David Walker’s Appeal Summary
David Walker was an abolitionist, orator, and author of David Walker’s Appeal. Although David Walker’s father, who died before his birth, was enslaved, his mother was a free woman; thus, when he was born in Wilmington, North Carolina, in September 1785, David Walker was also free, following the “condition” of his mother as prescribed by southern laws regulating slavery. Little is known about Walker’s early life. He traveled widely in the South and probably spent time in Philadelphia.
He developed early on an intense and abiding hatred of slavery, the result apparently of his travels and his firsthand knowledge of slavery. Relocating to Boston in the mid-1820s, he became a clothing retailer and in 1828 married a woman named Eliza. They had one son, Edward (or Edwin) Garrison Walker, born after David Walker’s death in 1830. An active figure in Boston’s African American community during the late 1820s, David Walker had a reputation as a generous, benevolent person who sheltered fugitives and frequently shared his in-come with the poor.
He joined the Methodist Church and in 1827 became a general agent for Freedom’s Journal, a newly established African American newspaper. During the two years of the newspaper’s existence, he regularly supported the New York City-based publication, finding subscribers, distributing copies, and contributing articles. He was also a notable member of the Massachusetts General Colored Association, an antislavery and civil rights organization founded in 1826.
In lectures before the association, Walker spoke out against slavery and colonization, while urging African American solidarity. In September 1829, he published David Walker’s Appeal. In this pamphlet, which quickly went through three editions, he fiercely denounced slavery, colonization, and the institutional exclusion, oppression, and degradation of African peoples. His Appeal was a militant call for united action against the sources of the “wretchedness” of African Americans, enslaved and free.
Often reprinted, widely circulated, and highly regarded by a number of African American readers, Walker’s Appeal generated a vehement response from white Americans, especially in the South. Several southern state legislatures passed laws banning such “seditious” literature and reinforced legislation forbidding the education of slaves in reading and writing. The governors of Georgia and Virginia and the mayor of Savannah wrote letters to the mayor of Boston expressing outrage about the Appeal and demanding that Walker be arrested and punished.
In Georgia, a bounty was offered on him, ten thousand dollars alive, and one thousand dollars dead. In the North, newspapers attacked the pamphlet, as did white abolitionists Benjamin Lundy and William Lloyd Garrison, who admired Walker’s courage and intelligence but condemned the circulation of the Appeal as imprudent. Walker died in the summer of 1830. Although the cause and circumstances of his death are mysterious, many have suspected that he was poisoned.
After his death, the Appeal continued to circulate in various editions, including Henry Highland Garnet’s 1848 reprinting of the Appeal along with his own “Address to the Slaves” in a single volume. As one of the earliest and most compelling printed expressions of African American nationalism, militancy, and solidarity, the Appeal has remained a vital and influential text for successive generations of African American activists. Walker’s Appeal circulated widely throughout the South and North.
In 1830, members of North Carolina’s General Assembly had the Appeal in mind as they tightened the state’s laws dealing with slaves and free black citizens. The resulting new laws, sparked by Walker’s work and fueled a year later by Nat Turner’s rebellion, led to more policies that repressed African Americans, freed and slave alike. David Walker’s Appeal addresses the African Americans and the European Americans, challenging each group to take action. He acknowledges the “wretchedness” of blacks, which he believes is a result of slavery and the whites’ fears of freeing enslaved blacks.
He continuously challenges Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia and uses direct quotes to analyze, criticize, and mock Jefferson’s work to the utmost, proving that Jefferson contradicts himself numerous of times. Walker believes that oppression will one day be lifted from the shoulders of black men and that they will rise together as one. He stresses the wrongdoings of the whites and uses the Declaration of Independence to contradict them and also, stresses the importance of the blacks to take a stand against their oppressors.
Walker’s attitude shifts throughout the text, displaying courage, contempt, disregard, and resentment towards the whites, and bravery, conviction, weariness, and hopefulness towards the blacks. The cruel and unusual punishment that whites inflicted on blacks through slavery cannot be compared to any other enslavement nor can it be refuted. Through his Appeal and the help of the Almighty, Walker hopes to “open your hearts to understand and believe the truth” so that blacks can act to remedy their “wretchedness” and replace it with happiness, life, and liberty.