Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 469
Helper grew up in straitened circumstances on a small farm in rural North Carolina but was able to complete his education at the Mocksville Academy in 1848. In 1850 he joined the gold rush to California; later he claimed that his experiences with free labor in California led him to take a critical look at slavery. In 1857 he published The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It, a book aimed at the nonslaveholding whites of the South. His book used detailed economic statistics to contrast conditions in free and slave states, while arguing that the relative backwardness of the South was due to the negative impact of slavery on whites. Free laborers were doomed to poverty because they had to compete with slaves. In the North where labor was free, laborers prospered, and the whole section gained in wealth. Helper attacked slaveholders in strong language, calling upon nonslaveholders to overthrow the system—by force if necessary—as the only way to improve their economic condition.
After his book was published, Helper moved to New York, which he considered a safer place to live. He was disappointed that few in the South could actually read his work, however, since Southern states suppressed its distribution and some made it a crime even to possess the book. In North Carolina mobs drove out residents suspected of circulating The Impending Crisis and a Methodist minister received a one-year jail sentence for attempting to sell it. Helper’s book was furiously attacked by Southerners; dozens of articles and books were written rejecting the book, but few actually attempted to answer Helper’s arguments. The most common response was a personal attack, accusing Helper of having fled North Carolina to avoid prosecution for stealing money from his employer.
In contrast Helper’s book was widely read in the North. Antislavery groups eagerly seized it as support for their assertion that the expansion of slavery into the western territories would adversely affect free labor. They hoped this argument might help convince people who were prejudiced against African Americans to favor the antislavery cause. In 1859 and 1860 Republicans distributed over sixty thousand copies as campaign documents.
In 1861 President Abraham Lincoln appointed Helper U.S. consul at Buenos Aires, where he served until 1866. Helper’s writings after the Civil War made it clear that he had not attacked slavery out of compassion for slaves. The three books he published during Reconstruction furiously denounced the former slaves as a menace to the future of white labor in the South. Helper opposed racial equality and called for the removal of blacks from the United States.
During the 1870’s Helper became obsessed with plans for building a railroad from Hudson Bay to the Strait of Magellan. Failure to secure support for the idea left him depressed and contributed to his suicide in 1909.
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