February, 2011)

 



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