Part 1: 1450-1750
Part 2: 1750-1805
Part 3: 1791-1831
<---Part 4: 1831-1865

Narrative | Resource Bank | Teacher's Guide

Modern Voices
Eric Foner on David Walker
Resource Bank Contents

Q: What relationship did David Walker have to the Abolitionist Movement?
Eric Foner

A: Historians traditionally date the beginning of the modern Abolitionist Movement -- the movement for the immediate abolition of slavery -- from 1831, when William Lloyd Garrison began [the] publication of The Liberator, the great abolitionist newspaper in Boston. But I think there's a good argument to be made that, really,1829 should be the beginning of this movement. And that was with the publication of David Walker's Appeal.

At that time, anti-slavery sentiment was very moderate and cautious. Those who were against slavery tended to be associated with the Colonization Movement -- that is advocating freeing the slaves and then deporting them to Africa or the Caribbean. In other words, they couldn't really envision an interracial society of free people. They also called for gradual emancipation, which was how slavery had been abolished in the North. Most of the northern states had abolished slavery over a very long period of time, through gradual laws. In fact, in New York state it wasn't until 1827 that the last nail was driven into the coffin of slavery.

Walker broke with that tradition. Walker said we need immediate abolition. He condemned the idea of colonization. He said no, black people are Americans, and they deserve to be not only freed but treated as citizens of this country. He utilized the rhetoric of the nation, the rhetoric of liberty, of equality, the Declaration of Independence, and threw it back in the face of white America, charging the nation with being hypocrites, with violating their own professed ideals. He drew upon Christianity, and talking about how this was a sin against God, and the nation would suffer, would be punished by God for the sin of slavery. So Walker, in a very radical language, uncompromising, not cautious at all, condemned the institution of slavery wholeheartedly, condemned the complicity of the entire institutional structure of the United States in slavery, and called for immediate abolition. And this was really to set the tone for the new Abolitionist Movement that would emerge in the 1830's.

I think the main impact of Walker was really in galvanizing the black community. And when the white-dominated Abolitionist Movement develops in the 1830's, its real initial base of support is in the free black community -- in cities like Boston and Philadelphia and New York. And I think Walker's initial impact was on mobilizing free Negroes to demand the immediate abolition of slavery and to say this is something for us. One of the things he says is, you know, no black person is free in this country until slavery is abolished. The freedom of the free Negro is a very, very minimal freedom. And it's not to be rejected, but it certainly is not sufficient in America.

So I think, as I say, this galvanization of free black opinion creates a base upon which the larger Abolitionist Movement will build in the 1830's.
Eric Foner
Professor of History
Columbia University

previous | next

Part 4: Narrative | Resource Bank Contents | Teacher's Guide

Africans in America: Home | Resource Bank Index | Search | Shop

WGBH | PBS Online | ©