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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

XXI. Political Writing Since 1850

§ 7. Hinton Rowan Helper

But the Southern protest par excellence was The Impending Crisis of the South (1859), the work of Hinton Rowan Helper of North Carolina. With the moral aspect of slavery he had no interest; that he left to Northern writers, especially to “Yankee wives” who have “written the most popular antislavery literature of the day. Against this I have nothing to say; it is all well enough for women to give the fictions of slavery; men should give the facts.” These facts were suggested to him by a visit to the free states of the West. Their wealth and prosperity, as compared with conditions in the home country, made a deep impression upon him. He thereupon made a study of the comparative resources and development of the slave and free states. His conclusion was that slavery was a positive evil to the white men of the South. Notable was the distinction he drew between the slaveholders who were numerically in the minority, but shaped the public policy, and the nonslaveholders, numerically in the majority, but having little political power. Let the latter organize, take over the government, exclude the slavocracy from office holding, and abolish the institution which sapped the strength of the country. The book, published after some difficulty, became exceedingly popular in the North, and was reprinted in 1859 as a campaign document. In the South it was regarded as incendiary literature; agents who distributed it were imprisoned and fined, and any one possessing a copy was regarded as a traitor to his country. Among those who had commended the book was John Sherman, candidate for the speakership of the House of Representatives in 1859. During the contest this fact was brought into the discussion. Thereupon a Virginia congressman declared that “one who consciously, deliberately, and of purpose lends his name and influence to the propagation of such writing is not only not fit to be Speaker, but he is not fit to live.” Yet, strange to say, the particular passage which called forth this remark was a quotation from the Virginia Debates of 1831.

Between the extremes represented by Helper and Thomas Dew, there existed a moderate school of thought, which acknowledged the evils of slavery, especially the burden it imposed upon the whites, but deprecated any artificial attempt toward its abolition. This, it was held, time and natural causes would bring about. Such a writer was J. H. Hammond, of South Carolina. In his Letters on Slavery, written in reply to the criticisms of Thomas Clarkson, he conceded that slavery was more expensive than free labour, but that the remedy lay not in immediate abolition but in an increase in the density of the population, which would make the supply of free labour more available. Likewise George M. Weston, a native of Maine, who lived in Washington, pointed out, in his Progress of Slavery in the United States (1857), the steady encroachment of free labour upon slave labour along the border of the South, the ultimate advantage in the continuance of this process, and the purely political character of the demand for the extension of slavery into the territories of the Northwest. Such undoubtedly were the convictions of thousands; but they smacked too much of compromise in a decade when an increasing number of radicals, North and South, would yield not one jot or one tittle from their respective positions.