Hinton Helper, a North Carolinian, authored arguably the strongest criticism of slavery in America at the historic moment when the issue coming to the fore. In The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It, published in 1859, he argued that slavery was hindering the progress of the South and should be abolished. His book was especially powerful since the author was a white man of southern stock. It was blamed for the massacre of slaveholders at the hands of John Brown. Also, it arguably led to Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860.
Helper wrote in The Impending Crisis that slavery was the root cause of ‘‘all the shame, ignorance, poverty, tyranny and imbecility of the South and nothing short of its complete abolition could save the South from falling into the vortex of utter ruin.’’
He used not moral argument but rather carefully selected statistics to indict slavery as strangling the productivity of the South, such as that the hay crop of the North was worth far more than the South’s cotton crop and that the North provided disproportionate amounts of manufactured goods and culture to those southern whites who could afford them. He argued that the slavery system disproportionately harmed the poor whites of the South.
Helper viewed blacks with a caustic disdain. Calling for a pure white race, he argued for segregation of the races (even urging the mandatory repatriation of the slaves to Africa). Helper truly is a paradoxical figure in American history; his work led to the liberation of the very African Americans he so loathed. His book is a reminder that ideas can foster social and political change and lead to the redefinition of government’s role in the protection of personal liberties.
JAMES F. Van ORDEN
References and Further Reading