The following brief excerpt from the 2001 Columbia Encyclopedia puts Helper into historical context:
His next book, The Impending Crisis of the South (1857), an attack on slavery, enraged the South. In 1860 the Republican party distributed 100,000 copies of the book. Helper condemned slavery not on humanitarian or moral grounds, but because it was an economic threat to the poor whites of the South.
White racism and opposition to slavery
Helper was a white racist. After the war, he published three books expounding on the alleged inferiority of black people.
But in a weird way, the fact that he was clearly a racist gives his Impending Crisis book all the more credibility. His racism is only evident in glimpses in this book. But this was a white Southern man writing about why slavery was bad for the South and for ordinary white workers. His abolitionism was based on a pragmatic view of how slavery was damaging white society, which it certainly was.
Although the text doesn't give much insight into this aspect of things, it's true that many opponents of slavery were hostile and racist toward blacks. In part it had to do with the way slavery had been gradually abolished in the northern states. As more and more free whites moved into states like New York, hostility grew toward the perceived unfair competition of slave labor with free labor. And since most blacks in America were slaves, many whites identified the presence of black people with the presence of slavery.
This was not the view of all whites. But it seems clear that most whites at some level regarded blacks as inferior, with varying degrees of ideological conviction entering into the picture. Pro-slavery propaganda had long since promoted that notion, and the slaveowners' advocacy of that view became more intense in the decades before the Civil War.
It was Helper's view, however. And the fact that a serious opponent of slavery such as he was also hostile to blacks as people puts some context on the Confederate/neo-Confederate argument that Northern abolitionism was somehow insincere because it wasn't motivated by entirely disinterested humanitarian motives. (The advocates of slavery spewed contempt and hatred and violence at the humantiarian types, too, of course.) Like Helper, many opponents of slavery had no particular love or even respect for blacks as human beings. But there were other very good and practical reasons than saintly humanitarianism for white Americans to opposed slavery and the Slave Power (the slaveowners).
Helper's view of the Impending Crisis
Chapter 3 of The Impending Crisis discusses the views of a number of famous Southerners who opposed slavery. But freedom of speech for any Southerner (he uses the now-obsolete term "Southron") had long since been curtailed by 1857, particularly on the subject of slavery. As he writes at the beginning of the chapter:
If it please the reader, let him forget all that we have written on the subject of slavery; if it accord with his inclination, let him ignore all that we may write hereafter. We seek not to give currency to our peculiar opinions; our greatest ambition, in these pages, is to popularize the sayings and admonitions of wiser and better men. Miracles, we believe, are no longer wrought in this bedeviled world; but if, by any conceivable or possible supernatural event, the great Founders of the Republic, Washington, Jefferson, Henry, and others, could be reinvested with corporeal life, and returned to the South, there is scarcely a slaveholder between the Potomac and the mouth of the Mississippi, that would not burn to pounce upon them with bludgeons, bowie-knives [sic] and pistols! Yes, without adding another word, Washington would be mobbed for what he has already said. Were Jefferson now employed as a professor in a Southern college, he would be dismissed and driven from the State, perhaps murdered before he reached the border. If Patrick Henry were a bookseller in Alabama, though it might be demonstrated beyond the shadow of a doubt that he had never bought, sold, received, or presented, any kind of literature except Bibles and Testaments, he would first be subjected to the ignominy of a coat of tar and feathers, and then limited to the option of unceremonious expatriation or death. How seemingly impossible are these statements, and yet how true! Where do we stand? What is our faith? Are we a flock without a shepherd? a people without a prophet? a nation without a government?
He assembles testimony from George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Patrick Henry, and several others on the evils of slavery. He includes Thomas Randolph, who as governor of Virigina in 1832, proposed to the state legislature a plan for abolishing slavery. It failed to pass. And that was to be the last meaningful public debate over slavery in the antebellum South. The suppression of any antislavery discussion in the South led Southerners to misunderstand and react foolishly to antislavery sentiment in the North.
He also includes this quotation from Thomas Jefferson Randolph as a state legistor speaking to the abolition question in 1832; it touches on the issue of slave patrols and of the destruction of normal family life among the slaves:
I agree with gentlemen in the necessity of arming the State for internal defence. I will unite with them in any effort to restore confidence to the public mind, and to conduce to the sense of the safety of our wives and our children. Yet, Sir, I must ask upon whom is to fall the burden of this defence? Not upon the lordly masters of their hundred slaves, who will never turn out except to retire with their families when danger threatens. No, Sir; it is to fall upon the less wealthy class of our citizens[,] chiefly upon the non-slaveholder. I have known patrols turned out when there was not a slaveholder among them; and this is the practice of the country. I have slept in times of alarm quiet in bed, without having a thought of care, while these individuals, owning none of this property themselves, were patrolling under a compulsory process, for a pittance of seventy-five cents per twelve hours, the very curtilage of my house, and guarding that property which was alike dangerous to them and myself. After all, this is but an expedient. As this population becomes more numerous, it becomes less productive. Your guard must be increased, until finally its profits will not pay for the expense of its subjection. Slavery has the effect of lessening the free population of a country. (my emphasis)
In that last sentence, we see an illusion to the asumption, based in part of the experience of legal abolition in the Northern states, that the presence of blacks equaled the presence of slavery.
The gentleman has spoken of the increase of the female slaves being a part of the profit. It is admitted; but no great evil can be averted, no good attained, without some inconvenience. It may be questioned how far it is desirable to foster and encourage this branch of profit. It is a practice, and an increasing practice, in parts of Virginia, to rear slaves for market. How can an honorable mind, a patriot, and a lover of his country, bear to see this Ancient Dominion, rendered illustrious by the noble devotion and patriotism of her sons in the cause of liberty, converted into one grand menagerie, where men are to be reared for the market, like oxen for the shambles? Is it better, is it not worse, than the slave trade--that trade which enlisted the labor of the good and wise of every creed, and every clime, to abolish it? The trader receives the slave, a stranger in language, aspect, and manners, from the merchant who has brought him from the interior. The ties of father, mother, husband, and child, have all been rent in twain; before he receives him, his soul has become callous. But here, Sir, individuals whom the master has known from infancy, whom he has seen sporting in the innocent gambols of childhood, who have been accustomed to look to him for protection, he tears from the mother's arms and sells into a strange country among strange people, subject to cruel taskmasters. (my emphasis)
In susequent chapters, he looks at historical antislavery sentiment in the North and in Europe, in the Christian churches and in the Christian Bible.
Helper makes extensive usage of economic statistics, to an extent that was apparently not common at this time for books of this sort, to argue that the South itself had been damaged overall by slavery. He also undertook to show that the slaveowners' claims that the slave system produced a high civilization than that in the free states had little foundation in reality. In the field of literature, for instance, he argued:
We do not deny that the South has produced able journalists; and that some of the newspapers of her principal cities exhibit a degree of enterprise and talent that cannot fail to command for them the respect of all intelligent men. But these journals, we regret to say, are marked exceptions to the general condition of the Southern press; and even the best of these fall far below the standard of excellence attained by the leading journals of the North. In fact, whether our comparison embraces quantity only, or extends to both quantity and quality, it is found to be immeasurably in favor of the non-slaveholding States, which in journalism, as in all other industrial pursuits, leave their slavery-cursed competitors at an infinite distance behind them, and thus vindicate the superiority of free institutions, which, recognizing labor as honorable, secure its rewards for all.
The literary vassalage of the South to the North constitutes in itself a most significant commentary upon the diatribes of the former concerning "a purely Southern literature." (pp. 390-391)
Helper clearly was not impressed with the run-of-the-mill Southern writing:
Southern divines give us elaborate "Bible Arguments;" Southern statists heap treatise upon treatise through which the Federal Constitution is tortured into all monstrous shapes; Southern novelists bore us ad infinitum with pictures of the beatitudes of plantation life and the negro-quarters; Southern verse-wrights drone out their drowsy dactyls or grow ventricous with their turgid heroics all in defence of slavery,--priest, politician, novelist, bardling, severally ringing the changes upon "the Biblical institution," "the conservative institution," "the humanizing institution," "the patriarchal institution"--and then--have their books printed on Northern paper, with Northern types, by Northern artizans, stitched, bound and made ready for the market by Northern industry; and yet fail to see in all this, as a true philosophical mind must see, an overwhelming refutation of their miserable sophisms in behalf of a system against which humanity in all its impulses and aspirations, and civilization in all its activities and triumphs, utter their perpetual protest. (pp.391-392)
His final conclusion on the sad state of Southern literature and journalism laid the blame directly at the feet of the slave system:
Our limits, not our materials, are exhausted. We would gladly say more, but can only, in conclusion, add as the result of our investigations in this department of our subject, that Literature and Liberty are inseparable; the one can never have a vigorous existence without being wedded to the other. (p. 412)
As a sample of his empirical comparisons of the slave economy and the free economy, here is a comparison of New York and Viriginia. Keep in mind that a dollar went a lot further in 1857 than it does today!
In 1791, the exports of New York amounted to $2,505,465; the exports of Virginia amounted to $3,130,865. In 1852, the exports of New York amounted to $87,484,456; the exports of Virginia, during the same year, amounted to only $2,724,657. In 1790, the imports of New York and Virginia were about equal; in 1853, the imports of New York amounted to the enormous sum of $178,270,999; while those of Virginia, for the same period, amounted to the pitiful sum of only $399,004. In 1850, the products of manufactures, mining and the mechanic arts in New York amounted to $237,597,249; those of Virginia amounted to only $29,705,387. At the taking of the last census, the value of real and personal property in Virginia, including negroes, was $391,646,438; that of New York, exclusive of any monetary valuation of human beings, was $1,080,309,216. (p. 13)
After several other state-to-state comparisons, we concludes:
In one way or another we [Southerners] are more or less subservient to the North every day of our lives. In infancy we are swaddled in Northern muslin; in childhood we are humored with Northern gewgaws; in youth we are instructed out of Northern books; at the age of maturity we sow our "wild oats" on Northern soil; in middle-life we exhaust our wealth, energies and talents in the dishonorable vocation of entailing our dependence on our children and on our children's children, and, to the neglect of our own interests and the interests of those around us, in giving aid and succor to every department of Northern power; in the decline of life we remedy our eye-sight with Northren[sic] spectacles, and support our infirmities with Northern canes; in old age we are drugged with Northern physic; and, finally, when we die, our inanimate bodies, shrouded in Northern cambric, are stretched upon the bier, borne to the grave in a Northern carriage, entombed with a Northern spade, and memorized with a Northern slab!
... 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; that, in comparison with the Free States, our agricultural resources have been greatly exaggerated, misunderstood and mismanaged; and that, instead of cultivating among ourselves a wise policy of mutual assistance and co-operation with respect to individuals, and of self-reliance with respect to the South at large, instead of giving countenance and encouragement to the industrial enterprises projected in our midst, and instead of building up, aggrandizing and beautifying our own States, cities and towns, we have been spending our substance at the North, and are daily augmenting and strengthening the very power which now has us so completely under its thumb. (pp. 22-24; my emphasis)
I would think the argument he makes about the agricultural productivity in the free states being superior to those of the slave states would have been one of the more provocative points of his book to Southerners - the few who got the chance to read it.
Here he gives a stinging indictment of the effect of slavery on the free workers of the South. He also here uses the appropriately descriptive phrase "lords of the lash" for the slaveowners:
The lords of the lash are not only absolute masters of the blacks, who are bought and sold, and driven about like so many cattle, but they are also the oracles and arbiters of all non-slaveholding whites, whose freedom is merely nominal, and whose unparalleled illiteracy and degradation is purposely and fiendishly perpetuated. 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 thatis but precious little, and even that little, always garbled and one-sided, is never told except in public harangues; for the haughty cavaliers of shackles and handcuffs will not degrade themselves by holding private converse with those who have neither dimes nor hereditary rights in human flesh.
Whenever it pleases, and to the extent it pleases, a slaveholder to become communicative, poor whites may hear with fear and trembling, but not speak. They must be as mum as dumb brutes, and stand in awe of their august superiors, or be crushed with stern rebukes, cruel oppressions, or downright violence. If they dare to think for themselves, their thoughts must be forever concealed. The expression of any sentiment at all conflicting with the gospel of slavery, dooms them at once in the community in which they live, and then, whether willing or unwilling, they are obliged to become heroes, martyrs, or exiles. They may thirst for knowledge, but there is no Moses among them to smite it out of the rocks of Horeb. The black veil, through whose almost impenetrable meshes light seldom gleams, has long been pendent over their eyes, and there, with fiendish jealousy, the slave-driving ruffians sedulously guard it. Non-slaveholders are not only kept in ignorance of what is transpiring at the North, but they are continually misinformed of what is going on even in the South. Never were the poorer classes of a people, and those classes so largely in the majority, and all inhabiting the same country, so basely duped, so adroitly swindled, or so damnably outraged. (pp. 43-44)
This is a vivid description of the way in which the existence and defense of slavery required in practice the increasing suppression of freedom among the "free" whites. Helper's polemic may leave a wrong impression in one sense, because in fact ordinary Southerners were familiar with politics and emotionally engaged with it in a way that people today are not. The 1850s were a period of crisis after crisis, and it was impossible to hide from hearing about them. People tended to vote - white men that is, who were the only ones who could - in high percentages. The armies on both sides that marched off to battle in the Civil War may have been the most literate and politically-aware armies that the United States ever fielded.
That beingsaid, Helper's description of the way in which the slaveowners dominated the public sphere and exercised effective control over information is true. Most Southern whites were, as a result, seriously un- and misinformed about what was going on in the free states. The same was not true in the free states, where all sides of the slavery question were argued out. And not only with words.
The preceding quotations could be taken to be Jacksonian. The following one shows less sympathy for the ordinary Southerner than a good Jacksonian would have. But it's more of an overstatement of the case than a wrong description:
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. (pp. 44-45; my emphasis)
Continued in Part 2 tomorrow.
(See the Index to Confederate "Heritage" Month posts 2005 for links to all this year's posts.)