Challenging White Supremacy

Frontispiece of David Walker’s Appeal Pamphlet.

In the midst of President Andrew Jackson’s presidency, white supremacy was becoming a prominent principle in American society, facilitating confrontation between whites and blacks but also between whites and Native Americans. Just months into Jackson’s first term, David Walker published a controversial and incendiary pamphlet: An Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World, But in Particular, and Very Expressly, to Those of the United States of America.

Walker’s pamphlet “denounced not only the institution of slavery but also the indignities to which all black people, free as well as slave, were subjected.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 423. An excerpt reads:

“Show me a page of history, either sacred or profane, on which a verse can be found, which maintains, that the Egyptians heaped the insupportable insult upon the children of Israel, by telling them that they were not of the human family. Can the whites deny this charge? 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-Outangs? . . . Has Mr. Jefferson declared to the world, that we are inferior to the whites, both in the endowments of our bodies and our minds? It is indeed surprising, that a man of such great learning, combined with such excellent natural parts, should speak so of a set of men in chains. I do not know what to compare it to, unless, like putting one wild deer in an iron cage, where it will be secured, and hold another by the side of the same, then let it go, and expect the one in the cage to run as fast as the one at liberty.” David Walker’s Appeal, in Four Articles, ed. Sean Wilentz (New York, 1995), 10.

Walker and others would have a tremendous impact on the formation of the abolitionist movement. By 1835, the American Anti-Slavery Society had 200 local chapters, and by 1838, it would expand to 1,350 chapters with some 250,000 members. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 426. With such a high membership, approximately 2% of the American population were members of the organization and dedicated to the cause of abolition. Id. For a point of reference, this was larger than membership of the Boy Scouts of America, the National Wildlife Federation, or the National Rifle Association in the year 2000. See Kathleen D. McCarthy, American Creed: Philanthropy and the Rise of Civil Society (Chicago, 2003), 135.

That vast membership was enough to cause significant concern for southerners. Even President Jackson joined in denouncing abolitionists, calling them “monsters” who were guilty of stirring up “the horrors of a servile war,” and who deserved “to atone for this wicked attempt with their lives.” Andrew Jackson to Amos Kendall, Aug. 9, 1835, Correspondence of Andrew Jackson, V, 359-61.

This conflict manifested itself most prominently in the South, with the delivery of mail. As abolitionists had come to spread their literature, many in the South saw the dissemination of abolitionist propaganda as a threat and saw to it that Post Offices would refuse to deliver abolitionist mail. This would be perhaps the first example of the South ignoring “inconvenient federal laws” to preserve their ideals of white supremacy. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 430.

White supremacy had taken a strong hold on the South, and many throughout the country, particularly in the North, were not going to accept it as a persisting ideal. Walker’s pamphlet was popular for good reason. He seemed to capture a sentiment that was pervasive, but often unspoken, at that time. Publishing it, disseminating it, and allowing it to permeate the country opened up discussions about abolition, much to the dismay of the South. Walker’s acts and other abolitionists’ acts contributed to the healthy marketplace of ideas that must be maintained in America, as those ideas question conventional beliefs and move the country closer to understanding as a collective how best to govern.

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