Before David Walker’s Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World during the 1800’s, there had not been any other type of anti-slavery documents published. Although the Appeal is directed to black slaves, its powerful moral message and indictment of white America’s hypocritical society and oppressive, brutal system of slavery is a moral message that resonates to all audiences, including whites. Walker’s Appeal calls for slaves to rebel against their masters as the means of reacquiring their humanity. Walker relies heavily upon religious values of Christianity, communicating strongly with free and enslaved blacks: The man who would not fight under the Lord and Master Jesus Christ, in the glorious and heavenly cause of freedom and of God, to be delivered from the most wretched, abject and servile slavery, that ever a people was afflicted with since the foundation of the world, to the present day, ought to be kept with all his children or family, in slavery, or chains, to be butchered by his cruel enemies. (Walker Article 1) The Appeal sent out fear and terror throughout the white community as some states even passed laws that would sentence blacks, or even whites, to severe punishment if caught with the pamphlet.
Finzsch cites to Eaton who points out that “in Georgia, Virginia, North Carolina, Louisiana and South Carolina anyone be it slave, free black or white who was caught with the pamphlet was tried and usually found guilty of inciting insurrection” and it also inspired enslaved blacks to fight for their freedom regardless of the consequences (Finzsch, 5). Walker’s purpose is a call for unity amongst slaves and to educate them as to their immediate need to fight back against their masters. In order to communicate his ideas, Walker attacks the values and the veracity of the United States history by pointing out the hypocrisy of the institution of slavery in a self-proclaimed nation that pretended to stand for constitutional equality, democracy and freedom. Walker powerfully challenges these notions by raising views that were being brought up mostly as a result of scientific racism and the idea that religion justifies slavery. Any discussion of abolition was always a radical, dangerous, and illegal conversation during the times of slavery. Slavery was the horrific social, political and economic system that allowed the United States to rapidly accumulate wealth, thus unjustly elevating whites to positions of immense power and privilege.
When Walker published his Appeal his document traveled throughout a political terrain that was controlled by whites, and these whites relied upon anti-black racist documents such as the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, and Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia. All of these documents systematically deemed blacks as un-human, excluding blacks from political protection, and condoned chattel slavery. Walker’s message in his Appeal resonates in the white community of that time because it directly challenges the myths relied upon by those whites in their “mythical” documents. The historical opening lines of the Declaration of Independence read “we hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This opening statement did not include black people, but rather it excluded them under the term that all “men” were not human. As the rest of the United States Constitution eventually clarified enslaved black people were not recognized as human beings and therefore were not entitled to the rights, privileges, and protection of the law.
Furthermore, slavery was a legal institution under these sets of beliefs. Another one of the most influential documents of the time was Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia of 1781. Although Jefferson owned slaves, he considered himself to be an opponent of slavery. Within the document Jefferson compared blacks to whites and concluded by holding that black people were inferior to whites on multiple levels. Have they not, after having reduced us to the deplorable condition of slaves under their feet, held us up as descending originally from the tribes of Monkeys or Orang- Outings? (Walker Article 1) Jefferson believed that emancipation for blacks should mean the removal of them from the United States based on the hostility that blacks would harbor to whites, Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia further entrenched the practice of the dehumanization of black people, something that Walker’s Appeal deeply emphasizes and a message that whites and black could easily understand. In order to support his call for slaves to unify and revolt against their masters Walker challenges the ideas of political documents relied upon whites. Walker effectively uses religion to pursued whites and blacks that the institution of slavery was massively unjust.
Walker states that God and religion actually discouraged all forms of slavery. For example he states, Are we MEN!! I ask you, my brethren are we MEN? Did our creator make us to be slaves to dust and ashes like ourselves? Are they not dying worms as well as we? Have they not to make their appearance before the tribunal of Heaven, to answer for the deeds done in the body, as well as we? Have we any other Master but Jesus Christ alone? Is he not their Master as well as ours? What right then, have we to obey and call any other Master, but Himself? (Walker, Article 1) Walker states that God is the lone master to which all humankind must obey. On these grounds Walker shuns the idea that black people must obey a white human master. Walker stands by the fact that the only master black people have are God himself and not the white man. Furthermore, he brings light to the fact that the white community will also have to answer to God for their acts of violence. Both blacks and whites can understand this religious and moral message. Not only did Walker challenge racism and the idea of religion to justify slavery, he also confronted Thomas Jefferson.
Walker states:Mr. Jefferson said, when a master was murdered, all his slaves in the same house, or within hearing, were condemned to death, Here let me ask Mr. Jefferson, but he is gone to answer at the bar of God, for the deeds done in his body while living, I therefore ask the whole American people, had I not rather die, or be put to death, than to be a slave to any tyrant, who takes not only my own, but my wife and children’s lives by the inches? Yea, would I meet death with avidity far! Far!! (Walker, Article 1) Walker uses vial language to get others to understand the grotesque acts of violence that the white society inflicted on the black body and states that he would rather die fighting for freedom than be a subject to slavery. He was speaking for others who were afraid and did not have a voice, and for others who just needed a backbone and needed to be supported. Douglass’s rebellion narrative, The Heroic Slave, clearly important in its own right, is vastly different from Walker in many ways. Douglass bases his work on the mutiny led by rebel slave Madison Washington on the Creole in 1841.
The narrative is powerful, but the organizational intent and style is vastly different from the approach taken by Walker. Douglass uses a “storytelling” method to make his points. For example, the international sea and Britain are used by Douglass in The Heroic Slave to symbolize freedom (see Sweeny generally) And, unlike the aggressive and direct language used by Walker, Douglass uses softer language to make his points in a more sublime manner. For example, in describing Washington as a self-emancipating figure, Douglass states, Washington is “standing erect, a smile of satisfaction . . . upon his expressive countenance, like . . . one who has just . . . .vanquished a malignant foe, for at that moment he was free . . . The future gleamed . . . .before him . . . his fetters lay broke at his feet. His air was triumphant (Douglass, Part 1).
Finzsch, Norbet. “ David Walker and The Fight against Slavery ” 2012. Douglas, Frederick. The Heroic Slave.
Sweeney, Fionnghula. “Visual Culture and Fictive Technique in Frederick Douglass’s The Heroic Slave,” Slavery and Abolition, June 2012: 305-320. Walker, David. “Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World ”1830.