Past Voices – The Context of ‘David Walker’s Appeal’ (1829) – Russell W. Irvine / Race Inquiry

Excerpted from ‘The Honorable Joseph Jenkins Roberts of Liberia: A Biography of His Life and Times’ by Russell W. Irvine (To be published). 

david walker2 The Walker piece comes chapter 2, “1829: The Pivotal Year.”

David Walker        

In his pioneering book on the origins of black nationalist thought, Sterling Stuckey laments historically that the precise details of the experiences that gave rise to the origins of black nationalism are forever enveloped in obscurity. Nevertheless, he asserted, the necessary ingredients for development of black nationalist ideas and thought were well in place by the third decade of the nineteenth century, when the forces of slavery and racial oppression were more entrenched than ever. The “Creedal Gap,” or the deep fissure in professed creed between the foundational pillar upon which America sought to promote the values and principles of the new republic, and the treatment accorded blacks was precisely the soil in which the ideology of black nationalism took root.41 

Walker was a used-clothing dealer, political activist, and writer. He was an authorized agent for Freedom’s Journal in Boston and contributed frequent articles to the paper. David Walker was born in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1785, the son of a free black woman and probably his father was enslaved. He grew up in an African American community, which out-numbered whites by 2 to 1. Sometime between the age of 19 to 24, Walker moved to Charleston, South Carolina because greater economic opportunities existed there for him than in North Carolina. By 1817 a number of the town’s black religious leaders formed an affiliate of the African Methodist Episcopal church, a religious denomination founded in Philadelphia in 1816 by Rev. Richard Allen. Walker was deeply immersed in the activities of the church and developed an abiding devotion to Allen for setting an example of racial and religious valor.

Walker knew of the many relentless attempts by whites to close the church and the bitterness engendered by these efforts of many of its devout congregants. By 1821, these attacks on the church helped to provoke several members to join in a plot to revolt against slavery. The orchestrator of the plot was headed by a free black carpenter, Denmark Vesey (c1767-1822). The complicated insurrection failed because knowledge of it was revealed by an informer and all principals were arrested, summarily tried, and hanged. Walker was in Charleston during the events of 1822 and may have later been influenced in linking black empowerment and resistance with religion.

By 1825, Walker had moved to Boston, Massachusetts where he opened a used-clothing store and soon more fully entered in the social life of the African American community. In 1826, he was initiated into Prince Hall Masonry at African lodge No. 459, North America’s first black masonic lodge. Membership in this order gave Walker immediate access to most of the Boston’s prominent black men and he soon became a leading political force in the community. Walker became associated with a local black Methodist congregation whose pastor was Rev. Samuel Snowden (c1765-1850), a fiery preacher and a staunchly committed anti-slavery activist. Walker spoke at a celebration honoring the visit of an African prince, Abduhl Rahahman, recently emancipated in Mississippi. Walker played a critical role in the formation, in 1826, of the Massachusetts General Colored Association, the first avowedly black political organization in the country. This Association was organized to combat slavery and racism. 42

The Cincinnati riots occurred in the first week of August. Within the next month, September, David Walker published his Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World. In his Appeal, Walker employed the broad-framework scholarship derived from the Enlightenment, that is, inquiry, analysis, observation, and investigation, based on factual and analytic query. In this regard Walker could rightly be viewed in the context of positivism, reaching conclusions solely based on observable, scientific facts and their relations to each other, and logical inferences, inductions and deductions. From the “Preamble” of the Appeal Walker thundered:

…[W]e, (coloured people of these United States), are the most degraded, wretched, and abject set of beings that ever lived since the world began; and I pray God that none like us ever may live again until time shall be no more. 43

What Walker proposed was simply putting before the minds of blacks the undergirding causes of their “wretchedness.” Additionally, Walker offered to deeply penetrate, search out, and reveal the machinations of an oppressive racial social order. “If you cannot or will not profit by them (his analysis) I shall have done my duty to you, my country and my God.”44


The focus here will be on Article IV, Walker’s thought on the colonizing plan and how it was contributing to the wretchedness of black people. As an agent, contributor, and patron of Freedom’s Journal, Walker must have been profoundly disappointed in John B. Russwurm’s conversion to the colonization. Moreover, given the importance that Walker placed on how the colonization organization directly contributed to the wretchedness of free blacks, Russwurm’s “conversion” was acutely painful and personal for Walker since he had obviously started drafting his thoughts on the wanton nature of colonization months before Russwurm’s view were made public. Clearly the two men held diametrically opposing views. Walker articulated the raw feelings, lingering distress, acute hurt, and depth of pain free blacks had endured since the commencement of the African Colonization Movement.

Walker opened his discussion of, “OUR WRETCHEDNESS IN CONSEQUENCE OF THE COLONIZING PLAN,” by citing the positions held about free blacks by Henry Clay and Elias Caldwell at the convening meeting that formed the American Colonization Society. The meeting took place in Washington, D.C. December 21, 1816 and was chaired by Henry Clay.

Clay uttered: That class of the mixt population of our country [coloured people] was peculiarly situated; they neither enjoyed the immunities of freemen, nor were  they subjected to the incapacities of slaves, but partook, in some degree, of the qualities of both…There was a peculiar, a moral fitness, in restoring them to the land of their fathers, and if instead of the evils and sufferings which we had been the innocent cause of inflicting upon the inhabitants of Africa, we can transmit to her the blessings of our arts, our civilization, and our religion.45

What struck Walker as the height of delusional reasoning and thinking was Clay’s use of the phrase, “which we had been the innocent cause of inflicting upon the inhabitants of Africa.” Walker retorted, had Clay and the rest of the Americans been innocent in shedding the blood and inflicting pain on our stolen mothers and fathers and on us, their children? Walker held that there was no “innocence” in an oppressive racial regimen that endorsed the holding of slaves and maltreatment of non-bonded. As a slave holder himself, Clay seemingly wished to be absolved from the sins of slavery.

Walker was a careful and keen observer of the various speeches and public writings of Henry Clay and noted that Clay never advocated the emancipation of the enslaved. From a deeply piously perspective, Walker wondered how Clay could hide his sins from the All Knowing and All Seeing God of the universe?

Walker next turned to the comments made by Elias B. Caldwell (1776-1825), who when the colonization organization formed served as Clerk of the United States Supreme Court. On his opinion of free blacks, Caldwell gushed:

The more you improve the condition of these people, the more you cultivate their minds, the more miserable you make them in their present state. You give them a higher relish for those privileges which they can never attain, and turn what we intend for a blessing into a curse. No, if they must remain in their present situation, keep them in the lowest state of degradation and ignorance. The nearer you bring them to the condition of brutes, the better chance do you give them of possessing their apathy.46

While admitting to the artful style of Caldwell’s writing, Walker was, nevertheless, stunned and left breathless by his comments. The cruelty and iniquity men would visit on other humans merely because of color was boundless. Walker concluded what Caldwell really advocated was to have free blacks sent to Africa, taken away from their enslaved brothers and sisters, leaving their slaves “contented” to rest in wretchedness and ignorance. Unlike Clay, Caldwell was not a slaveowner but supported the institution of slavery.

In contrast to thoughts and beliefs of Clay and Caldwell, Walker juxtaposes the positions of Reverends Richard Allen and Samuel Cornish on colonization. Rev. Allen wrote an editorial in which he stated:

I have been for several years trying to reconcile my mind to the Colonizing of Africans in Liberia, but there have always been, and there still remain great and in surmountable objections against the scheme. We are an unlettered people, brought   up in  ignorance, not one in a hundred can read or write, not one in a thousand has a liberal education; is there any fitness for such to be sent into a far country, among heathens, to convert or civilize them, when they themselves are neither civilized or Christianized?47

Allen could not reconcile in his mind how intelligent individuals could advocate African colonization among free blacks knowing that in most southern states it was illegal to teach free blacks to read and write yet expect that they could be leaders in a new country. Allen also rejected the comparison between how America was colonized and the colonization scheme promised for free blacks. He asserted that America was colonized by educated, judicious and wise men. Allen concluded by saying, we have watered America with our tears, sweat, and blood, she is now our mother country. She offers a land where wisdom abounds and the gospel is unrestricted.

Walker next turned to writings of Samuel Cornish, now editor of a new newspaper, The Rights of All. Cornish was blunt and unsentimental when he declared:    Any coloured man of common intelligence, who gives his countenance and influence to that colony, further than its missionary object and interest extend, should be considered as a traitor to his brethren, and discarded by every respectable man of colour. And every member of that society, however pure his motive, whatever may be his religious character and moral worth, should in his efforts to remove the coloured population from their rightful soil, the land of their birth and nativity, be considered as acting gratuitously unrighteous and cruel.48

For Walker the question was who should be believed, the white pro-slavery advocates of colonization or the men of their race who have suffered and labored their entire lives for the uplift of their black brethren. For Walker, Richard Allen, Samuel E. Cornish, Samuel Snowden, Peter Williams, Denmark Vesey and thousands of other free blacks held claim to America as their home and the greatest riches in all America came as a result of the many physical and mental labors of blacks, enslaved and free. Blacks, he declared, have as much a right to America as any white and fight, if we must, “to retain our rights as citizens of our mother land.”

As expected the militancy of David Walker’s words stirred immense controversy and the appearance of the electrifying pamphlet in Southern cities and ports horrified white authorities. Walker wanted his publication read by literate blacks to those who could not read, namely enslaved blacks. In early December of 1829, sixty copies of the Walker’s Appeal arrived in Savannah via a white mariner who delivered them to an African American minister. Word that the title had appeared in the city reached Savannah’s mayor, William Thorne Williams (1785-1868), who immediately alerted the governor and other local officials throughout the state. By late December, legislation had passed quarantining all black sailors reaching ports in Georgia and punishing severely anyone bringing seditious material into the state.49

During the same month several copies of the Appeal arrived in Richmond, Virginia and were widely circulated among blacks. As in Georgia, the Virginia General Assembly met in secret session to consider the matter. In light of the disturbance the pamphlets created in Georgia and Virginia Harrison Gray Otis, the wealthy and powerful politically influential mayor of Boston, felt compelled to reckon the matter with the mayor of Savannah and the governor of Virginia, respectively. On February 10, 1830 Harrison Gray Otis wrote:

To the Governor of Virginia:

Sir: Perceiving that a pamphlet published in this city has been a subject of animadversion and uneasiness in Virginia as well as in Georgia, I have presumed that it might not be amiss to apprise you of the sentiments and feelings of the city authorities in this place, and for this reason I beg leave to you a copy of my letter to the Mayor of Savannah in answer to one from him. You may be assured that your good people cannot hold in more absolute detestation the sentiments of the writer than do the people of this city, and I verily believe the mass of the New England population. The only difference is that the insignificance of the writer, the extravagance of his sanguinary fanaticism tending to disgust all persons of common humanity with his object, and the very partial circulation of his book prevent the affair from being the subject of excitement, and hardly of serious attention. I have reason to believe that the book is disapproved of by the decent portion of the colored people, and it would be a cause of deep regret to all my well disposed fellow-citizens if a publication of this character and emanating from such a source should be thought to be countenanced by any of their number.50

Mayor Otis wrote the mayor of Savannah expressing his deep disapprobation and abhorrence of the “incendiary writings” of Walker. But the Boston mayor noted that Walker had not violated any laws of the city or state, grounds on which he could be held legally accountable. He assured Williams that appropriate warnings had been issued to all Captains of vessels concerning their liability in transporting or introducing incendiary material into the southern states.51

What had Walker accomplished? First and foremost was an awakening of consciousness among African Americans about their plight in America. More broadly, as Sterling Stuckey observed, was an awakening of consciousness of common experience of oppression by whites. The year 1829 marked the year of the formation of ethnic identity among African Americans. They became aware of several aspects of their shared condition. Sociologically, they were defined by others, primarily by whites, as being degradingly alike, they came to define themselves as being triumphantly alike; they shared a common set of conditions, and they shared a common history, actual or created. Moreover was a recognition of the imperative for collective action and that Africans wherever situated held common bonds and obligations that required Africans in America to take responsibility for liberating themselves. These were among the key elements of the world view of African American men who finally framed the ideology of black nationalism.52 For decades to come Walker influenced black thought that centered on self-determination, self-definition, and independence of action. Walker influenced the most progressive black intellectuals in the 19th and 20th centuries among whom were: Lewis Woodson, Henry Highland Garnet, Martin R. Delany, Martin H. Freeman, Alexander Crummell, Edward Blyden, Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. DuBois, Malcolm X, Louis Farrakhan, and Molefi Asante. This is, of course, an incomplete list of the individuals Walker’s writing influenced.

As consensus among free blacks crystallized and hardened on the matter, they were determined to fight for their rights as American citizens. In later years, as Joseph Jenkins Roberts rose to prominence in the political structure of Liberia, it would be precisely the lens through which free blacks of America regarded him. Two spirited writers, one David Walker and, later, Martin R. Delany (1812-1885) were fierce opponents of Liberia, the country Roberts would eventually lead.

Read all four articles here.