In "The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It" (1857), how did Rowan Helper make a case against the institution of slavery?

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Karyth Cara eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Hinton Rowan Helper (1829-1909) was a Southerner, born in North Carolina, whose life experiences, especially his years in the California goldfields, influenced the case he made--and the way he made it--against the institution of slavery, which was especially prevalent in the South. Published in 1857, The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It took the same lines as some other abolitionist thinking while diverging on some important aspects. First, The Impending Crisis focused on how to meet the upcoming crisis as well as focusing on defining that crisis. Second, The Impending Crisis gave proof to the untenability of slavery as an institution on "scientific" statistical and economic grounds, not on traditional moral and religious grounds. While many abolitionists proclaimed the coming doom of slavery, Helper addressed specific steps that could be taken in the South by Southerners and he addressed his vision of the restructuring of American society following the demise of slavery.

When considering the case Helper made against the institution of slavery, it is significant to understand that his disillusioning and disappointing years in the California goldfields (1851-54) spurred the development of his ideas about racism and racial class distinctions. In his book describing his experience, The Land of Gold (1855), he expresses his ideology on (1) the inferiority of racial minorities and on (2) the blight caused to society by unproductive economic practices, such practices as the fever of the Gold Rush and institution of slavery, though he would not write about slavery for two years afterward. As he later says, the moral and spiritual arguments against slavery were not of interest to him as he was interested in the racial and economic arguments, upon which he later built his own case. In addition, what he experienced in California inflamed him so much that in The Land of Gold he developed a rhetoric of diatribe--of verbal assault--that he would employ two years later in The Impending Crisis. Presaging what was to come in 1857, Helper used his time in the Northern city of Baltimore, as a member of the emerging Republican Party, to insist contrary to other abolitionists that abolition of slavery must be immediate and must not concern itself with compensation for slave owners who would lose property when they lost their slaves.

With these ideological positions to undergird his case against the institution of slavery and with due mention of the moral and spiritual arguments against it through the inclusion of long quotations from the Bible, abolitionists and humanists, Helper made an original case by expanding the use of statistics, charts, tables and census data to overturn the argument that the economy in the South was dependent upon and could only thrive with the labor from slaves. This Southern argument was predicated upon (i.e., built upon) the notion of cotton being "king" in the South, in other words, the largest single economic factor in the South. Based on the statistics and tables, Helper disagreed with this economic analysis: "The truth is that the cotton crop is of little value to the South." He went on to show that in earlier decades, the North and South had been equal in economic development and growth but that, when the South emphasized agrarianism while the North embraced industrialization, the South fell behind in every meaningful indicator of social advancement and civilization: schools, public libraries, newspapers, literacy (among whites), periodical magazines and the values of manufactured goods, agricultural goods, the values of imports and exports. Helper's array of statistics was "overwhelming" and convincing to Northerners who saw it as "demonstrating the fatality and madness of slavery" (New York State Binghamton Standard News). It was less convincing to Southerners--even though Helper was himself a Southerner--in part because of his cavalier attitude: "slavery lies at the root of all the shame, poverty, ignorance, tyranny, and imbecility of the South" (Helper, p. 153). Helper's emphasis on statistical numbers and facts allowed him to shift the argument against slavery from the subjective one of moral and spiritual violation to the objective one of economic indicators: "[appealing to] the science of statistics, [the tables'] language is more eloquent than any possible combination of Roman vowels and consonants" (p. 142).

The objective statistical case Helper made was undermined by his extreme rhetoric that used strong words and phrasing like "detestable" and "more criminal than common murderers." Even his supporters in the Northern press who gave him favorable reviews were daunted by and distanced themselves from his overly strong language. Along with describing and discussing the impending crisis about to explode on the South--the end of slavery through one means or another including moral regeneration, Northern action to legally repudiate slavery, and possible war--Helper predicted the demise of slavery through an eleven-point platform that placed Southern non-slaveholders as the individuals to be most instrumental in bringing slavery to an end. In what was not necessarily a realistic position nor a clear-sighted one, Helper said that non-slaveholders were in a position to--motivated by a vision of a renovated and invigorated economy--instigate political reform action and, being the overwhelming majority of Southern citizens (slaveholders accounted for between 31 to 26 percent of the Southern population from 1850 to 1860), could bring reforms, industrialization and the end of slavery into being. This part of helper's plan was even less likely to succeed because the South had censors who restricted the entrance and dissemination of abolitionist propaganda, so the intended audience was not likely to read Helper's message.

Helper's vision for renovation was for a South that had embraced the Northern economic model based upon industrialization; that had an influx on immigrants; that featured an urban and civilized society; that encouraged education and the arts. In keeping with his ideology of white supremacy that emerged during his days among California minorities during his time in the goldfields, however, Helper proposed as part of his eleven-point platform that slave owners be taxed sixty dollars for each slave so that the liberated slaves could be transported to other lands, including their land of origin. Helper denied the theory of the unity of the races, believing instead that the two races of black and white were products of separate creations thus rendering blacks of a sub-human race. The great majority of Northern abolitionists repudiated (i.e., contradicted and denounced) Helper's white supremacy and "colonizationist" argument contending that, to the contrary, an equal biracial society was the ideal for American life after liberation from slavery was attained. To further the influence of The Impending Crisis, Helper compiled a Compendium, a shortened and less vitriolic version of The Impending Crisis, that would be easier for the common American to read. In a political backlash, when Congressman John Sherman, Ohio, was in the running to become Speaker of the House, the Democrats issued a resolution that no one who had endorsed or even read Helper's book or Compendium could possibly be considered for the position of Speaker. With his racism emerging as a continual and deeper thread in his subsequent works, Helper sank into poverty, obscurity, and psychological instability until his tragic death on 8 March 1909.

Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Helper's primary argument was that the institution of slavery inhibited economic advancement of White Americans.  A Southerner himself, Helper made the argument that in order for Southern economies to be competitive and independent, they needed to move away from the condition of slavery.  Helper recognized that the industry in the North was where the South needed to go.  Helper's case against the institution of slavery lies in how slavery prevents this transformation.  

Helper suggests that slavery needs to be rejected because it weakens the economic condition of Southern Whites.  For Helper, this becomes the reason why the institution of the slavery should be rejected: "It is a fact well known to every intelligent Southerner that we are compelled to go to the North for almost every article of utility and adornment, from matches, shoepegs and paintings up to cotton-mills, steamships and statuary; that we have no foreign trade, no princely merchants, nor respectable artists."  The dependence on slavery has weakened the South.  Helper sees this in how the South cannot create or produce any industrial goods.  Dependence of this nature weakens Southern economies.  It is for this reason that he suggests that slavery as an institution must be dissolved and give way to a Southern economic independence rooted in commercial industry:  "Instead of keeping our money in circulation at home, by patronizing our own mechanics, manufacturers, and laborers, we send it all away to the North, and there it remains; it never falls into our hands again."  Helper suggests that the condition in which the South is "more or less subservient to the North every day of our lives," is the fundamental reason in which slavery should be rejected. It is in economics where Helper roots his rejection of slavery.  In doing so, Helper's arguments bring out a rather insightful reality where the South losing the Civil War can be understood about a decade before it actually happened.