December 27, 2013

Birth of Helper: stupid and sequacious masses

Hinton Rowan Helper was born outside of Mocksville, North Carolina on December 27, 1829. He went on to become a published author and infuriate most of his fellow Southerners. His perspective may have come, in part, from living outside of the South. After graduating from Mocksville Academy, he moved to New York then went west to join the hunt for gold in California. His lack of success there inspired his book California Land of Gold: Reality vs. Fiction. He was none too pleased with the experience as, in the book's preface, he notes it was in that state that he met "its rottenness and its corruption, its squalor and its misery, its crime and its shame, its gold and its dross." The book was not particularly popular.

Back in North Carolina, however, he published the book that made him infamous in 1857. The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It was a scornful indictment of slavery in the South — but not for the moral reasons typically presented by abolitionists, as in the case of Harriet Beecher Stowe's book five years earlier. Hinton did not engage in the sentimentalism of other anti-slavery writers and instead offered an economic point of view (and, certainly, he did not call for racial equality). He particularly denounced the oligarchy established by rich, slave-holding whites, who held social and economic superiority over poorer whites who did not have enslaved people:

It is expected that the stupid and sequacious masses, the white victims of slavery, will believe, and, as a general thing, they do believe, whatever the slaveholders tell them; and thus it is that they are cajoled into the notion that they are the freest, happiest and most intelligent people in the world, and are taught to look with prejudice and disapprobation upon every new principle or progressive movement. Thus it is that the South, woefully inert and inventionless, has lagged behind the North, and is now weltering in the cesspool of ignorance and degradation.

Helper called slaveholders "more criminal than common murderers" and, further, warned that Southerners should fear the enslaved population: "in nine cases out of ten, [they would] be delighted with an opportunity to cut their masters' throats." Without slavery, he argued, poor whites could improve their cultural literacy without the suppression from this oligarchy.

Helper almost certainly did not expect the reaction he got. The book inflamed many of those Southern power-holders whom he had criticized, leading to the legal banning of the book in various Southern states. One account suggests three men in Arkansas were hanged for owning copies. Other writers wrote responses dissecting and denouncing his ideas. Even so, some credited Helper's book as the second most influential anti-slavery work of the century, influencing even Abraham Lincoln himself, who appointed the author as consul to Buenos Aires, Argentina.

He returned to the United States after the Civil War, but was surprised to see the emancipation of slaves did not leave to a renaissance among poor Southern whites (at least by his standards). He wandered from city to city for a bit and wrote a few more books, often focused on his belief in the inferiority of the African race. He lived the next decades in relative obscurity before taking his own life.


  1. Knowing the interest here in Civil War scholarship, just wanted to mention that my current read is Stauffer's book Giants, about the "parallel lives" of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. Easy to read, and thoughtful.

  2. Literally just returned from visiting Frederick Douglass's house in Washington, DC. I've also worked with Prof. Stauffer on few programs over the years. Great recommendation!