The Impending Crisis of the South (American History Through Literature)
In 1920 a book lover pondered Hinton Rowan Helper's The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It (1857). "That a work should be once so popular," he mused, "and now altogether forgotten, may occasion surprise" (Sargent, p. 594). If by 1920 the general public cared little about The Impending Crisis, historians already regarded it as one of the most significant contributions to the acrimonious debate over slavery that preceded the Civil War. It stood out from other assaults on the South's "peculiar institution" because of Helper's style of argument, his call for southerners themselves to end slavery, and the controversy it generated. In 1968 the scholar George M. Frederickson called it "the most important single book, in terms of its political impact, that has ever been published in the United States" (Helper, The Impending Crisis, p. ix).
"Popular" might not be the right word to describe The Impending Crisis. When it first appeared it received both lavish praise and angry denunciations in speeches, articles, and books, even provoking attacks in both houses of Congress. For defenders of slavery, "Helperism" signified an especially dangerous variety of fanaticism. From the cooler perspective of history, The Impending Crisis looks much less original and radical than it did in its day but also far more interesting for what it reveals about sectional tensions on the eve of the Civil War, divisions among white southerners, and the relationship between democracy and racism.
BEFORE THE CRISIS
Neither the author nor the book were obvious candidates for literary and political notoriety. Although little is known about Helper's early years, his origins were part of what made The Impending Crisis so disturbing to its critics. Helper (1829909) was born in Hinton (later Davie) County, North Carolina, the youngest of eight children. His father died before he was a year old, but the family had enough resources to provide Hinton with a good education at a local private academy. He therefore wrote both with erudition and as a native southerner, not as an ill-informed Yankee abolitionist.
As a young man Helper worked as a clerk in Salisbury, North Carolina, a commercial hub for the area. Ever restless, he left North Carolina in 1851 to seek his fortune in California's goldfields. His nearly three years there were disappointing, disillusioning, and the subject of his first book, The Land of Gold (1855). It was not successful, but it helped hone Helper's mastery of harsh language and foreshadowed The Impending Crisis in other intriguing ways. His unflattering portraits of racial minorities in California were a preview of his later white supremacist diatribes. The Land of Gold also told a story similar to the second book when it argued that, rather than producing wealth, gold mining created a crass, ignorant, blighted society. Two years later Helper said much the same about slavery and the South.
By then, however, he had resettled in Baltimore, joined the young Republican Party, and begun an attack on slavery that went far beyond the position of most of his new political allies. They maintained that slavery should be left alone where it existed but not be allowed to expand into new territories. He argued passionately that it must end immediately.
HELPER'S CASE AGAINST SLAVERY
The Impending Crisis was an unlikely best-seller in 1857. It was lengthy, repetitious, and unoriginal in many respects. Like numerous abolitionists before him, Helper reprinted lengthy antislavery quotations from famous Americans, foreigners, religious leaders, and the Bible. More original was Helper's extensive use of statistics and tables based on U.S. census data. Other abolitionists mobilized numbers to show the harmful effects of slavery, but none so exhaustively. Among Helper's goals in using statistics was to refute the notion that cotton was "king" of the American economy. "The truth is," he proclaimed, "that the cotton crop is of little value to the South" (p. 54). Helper showed that the North and South were roughly equal in every major respect at the time of the Revolution, but since then the former had far outstripped the latter in all positive ways. Unsparing in his attack, Helper did not stop with economic indicators such as the value of manufactures, agricultural products, and imports and exports. He also gave statistics on public schools, "libraries other than private," newspapers and periodicals, and illiteracy among whites, all calculated to show that the South trailed the North in everything that made a society civilized and a nation great. Many northern reviewers agreed with the Binghamton (New York) Standard that "the author marshals to his aid an array of statistics absolutely overwhelming in demonstrating the fatality and madness of slavery" ("Impending Crisis," p. 118). Helper was less persuasive in convincing southerners that "slavery lies at the root of all the shame, poverty, ignorance, tyranny, and imbecility of the South" (p. 153).
Whatever its net effect, Helper's barrage of numbers enabled him to shift the terms of the debate over slavery. Prior to 1857, most abolitionists' fundamental objections to the institution were moral, not economic. It was a sin, not bad business. Five years before The Impending Crisis, Harriet Beecher Stowe embodied that view in the most popular American novel of the nineteenth century, Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852). Helper acknowledged that he had little to say about slavery's "humanitarian or religious aspects." With Stowe doubtless in mind, he added that "it is all well enough for women to give the fictions of slavery; men should give the facts" (n.p.). Appealing to "the science of statistics," he said of his tables, "their language is more eloquent than any possible combination of Roman vowels and consonants" (p. 142).
Helper's claim to have a rational, scientific case was at odds with his overwrought prose. He called slaveholders "detestable" and "more criminal than common murderers." Their religion was "satanic piety" and an especially degraded one "sucked in the corrupt milk of slavery from the breasts of his father's sable concubines" (pp. 147, 140, 258, 169). Helper's rhetoric even troubled favorable reviewers, one of whom deplored his "application of harsh adjectives to slaveholders" while acknowledging that "These may be richly deserved" ("Impending Crisis," p. 118).
When Helper moved from bitter denunciations of slavery to prescribing its demise, he was at his most
|SOURCE: Helper, The Impending Crisis of the South, p. 70|
|Wheat||12 bushels per acre|
|Oats||27 bushels per acre|
|Rye||18 bushels per acre|
|Indian corn||31 bushels per acre|
|Irish potatoes||125 bushels per acre|
|Wheat||9 bushels per acre|
|Oats||17 bushels per acre|
|Rye||11 bushels per acre|
|Indian corn||20 bushels per acre|
|Irish potatoes||113 bushels per acre|
"What an obvious contrast between the vigor of Liberty and the impotence of Slavery! What an unanswerable argument in favor of free labor! Add up the two columns of figures above, and what is the result? Two hundred and thirteen bushels as the products of five acres in the North, and only one hundred and seventy bushels as the products of five acres in the South. Look at each item separately, and you will find that the average crop per acre of every article enumerated is greater in the free States than it is in the slave States."
original. Other abolitionists saw the end coming with individual moral repentance or through northern repudiation of the institution. Some imagined that it might take a bloody slave uprising. Few believed, as Helper argued, that non-slaveholding white southerners held the key to abolitionism. The Impending Crisis presented an eleven-point platform for ending slavery, the first and most crucial plank of which called for them to engage in "Thorough Organization and Independent Political Action" (pp. 15556). The majority of the remaining proposals were primarily designed to break the political and economic power of slaveholders through boycotts, elections, and taxation.
Helper insisted that his plan was supremely practical, but it is not apparent how realistic his call for a political uprising by white non-slaveholders was. Given southern censorship of abolitionist propaganda, there was no guarantee that his primary constituency would ever hear what he had to say. Some of his most vitriolic language, moreover, aimed at the very people he called upon to end slavery. Non-slaveholding whites, he declared, were "bowed down in the deepest depths of degradation" (pp. 15253). If so, Helper was placing his hope for overthrowing slavery on an unpromising group of would-be rebels.
No matter how improbable Helper's proposals might have been, defenders of slavery saw them as a serious threat. Slaveholders were a declining minority in the South. In 1850 about 31 percent of southern whites lived in slaveholding families. That figure dropped to 26 percent in 1860. It was already clear by 1857 that the trend since 1830 was downward. "Numerically considered," Helper wrote, "it will be perceived that the slaveholders are, in reality, a very insignificant class" (p. 142). Their political powerence the security of the institutionested on the votes of non-slaveholders. If they turned against slavery, it was doomed.
When imagining the United States without slavery, Helper's vision was very un-southern. Proslavery writers commonly insisted upon the superiority of an agrarian way of life over an urban, commercial, and industrial one; in other words, the superiority of the South over the North. Helper, however, embraced the northern model and drove the point home in uncompromising prose. "Without commerce," he warned southern readers, "we can have no great cities, and without great cities we can have no reliable tenure of distinct nationality. Commerce is the forerunner of wealth and population" (p. 348). Emancipation, he believed, would attract immigrants to the South, produce a more urban and industrial society, encourage the arts to flourish, and make his native region more like the North. He was no tradition-minded spokesman for independent white farmerss some scholars later viewed himut rather a promoter of economic change.
There was, however, an ugly twist to Helper's vision of American slavery. The nation would be more unified, dynamic, and democratic, but for whites only. As he put it in another book, he spoke not just for non-slaveholders but also for "the Heaven-descended and incomparably Superior White Races of Mankind" (Nojoque, n.p.). He endorsed the conclusions of writers who used dubious "scientific" methods to assert the superiority of white people (and of men over women). Like the more extreme of them, he denied "the unity of the races," maintaining that whites and blacks were created separately and that the latter were biologically subhuman. Black people had, he believed, no place in a civilized nation, and he yearned for the day when they "shall have entirely receded from their uncongenial homes in America" (p. 299). One plank in Helper's platform to end slavery proposed a sixty dollar tax on slaveholders to provide money to send former slaves to Africa and elsewhere.
The racism in The Impending Crisis was among the things that set Helper apart from other abolitionists, although he applied the term to himself. For most white southerners and many northerners as well, "abolitionists" were a small minority of extremists, men and women, black and white, whose views on slavery and many other issues were wild and dangerous. Slaveholders believed they and their ideas had no place in the South. It was indeed true that by 1831 new, more radical groups of abolitionists had emerged in the North, insisting that slavery must end immediately and without compensation for slaveholders, points Helper similarly made. From their perspective, he was an unexpected southern ally who chose weaponsconomic arguments and statistical methodshey seldom used but did not disdain. Yet the great majority of northern abolitionists repudiated Helper's "colonizationist" argument that African Americans should be expelled from the United States. Moreover, while racism certainly existed among abolitionists, most envisioned a biracial society after freedom, and there was a high degree of cooperation between African American and white abolitionists. Helper's racism made for a starkly different vision of post-emancipation America. His book was a mixed blessing for his would-be abolitionist allies.
THE CONTROVERSY INTENSIFIES
In spite of the strong responses it provoked, The Impending Crisis might have been just another polemic against slavery if Helper's flair for self-promotion had not converged with a sharp turn in American politics. Hoping to increase the circulation of his ideas and further the Republican Party cause, he set out to produce a shorter, cheaper, and less offensive version of The Impending Crisis. The result was a Compendium edition in which he toned down some of his harsh language and removed five of the most extreme proposals in his plan to end slavery (including one on the expulsion of African Americans). In seeking support for the project, he elicited endorsements from Republican Party leaders, among them Congressman John Sherman of Ohio.
While Helper was promoting his Compendium in the fall of 1859 he suddenly achieved even greater notoriety thanks to a dramatic and unanticipated event. In October, John Brown and a small band of white and black followers raided the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, hoping to seize weapons and stir a slave uprising. Here was every slaveholder's nightmare: a black insurrection encouraged by fanatical abolitionists. Helper's critics wrongly saw this as "Helperism" in action.
Harpers Ferry was in everyone's mind when, soon afterward, the House of Representatives reconvened in Washington, faced with the difficult task of choosing a new Speaker. The Republican Party had a plurality, but not a majority. Electing a Republican Speaker would require votes from Democrats or from Know-Nothings, members of a declining anti-immigrant party. At one point the most likely candidate to prevail was John Sherman. Then, a Democratic representative from Missouri, with Brown's raid in mind, introduced a resolution declaring The Impending Crisis to be "insurrectionary and hostile to the domestic peace and tranquility of the country." It asserted "that no Member of this House who has indorsed and recommended it, or the compend from it, is fit to be Speaker of this House" (Sherman 1:169). Sherman was unsure whether or not he had endorsed the Compendium but certain that he had not read it. The political damage, nonetheless, was done, and he withdrew his candidacy. Although The Impending Crisis was controversial from the moment of its publication, the firestorm over the Compendium gave Helper his greatest measure of fame.
AFTER THE CRISIS
Helper's life thereafter was a sad tale of great expectations and disappointing realities. He sought a political reward from the Republicans and received it in 1861 with his appointment as U.S. consul in Buenos Aires, a post he fulfilled diligently until 1866. He devoted the rest of his life to various public projects, including promotion of an intercontinental railroad to connect all of North and South America, another expression of his vision of an expansionist, commercial economic future. He also tried his hand at encouraging white workingmen to engage in independent political action replay of what he urged non-slaveholders to do in The Impending Crisis. During Reconstruction, Helper's racism deepened as his own party enfranchised African American men and numbered them among its southern officeholders. It emerged unchecked in his later publications, notably an 1867 book, Nojoque: A Question for the Continent. Fredrickson suggests that it "may be the most virulent racist diatribe ever published in the United States" (Helper, The Impending Crisis, p. xlix). Helper's slow downward spiral into poverty, obscurity, and mental instability ended by his own hand on 8 March 1909.
Exaggerated claims for The Impending Crisis abound. The pro-southern author Thomas Dixon, for example, wrote in 1905 that it "precipitated the Civil War, and was once received in the North as a verbally inspired revelation from God" ("The Bookman's Letter Box," p. 409). Yet there is no way to gauge its direct impact on public opinion or politics, beyond costing Sherman the Speakership of the House. The significance of the book lies in other areas. It was a bold attempt to transform how Americans argued about slavery. It also provides a reminder that white southerners did not speak with one voice about the institution or the relative merits of agrarian and commercial societies. Finally, Helper's views represent a dark, enduring strand in American political thought, one that preaches democracy and equality but for white people only.
See also Abolitionist Writing; Harpers Ferry; Labor; Proslavery Writing; Slavery
Helper, Hinton Rowan. Compendium of the Impending Crisis of the South. New York: A. B. Burdick, 1859.
Helper, Hinton Rowan. The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It. 1857. Edited by George M. Fredrickson. John Harvard Library. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1968.
Helper, Hinton Rowan. The Land of Gold: Reality versus Fiction. Baltimore: H. Taylor, 1855.
Helper, Hinton Rowan. Nojoque: A Question for the Continent. New York: George W. Carleton, 1867.
"The Impending Crisis of the South." National Era (Washington, D.C.), 23 July 1857, p. 118.
Sherman, John. John Sherman's Recollections of Forty Years in the House, Senate and Congress. 2 vols. Chicago, New York, London, and Berlin: Werner Company, 1895.
Bailey, Hugh C. Hinton Rowan Helper: Abolitionist-Racist. University: University of Alabama Press, 1965.
"The Bookman's Letter Box." The Bookman: A Review of Books and Life 21, no. 2 (1905): 40711.
Brown, David. "Attacking Slavery from Within: The Making of The Impending Crisis of the South." Journal of Southern History 70, no. 3 (2004): 54176.
Sargent, George H. "The Problem of the Plugs." The Bookman: A Review of Books and Life 50, no. 6 (1920): 59498.
Ronald G. Walters