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....
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