Prior to 1857, no one had ever heard of Hinton Helper. To be clear, Helper was not a libertarian, he was a vehement racist who made it quite clear that he did not believe that people of color belonged in North America at all. Helper had one great contribution to history and that was his book The Impending Crisis of the South. However, if you read his work closely, his racist remarks were class-oriented to appeal to poor whites. He urged them to revolutionize society. Helper detested the rich white planter elite which was the result of excessive slavery.
Who was Hinton Helper? Was his book, The Impending Crisis of the South, more influential than Uncle Tom’s Cabin? Was Helper an abolitionist? Did Helper see slavery as having any value? What was Helper’s version of manifest destiny?
George Frederickson, “Chapter 2: Antislavery Racist—Hinton Rowan Helper,” in The Arrogance of Race: Historical Perspective on Slavery, Racism, and Social Inequality, Wesleyan University Press. 1988.
Brooks, Corey M. Liberty Power: Antislavery Third Parties and the Transformation of American Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2016.
Cannibals All!, with Phil Magness, Liberty Chronicles Podcast
There’s No Excuse for Slavery (Updated), Liberty Chronicles Podcast
00:05 Anthony Comegna: Hinton Rowan Helper was born in Mocksville, North Carolina in 1829. His father died shortly after Hinton’s death and though Helper was never truly poor, neither was he wealthy or even financially secure. His race set him far above the south’s so-called Mudsill class of slaves and his family’s modest support helped lodge him somewhere in the middle of southern Society. Helper’s family raised him, educated him, and supported him through fanciful dalliances in Gold Rush California for three years starting in 1851. Helper never found riches on the western end of the continent, and when he returned to the east, no one had any particular reason to think that this unremarkable person would write one of the most important books in American history.
01:01 Anthony Comegna: Welcome to Liberty Chronicles, a project of libertarianism.org. I’m Anthony Comegna.
01:10 Anthony Comegna: Let me start here. Hinton Helper was not a libertarian, he was nothing of the sort, no where near it, not even a bit. He had detestable ideas about race and in fact, his only silver lining happens to be his most important contribution to history. Historians have argued that Hinton Helper published the single most important book ever written in America. Even more significant than Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Now, that’s probably not a majority opinion, but in any case, Harriet Beecher Stowe is the only other anti-slavery author that even comes close. And to see what I mean, we will have to dig more into Helper’s life. His book, The impending Crisis of the South and the ever more poisonous politics in Antebellum America.
02:00 Anthony Comegna: Practically no one had heard of Hinton Helper before 1857. He’d written one book so far based on his misadventures in California, The Land of Gold Reality versus Fiction. He wanted to be a sort of professional myth-buster, whose mission was overturning the lies told Easterners like him to induce them westward. Most of these gold rushers never found wealth, but they did constantly hemorrhage it, prices for everything, all the necessities of life, were through the proverbial roof and the tiny bits of gold your average minor scraped up were not the stuff of bunions of fame.
02:35 Anthony Comegna: Like Helper, most of these people were deeply disappointed, disillusioned, and their struggles were forgotten in comparison to those legendary mountains of gold shown in the media. Helper’s, first book was hardly successful, and it established an important theme in his thought and his writing. Most Americans live their lives somewhere between destitution and mild comfort thanks to the unjust use of power by the ruling elite. In the case of California, the problems where the press, the landlords, and the force pump method of government that socialized the costs of booming the West. Moving forward though, Helper targeted the elite parasites in southern society, that he felt most seriously endangered the regions middle class and poor interests.
03:26 Anthony Comegna: For his next book, Helper determined to stave off the gradual destruction and destitution of his white yeoman countrymen. But I say again, no one could have predicted just how important his attempt would be.
03:43 Anthony Comegna: Helper more or less fled to the north before publishing the impending crisis in New York City, as one historian writes, at the author’s own risk. It was not an immediate hit by any stretch, not by book sales, but it did catch Horace Greeley’s notice. You might remember him from way back when we covered the free masons and the anti-masons along with Thurlow Weed, Greely was one of the most important figures in Wigger’s New York politics, for his whole lifetime. He was editor of the New York Tribune, and it was in a Letter to Greeley, that Lincoln expressed in no uncertain terms that he was a Unionist before he was an abolitionist. The day Helper published the book, Greeley published his own full page glowing review. And once people started listening to Helper, the book exploded across the country.
04:32 Anthony Comegna: Then as now, people seem to have done a lot more criticizing than they did actually reading it. But there was also no mistaking Helper’s words, either. He was making an explicitly racist and class-oriented appeal to poor whites, that they should revolutionize society. He was a Unionist insurrectionary, a racist abolitionist.
04:57 Anthony Comegna: Let me reiterate, Helper does not fit into our story as yet another one of our early Libertarians or Loco-Focos. No, he enters our tail as the embodiment of everything that was wrong with Republican Party politics from all the way back to the Free Soil days and beyond. Perhaps his only rival, in this regard, was Martin Van Buren himself. If you’ve paid careful attention throughout the show, you’ll have no doubt noticed, that race was always a thorny cultural problem within the Loco-Foco’s various political crusades.
05:33 Anthony Comegna: It was the issue which first drove William Leggett from the democracy after he spoke out for abolitionists during the males controversy. It was the single thing that got him excommunicated by the Washington Globe. It was the sharpest and angriest divide between Rhode Island’s suffragist Dorrites during their little revolution. Slavery extension split radicals across the north further from the regular party during the Mexican War and it’s aftermath. And even when radicals could finally agree amongst themselves about the correct flavor of anti-slavery politics, they did so for very different reasons.
06:11 Anthony Comegna: When David Wilmot proposed to ban slavery from the Mexican cession, he did it because he despised black people and wanted to protect his white kindred from mingling with their darker complected neighbors. At the same time, when a John P. Hale or a Salmon Chase endorsed the Wilmot proviso, it was in the interest of universal equal rights. Generally speaking, at each moment of political decision-making for Loco-Focos, most of them broke in the racist direction, and a precious remnant of universalists and idealists, remained behind in ever-shrinking numbers.
06:51 Anthony Comegna: This cultural divide never went away, and the Free Soil Party, had a great deal of difficulty managing it. For one thing, they took a huge electoral hit when the more racist leaning Van Buren Barnburners abandoned the party between ‘48 and ‘52. For another thing, once the Republican Party successfully gathered together the scraps of Northern Whigs, and absorbed the Free Soil movement, it became even less clear which sort of anti-slavery predominated in the New Party. Was it the Wilmot style or the Hale style. Hinton Helper’s racist version or William Leggett’s version based in universal equal rights.
07:30 Anthony Comegna: Every moment of political decision making over slavery throughout the long lifetime of Locofocoism forced the issue and divided the movement. Over time, Locofocoism became so diluted that it was indistinguishable from either the mainstream Democratic Party or the mainstream Republican Party. The movement became so un-special, so overtly compromised by political gamesmanship and bargaining, that many of them actually looked at someone as awful as Hinton Helper and saw a valuable ally. And that long string of moments, that series of individual intellectual and political decisions spelled the beginning of the end for the LocoFoco Movement.
08:19 Anthony Comegna: To start us into this depressing line of discussion, let’s plunge right through a bit of Helper.
08:27 Speaker 2: The impending crisis of the south, how to meet it. By Hinton Rowan Helper, 1857. The free and the slave states.
08:38 Speaker 2: 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 shoe pegs, and paintings, up to cotton mills, steam ships and statuary. That we have no foreign trade, no princely merchants, nor respectable artists. That in comparison with the free states, we contribute nothing to the literature polite arts and inventions of the age. That for want of profitable employment at home, large numbers of our native population find themselves necessitated to emigrate to the west whilst the free states retain not only the larger proportion of those born within their own limits, but induce annually hundreds of thousands of foreigners to settle and remain amongst them, that almost everything produced at the North meets with ready sale while at the same time there is no demand even among our own citizens for the productions of Southern industry.
09:46 Speaker 2: That owing to the absence of a proper system of business amongst us, 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 railroad, canals and other public improvements. That if we want to visit a foreign country, even though it may lie directly south of us, we find no convenient way of getting there, except by taking passage through a northern port.
10:18 Speaker 2: And that nearly all the prophets arising from the exchange of commodities, from insurance and shipping offices, and from the thousand and one industrial pursuits of the country accrue to the north and are there invested in the erection of those magnificent cities and stupendous works of art which dazzle the eyes of the South and attest to the superiority of free institutions.
10:45 Speaker 2: The North is the mecca of our merchants, and to it, they must and do make two pilgrimages per annum; one in the spring and one in the fall. All our commercial, mechanical, manufactural, and literary supplies come from there. We want Bibles, brooms, buckets, and books, and we go to the north. We want pens, ink, paper, wafers, and envelopes, and we go to the north. We want shoes, hats, handkerchiefs, umbrellas, and pocket knives, and we go to the north. We want furniture, crockery, glassware, and pianos, and we go to the north. We want toys, primers, school books, fashionable apparel, machinery, medicines, tomb stones, and a thousand other things and we go to the north, for them all. Instead of keeping our money, there it remains. It never falls into our hands again.
11:42 Speaker 2: In one way or another we 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 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.
12:25 Speaker 2: In the decline of life, we remedy our eye-sight with Northern 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.
13:00 Speaker 2: But it can hardly be necessary to say more in illustration of this unmanly and un-national dependence, which is so glaring that it cannot fail to be apparent to even the most careless and superficial observer. 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.
14:15 Anthony Comegna: Helper’s argument is problematic in all sorts of ways, but it struck the right political notes at just the right time to ignite a national uproar. His statistics were bad, his correlations were illogical. He made frenzy bleeps back and forth from cool empiricist to fiery declarations of Class War. He makes absolutely clear that he has no sickly fondness for African-Americans. Miscegenation disgusted him. He cared only about whites and deployed every tired and trite argument from Whig protectionist, nationalist economics, to twist the Lordly planters and populous knots. He appealed to the worst sort of Republicans, the least radical or committed Locofocos, and he tried to pull in as many other loathsome elements as possible into that coalition.
15:11 Anthony Comegna: Tactics like that often make for great politics. And during the Civil War, Helper was rewarded for his role with a diplomatic post in Argentina.
15:21 Speaker 2: Why the North has surpassed the South. And now that we have come to the very heart and soul of our subject, we feel no disposition to mince matters, but mean to speak plainly and to-the-point without any equivocation, mental reservation or secret evasion whatever. And so help us God, sink or swim, live or die, survive or perish, we are determined to exercise that right with manly firmness and without fear, favor or affection.
15:55 Speaker 2: In our opinion, that the causes which have impeded the progress and prosperity of the South, which have dwindled our commerce and other similar pursuits into the most contemptible insignificance; sunk a large majority of our people in galling poverty and ignorance, rendered a small minority conceited and tyrannical, and driven the rest away from their homes, entailed upon us a humiliating dependence on the Free States, disgraced us in the recesses of our own souls, and brought us under reproach in the eyes of all civilized and enlightened nations, may be traced to one common source. And there find solution in the most hateful and horrible word, that was ever incorporated into the vocabulary of human economy, slavery.
16:51 Speaker 2: Reared amidst to the institution of slavery, believing it to be wrong both in principle and in practice, and having seen and felt its evil influences upon individuals, communities and states, we deem it a duty, no less than a privilege, to enter our protest against it, and to use our most strenuous efforts to overturn and abolish it! Then we are an abolitionist? Yes! Not merely a free-soiler, but an abolitionist, in the fullest sense of the term.
17:26 Speaker 2: We are not only in favor of keeping slavery out of the territories, but carrying our opposition to the institution a step further, we here unhesitatingly declare ourself in favor of its immediate and unconditional abolition in every state in this confederacy where it now exists. Patriotism makes us a Free-soiler, state pride makes us an emancipationist, a profound sense of duty to the South makes us an abolitionist. A reasonable degree of fellow feeling for the Negro, makes us a colonizationist.
18:03 Speaker 2: With the free State-men in Kansas and Nebraska, we sympathize with all our heart, we love the whole country, the great family of states and territories, one and inseparable, and would have the word liberty engraved as an appropriate and truthful motto on the escutcheon of every member of the Confederacy.
18:24 Speaker 2: We love freedom, we hate slavery. And rather than give up the one or submit the other, we will forfeit the pound of flesh nearest our heart. Is this sufficiently explicit and categorical? If not we hold ourself in readiness at all times to return a prompt reply to any proper question that may be propounded. Our repugnants to the institution of slavery springs from no one-sided idea, or sickly, sentimentality. We have not been hasty in making up our mind on the subject, we have jumped at no conclusions. We have acted with perfect calmness and deliberation, we have carefully considered and examined the reasons for and against the institution and have also taken into account the probable consequences of our decision. The more we investigate the matter, the deeper becomes the conviction that we are right and with this to impel and sustain us, we pursue our labor with love, with hope and with constantly renewing vigor that we shall encounter opposition we consider as certain, perhaps we may even be subjected to insult and violence from the conceited and cruel oligarchy of the South. We could look for nothing less, but we shall shrink from no responsibility and do nothing unbecoming a man. We know how to repel indignity and if assaulted, shall not fail to make the blow recoil upon the aggressors head.
19:53 Speaker 2: The road we have to travel may be a rough one, but no impediment shall cause us to falter in our course, the line of our duty is clearly defined and it is our intention to follow it faithfully or die in the attempt. But thanks to heaven, we have no ominous forebodings of the result of the contest now pending between liberty and slavery in this confederacy. Though neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, our vision is sufficiently penetrative to divine the future, so far as to be able to see that the peculiar institution, has but a short and as here too, for in glorious existence before it, time, the righter of every wrong is ripening events for the desired consummation of our labors and the fulfillment of our cherished hopes. Each revolving year brings nearer the inevitable crisis. The sooner it comes, the better. May heaven, through our humble efforts hasten its Advent.
20:58 Speaker 2: The first and most sacred duty of every Southerner is to declare himself an unqualified and uncompromising abolitionist, no conditional or half-way declaration will avail. No mere threatening demonstration will succeed. With those who desire to be instrumental in bringing about the triumph of liberty over slavery, there should be neither evasion, vacillation nor equivocation. We should listen to no modifying terms or compromises that may be proposed by the proprietors of the unprofitable and ungodly institution. Nothing short of the complete abolition of slavery can save the south from falling into the vortex of utter ruin. Too long have we yielded a submissive obedience to the tyrannical domination of an inflated oligarchy. Too long have we tolerated their arrogance and self-conceit, too long have we submitted to their unjust and savage extractions. Let us now rest from them, the scepter of power, establish liberty and equal rights throughout the land and henceforth and forever, guard our legislative halls from the pollutions and usurpations of pro-slavery Demagogues. The political salvation of the South depends upon the speedy and unconditional abolition of slavery.
22:34 Anthony Comegna: After Helper’s book caught Horace Greeley’s attention, Congress followed suite, as Southerners took the floor to trash Helper for whipping up slave and class rebellion, Republicans helped him condense the book into a less objectionable, more politically useful form. This new compendium made its rounds through Congress and waves of Republicans gave it their official endorsement. It was the most important and inflammatory campaign material ever produced, and Helper was right now at the center of an upcoming battle for Speaker of the House from December ‘58, all the way through January ‘59, after the mid-term elections. The Republicans had the strongest numbers now, but not enough to outright place a speaker of their own choosing. They needed at least a few lingering American party nationalists, some Southerners, or a few Northern Democrats to join their side before a candidate could actually win. But one by one, all the candidates failed and nearly every time Helper’s Impending Crisis played some sort of role. Candidates had either endorsed it and therefore forever lost the votes of Southerners and their allies, or they had remained silent and gained the skepticism of all those anti-slavery Northerners.
23:53 Anthony Comegna: After eight grueling and embarrassing weeks of deadlock, the House finally settled on the former Whig and relative non-entity, John Sherman of Ohio. Sherman neither endorsed nor denounced Helper, and in all likelihood, he won purely because everyone was exhausted. A year later, Lincoln was president elect, put there many believed, thanks to the writings of Hinton Helper. South Carolina, meanwhile, declared herself a free and independent state, once more. Helper had a good enough stay in Buenos Aires, as a war time diplomat, he met his wife Maria Louisa Rodriguez, and while the war kept him busy he also had plenty of time to plan genocide when business was slow. Helper dreamed up schemes for expelling all people of color from North America and eventually the entire planet. This was his version of Manifest Destiny. First came abolition then physical removal of all people of color from the country, like with the Native Americans, then what Helper called “the fossilization of an entire people”. Over the next few decades, he dove into an almost psychotic racism, the likes of which this country has seriously not seen before or since. He was singularly hateful and envious of virtually everyone around him. When he failed as a corporate railroad parasite, he turned even further inward toward racism, leading historian George Frederickson to compare him with a plague victim. If ever racism truly infected and destroyed a human being’s brain, it was so with Hinton Helper.
25:39 Anthony Comegna: But what could have possibly been behind all of this? Most Americans, even the terribly racist ones, did not even approach Hinton Helper. They found his arguments politically useful, certainly, but how could he possibly be so bitter? George Frederickson speculates that the intensity of this hatred goes back to Helper’s school days, at the Mocksville Academy. He would have been side by side with planter sons and their slaves alike. Helper, of course, could never hope to match the planters and they held such disdain for a poor, white person like him that even the slaves seemed closer to respectability and power than Helper ever could. He hated the planters for their wealth, and he hated the slaves for their close proximity to all that power. He envied both master and servant in darkly disturbing ways that cut in both directions against the very idea of free people in a free society. He would have scrapped free society entirely if it meant he personally got to be a great planter and he would be a slave, himself, if it meant juicy scraps from the glorious master’s table. But that was not how his society functioned and much as someone like George Fitzhugh would love having a slave like Helper, that simply was not how his society functioned, and the tensions in his mind drove Helper insane.
27:19 Anthony Comegna: A failure at everything he had ever done, including reviving his beloved white, Southern yeomanry, Hinton Helper rotted away in mind and body until March 9, 1909. In his dreary, Washington, DC apartment, living in poverty and obscurity, Helper turned on the gas and asphyxiated himself to death. When the historian, John Spencer Bassett once had a graduate student propose writing a dissertation about Helper, Basset discouraged him. The professor knew Helper personally and declared him mentally unbalanced, neither wise nor attractive. I quite agree and God help us if we ever again feel ourselves in need of a hero, like the horrible Hinton Helper because that is the moment when libertarianism goes the way of the Loco-Foco.
28:27 Anthony Comegna: Liberty Chronicles is a project of libertarianism.org, it is produced by Tess Terrible. If you’ve enjoyed this episode of Liberty Chronicles, please rate, review and subscribe to us on iTunes. For more information on Liberty Chronicles, visit libertarianism.org.