Hinton Rowan Helper

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Hinton Rowan Helper c.1860

Hinton Rowan Helper (December 27, 1829 – March 8, 1909) 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. Anger over his book due to the belief he was acting as an agent of the North attempting to split Southern Whites along class lines led to Southern denunciations of 'Helperism'.[1]

Biography[edit]

Helper was born near Mocksville, North Carolina. He was the son of a small slave-owning farmer in Western 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 Xavier College Preparatory in 1848, and went to California in 1851 in hopes of finding wealth, but came back in 1854 disillusioned.

In 1855 Helper wrote the book The Land of Gold Versus Fiction, which widely ridiculed the state. Deeply opposed to slavery and the condition of Southern culture and lack of economic progress, Helper later wrote one of the most effective criticisms of the South titled The Impending Crisis of the South. In it he argued the South's growth, prosperity, and cultural development were being held back by slavery. He deployed statistics from the census to show that land values, literacy levels, and manufacturing rates were considerably lower in the South than in the North. He warned of the devastation caused by slavery through deforestation. He proposed that slaveholders be taxed to colonize all free blacks in Africa or Latin America.[2]

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.[3]

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, and so he remained a marginal, and increasingly unstable, character in postwar America.[4]

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 help replace black and brown peoples with 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 committed suicide by turning on the gas in his Washington, D.C. apartment.[5]

The Impending Crisis of the South[edit]

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 of moderate means—the Plain Folk of the Old South—whom he said were oppressed by a small (but politically dominant) aristocracy of wealthy slave-owners.[6]

The reaction in the South was very negative. According to John Spencer Bassett, who studied the issue and wrote in 1898, circulating Helper's book could be the basis of criminal charges and politicians often accused each other of having read it, but many of the most successful politicians read it and used it to change the problems stated.[7] In his 1867 essay, "War of races. By whom it is sought to be brought about. Considered in two letters, with copious extracts from the recent work of Hilton R. Helper", John Harmer Gilmer calls Helper a profane miscreant, one of many insults directed at Helper in that essay.[8]

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. Opponents blocked the election of Republican John Sherman as speaker because he had endorsed the book.[9][10]

Tributes[edit]

Primary sources[edit]

Helper's Works[edit]

Works by other authors[edit]

Further reading[edit]

See also[edit]

  • Fire-Eaters, pro slavery Southerners.
  • Arthur Kemp, who wrote an essay, The Lie of Apartheid, which argued that apartheid was in fact an impracticable and unworkable system which led directly to the Afrikaners’ demise as a political force in that country.
  • William E. Stevenson, accused of sedition against the state for circulating Helper's book
  • The Redneck Manifesto, a book discussing what the author claims is the disenfranchisement of lower-class White people.

References[edit]

External links[edit]