Davie man’s anti-slavery book helped shape ideas in 1857

Published 9:55 am Friday, June 28, 2024

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Two days after Christmas, in 1829, Hinton Rowan Helper is born on the Squire Boone homesite on the Bear Creek, two miles west of Mocksville, the son of Daniel J. and Sarah Brown Helper. Squire Boone, the father of Daniel Boone, having died nearly 100 years earlier, was not in attendance. Hinton is educated at the Mocksville Academy and graduates in 1848. He apprentices to a Salisbury printer, Michael Brown.

He tires of printing, however, and seeking his fortune, travels in 1850 to the California goldfields. His fortune turns out to be all of 93 cents, his total take from three months of working one claim. However, it does provide the material for his first book: “California Land of Gold: Fiction vs. Reality.”

He returns to Salisbury, and, living off the proceeds of his first book, begins work on his second. With it mostly finished, he moves to New York to have it published. On this day (June 26), an ad appears in the New York Daily Tribune for Helper’s new book, titled: “The Impending Crises of the South: How To Meet It.”

The book denounces slavery in no uncertain terms and points out that an economic system based on slavery only slowed the South’s growth. Helper argues that the South’s growth, prosperity, and cultural development were being held back by slavery.

He uses statistics to show that land values, literacy levels, and manufacturing rates were lower than those in the North. He points out that slavery is an economic dead-end for the South. He even proposes that all slaveholders be taxed to support colonization for all free blacks in Africa or Latin America.

However, if there were ever a model for the law of unintended consequences, it would be Hinton Helper’s book, “The Impending Crises…”

Helper writes the book for that vast majority of Southerners who do not own slaves. He writes for the small southern farm and business owner to show how the plantation system is less productive than modern farming techniques, and that those that continue to advocate the plantation system are poisoning the South.

But most of its intended readers will never see the book. The reason being the book is an immediate success … in the North. It is second only to “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” on bestseller lists and immediately becomes an influential Abolitionist cause célèbre.

Among the slaveholders, it is reviled, of course, and is even banned in places, especially across the Lower South. Helper becomes a hated man in the South and is as denounced as his books. But despite this, the book sparks considerable debate among the Upper Southern states as to the future of slavery. Among the states in the Upper South, slavery had been dropping for decades, and in many places, was practically non-existent. In the New Mexico territory, a slave territory under the Missouri Compromise, in the 1860 census, there were precisely 24 slaves in the whole territory.  Twenty-four slaves in a 121,590 square mile area.  That’s roughly one slave for every 5,000 square miles.

On Southern University campuses, especially the “Southern Ivys,”, notably the University of North Carolina, there had already been considerable discussion, debate, and thought about a post-slavery South, and, more importantly … how to get there.

Helper’s book begins the conversation in earnest in the South on how to bring slavery to an end. Of all the proposals, the 1880/1885 plan had the most support. It proposes that every child born in the South after January 1st, 1880 (or 1885…there is considerable support for and against both dates) will be free.

Helper becomes famous overnight, and his economic theories on what Slavery is doing to the South are generally referred to as “Helperism.” Had the South been given time for Helper’s ideas to percolate beyond the discussion stage into the Southern State Legislatures, it would have been interesting to see what would have grown from Helper’s theories.

But even as Hinton Helper’s book is being read and discussed, a man is circulating among the New England Abolitionists, raising funds for a little adventure he has in mind. His name is John Brown, and what he has in mind is a slave rebellion, beginning with seizing the Federal Armory at Harper’s Ferry, Va.

For the South, the clock is ticking.

This article by Kevin E. Spencer, author, N.C. Expatriates, appeared on the Facebook page facebook.com/NCExpat; where a different North Carolina history article appears each day, corresponding with that day in history.