Hinton Rowan Helper
) was a Southern US
critic of slavery
during the 1850s. In 1857, he published a book which he dedicated to the "nonslaveholding whites" of the South. The Impending Crisis of the South
, written partly in North carolina but published when the author was in the North, argued that slavery hurt the economic prospects of non-slaveholders, and was an impediment to the growth of the entire region of the South
. The book, which was a combination of statistical charts and provocative prose, attracted little attention until 1859 when it was widely reprinted in condensed form by Northern opponents of slavery. Helper concluded that slavery hurt the Southern economy overall (by preventing economic development and industrialization), and was the main reason why the South had progressed so much less than the North (according to the results of the 1850 census
. Helper spoke on behalf of the majority of Southern whites who of moderate means-- the Plain Folk of the Old South
, who he said were oppressed by a small (but politically-dominant) aristocracy of wealthy slave-owners.
There are very few references to blacks in the book, and certainly slavery as an economic institution is denounced, not black people. It generated a furor in the South, where authorities banned its possession and distribution and burned copies that could be seized. Between 1857 and 1861 nearly 150,000 copies of the book were circulated, and in 1860 the Republican party distributed it as a campaign document. In December 1859 Democrats returning to Congress reacted with indignation because 68 Republicans had endorsed the book and planned to use it as campaign literature in the presidential election of 1860. The opponents blocked the election of Republican John Sherman as speaker because he had endorsed the book.
Helper was born near Mocksville, North Carolina
. His father died before Helper was a year old, but he was cared for by a wealthy extended family and obtained a good education with the financial help of his uncle. He graduated from Mocksville Academy
in 1848, and went to California
in 1851 in hopes of finding wealth, but came back in 1854 disillusioned, writing the book The Land of Gold
, which widely ridiculed the state, the following year.
The success of The Impending Crisis of the South made Helper famous overnight. It also heightened the political crisis by raising fears among Southerners that poor landless Southern whites might turn against slavery if they saw that it did not benefit them. The fear of class divisions within the white community was enough to lead many Southerners who had previously been opponents of secession to embrace it after the election of Abraham Lincoln.
After the war Helper appeared as a white supremacist, urging the wholesale expulsion of former slaves. His hatred of blacks eventually became a phobia, to the point that he would not patronize hotels or restaurants that employed Negroes. Southern enemies of Reconstruction were unwilling, however, to forgive his previous opposition to slavery, so he remained a marginal, and increasingly unstable, character in postwar America.
Lincoln appointed Helper as United States consul in Buenos Aires from 1861 to 1866. He spent most of the postwar years promoting a scheme to build an intercontinental railroad connecting North and South America; which would displace the black and brown peoples by whites. The "Three Americas Railway" was supposed to extend from the Bering Sea to the Strait of Magellan. His schemes never came to anything and he died by his own hand in Washington, D.C.
- The Land of Gold (1855)
- The Impending Crisis of the South (1857)
- Brown, David. "Attacking Slavery from Within: The Making of the Impending Crisis of the South," Journal of Southern History (2004) vol 70, the standard historical survey
- Cardoso, J. J. "Hinton Rowan Helper as a Racist in the Abolitionist Camp" The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 55, No. 4 (Oct., 1970), pp. 323-330 in JSTOR
- Channing, Steven A. Crisis of Fear: Secession in South Carolina (1974) online pp 104-5
- Fredrickson, George M. "Antislavery Racist: Hinton Rowan Helper," in Fredrickson, The Arrogance of Race: Historical Perspectives on Slavery, Racism, and Social Inequality (1988), pp 28-53 online excerpt
- Wilson, Edmund. Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War (1962), 364-79.
- ANB, sub Helper.