David Walker’s Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World
In 1829, David Walker wrote David Walker’s Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World. Many historians now regard the Appeal as one of the most important social and political documents of the 19th century. Nothing like it had been published before. It remained a rallying point for African Americans for many years after Walker’s death. And it informed the thinking of generations of Black leaders, including Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X.
Three editions of the Appeal were published in 1830 in Boston. It is divided into four “articles” or sections, and runs to 78 pages in paperback.
Walker calls for the immediate abolition of slavery and equal rights for Black people. This was a revolutionary thing for a Black man to say publicly at that time. It was also very dangerous. In doing so, Walker put his life on the line.
Walker speaks with unique directness and passion about the barbarity of slavery. An evangelical Christian himself, he calls out white Christians for their hypocrisy in supporting slavery, an institution that treated most people of African descent as non-human property to be bought, sold or disposed of at will. He argues that, compared with slavery at other times and in other places, slavery in the United States is the worst in history.
Walker implores Black men to take action. He urges his “afflicted and slumbering brethren” to free themselves from the chains that bind their minds as well as their bodies.
Walker challenges the rising tide of racism that was evident at that time in proposed “reforms”. These included a plan to deport all free Blacks from the United States to a new colony in Africa. He criticizes Thomas Jefferson, who had died three years before, for saying that Blacks were inferior to whites and should be “removed beyond the reach of mixture.” Walker recognized that such ideas were a powerful threat to the Black community and to the promise of real democracy in the country.
Walker distributed the Appeal through friends and contacts traveling to the South who carried copies with them. He also sent copies through the regular mail.
Most slaves in the South could not read or write; it was a crime to teach them to do so. Walker’s “agents”—traveling preachers, sailors, laborers, and others—tapped their own underground networks to help ensure that the Appeal was read aloud to those who couldn’t read it for themselves. It’s safe to assume that hundreds if not thousands of slaves were secretly exposed to Walker’s stirring words and ideas.
Southern authorities were alarmed by the Appeal, and did everything in their power to suppress it. They feared it would encourage revolts at a time when slave resistance was growing in many areas.
In eastern North Carolina, for example, there was an extensive network of slaves and “runaways”. Dense swamps and pine forests offered safe havens for those who had escaped bondage; many created settled camps and armed themselves for self-defense. In 1830, when the Appeal first surfaced in Wilmington, authorities believed that a slave rebellion was close at hand. Food, weapons, and other hidden supplies were later found. In December of that year, sixty slaves lost their lives in an uprising in New Bern, North Carolina. A friend of Walker’s in Boston later claimed that the uprising was inspired by the Appeal.
Whites in other Southern states also feared slave uprisings. In New Orleans, arson by Blacks was suspected in a rash of suspicious fires. A rebellion north of the city by Blacks and a few white allies in March 1830 was brutally put down. Fifteen of its leaders were executed.
The crackdown against the Appeal was swift and harsh. Officials destroyed copies wherever they found them. They dealt brutally with those caught with the pamphlet in their possession. Authorities also passed new and stricter laws against anti-slavery material and against slave education.
For example, Georgia required all visiting Black sailors to be quarantined (that is, detained in isolation) while their ships were in port. This, it was hoped, would prevent them from bringing in “seditious” literature. Louisiana made it a crime punishable by life imprisonment or death to “write, print, publish, or distribute any thing having a tendency to create discontent among the free coloured population of this state, or insubordination among the slaves therein.” Even talking about doing such things – “any public discourse” – could result in the same penalties.
Walker himself was a target. The governor of Georgia promised a reward of $10,000 for his capture.
Packaged and sent through the regular mail... Sewn into the linings of clothes... Smuggled ashore from ships when they docked in port... Walker’s Appeal was circulated in the South in many bold and creative ways.
In early 1830, in the bustling port town of Wilmington, North Carolina, a slave named Jacob Cowan took delivery of two hundred copies of the Appeal. There was also a letter from Walker instructing him to distribute the pamphlets across the state.
Cowan’s slaveholder allowed him to keep a little tavern, which Cowan secretly used to circulate the Appeal. That is, until a free Black alerted the town’s authorities. Cowan was arrested and jailed. He was later sold deep into Alabama where he would be “deprived of the opportunity afforded by a Sea port town to receive and distribute such books.”
Fearful and angry whites in Wilmington also targeted others who had copies of the Appeal or who had been seen reading it. In the process, they killed the town’s best Black carpenter, and sent a cooper (a barrel-maker) to New York in chains.
Jacob Cowan and his friends paid a heavy price for bringing Walker’s message of liberation to fellow slaves. Many others did, too. But the Appeal still spread far and wide throughout the South, particularly in Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, and Louisiana.
David Walker’s Appeal did not generate slave resistance in the South. Resistance and revolt would have continued there whether the Appeal had appeared or not. But the pamphlet served as a rallying point. It helped encourage and strengthen those engaged in the struggle for freedom. And it made clear that many Blacks in the North knew about the suffering of the slaves in the South, and were committed to helping them and ending slavery forever.
The Appeal also had an impact in northern states. A story in the Boston Evening Transcript of September 28, 1830 describes how Blacks in Boston and elsewhere in the North reacted with enthusiasm to the Appeal. They gloried “in its principles as if it were a star in the east, guiding them to freedom and emancipation.”
The Rev. Amos Beman, a prominent Black abolitionist in Middletown, Connecticut, remembered how members of his community would gather to hear the Appeal and other anti-slavery works. They were “read and re-read until their words were stamped in letters of fire upon our soul.”
The Appeal is historically significant in several important ways: