Southern-born Hinton Helper–not Harriet Beecher Stowe–wrote the most stinging indictment of slavery.
By Joseph Gustaitis
The myth probably began with Abraham Lincoln. When he met Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in 1862, Lincoln supposedly said, “So you are the little lady who wrote the book that started this great war.”
Ever since that meeting, Uncle Tom’s Cabin has been considered the most important anti-slavery tract ever published in the United States and the key text in inflaming the passions that brought on the Civil War. No doubt it was a very important book. It sold 300,000 copies in its first year of publication and was translated into at least 23 languages.
And yet, another book caused a far greater sensation than Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). It was The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It. Even more surprising, the strident anti-slavery treatise was not written by some stern New England Yankee. The author was a son of the Old South, Hinton Rowan Helper. Although he has been largely forgotten, for several years after his work was published in 1857, Helper was one of the most famous men in America.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin, although detested in Dixie, could be dismissed by many Southerners as sentimental rubbish from a Yankee preacher’s wife who knew little about the South’s “peculiar institution.” Helper, however, was born in Rowan County, N.C., on December 27, 1829, and his father, who died a year after Hinton’s birth, worked a small farm and owned a few slaves. Nor could The Impending Crisis be in any way considered a mawkish romance. This was a book that hammered the reader with statistic after statistic, remorselessly piling up evidence that slavery was the only reason the South had fallen behind the North in almost every area of achievement–wealth, productivity, population, literacy, culture–and had descended to what Helper called “a state of comparative imbecility and obscurity.” Slavery, he said, “was the most hateful and horrible word that was ever incorporated into the vocabulary of human economy.” To Southerners, Helper was not just a gadfly, he was a traitor.
Helper graduated from Mocksville Academy, near his home, in 1848 and then worked in a store in Salisbury, N.C. He went to New York in 1850 and from there sailed by way of Cape Horn to San Francisco at the height of the California Gold Rush. He spent three years fruitlessly trying to wrest gold from the hills and then returned to the East to publish The Land of Gold (1855), a bitter account written, he said, to warn other would-be gold hunters of the perils and disappointment that awaited them.
The same year Helper sailed for the West was the year of the seventh U.S. census. The 1850 census set off alarm bells throughout Dixie. Nearly every statistic showed that in the decade from 1840 to 1850 the North had leapfrogged over the South. In 1840, for example, 44 percent of the total U.S. railway mileage was in the South; by 1850 its share had declined to 26 percent. In 1840 the South possessed 20 percent of the nation’s manufacturing capacity; in 1850 it had 18 percent. These figures only confirmed what many Southerners already suspected–they were becoming economic underlings. As one Southern analyst put it, “The North grows rich and powerful whilst we at best are stationary.”
Historians are still debating the reasons for the failure of industrialization in the South, but Helper, who waved the 1850 census like a red flag, echoed the views of the Scottish political economist Adam Smith, who argued that free labor was intrinsically superior to slave labor. Unlike a free worker, Smith said, a slave “can have no other interest but to eat as much, and to labour as little as possible.”
The Impending Crisis drew heavily on the 1850 census to show that slavery was the ruination of the South. It began with a long chapter in which Helper presented a host of tables illustrating the contrast between the two regions of the United States. He cleverly began with statistics showing the difference in agricultural output because, he said, many Southerners liked to flatter themselves that, if in nothing else, the South was superior to the North in agriculture. Not so, Helper pointed out, adding, “Such rampant ignorance should be knocked in the head!” After parading his tables across his pages, he arrived at the conclusion that in 1850 the North produced some $352 million worth of farm products; the South, about $307 million. “So much,” he snorted, “for the boasted agricultural superiority of the South!”
The second chapter was the most threatening in a menacing book. Titled “How Slavery Can Be Abolished,” it scoffed at the notion that any system of emancipation required compensating slaveholders for the loss of their property. “The idea,” he said, “is preposterous.” Helper blamed the slaveholders for the wide discrepancy in the value of land between the North and the South. Again using 1850 figures, he reckoned that the average value of an acre of land in the Northern states was $28.07; in the South it was $5.34. “We conclude, therefore,” he wrote, “that you, the slaveholders, are indebted to us, the non-slaveholders, in the sum of $22.73, which is the difference between $28.07 and $5.34, on every acre of Southern soil in our possession.” The grand total that the “chevaliers of the lash” had gypped the non-slaveholders, according to Helper’s calculations, was slightly over $7.5 billion. “And now, Sirs,” he demanded, “we are ready to receive the money.”
Having thus dismissed the idea of compensation, Helper laid out an 11-point plan for abolishing slavery by July 4, 1876. The agenda included organizing nonslaveholding whites into a political force, denying slaveholders the vote, boycotting slaveholders’ services, banning the hiring of slaves by non-slaveholders, and instituting a tax of $60 on every slaveholder for every slave in his possession. Although there was virtually no chance that such a plan would be adopted, it nevertheless was strong stuff for Southern readers.
The book cited numerous authors from both North and South–as well as from other countries–who concurred with Helper’s abolitionism. He marshaled quotations from, among others, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, along with economists, French philosophers and Biblical prophets. Helper returned to statistics to contrast North and South in areas such as manufacturing, exports, canals, railroads, bank capital, public schools, libraries, newspapers and literacy. He ruefully concluded that “our indignation is struck almost dumb at this astounding and revolting display of the awful wreck that slavery is leaving behind it in the South.”
The most notable aspect of The Impending Crisis was its fierce language. Helper railed that “five millions of ‘poor white trash'” suffered under a “second degree of slavery” and that “every white man who is under the necessity of earning his bread, by the sweat of his brow…is treated as if he was a loathsome beast.” “There is not,” he charged, “a grain of patriotism in the South, except among the non-slaveholders.” And since slavery is a “sin” and a “crime,” he could not recognize the slaveholders “as gentlemen.” “Slaveholders,” he thundered, “are more criminal than common murderers.” Helper did not even shun the threat of violence. “Do you aspire,” he asked the slaveholders of the South, “to become the victims of white non-slaveholding vengeance by day, and of barbarous massacre by the negroes at night?”
Helper first intended to publish his book in Baltimore, but was prevented from doing so by a law that made it a crime to “excite discontent amongst the people of color of this state.” He therefore went to New York in 1857, partly, he says, because he feared that he might be “subjected to physical violence” if he stayed in the South. In New York, the influential newspaperman Horace Greeley offered his support.
In the year after The Impending Crisis was published, it sold some 13,000 copies–a respectable figure–and was well-received in several Northern newspapers. But in the spring of 1859 the Republican Party, then gearing up for the election of 1860, realized–with Helper’s prodding–that the volume could be an asset to their campaign. The Republicans followed Greeley’s advice that championing the book would prove that they did not seek the “ruin” of the South, but rather its “renovation.” Accordingly, they distributed at least 100,000 copies of an abridged (and slightly toned down) version, called The Compendium, and Helper was suddenly the talk of the nation. Abraham Lincoln had a copy and said he was very interested to know that there was a potential schism between slaveholders and non-slaveholders in the South. By contrast, in many places in the South it was a crime to possess Helper’s book.
Things got hotter during the election of the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1859. The Republicans put forth John Sherman of Ohio (brother of the soon-to-be-famous William Tecumseh Sherman), but he was assailed by John B. Clark of Missouri for having committed the dastardly deed of reading The Impending Crisis. Another congressman charged that “one who consciously, deliberately, and of purpose lent his name and influence to the propagation of such writings is not only not fit to be speaker, but is not fit to live.” The two-month debate grew so intense that the representatives took to showing up in the Capitol armed with pistols and bowie knives.
By the time Lincoln took office in March 1861, Helper was famous. But the publication of The Compendium had been basically a nonprofit enterprise, and Helper needed to find regular work. Accordingly, he applied to the Lincoln administration, and in November 1861 he was appointed U.S. consul to Buenos Aires.
Helper performed his duties competently in Buenos Aires, where he married a local woman named Maria Luisa Rodriguez. In 1866 he returned to the United States and again took up his pen to address the problems of the South. This time he found a new enemy. The threat to the white working class was no longer the indolent, supercilious slaveholder, but the black freeman. He dashed off three books–Nojoque: A Question for a Continent (1867), Negroes in Negroland (1868) and Noonday Exigencies (1871)–that revealed him to be a virulent racist.
Many reviewers were shocked by Helper’s call that by 1876 “No Negro nor Mulatto, No Chinaman nor unnative Indian, No Black or Bi-colored Individual of whatever Name or Nationality” would “find Domicile anywhere within the Boundaries of the United States.” For Helper, the black man was “An Inferior Fellow Done For,” and the color black was “A Thing of Ugliness, Disease, and Death…a most hateable thing.” Helper had become an embarassment to the Republican Party. Even readers in the South were taken aback by what one reviewer called his “wild ravings.”
No longer a thinker to be taken seriously, Helper eked out a career as an agent for U.S. commercial interests that had claims against various South American governments. He became interested in the construction of a railroad that would run through the Americas from Hudson’s Bay to Cape Horn, and the notion, which he claimed would make him “the new Christopher Columbus,” eventually grew into an obsession. A collection of his writings appeared as The Three Americas Railway in 1881.
In his final years, Helper was a bitter and impoverished man. His wife went blind and returned to Buenos Aires with their son in 1899, leaving him alone in Washington. All his funds had gone into promoting his railway dream, and although a commission was appointed to study the idea, he was not named a member of it.
On March 8, 1909, Hinton Helper closed the door to his room, wrapped a towel around his neck, and turned on the gas. The maid found him dead the next morning.
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