The ‘Fanatical Insolence’ of David Walker: Words to Terrify the Entire South

David Walker published his Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World, in 1829 Boston, having left his home in Wilmington, North Carolina years before. Born a free black person in the late 1700s, Walker, as detailed in a previous article, recognized the evil of slavery and became a preacher and abolitionist.

Cover page to Walker Appeal.
Cover page to Walker’s Appeal.

Its publication and distribution caused much controversy and consternation across both the South and the North. Walker was largely accused of insurrectionist writings, sending enslavers across the South into a panic, and forcing Northern abolitionists to back away from such inciting prose.

After writing and printing the Appeal, Walker attempted to find ways of distributing it where it mattered most – the South. For even free blacks, travel across the Mason-Dixon line was risky and rare. In this light, Walker sought out whites to act as carriers. While going by land would be filled with variables, the journey by sea would lessen the time between the printing press and the audience.

For this reason, Walker targeted sailors. Though black sailors were fairly common, especially in Boston, their movement from ship to port was banned in certain cities, such as Charleston, South Carolina. It’s uncertain just how many white sailors Walker selected, and it’s just as uncertain whether or not they understood the scope of the task they were undertaking. 1Peter P. Hinks To Awaken My Afflicted Brethren (The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997) 147.

Sailors were not just convenient to Walker’s needs, but often sympathetic. The shipping trade had been more or less racially integrated for quite some time, allowing whites and blacks to foster a comradeship that might not have existed upon land.

Printed in September, 1829, Walker spent the autumn and winter getting the word out about The Appeal. Because of the necessarily secretive nature of the enterprise, little remains to be learned about exactly how he did this. The pamphlet all but disappeared from its printing until its reappearance in Georgia at the beginning of that December.

The Southern Reaction to Walker’s Appeal

In the late 1820s, the South was in the midst of a slave panic. Apparently suspicious fires had engulfed cities such as Augusta and Savannah. Rumors spread just as swiftly through Virginia, South Carolina and various other states of slave uprisings to come. It was within this nervous era that The Appeal made its debut.

Georgia

Henry Cunningham was a black preacher in Savannah, who often traveled from the South to the North and back again. Though born a slave, he had purchased his freedom in 1811. And though he was a minister in the African Baptist Church, his activism on behalf of slaves has either been forgotten or never existed. Somehow or another, and for some reason or another, David Walker selected Rev. Cunningham to receive sixty copies of The Appeal.

Georgia's Governor Gilmer
Georgia’s Governor Gilmer

This bundle of pamphlets had been entrusted to a ship’s steward in Boston. Upon arriving in Savannah, on December 11, 1829, copies of The Appeal were delivered to Rev. Cunningham. Accordingly, when Cunningham opened the package, he “immediately returned it on ascertaining the character of its contents.” 2Letter from Mayor of Savannah, William T. Williams to Governor of Georgia George R. Gilmer, Dec. 26, 1829. As printed in full in Andrew Kull The Color-Blind Constitution (Harvard University Press, 1992) 228n.

Both the ship’s steward and Rev. Cunningham, when questioned, claimed complete ignorance of The Appeal. Neither, they asserted, had any idea who David Walker was or why they were selected to distribute and receive his pamphlet. 3Clement Eaton “A Dangerous Pamphlet in the Old South” in The Journal of Southern History Vol. 2, No. 3 (Aug., 1936) 326.

Nevertheless, the police handed off the bundle to Mayor William T. Williams, who was taken aback. He wrote immediately to Henry L. Pinckney, Charleston’s Intendant (basically, the mayor), as well as Harrison Gray Otis, the Mayor of Boston. Both were informed of the basic facts, while Otis was requested to give more information about David Walker.

In the meantime, Mayor Williams contacted Georgia Governor George Gilmer about the ordeal. On the 21st, Governor Gilmer sent a copy of The Appeal to the Georgia legislature. He explained how the package of sixty copies was seized, and tried to tie it to the late fires throughout the state. In an attempt to follow South Carolina’s example, he urged the legislature to pass laws which would prohibit black sailors from leaving their ships. This they did the following day, also enacting a law which handed down a death sentence to anyone circulating a publication to excite a slave revolt. 4Acts of the General Assembly of the State of Georgia, 1829 168-175. Enacted on December 22, 1829. This can be found here, and should be read as it contains a whole slew of laws restricting slaves in some pretty nasty ways. It’s unlikely that Walker’s Appeal was responsible for all of these laws, but it definitely had a hand in some pretty obvious ones.

On the same day that Governor Gilmer addressed the Georgia legislature, Elijah Burritt, the editor of the Milledgeville Statesman & Patriot, wrote to David Walker requesting “one or more copies.” Along with this request, Burritt informed Walker of the fate of the first sixty.

Boston circa 1832. By William James Bennett.
Boston circa 1832. By William James Bennett.

Somehow or another, Burritt had read at least part of the pamphlet. Though all sixty of the original copies had been accounted for, others had apparently gotten through the blockade. Burritt seemed to be writing to Walker merely as a journalist. It’s likely he opposed slavery – he was a transplant from Connecticut and an outspoken opponent of the removal of the Cherokees from Georgia. At the most radical, Burritt wanted the subject of slavery broached; for it to be discussed, at least in the pages of his newspaper.

Once he received the twenty copies allotted to him by Walker, he lent or sold them to curious individuals, including enslavers. Due to printing portions of it in the pages of the Statesman & Patriot, Burritt became suspected of fomenting an insurrection. When additional copies were found in his office, he was twice arrested and released. In February of 1830, he fled back North, fearing for his life. Governor Gilmer made some attempts to extradite him back to Georgia, but was never successful. 5Hinks, 122-3.

Boston’s Mayor, Harrison Gray Otis, eventually decided – a month and a half later – to reply to Mayor Williams’ inquiry. While he promised that his city authorities would do all they could to prevent “this attempt to throw fire-brands into your country,” they essentially had “no power to control the purpose of the author, and without it, we think that any public notice of him or his book, would make matters worse.” 6H.G. Otis to W.T. Williams, February 10, 1830. As printed in Peter P. Hinks, ed. David Walker’s Appeal (The Pennsylvania University Press, 2000) 98-99.

Virginia

Shortly after Georgia’s legislature learned about Walker’s Appeal, and while they were trying to sort out just how to link Elijah Burritt to a potential slave insurrection, copies of the pamphlet showed up in Richmond, Virginia.

Virginia's Governor Giles.
Virginia’s Governor Giles.

In the first week of 1830, a free, unidentified black man was found in the possession of thirty copies of The Appeal. His bundle had originally been addressed to Thomas Lewis, another free man of color. Unfortunately, Lewis had recently died, leaving this unidentified black man in a quandary.

Unsure of what to do, he asked a white man, who suggested that the black man simply distribute them. Apparently, all thirty were soon released into the public. When questioned, the black man plead ignorance, and the white man claimed that he thought they were a “class of fanatical tracts upon the subject of religion.”

Richmond’s mayor, Joseph Tate, was able to find twenty of the thirty, and passed them along to Virginia’s Governor William Giles. Two days later, on January 7, Giles had convinced Virginia’s General Assembly to meet in a closed-door session to discuss Walker’s Appeal as well as other “insurrectionary pamphlets and speeches.” 7William B. Giles to Linn Banks, January 7, 1830. As printed in Peter P. Hinks, ed. David Walker’s Appeal (The Pennsylvania University Press, 2000) 96-97.

Giles also wrote to Boston’s Mayor Otis, who gave him nearly the same reply that he penned to Savannah’s Mayor Williams. Though, claimed Otis, everyone detested Walker’s doctrines, there was nothing he could legally do to suppress it.

There seemed to be nothing that Virginia could legally do, either. Unthwarted, Governor Giles urged the state legislature to act. The House of Delegates narrowly approved a bill that made it illegal to teach slaves to write, and made it a crime to write, print or circulate insurrectionary publications. Though the House passed the measures, the Senate thought better. 8Eaton, 329-330.

Map depicting all known distribution outlets for Walker's Appeal.
Map depicting all known distribution outlets for Walker’s Appeal.

Louisiana

While Virginia’s General Assembly debated its slave codes, Walker’s Appeal showed up in New Orleans. Being one of the busiest ports in the nation, it’s hardly surprising that it made an appearance.

How long the copies had been in the city, nobody was certain, but on March 8, 1830, a black business owner was caught distributing the pamphlet to four other black men. The shopkeep, Robert Smith, like others before him, feigned ignorance. His story, read the report taken, was “confused and unsatisfactory.” Soon, another free black citizen, as well as two slaves were caught with The Appeal. Each man gave wildly different tales about how he came into possession of the tract.

Late 1829 and early 1830 found Louisiana in the grips of multiple slave insurrections, both real and imagined. By the end of March – just three weeks after The Appeal was discovered, both blacks and their white allies rose up against the enslavers. After they were put down, nineteen black men and several whites had been killed. Fifteen of the black Louisianans were later executed. 9Hinks, 149-150.

Before the uprising, but after the discovery of The Appeal, the Louisiana legislature passed its own slave codes. They ruled that anyone “that whosoever shall write, print, publish, or distribute any thing having a tendence to create discontent among the free coloured population of this state, or insubordination among the slaves therein, shall, at the discretion of the court, suffer death, or imprisonment at hard labour for life.” They also barred any such language, with the punishment of three years hard labor, and disallowed slaves to read or write. 10James Stuart “Three Years in America” Printed in The London and Paris Observer, Vol. IX (Paris: A. and W. Galiganani, 1833) 132.

South Carolina

As Louisiana visited upon its citizens new capital offenses, The Appeal made still another showing, this time in Charleston. In early March, the Charleston City Gazette had done a piece about Walker’s Appeal, urging its readers to study the document to understand “the fanatic insolence” of the author.

Maps depicting slavery's spread from the founding to 1830.
Maps depicting slavery’s spread from the founding to 1830.

Word was soon in the City Intendant’s office that a white Boston sailor named Edward Smith was in town distributing The Appeal. On March 27, after only a few copies could be handed out, the harbor authorities arrested Smith, who had been overheard talking to a black man about the pamphlet.

The black man asked Smith for a copy of it, but Smith claimed to have given away all six that he had been carrying. Smith was then asked if he could get more copies. With a thought, Smith agreed that he could probably get more. That was all that it took for Smith to be arrested. It’s possible that the unidentified black man was an informant.

The sailor was taken to the city guard house and interrogated. As he told the story, a day before he left Boston, “a colored man of decent appearance and very genteelly dressed” came aboard his ship and asked if he could distribute some pamphlets to “any negroes he had a mind to.” He warned Smith that it should all be kept secret. Smith claimed to have no idea who this man was – likely it was Walker – and also insisted that he had no idea what the pamphlets were about. He said he read but a few lines and figured “that it was something in regard to the imposition upon negroes.” Continuing, Smith said that he didn’t really want to distribute it, but had given his word that he would, and so did.

He appeared before a Grand Jury in May, which found him guilty of “seditious libel.” However, they let him off easy with a $1,000 fine and a year in prison. 11William H. Pease and Jane H. Pease “Walker’s Appeal Comes to Charleston: A Note and Documents” in The Journal of Negro History Vol. 59, No. 3 (Jul., 1974) 287-292.

South Carolina did not, like other states, pass slave codes immediately following the discovery of Walker’s Appeal. In truth, it really didn’t have to. Such laws largely already existed, having been drawn up the previous century. In 1834, however, just four years later, the state finally made it a crime to teach a slave to read or write. 12Clayton E. Jewett Slavery in the South (Greenwood Press, 2004) 215.

North Carolina

Though David Walker never returned to the place of his birth, his Appeal showed up in Wilmington, North Carolina no later than August of 1830. Somehow or another, Walker had been in contact with a slave in the city, Jacob Cowan, who agreed to distribute his pamphlets widely.

This slave apparently confided in a free black man who thought it best to tell city officials. The slave was immediately arrested and questioned. Their findings led them to believe that at least some of the black population of Wilmington had been prodded by abolitionists in the North to rise up. In all, he had received around 200 copies, and distributed many of them.

Though a slave, Cowan had been allowed by his master to run a tavern. There, he distributed The Appeal to those he could trust. Through a network of runaway slaves, many still living in the various swamps of North Carolina, Cowan was able to disseminate Walker’s pamphlet across the state. 13Hinks, 138.

In New Bern, some eighty miles north, a slave uprising seemed to be imminent. Walker’s Appeal had been discovered amongst some of the slaves, and a runaway confessed to an insurrection planned for Christmas day. Nervously, the surrounding counties banned unsupervised meetings of black people, and kept a clear eye out for strangers.

Not long after, Governor John Owen sent a copy of the pamphlet to the state legislature, along with instructions on how they might act against Walker’s Appeal.

“The discovery of this inflammatory production in Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia and Louisiana, and more recently in our own State, can leave no doubt upon any rational mind, that a systematic attempt is making by some reckless persons, some too, who under the cover of prior exertion to enlighten the ignorant, and lead them from sensualizing darkness, are willing to sow sedition among our slaves, and this book, artfully distorting the peaceful doctrines of the Bible, is intended, and well calculated to prepare the minds of that portion of our population, for any measure, however desperate.” 14Message of Governor John Owen. As printed in the Raleigh Register, November 18, 1830.

Owen went on to vaguely ask for measures to be taken.

Unsigned illustration for Picture of Slavery in the United States of America,, 1838.
Unsigned illustration for Picture of Slavery in the United States of America,, 1838.

On the 19th of that month, the state legislature met into a secret joint session, and by the 1st of December, they concluded that a conspiracy was underway. On the 9th, laws were passed disallowing the teaching of slaves to read or write, and against the circulation of such publications. The punishment for a first offense of the latter was a year in prison, a trip to the pillory and whipping. The second offense was death.

While some in North Carolina were hesitant about such laws – the measure passed against a sizable minority (36 to 22) – others, especially enslavers, thought that the death penalty for the second offense did not go far enough.

Col. Calvin Jones wrote from Wake Forest criticizing the secrecy of the meeting. He called for Walker to be extradited from Massachusetts, along with the printers and carriers of the pamphlet. Also, he wrote, any North Carolinian preachers who stirred up the black community should be arrested. Lastly, he wanted the state to give generously to some colonization society to rid themselves of “our great pest and danger – the free people of colour.” 15Eaton, 332-333.

As Christmas drew near, strangers were seen about the state. Quaker preachers from out of the area and escaped slaves seemed to know more than they were telling. The rumors of Walker’s Appeal spread throughout the region. When still more rumors of a black man from New York fluttered through the air, it was too much. The Christmas insurrection seemed fast approaching.

On that day, at least according to several newspapers, sixty armed slaves gathered together to begin the insurrection. The militia was called in to deal with them, and soon all sixty were slaughtered. Whether this was an actual uprising or simply a mass lynching is lost to history. Regardless, it was widely held that Walker’s pamphlet, rather than white hysteria, was to blame. 16Eaton, 329-330; Hinks, 143-144.

Conclusion

Though Walker’s Appeal is mostly forgotten – overshadowed by the Turner Rebellion the occurred the year following, its importance can hardly be overstated. Georgia, Louisiana and North Carolina all enacted serious slave and black codes when it showed up upon their shores.

Walker called for the slaves to rise up and overthrow their enslavers, through violence if necessary. This was in stark contrast to the typical anti-slavery rhetoric of the day, which largely favored colonization or gradual emancipation. Even most abolitionists saw the plight of the slaves as being in the hands of government and other white men. Walker understood that the slave’s only right was to revolt, and he was infuriated that they were not exercising that right.

In the end, however, Walker was essentially saying the same thing as most abolitionists. Toward the ends of his Appeal, Walker turned to the whites who would, no doubt, be reading his work.

“Treat us like men, and there is no danger but we will all live in peace and happiness together . . . Treat us like men, and we will be your friends. And there is not a doubt in my mind, but that the whole of the past will be sunk into oblivion… The whites may say it is impossible, but remember that nothing is impossible with God.”

Walker was a revolutionary. There’s no doubt that he wished to incite a slave uprising. And though he understood that there may be blood, he also understood that such effusion could be a sacrifice for peace and harmony to come, if only the white community, north and south, would allow it.

References   [ + ]

Eric
Eric has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, he wrote the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, he decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.
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