Mastering Farm and Family: David Walker as Slaveholder

Article excerpt

WHEN HISTORIANS STUDY SOUTHERN SLAVEHOLDERS who won political office before the Civil War, they often focus on their subjects' public lives at the expense of their private identities. The politicians' pronouncements on slavery and abolitionism take precedence in the historical narrative over their daily experiences with slaves. Yet a brief study of the private life of David Walker, the northwest Arkansas jurist and politician, might shed revealing light on slaveholding in the state and enlarge our understanding of the peculiar institution in the upcountry South.

Highlighting the private lives of public personalities in antebellum Arkansas does not deny the importance of the political positions held nor the confidence placed in such men by the electorate. They must have espoused views that were largely compatible with the voters' beliefs in order to attain political office in the first place. David Walker's political resume helped make him one of his era's most famous Arkansans from the Ozark Mountains. He moved to Fayetteville in 1830 as a young man, became a circuit attorney the next year, and represented the area in both the Arkansas territorial legislature in 1835 and the state's constitutional convention in 1836. He was also elected to the Arkansas Supreme Court in 1848 and to the presidency of the state's 1861 secession convention.1

Many of the more than two hundred surviving letters from David Walker reveal aspects of the private life behind the public persona. Especially when written to family members, these letters more adequately reflect his innermost values and beliefs than did his political rhetoric. They form the basis for the following analysis, which at times must necessarily embrace speculation. The letters reveal that while Walker was certainly one of the state's political magnates, he was often dissatisfied with the work that brought him renown. They show that Walker ordered his world with constructs which allowed him to find meaning in life and that slavery played an important role in this system.2

Walker wrote two long autobiographical letters to his daughter near the end of the Civil War that describe his early life in detail. Walker's youth provided a foundation and point of reference for his later actions in work and play and established his ideals of family, farm, and slavery.3 Walker was born on February 19, 1806, in Todd County, Kentucky, one mile south of Elkton. He had two older siblings but became the eldest when they both died of childhood illnesses. David's father, Jacob Wythe Walker, tended a small farm with the help of his family and a few inherited slaves. Walker remembered his father as an "indulgent master and [a] poor farmer," perhaps because his family's worldly possessions consisted of "a cabin of ordinary size; three horses, two cows, and a dog." Jefferson Davis had been born in the same county two and one-half years before and six miles away from Walker. The Walker family lived more modestly than the Davis family. However, like the future president of the Confederacy, David Walker often moved around with his family during his youth. Despite this restlessness and occasional financial difficulties, Walker did attend school for several years where he excelled in the study of poetry, Latin, and literary classics. He fondly recalled a youth of romping around the countryside, in the course of which he displayed little self-control and became known as "Devil Dave." He enjoyed playing and hunting with his dogs and making "traps and snares" with his younger sister, Mary.4

Despite being the eldest child, David was apparently able to escape from most of the labors of farming until he and his family moved to Edwardsville, Illinois, in 1819. There, he "milked the cows [and] got wood to cook with," on Fridays "stayed at home to help wash the clothes," and, with the help of Mary, cultivated twenty acres of corn. In the winter of 1820, the Walker family moved to Missouri, where his work continued near the river of the same name. …