The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It

Written By North Carolina History Project

Although many are aware that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, heightened tensions between the North and the South, some historians argue that Hinton R. Helper’s The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It played a more significant role in starting the American Civil War.  According to historian George M. Fredrickson, it can be argued convincingly that Helper’s 1857 publication was “the most important single book, in terms of its political impact, that has ever been published in the United States.”  The Republican Party used it as a campaign document in the 1860 election and incorporated its message within its platform.  

The Impending Crisis called for the abolition of slavery and the modernization of the South.   Helper argued that slavery was the biggest obstacle to Southern economic growth.   The peculiar institution, he claimed, made the South’s population poor, ignorant, and superstitious, and he encouraged nonslaveholding whites to look out for their interests.  (Helper was the only Southern intellectual to conceptualize nonslaveholders as a distinct class.)   

Slave ownership made the elite downplay the importance and respectability of manual labor.  Nonslaveholding whites were only one small step above the slave, Helper pointed out.  Slaveowners had duped nonslaveholding whites into believing that the peculiar institution benefited them.  In a century or two after slavery’s abolition, Helper predicted that the South would emerge as one of the greatest, cosmopolitan civilizations “that ha[d] ever lived.”  “Whence their ancestors may come, whether from Europe, from Asia, from Africa, from Oceania, from North or South America, or from the islands of the sea, or whatever honorable vocation they may now be engaged in, matters nothing at all.”  

John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry and the incorporation of The Impending Crisis into the Republican Party’s campaigns intensified the controversy surrounding the book.  In 1859, John Brown raided a U.S. Arsenal in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in hopes that he might arm the slaves for a revolt.  Tensions between the slaveholding territories and states and the free states increased; slave owners feared an armed uprising.  And shortly after the raid, the Republican Party issued book copies across the MidWest to target undecided voters.   According to the New York Herald, “The Helper book is but their (Republican Party] paraphrase.  The principles they enunciate are the same, and if the language is different the sense is identical.  It was the key note of republican [sic] electioneering from the beginning of 1858 until the end of 1860.”  The North Carolinian’s work influenced the Northern electorate because it emphasized the plight of the white working man and undermined the Democratic Party’s claim that the Republican Party catered to “black Republicans” working for racial equality.