Attacking Slavery from Within: The Making of the Impending Crisis of the South

Article excerpt

IT IS DIFFICULT TO THINK OF A FIGURE IN SOUTHERN HISTORY MORE NOTORIOUS in reputation, but the subject of so little rigorous scholarly investigation, as Hinton Rowan Helper (1829-1909). While many essays and biographical sketches have been written over the years, few have been based upon archival research, and basic details concerning Helper's life and career, particularly his family background, remain shrouded in mystery. (1) The controversy that this North Carolinian abolitionist provoked during his lifetime has been repeated in historians' debates about why he wrote his most famous book, The Impending Crisis of the South. Most students of antebellum southern and political history know that this work caused a major furor in the late 1850s, so much so that historian George M. Fredrickson believes that "it would not be difficult to make a case for The Impending Crisis as the most important single book, in terms of its political impact, that has ever been published in the United States." In December 1859 Democrats returning to Congress reacted with astonishment and indignation when it was discovered that sixty-eight Republicans had endorsed a shortened compendium version to be used as campaign literature in the presidential election of 1860. The revelation of Republican support for the incendiary The Impending Crisis, which called for nonslaveholders to unite with slaves in abolishing slavery, could not have come at a worse time because the first session of the thirty-sixth Congress opened just three days after the militant abolitionist John Brown was hanged. What followed was an ill-tempered and acrimonious election for Speaker of the House, the second-longest in congressional history, as southern politicians refused to accept as Speaker anyone who had supported Helper. Southern states tried to prevent circulation of The Impending Crisis and suspected abolitionists of covertly infiltrating the South, while politicians and newspapers in the region attacked both the book and its author in a frenzied atmosphere. On the eve of the Civil War, probably only John Brown's name was more reviled by white southerners than Hinton Rowan Helper's, and few would have shed tears if he had suffered the same fate as Brown. (2)

The similarities between the two abolitionists end there, however. In contrast to Brown, Helper remains an enigmatic figure. The content of The Impending Crisis is well known: it argued for slavery's harmful economic, political, and social impact upon nonslaveholding whites, a group largely overlooked by other writers of the time. Few scholars would challenge Hugh T. Lefler's verdict that the book "was probably the most caustic, scathing, and vituperative criticism of slavery and slaveholders ever written." (3) It is surprising, therefore, that there has not been a satisfactory explanation of Helper's decision to write The Impending Crisis. Helper was a proud North Carolinian who wrote much of his book while resident in his native state. When ranks were being closed in both the North and the South, he dramatically broke sectional loyalty. What prompted him to seemingly reject his culture and heritage in such a spectacular fashion? Two tentative explanations have been suggested, but both tend to obfuscate, rather than resolve, this question. One falters in the confusion surrounding Helper's upbringing and socioeconomic status. The second relies too heavily upon interpreting his later books, written between 1867 and 1871, as if they reflected Helper's thinking in the mid-1850s. Both approaches are reductionist in that they ignore complex and varied motivations, pointing instead toward Helper's dysfunctional personality and particular individual circumstances. This article draws upon new evidence to challenge those interpretations and suggest that a variety of factors influenced Helper. Most importantly, specific events between 1855, when Helper published his first book, The Land of Gold, and the spring of 1857, when he completed the manuscript of The Impending Crisis, persuaded him of slavery's harmful effect upon the South and of the need for a book that spoke on behalf of nonslaveholding whites. …