American National Biography Online
Helper, Hinton Rowan (27 Dec. 1829-8 Mar. 1909), publicist,
was born in Rowan County, North Carolina, the son of Daniel Helper
and Sally Brown, farmers.
Helper's family owned 200 acres of land and possibly a slave family. He was educated at home by his widowed mother and at nearby Mocksville Academy. In 1850, after serving out his apprenticeship to a storekeeper in Salisbury, North Carolina, he used money embezzled from his master (and apparently later repaid) to travel to New York City, where he was unable to find satisfactory employment. He went to California in early 1851 and remained there for two and a half years, returning to North Carolina after failing to find gold.
Helper's career as a writer began with the publication in 1855
of Land of Gold, a little-noticed account of how California had
failed to live up to his expectations. His next book, The Impending
Crisis of the South: How to Meet It (1857), became the center
of a national controversy. The book called for the abolition
of slavery because it was retarding the economic development
of the South and limiting the opportunities of its nonslaveholding
white majority. Helper argued that slavery was responsible for
a one-crop system of plantation agriculture that benefited the
slaveholding minority but denied to lower class whites the range
of opportunities that a more diversified economy, like that of
the North, would have provided. Since it appeared in the midst
of the national debate over the fate of slavery in the federal
territories, Helper's book attracted great public attention,
being praised by northern free soilers and condemned by southern
sectionalists. In 1859 an inexpensive Compendium, or digest,
of The Impending Crisis was published with the endorsement of
some leading members of the Republican party, who hoped to use
it as a campaign document. Approximately 75,000 copies of the
book and the Compendium were sold or distributed. Helper's work
became a central issue in the bitter and prolonged contest for
the Speakership of the House of Representatives that began in
December 1959 and lasted for two months. The Republicans had
a plurality but not an absolute majority in the House, and their
original candidate for Speaker, John Sherman (1823-1900) of Ohio,
failed to win election because he had endorsed the Compendium.
Helper's doctrines, according to the resolution declaring Sherman
unfit to be Speaker, were "insurrectionary and hostile to the
domestic peace and tranquillity of the country." Only after the
Republicans withdrew Sherman's name and put up a candidate who
had not endorsed the Compendium did they succeed in organizing the House.
The uproar over The Impending Crisis was one in a sequence of
events pushing the nation toward civil war between 1857 and 1860.
Like the Dred Scott decision, the controversy over the proposed
admission of Kansas to the Union under a proslavery constitution,
and John Brown's (1800-1859) raid, it helped to polarize opinion
on the slavery issue. It confirmed many northerners in their
belief that the introduction of slavery anywhere would deprive
white workers and farmers of economic opportunities, but its
impact on southern opinion was even greater. Helper's call to
the nonslaveholding whites to work for the abolition of slavery
and the endorsement of his views by prominent Republicans aroused
fears that the North would promote a class conflict among southern
whites. Federal patronage might even be used to create within
the South a nonslaveholders' party based on "Helperism." Such
fears help to explain why many upper-class southerners who had
previously resisted secessionism embraced it fervently after
the victory of Abraham Lincoln in 1860.
Helper's subsequent career repeated the pattern of failure and
relative obscurity that had been his lot before The Impending
Crisis brought him to the attention of the country. After the
Republican victory in 1860, he was rewarded for his services
to the party with an appointment as American consul in Buenos
Aires, where he served from 1861 to 1866. While in Argentina
he married Maria Louisa Rodriguez in 1863. They had one child.
After returning to the United States in early 1867, he embarked
on a career as a fanatical propagandist for white supremacy.
In a series of hastily written books--Nojoque (1867), The Negroes
in Negroland (1868), and Noonday Exigencies (1871)--he argued
for the radical and permanent inferiority of African Americans
and demanded that all blacks be expelled from the United States.
Strongly opposing Congressional Reconstruction, Helper now put
his pen at the service of the opponents of equal rights for blacks.
But southern critics of Reconstruction could not forgive his
earlier apostasy and generally found his views too extreme to
be politically useful. Consequently, his racist writings attracted
relatively little attention. Although he was sometimes described
as an abolitionist who had seen the error of his ways, Helper's
racist views of the Reconstruction era did not in fact contradict
his earlier antislavery writings. He had attacked slavery for
the harm it allegedly did to whites, not out of sympathy for
blacks. In fact, The Impending Crisis had insisted that elimination
of slavery be accompanied by the deportation of blacks from the
United States. As he made clear then and later, one of his principal
objections to slavery was that it brought blacks and whites into
proximity. Helper's racial phobia even made him unwilling to
patronize hotels and restaurants that employed blacks as servants or waiters.
During the last thirty years of his life, Helper devoted most
of his attention to the promotion of a railroad linking North
and South America, a project that he believed would lead to the
civilization and racial purification of a continent that suffered
from the intermingling of whites with "cumbersomely base black
and brown elements." Failing to interest businesses or governments
in his enterprise, he spent the last years of his life in poverty
and frustration. He died, a suicide, in Washington, D.C. At the
time of Helper's death, the historian John Spencer Bassett summed
up his career succinctly but effectively: "He wrote a book which
stated a very patent fact in a striking way, but, aside from
that, he was neither wise nor attractive."
The only available collection of Helper papers is the William
Henry Anthon Book of Letters Relevant to the Publication of The
Impending Crisis in the New York Public Library. Information
on his life can be found in David Barbee, "Hinton Rowan Helper,"
Tyler's Historical Quarterly and Genealogical Magazine 15 (1934):
135-72; Hugh T. Leffler, Hinton Rowan Helper, Advocate of a White
America (1935); and Hugh C. Bailey, Hinton Rowan Helper: Abolitionist-Racist
(1965). For an annotated text of The Impending Crisis and an
essay on his thought, see the John Harvard Library edition, ed.
George M. Fredrickson (1968). Insight into his historical significance
can be derived from Oliver Crenshaw, "The Speakership Contest
of 1859-60," Mississippi Valley Historical Review 29 (1942):
323-39, and Clement Eaton, The Mind of the Old South (1964).
Obituaries are in the Nation, 11 and 18 Mar. 1909, and the Washington
Post, 10 Mar. 1909.
George M. Fredrickson
George M. Fredrickson. "Helper, Hinton Rowan";
American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
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