His pamphlet, David 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, was certainly not the first abolitionist writing he did, but it was probably the cause of his own end. This outcome was no surprise to Walker himself: “I will stand my ground. Somebody must die in this cause. I may be doomed to the stake and the fire, or to the scaffold tree, but it is not in me to falter if I can promote the work of emancipation” (emphasis in original). His wife (Eliza) and his friends beseeched him to escape to Canada, on hearing that there was a reward being offered for his capture: $1,000 if caught dead, and $10,000 if captured alive.
What had Walker said that so enraged the white folks? He vociferously recited the atrocities of slavery, and he denounced all those who participated in perpetuating it—predicting that slave traders, slaveholders, and any others who dealt in the ownership of humans would suffer the wrath of God and the torment of hell. He also sought a more earthly retribution for these vile traders and owners of human beings, urging slaves to revolt and escape their enslavement.
Walker spared no one from his appeal, as he scathingly rebuked any blacks who were complicit in the bondage of their fellows, and he offered cold comfort to free blacks who didn’t work hard to free their black sisters and brothers. He himself had been born the son of a free woman, yet he never hesitated to give every fiber of his being to the cause of abolition. He had little tolerance, too, for those of the American Colonization Society, whom he believed were falling prey to the wishes of slaveholders who wanted all free blacks out of earshot of their slaves, lest these free souls give their slaves any undesirable ideas. He even aroused the anger of fellow abolitionists who opposed violent insurrection as a means to that end. Walker was also a firm believer in the subversive power of education, holding that “for coloured people to acquire learning [in] this country, makes tyrants quake and tremble on their sandy foundations.” (Apparently, many white Southerners agreed, for they tightened restrictions against letting slaves learn to read and write after Walker’s pamphlet was published.)
A self-educated man, Walker self-published his 1829 Appeal (although an earlier, briefer version had appeared in Freedom’s Journal, to which he was a frequent contributor). Among those who welcomed his Appeal with open arms was Maria Stewart, who may have had a hand in promoting its distribution in the South. Despite the banning of its circulation by several state legislatures (including Georgia’s) and other energetic attempts to block its distribution, it slipped subversively into circulation. By early 1830, Walker had managed to release his third (revised) edition of his Appeal. By the end of that year, he was found dead, probably murdered by poisoning. His pregnant wife Eliza was left to raise their son Edward Garrison Walker alone.
For a time, it seemed that his Appeal might go out of print, but in 1848 Henry Highland Garnet reprinted it, along with his own provocative Address to the Slaves of the United States. As with all the great ideas of great people, they could slay the person, but not the idea.
(See list of abbreviations here.)
Eiselein, Gregory, in OCAAL.
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