Essay on David Walker, William Lloyd Garrison, and the Emergence of Radical Abolitionism

Read this short introduction to two abolitionist figures, David Walker and William Lloyd Garrison, and the concept of "radical abolitionism".

While it is oversimplifying historical changes and development by foregrounding a few years as central to the transformation of American attitudes towards slavery, a series of events and publications in the late 1820s and early 1830s were a turning point in the consolidation of the views that would lead to the Civil War. Abolitionist sentiment began to develop in the American colonies at the beginning of the eighteenth century, picking up speed among religious groups, especially the Quakers, as the century proceeded. However, the Revolution brought the question of slavery to the foreground. While patriots frequently evoked metaphors of slavery in denouncing the tyranny of Great Britain towards the colonies, more skeptical commentators noted how actual slavery was common throughout the colonies. The Declaration of Independence helps to exemplify this tension. In his original draft, after emphasizing that the Continental Congress holds that "all men are created equal", Jefferson, in his long list of accusations against the King, contended that he had "waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere". While the paragraph was self-serving and inaccurate, stating that the King had forced slaves upon the unwilling colonists, it tied the rights that Jefferson saw as the basis for the Americans' drive for independence to those violated by African slavery. The Continental Congress excised the paragraph from the final document, as it proved potentially too politically divisive. Its place in the initial draft, however, speaks to not just Jefferson's but many of his compatriots' sense that their arguments for freedom somehow applied to the slaves in their midst. In the decades to come, many Southerners would try to figure out ways to end slavery without disrupting their economy and society, while the new Northern states, where slavery had never been as essential, implemented programs of gradual emancipation, so that by 1830 a clear dividing line between the free and slave states had been created.

The historical truism has been that at the end of the eighteenth century most white Southerners viewed slavery as a necessary evil, as an evil, but one that they could not figure out how to conclude peacefully. Jefferson exemplifies this view, as he seldom, if ever, excuses slavery in his writings, yet he cautions against emancipation and cannot seem to imagine, due to his own racism, his sense of the ill-feelings that will persist between whites and blacks, and his recognition of the South's dependence on enslaved black labor, any route to achieving abolition. By 1830 or so, however, attitudes in the South had started to change, and rather than being a necessary evil, slavery was beginning to be defended as a positive good for both whites and blacks. While several Southern states had considered legal schemes for the gradual emancipation of slavery, Virginia would be the last to do so, in January and February of 1832. Part of this entrenchment in defense of slavery derived from Southern reactions to what they saw as the increasing influence of radical abolitionism. Meanwhile, much of the anti-slavery activity throughout the nation had centered on colonizationist schemes, institutionalized in the American Colonization Society, founded in 1817. Unable or unwilling to imagine a post-emancipation, inter-racial society, colonizationists sought to free African-American slaves and then send them to Africa. But while colonizationists saw the plan as sending free blacks "back" to Africa, the vast majority of slaves in the United States were two-or-three generations removed from the experience of living in Africa. Colonizationists succeeded in freeing some slaves and in establishing the nation of Liberia in 1822, but the financial difficulties of compensating slave-owners for their property in slaves and of paying to transport thousands of people across the Atlantic were never fully addressed.

At the same time, most African Americans seem to have been skeptical of such plans, in part because of the underlying racism of such projects and in part because of their ties to America. Throughout the early years of the nineteenth century, African-American writers and orators repeatedly invoked the heritage of the Revolution and black contributions to it in calling for an end to slavery, and two significant slave revolts (or conspiracies) – in Virginia, led by Gabriel Prosser, in 1800, and in South Carolina, led by Denmark Vesey, in 1822 – took place, reinforcing the potential instability of the system. When David Walker's Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World appeared in 1829, however, it marked something distinctly different, a kind of vociferous attack on slavery that had seldom, if ever, been seen in print. Little is known of Walker's life. He was born in the South to a free African-American woman and a slave father and eventually moved to Boston early in the 1820s, when he was in his young 20s. As the title of his pamphlet indicates, unlike most other early African-American anti-slavery texts, it directly addresses blacks as its primary audience. In his pamphlet, Walker attacks colonizationist schemes for ignoring that black labor had done much to create the nation, and he insists on black equality, even as he chastises his racial brethren for not doing more to resist slavery. He draws on historical examples of slavery to attack Jefferson's racism and to maintain that black slavery had no precedent for its inhumanity and repeatedly invokes the Bible to remind his readers, black and white, that God will judge the slave-holders. But what truly marked his radical break with anti-slavery rhetoric of the past was his call for blacks to take up the cause on their own and to violently resist slavery. Where much anti-slavery rhetoric of the past (and of the decades to come) would focus on attempting to persuade white Americans to end slavery, Walker foregrounded the role blacks had to take in ending the institution, strongly suggesting that it would only be through righteous bloodshed that they would be able to achieve their freedom.

While the exact circulation of the pamphlet is unclear, it seems to have caused a great stir through the underground network through which it circulated. Several Southern states and cities attempted to ban it, with Georgia even offering a reward for Walker's capture. The most famous slave revolt in U. S. history – Nat Turner's Southampton insurrection – occurred only two years after the Appeal appeared, and although no historical evidence suggests any direct influence, many white Southerners – and white Northerners – linked the two together as revealing the fragile and dangerous nature of continuing slavery in the United States. Along with increased Northern agitation against slavery, these events led many white Southerners to become more and more adamant in their defense of slavery. While these events corresponded with a hardening of more racist defenses of slavery in the South, it spurred white Northern abolitionists to reconsider their rhetoric and their gradualist approach to ending slavery. Most importantly, in January of 1831, William Lloyd Garrison would begin publishing The Liberator – what would become the most important periodical in the radical abolitionist movement. While Garrison had earlier been part of the colonizationist movement, he had come to see its severe limitations and to recognize its racism. With The Liberator , Garrison staked out new ground for white abolitionists, insisting on immediate, rather than gradual, emancipation of all slaves and attacking the Constitution as enshrining slavery in the institutional fabric of the nation. Garrison believed in the peaceful termination of slavery through moral suasion and thus distanced himself from both Walker's Appeal and Turner's rebellion, but he did see them and other similar episodes as evidence that God would not turn his back on the slaves. His refusal to temper his renunciation of slavery as utterly sinful and ungodly turned many moderate abolitionists away, but he succeeded in helping to create a radical vanguard that helped to pave the way to the acceptance of abolitionism by more and more Northerners. In the 1830s, Garrison would help found the New England and American Anti-Slavery Societies, but his brand of abolitionism would meet with resistance from other anti-slavery activists on several grounds. He sought and allowed women to take active roles in the movement, leading to some breaks within the movement from those who thought that women should not appear in public to speak on political matters. At the same time, though, he eschewed any active participation in direct political means, arguing that the hearts of Americans had to be changed first and that the pro-slavery nature of the Constitution rendered national political institutions inescapably corrupt. This position led to further breaks within the abolitionist movement, as those seeking to use the political system established political parties, most notably the Liberty Party, to seek emancipation. Garrison's intransigence on this and other issues finally led to Frederick Douglass's very personal break with him in 1851. While Garrison had been a mentor and an important influence on Douglass as he emerged as a leading abolitionist in the 1840s, Douglass came to feel constrained by Garrison's position and dogmatism. Despite these strains within the anti-slavery community, Garrison would continue to be a leading voice in the fight against slavery through the Civil War.

Abolitionism was always a minority movement in the North, and in the 1830s, it was met with a great deal of resistance in many Northern locales, with anti-abolitionist mobs forming in a number of towns and cities – one killing the abolitionist journalist Elijah Lovejoy in 1837. As the slavery controversy continued, more white Northerners began to feel at least somewhat uncomfortable with slavery's presence in the nation. As we will see, the abolitionist literature that developed out of the foundation established by Walker and Garrison would play a central role in encouraging anti-slavery sentiment.

Source: Saylor Academy
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Last modified: Wednesday, November 20, 2019, 3:51 PM