Section #19 - Regional violence ends in Kansas as a “Free State” Constitution banning all black residents passes

Chapter 225: A Southerner Attacks Slavery On Behalf Of “Plain White Folks”

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Hinton Helper Publishes The Impending Crisis Of The South

Helper’s 1857 book, The Impending Crisis Of The South, rocks the region by insisting that the institution of slavery be abolished since it has benefited only a narrow band of planter oligarchs at the expense of the vast majority of “plain white folks.” 

To prove his point, he relies on published government data comparing the relative development and well-being of the South, operating under its slavery-based agricultural system, vis a vis the North, with its diversified economy based on the labor of free white men. 

The stark contrasts he shows for the two approaches make him an overnight pariah among the Southern elite and a hero with critics of slavery in the North.  

Helper is only twenty-eight when his explosive book is published. He has graduated from a local academy and, following a failed trip to California during the gold rush, has written a book, The Land of Gold, chronicling his experiences there. In 1855 he is back home determined to advance his career as an author. 

The result is The Impending Crisis, which begins with a series of assurances to readers, the first being that he is a dedicated “Southron” at heart:  

The son of a venerated parent…whose home has been in the valley of the Yadkin for nearly a century and a half, a Southerner by instinct and by all the influences of thought, habits, and kindred, and with the desire and fixed purpose to reside permanently within the limits of the South, and with the expectation of dying there also. 

He insists that his cause in the text is high-minded: 

I desire to do something to elevate the South to an honorable and powerful position  among the enlightened quarters of the globe. 

He also makes it clear that the book’s intent is not to “display any special friendliness or  sympathy for the blacks.” Despite feeling that human bondage is unjust, Helper fully shares the  racial prejudices dominant in white society at the time, both South and North. 

Thus, while he demands an end to slavery, his rationale lies in advancing his people, poor whites,  rather than the “heathenish blacks,” whom he would “re-colonize” in Africa. 

According to Helper, these poor whites of the South comprise well over two-thirds of the entire  population, and their current existence is worse off than “the serfs of Russia.”  

Poverty, ignorance, and superstition, are the three leading characteristics of the non slaveholding whites of the South. Many of them grow up to the age of maturity, and pass  through life without ever owning as much as five dollars at any one time. Thousands of  them die at an advanced age, as ignorant of the common alphabet as if it had never been  invented. All are more or less impressed with a belief in witches, ghosts, and  supernatural signs. Few are exempt from habits of sensuality and intemperance. None  have anything like adequate ideas of the duties which they owe either to their God, to  themselves, or to their fellow-men. Pitiable, indeed, in the fullest sense of the term, is  their condition. 

The serfs of Russia have reason to congratulate themselves that they are neither the negroes nor the non-slaveholding whites of the South. 

The source of their misery lies not with oppressors from the North. 

Rather, he says, the fault rests squarely on the shoulders of a small core of aristocratic Southern planters –men who have dominated the region since the colonial period, and who sustain the economic institution of slavery only to maximize their personal wealth.  

This populist argument effectively pits the majority class of “poor whites” against the elites, and, as such, it alarms those currently bent on vilifying the North and calling for secession.

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Statistics Reveal The Failures Of The South’s Slave-Based Economy

Helper announces early on in the book that he intends to rely on government statistics to prove his case. 

The cultivation of statistics must be the source of all future improvement in the science of political economy This science is yet in its infancy, but has already produced the most beneficial effects. 

The outline for Chapter I sets the tone for all that follows. 

CHAPTER I. COMPARISON BETWEEN THE FREE AND THE SLAVE STATES  Progress and Prosperity of the North–Inertness and Imbecility of the South–The True  Cause and the Remedy–Quantity and Value of the Agricultural Products of the two Sections–Important Statistics–Wealth, Revenue, and Expenditures of the several States– Sterling Extracts and General Remarks on Free and Slave Labor. 

By looking at the data he says he will prove… 

That the South, at one time the superior of the North in almost all the ennobling pursuits and conditions of life, has now fallen far behind her competitor.  

He begins with a few illustrative comparisons on growth in population and economic wealth from colonial times up to the 1850 Census in pairs of states: North Carolina vs. Massachusetts; South Carolina vs. Pennsylvania; Virginia vs. New York. The latter, for example, shows how the crowning jewel of the old South, Virginia, has fallen far behind its Northern rival on all key measures of prosperity. 

Hinton Helper’s Comparative Data 
PopulationVirginiaNew York
1791$ 3,130,865 $ 2,505,465
Total Wealth
1850$ 391,646,438 $1,080,309,216

But he is only getting started here.  

The remainder of the 450 page book lays out side by side comparisons on the full range of economic and cultural outcomes as of the 1850’s in the sixteen Free States of the North vs. the fifteen Slave States of the South. (See below for a simplified summary.) 

The differences are profound, with the Slave-based system trailing far behind on measures such as total trade, manufacturing, city development, banking, commercial infrastructure such as canals and railroads, patents issued, public education, libraries, newspapers, literacy, and even enlistments in the militia.  

The result of the slave-based economy is a South which has become “dependent “on the North  for almost all the daily necessities of life from “shoes to steamships.”  

The North becomes, in one way or another, the proprietor and dispenser of all our floating wealth, and that we are dependent on Northern capitalists for the means necessary to build our railroads, canals and other public improvements.

All the world sees, or ought to see, that in a commercial, mechanical, manufactural, financial, and literary point of view, we are as helpless as babes… It is a fact well known to every intelligent Southerner that we are compelled to go to the North for almost every article of utility and adornment from matches, shoepegs and paintings up to cotton-mills, steamships and statuary. 

This was not the case in colonial times, according to Helper. In fact, the South, with its temperate climate and fertile land, was “at one time the superior of the North.” 

It thus appears, in view of the preceding statistical facts and arguments, that the South, at one time the superior of the North in almost all the ennobling pursuits and conditions of life, has fallen far behind her competitor, and now ranks more as the dependency of a mother country than as the equal confederate of free and independent States. 

But those advantages have all gone by the wayside. The reason why, he says, is Slavery. 

Why the North has surpassed the South? It may all be traced to one common source — Slavery!

Sidebar: Hinton Rowan Helper’s Comparative Data

Economic And Cultural Outcomes By Region
YearTradeFree StatesSlave StatesRatio F/S
1855Total Tonnage (000)4,2528554.97x
Export Value (MM) $167.5 $107.4 1.56
Import Value (MM) 236.8 24.6 9.62
Product Value (MM) $842.6 $165.4 5.09
Capital Invested (MM) 430.2 95.0 2,66
# Workers (000) 780.6 161.7 4.83
1850Agriculture/Outdoor Labor
# Free Whites >15 (000)NA1,019.0
Nine Largest Cities
# Total Population (000)2,083.0787.02.65
Total Wealth (MM)$1,572.1$375.94.18
Per Capita Wealth$754$4771.58
1854 Total Canal Miles 3,682 1,116 3.30
1857 Railroad Miles 17,855 6,859 2.60
1857 Cost of Railroads (MM) $538.3 $95.3 5.65
1855 Bank Capital (MM) $230.1 $102.1 2.25
1852 Militia Forces (000) 1,381.8 792.9 1.74
1850 Public Schools 62,433 18,507 3.37
# Teachers 72,621 19,307 3.76
# Pupils (000) 2,769.9 581.9 4.76
1850 # Libraries 14,911 695 21.45
1850 #Newspapers/Magazines 1,790 704 2.54
1850 Illiterate White Adults
# Native (000) 248.7 493.0 0.50
# Foreign (000) 173.8 19.9 8.73
1856 # Patents Issued 1,929 268 7.20
1857 Political Power
1857 # US Presidents from: 0.67
# Years in office 24 48 0.50
# Speakers of the House 12 15 0.80
# Years in office 25 43 0.58
# Secretaries of State 14 0.57
# Years in office 27 40 0.68
# Treasury Secretaries 14 2.00
# War Secretaries 15 15 1.00
# Foreign Ministers 54 80 0.68
Current Supreme Court 0.80
1857 White pop in states (MM) 13.2 6.2 2.13
# Senators 32 30 1.07
# White pop/Senator (000) 412.5 206.7
# Congressmen 144 90 1.60
# White pop/Congressmen 91.6m 68.9m 1.33
# Electoral Votes1761201.47
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He Calls For The Abolition Of Slavery To Help The Poor Whites

Unknown Hunter
A Common Man Of The South

In imposing a slave-based economy on the South, Helper says, the planter oligarchs have chosen a system that “in the very nature of things” is inferior to the North’s reliance on free white labor.

In the very nature of things, the freeman must produce more than the slave… The slave toils for another, and not for himself. What a difference, plain and heaven-wide, between the outward and interior life of a slave and of a free community.

To further prove this point, Helper focuses on the value of agricultural output in 1850 across fourteen different crops, including wheat, hay, oats, flax, potatoes, beans, maple sugar, butter, cheese, honey, wool, in addition to cotton, rice, and tobacco.

His conclusion: “even agricultural output favors the North!”

Even agricultural output favors the North! So much for the boasted agricultural superiority of the South! Until we examined into the matter, we thought and hoped the South was really ahead of the North in one particular, that of agriculture; but our thoughts have been changed, and our hopes frustrated.

Agricultural Output By Region In 1850 
14 Agricultural Products Free StatesSlave StatesRatio F/S
Bushels (000) 499,190.0481,766.91.04
Value (000) $351,709.7 $306,927.11.15

Worse yet, slavery has not only failed to optimize production from the land, but the greed exhibited by the planter in their crop management programs has damaged the value of the land itself. 

Value Of An Acre Of Land In 1850 
$ per acre$28.07$11.39$ 5.34$6.26

Helper next turns to extensive quotes from the iconic founding fathers of the South to argue that the negative effects of a slave-based system were apparent to them from the beginning – and that the hope and expectation was to end the practice not expand it. He cites Washington:  

I never mean, unless some particular circumstances should compel me to it, to possess another slave by purchase, it being among my first wishes to see some plan adopted by  which slavery, in this country, may be abolished by law. 

Then Jefferson, among others:  

There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people, produced by the existence of slavery among us. The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions–the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other…The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances…With the morals of the people, their industry also is destroyed; for, in a warm climate, no man will labor for himself who can make another labor for him. This is so true, that of the proprietors of  slaves a very small proportion, indeed, are ever seen to labor….I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest. 

The reason this obviously failed system remains in place, says Helper, is the ability of the few powerful oligarchs to keep the majority of Southerners – “the poor white trash” – in the dark about its failures.  

How little the “poor white trash,” the great majority of the Southern people, know of the real condition of the country is, indeed, sadly astonishing. The truth is, they know nothing of public measures, and little of private affairs, except what their imperious masters, the slave-drivers, condescend to tell, and that is but precious little. 

Helper’s solution to the negative outcomes lies in having the common people rise up, abolish slavery, and embrace the virtues he sees in the Free Soil movement.  

I am a Free-Soiler and I don’t deny it. I am for the greatest good of the greatest number, and against the system which monopolizes the free and fertile territory of our country for a few slaveholders, to the exclusion of thousands upon thousands of the sinewy sons of toil. The time will come, and perhaps very soon, when the people will rule for their own  benefit and not for that of a class which, numerically speaking, is insignificant. I shall take my stand in favor of the white man.

He calls for a general convention of non-slaveholders to devise a plan that will finally address their interests.

Let there be a general convention of non-slaveholders from every slave State in the Union, to deliberate on the momentous issues now pending. let them devise ways and means for the complete annihilation of slavery …inviting the active sympathy and co operation of the millions of down-trodden non-slaveholders throughout the Southern and  Southwestern States. 

He further argues that those in the planter oligarchy must pay the price for the damage they have done to their region. Thus, instead of being compensated for releasing their slaves, the owners should be forced to pay taxes on their holdings, some to recompense their neighbors, others to resettle the blacks, ideally abroad. 

Less than three-quarters of a century ago… the South… began an even race with the North… and now, in the brief space of scarce three score years and ten, we find her completely distanced, enervated, dejected and dishonored. Slave-drivers are the sole authors of her disgrace; as they have sown so let them reap. 

A Tax of Sixty Dollars on every Slaveholder for each and every Negro in his Possession at the present time, or at any intermediate time between now and the 4th of July, 1863– said Money to be Applied to the transportation of the Blacks to Liberia, to their Colonization in Central or South America, or to their Comfortable Settlement within the Boundaries of the United States. 

Having made his case, Helper ends by repeating his devotion to the South, and his hope that in ending the slavery-based systems imposed by the few, the needs of the majority of free white men will be realized. 

Let it be understood, then, once for all, that we do not hate the South, war on the South, nor seek to ruin the South, in resisting the extension of slavery…. The time will come, and perhaps very soon, when the people will rule for their own benefit and not for that of a  class which, numerically speaking, is insignificant. I shall take my stand in favor of the white man. 

Helper Becomes A Footnote In History

The call for poor whites of the South to recognize the failures of their slavery-based economy and end the oligarchical reign of the aristocratic planters never materializes. 

The Impending Crisis is widely ignored for almost two years until Northerners begin to cite it to attack the “slavocracy” during the run-up to the election of 1860. In response to that, Southern authorities ban its distribution and burn whatever copies they find. In the U.S. House, Democrats deny John Sherman the Speakership, ostensibly because he endorses the book.  

Hinton Helper himself momentarily becomes a well-known public figure, applauded up North but vilified back in his homeland.  

But by 1861 he is living in poverty when President Lincoln – whose election he has arguably aided — names him a consul to Argentina, where he serves for five years. He returns in 1867 to North Carolina where he is shunned, then moves around America, living in New York, St. Louis and Washington, DC.  

He writes two subsequent books which display his underlying anti-black racism, in spite of his opposition to the principle of slavery. He also spends several decades trying to promote an international railroad from Canada through the United States to Argentina.  

In 1890, at age seventy-seven, he commits suicide, broken both financially and mentally. 

Sidebar: Helper’s Data On Political Power

Hinton Helper’s statistics also encompass the distribution of political power in America from 1789 through 1857. The comparisons reveal the disproportionate power enjoyed by the South over that period. 

Historical Political Influence By Region
As Of TradeFree StatesSlave StatesRatio F/S
1857# US Presidents from:690.67
# Years in office24480.50
# Speakers of the House12 150.80
# Years in office25 43 0.58
# Secretaries of State8140.57
# Tears in office2740 0.68
# Treasury Secretaries1472.00
# War Secretaries15 151.00
# Foreign Ministers54 800.68
Current Supreme Court450.80
White pop in states (MM)
# Senators32301.07
# White pop/Senator (000)412.5206.7
# Congressmen144901.60
# White pop/Congressmen91.6m68.9m1.33
# Electoral Votes1761201.47