Sunday, September 13, 2009

Personality Spotlight: Hinton Rowan Helper

Few if any Southerners stirred up as much fuss among their own people before the Civil War as did North Carolinian Hinton Rowan Helper. His book, The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It, published in 1857, was hailed by many Northerners, and especially by the infant Republican Party as a work of brilliance, but by Southern planter-politicans as an attempt at anarchy.

Hinton Rowan Helper was born in December 1829 in what was then Rowan County, North Carolina to a small farming family. Helper's father died when he was very young and his inheritance left him over 200 acres, but little direction. Although he dutifully worked the fields, Helper was not fond of farming; he preferred learning and adventure. Helper had received a better than average education from a local academy, and after spending a few years as a store clerk apprentice he left for the excitement of New York City. Like many of his generation, the goldfields of California called out the opportunity for wealth to Helper. He went west in 1851, but returned to North Carolina in 1854. Helper's first book was Land of Gold, published in 1855, and was his story of how his West Coast adventure had failed to meet his high expectations.

The book that would make him famous (or infamous, depending on political viewpoint) was his next work; The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It. In it Helper argues that slavery had dramatically retarded the South's economy. He contended that slavery was the one deterrent for the majority of white Southerners to advance their economic and social status. He thought that if slavery was abolished in the South then it would develop a more diverse economy, increase industrialization, and allow greater advancement for the majority of the population (non-slaveholding whites). His plan was in no way to be confused as a sympathetic plea for the slaves. His later writing makes it clear that he felt that African American slaves were certainly inferior to whites and that there was no place for them in America. In the Impending Crisis he called for deportation of blacks, but with little explanation of how to best accomplish this act. Another underlying reason he wanted slavery abolished is that he felt the institution brought the races into too close proximity of one another.

Helper deftly used the 1850 census to show in tables how the South lagged behind the North in almost every economic category. His free state, slave state comparisons of New York to Virgina, Massachusetts to North Carolina, and Pennsylvania to South Carolina were strong sociological arguments when that discipline was still in its infancy.

The Impending Crisis was published during the few years when tensions between North and South were wearing thin. The Kansas-Nebraska Act four years before had left Northerners fearing that slavery could spread to the westward territories. The events of "Bleeding Kansas" were daily headlines all over the country. Helper only added fuel to the fire by being a Southerner who opposed not only the expansion of slavery to the west, but also called for its end in the South. Helper's strong words naturually infuriated those of the pro-slavery power in the South. He wrote, "Too long we have yielded a submissive obedience to the tyrannical domination of an inflated oligarchy; too long we have submitted to their unjust and savage exactions. Let us now wrest from them the sceptre of power, establish liberty and equal rights [for whites] throughout the land, and henceforth and forever guard our legislative halls from the pollutions and usurpations of the pro-slavery demagogues." To the planter-politicians of the South this was nothing more than a call for anarchy, and thus loss of control and power. It couldn't be tolerated and served as another justification for secession only a few years later.

Helper was rewarded for his "republican" thinking by receiving an appointment to be consul to Argentina from 1861 to 1866. There he married Maria Louisa Rodriguez and they had a child. Helper returned to the United States in 1867 and continued to write about political issues. He took up the cause of white supremacy during the Reconstruction years where he called for the removal of blacks from America.

Helper's life was shortened by his own hand when he committed suicide in Washington DC in 1902. He had spent his last years in poverty and petitioning to anyone that would listen for a railroad link between North and South America. He felt this link would bring economic recovery to his beloved South and help remove the unwanted black and brown people from the United States.

The Impending Crisis today is a must read for students wanting to understand the dynamics that helped lead to Civil War, and should serve as strong evidence to those that feel that slavery had nothing to do with the outbreak of the war.

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