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The Impending Crisis Of The South By Hinton R. Helper

By Parke Pierson
1/26/2010 • America's Civil War, Gathering Storm

Thoughts On Hinton Rowan Helper’s Book “The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It”

Hinton Rowan Helper claimed that “an irrepressibly active desire to do something to elevate the South to an honorable and powerful position among the enlightened quarters of the globe” drove him to publish The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It. The peculiar 1857 treatise warned that Northerners were taking advantage of the slave system to make economic pawns out of their Southern brethren.

Hinton R. Helper
Hinton R. Helper
Helper was no moralizing Yankee; he was a native Southern, born into a slave-holding family in North Carolina in 1829. An adventurer and a writer, Helper had already traveled to the California gold fields and written about those experiences when he tackled Impending Crisis. He used his new book to champion the interests of the non-slaveholding Southerners who made up the majority of the region’s population. He contended that wealthy planters, whom he provocatively described as “the slave-driving oligarchy” and “chevaliers of the lash” who spent their time “lolling in…piazzas,” used the slave system to maintain power—thereby stagnating the South’s cultural and industrial evolution and hindering the fortunes of middle-class Southern farmers and businessmen.

Helper did not think slavery was morally wrong—he in fact became a rabid white supremacist after the war—but he believed it did not provide a proper economic model to advance the South.

In 12 chapters, Helper used tables and charts to compare Southern industrial and agricultural production and wealth with the North’s, debunked the perception that the Bible sanctioned slavery and weighed literacy and educational rates of the regions. In all comparisons, the North came out on top.

Though he wrote most of the book in Baltimore, Helper had to have it printed farther North, as Maryland law forbade the printing of any tract that could entice “people of color” to aggressive action against their masters. That, he claimed, indicated slave-owners had successfully infringed on freedom of speech. To end slavery, Helper backed re-colonization of slaves to Africa, but even advocated slave-against-master violence if necessary.

Although Helper hoped his Dixie comrades would accept Impending Crisis “in a reasonable and friendly spirit” and “as an honest and faithful endeavor to treat a subject of enormous import,” he quickly became persona non grata in the South.

The “free soil” Republican Party, however, quickly saw an advantage in the book and used it as campaign propaganda for the 1860 presidential election.

Abraham Lincoln rewarded Helper by appointing him U.S. consul in Buenos Aries, a post he held from 1861 to 1866. Helper struggled after returning from Argentina, diving deeply into racial prejudice, perhaps in an effort to regain the graces of some Southerners, and concocting a failed trans-Americas railroad scheme before committing suicide in Washington, D.C., in 1909.

“The world had wrestled with him and thrown him,” the Louisville (Ky.) Courier-Journal observed in his obituary. “His mind was shattered and his heart broken. Friendless, penniless, and alone, he took his own life, and died at the age of eighty—this man who had shaken the Republic from center to circumference and who at a critical period had held and filled the center of the stage.”

Often overshadowed by Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Helper’s Impending Crisis is nonetheless one of the most interesting and influential books relating to the sectional crisis—yet most people have never heard about it. The book combines sound history and reasoning with whim, and screed against the slave-owning class—“Down with the Oligarchy!”—with pleas for the Southern middle class to accept his theory. Despite its unevenness, the volume comes off as prescient. Helper predicted nothing would really be settled until the “Flag of Freedom shall wave triumphantly alike over the valleys of Vir­ginia and the mounds of Mississippi.”

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14 Responses to The Impending Crisis Of The South By Hinton R. Helper

  1. Drake says:

    Interesting althogh somewhat difficult to credit when you insist on using “Court historian” nomenclature and dishonest views on what happened and why. A “civil war” is a fight between two parties for control of a nation firstly.

  2. […] abolitionists3, who favored social equality of blacks and whites. Although it is frequently claimed that Helper did not think that slavery was morally wrong, his book clearly states otherwise: […]

  3. Jessica P. says:

    Helper contradicted the typical stereotype of a southerner because he bashed them by saying they wasted their time and used their slaves, while most people in the south supported slavery. While he did not believe that slavery was wrong, he did not think that it was best for the advancement of the south. He proved that slavery was not very successful by using the charts to show how the north was more advanced and doing better over-all in comparison to the south. I agree with him when he says the slave-owners infringed on freedom of speech because they had taken away their slaves rights as people. It seems like his Impending Crisis would be contradicting because he was for and against slavery to an extent so his book could have two completely different viewpoints at the same time. How could someone with such conflicting opinions on slavery be considered so influential?

  4. Brad T. says:

    A very interesting article of information here. Helper really did make honest views on slavery but he also left open the fact he believes in both sides of the story. He believed that slavery was not the way to advance the South, although he did believe that slavery was not wrong and supported it. This conflicting article although a good source of information is very misleading and hardly influences me towards either side of the historical arguments.

  5. Andrew L says:

    The article made good points in saying that the only reason there was slavery is because of the lazy people of the south. Something else he makes a good point on is by the Southern using slaves it slowed down the need for advances in technology. With all the manual slave labor there was no need for someone to try to come up with an invention that would greatly enhance production and profit. He didn’t think this would help the south advance. Helper was saying that because the south was advancing slower than the north was just using it to benefit the northern production.

  6. Jessi S says:

    I really enjoyed reading this article. I agree with the white people in the north and south being selfish. They used the slaves for production and then used that production for wealth for solely themselves. I find Helper as being a very bold, independent, and influential man. He stood up for what he believed him and I give him a lot of credit for sticking up for it, even if no one else agreed. Getting President Lincoln’s attention and then getting appointed to work for him is very honorable. One of the most interesting parts of the article is what was written on his tomb stone; it really sticks out to me and makes him a very admirable person in history.

  7. Caryn says:

    This was an interesting article. Helper struggled to make sense of slavery and its issues and was estranged from his fellow southerners. It must have been hard on Helper, for many reasons. One being that he was an outcast in a way; he did not necessarily follow the masses. He was not accepted in the south because he felt that the slaves’ masters were just using slaves to have power; but he also felt that slavery was not necessarily wrong. He had very conflicting feelings about slavery he could see it on both sides. Even though the Republican Party liked his ideas and Abraham Lincoln appointed him for the U.S. consul he still could not return as an accepted member of southern society so he ended his life.

  8. Hunter G. says:

    I really like how he used words that helper actually said in the second paragraph to discribe how the southern plantation owners were taking control of the south. He did a very good job using words that discribed the southern plantation owners very well. Another thing i really liked that he did was tell us the rest of Helper’s history. He did not only tell us about the books he wrote and published, but how in contrary to fighting slavery become heavily prejudice and ended up commiting suicide. Also i liked how he used information from other articles and does not really take a baised to one side or the other.

  9. Rebecca H says:

    I thought that this article was very interesting. I liked when the author talked about how Helper compared the North and South using his charts and graphs. He compared them by industrial and agricultural production, wealth, and literacy and educational rates. In all cases, the North came out on top. This was mainly because of the South’s different views on ideas and how little they had advanced in technology. Another thing that I agreed with was how Helper thought that the middle class was hindered because the wealthy planters had the majority of the power because they owned slaves, which in return helped them make money.

  10. Camren W. says:

    This is a very interesting article. The fact that he was born and raised in the south yet does not quite agree with slavery is very strange. It’s not that he thinks it is morally wrong but the fact that he thinks slavery “did not provide a proper economic model to advance the South”. He basically blamed the laziness of the southerners for slavery in the first place. Later in life, he even went so far as to write a book about his views. In this book he used visual aids to compare Southern industrial and agricultural production and wealth with the North’s, proved false the perception that the Bible sanctioned slavery and weighed literacy and educational rates of the regions. In every case, the North won out. Something I thought was interesting was that he became an adamant white supremacist in his later years. he lived both sides of the issue.

  11. Jake J says:

    This article is very interesting in several ways. First the fact that Helper was born in the south yet opposed slavery in any way is relatively strange for this time period. While he didn’t neccasarily think slavery was wrong or unconstitutional, he thought it was bad that it helped the northern economy and not so much the south, except for the upper class. It left middle class southerners basically non-existant and left the south with basically just a lower and upper class. Also, although he was noticed and very much a critical part of the debate against/for slavery he was not neccasarily all that popular, eventually after struggling with his thoughts for a long time he killed himself, which to me seemed a little bit off from the rest of the story as it didn’t really tell anything about him being depressed or distraught, especially not enough to go as far as suicide.

  12. Raeven H says:

    Helper definitely seemed like an interesting character, and I enjoyed reading this article about him. The reason being, he did not seem like the normal kind of person. He was born from a slave family, yet was against it. Not because he believed it was morally wrong, which was why the North was against it, but merely just because he was. And the part about him becoming a white supremacist after the war kind of blew my mind, yet it makes sense, since he did not think slavery was wrong – just wanted them out of the country. Either way, it was a very well-written and understandable article, and I did not see any accounts of bias. Interesting character and interesting article.

  13. Sam H. says:

    I agree with Helper on the part that both the North and South are using slaves to their own advantage. The North indirectly and the South directly. I find it funny how the North is anti-slavery but they agree to let the Southerners use them for work and such so they will profit from it themselves. Helper kind of contradicts himself with agreeing with both sides. It’s like he sees the benefits of both the North and South and he cannot take one side or another. I would imagine, since slavery was a big debate at the time, that he could not take up one side or another in a slavery discussion and the conflicting ideas in his head are what eventually drove him to kill himself. He was probably over not having a solid concrete opinion on something that was so big in his life.

  14. Jennifer says:

    He is a great (many times over) grandfather of mine. I’ve never read the book, but would like to.

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