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Hinton Rowan Helper:
Harbinger of America’s New Dawn


Hinton Rowan Helper, 1829–1909

4,025 words

For most readers having a nodding acquaintance with American history, the term “abolitionist” conjures up a vision of a sentimental housewife like Harriet Beecher Stowe, a homicidal psychopath in the mold of John Brown, or some stone-faced Puritan negrophile. This picture is accurate enough as far as it goes, but it is a long way from being complete. Abolitionism and negrophilia were not one and the same thing.

There was another abolitionism, born of the conviction that the Black was a menace to society, whatever his legal status. This tradition included among its adherents some of the leading figures in American history. Not so famous as the others, perhaps, but of particular interest to us as fighters for a White America, was Hinton Rowan Helper.

Once the center of a vortex of controversy, Helper is now largely forgotten. His insights made him an inconvenient visionary, and the court historians have assigned him to the Stygian oblivion of the memory hole. He should be rescued from his obscurity, if only to frustrate the designs of the Ministry of Truth.

Gaining the proper perspective from which to view our subject involves a bit of analysis of the social structure of the Old South, and a look at his place in it. Southern virtues are and have been intertwined with Southern vices since the evolution of a more-or-less separate Southern way of life. And always, looming over the Southern landscape like some doom-laden thundercloud, has been the fact of Black slavery.

One is tempted to say that everything of importance in Dixie revolved around the twin poles of planter and slave. One commentator noted, “Any man who passes through our country could hardly help being struck with the fact that all the capital, enterprise, and intelligence is employed in directing slave labor. . . .” [1]

The commitment to large-scale plantations using slave labor was, as far as the majority of Whites were concerned, a pact with the devil. The position of the poorer Whites was tenuous at best. They often found themselves competing with slave labor, lived under the threat of Black insurrection, and generally were cast in the role of odd man out in a society dominated economically and politically by an oligarchy of slave-owning planters.

It was into this class of White yeomen that Hinton Rowan Helper was born on December 27, 1829. His father worked a small farm in what was then Rowan (now Davie) County, in western North Carolina, but died of mumps while Hinton was a child. His mother and an uncle took on the task of raising the brood of five boys and two girls.

A few years spent at the local Mocksville Academy was all the formal education Helper was to receive, but at that he was better off than most of his fellows. At the age of 18, however, economic necessity led him to become indentured for three years to a merchant in Salisbury, North Carolina.

Life as a store clerk wasn’t what Helper had in mind. When the three years were up he said goodbye. Standing six feet tall, with blue eyes and dark, wavy hair, possessed of energy, ambition, and a keen, analytical mind, he was ready to have a go at making his way in the larger world. He went to New York, found it not to his liking, and on January 31, 1851, sailed around the Horn to California on the clipper Stag Hound.

Helper seemed to be racially conscious from birth, but if he bore any illusions at all they didn’t survive for long in the racial chaos that was gold-rush California. The grasping San Francisco merchants, among whom the Jews were conspicuously active, he called “the shrewdest rascals in the world.”

Helper described his experiences in his first book, The Land of Gold. He was unfavorably impressed by all the non-White elements he met. He said of the 40,000 Chinamen in California, “I cannot perceive what more right or business these semi-barbarians have in California than flocks of blackbirds in a wheat-field.”

The Digger Indians, whose main claim to fame was their matchless skill in stalking the wily acorn, met with equally short shrift: “Too indolent to work, too cowardly to fight, they will melt away before the white man like snow before a spring sun.”

Even the south-of-the-border senoritas found little favor in Helper’s eyes. He wrote, “Their pumpkin hues and slovenly deportment could never awaken any admiration in me.”

After three years of backbreaking but unremunerative work in the goldfields Helper decided that he had eaten enough pork and beans for one lifetime and returned to North Carolina. He completed The Land of Gold and then began planning the book which was to generate a political hurricane: The Impending Crisis of the South [2].

Published in 1857, The Impending Crisis, though hardly to be mistaken for great literature, was interesting and significant in several respects. It was an early attempt to use economic statistics to buttress a sociological argument. Helper used data collected in the 1850 census to show how slavery was debilitating Southern society. The linchpin of his argument consisted of 58 tables comparing the economies of the North and the South. Although some of his arguments were specious, the overall picture was indeed one of economic, and ultimately social, stultification.

The book recalled a former outburst of Southern anti-slavery agitation. In the wake of Nat Turner’s bloody slave rebellion in 1831, many Virginians had become disillusioned with the whole business of slavery. That feeling was reflected in the 1831–32 debates of the Virginia House of Delegates. Helper quoted Charles James Faulkner’s opinion that the slaves “threaten the subversion and ruin of this Commonwealth. Their present number, their increasing number, all admonish us of that.” In Faulkner’s view the economics of slavery was disastrous, in that “it banishes free white labor, it exterminates the mechanic, the artisan, the manufacturer. It deprives them of bread.”

Helper was not a man to mince words, and in the hyperbolic rhetorical style of his day he vented his spleen against what he saw as an irresponsible, uncaring slavocracy which oppressed the White masses economically, socially, and politically. In his view the White worker was treated “as if he was a loathsome beast, and shunned with the utmost disdain.” While the cotton aristocracy lavished its wealth on luxury goods from Europe and the North, and sent its sons to Northern schools, the average Southerner was left illiterate, barefoot, and to all intents and purposes disenfranchised.

Black slaves had become a status symbol and were rented out at rates higher than the wages that Whites could command. According to Helper the North Carolina Railroad Company paid $12 a month to free Whites, while slave owners could rent out their darkies for $16 a month. While the plantation plutocrats were maximizing profit in the short run, the lifeblood of the South was being drained. The slave economy “has retarded the progress and prosperity of our portion of the Union; depopulated and impoverished our cities by forcing the more industrious and enterprising natives of the soil to emigrate to the free states.”

Antipathy to the slave system and all its works was widespread in the highland areas of the Old South. In Alabama, for instance, Winston County seceded from the state to form the Free State of Winston. So violent was the negrophobia of the hill folk that even today some towns in northern Alabama have a reputation as “sundowners”; i.e., if a Black isn’t out of town by sundown his stay may be eternal.

These were Helper’s people, and he spoke for and to them with a passion. He was especially vituperative when condemning the machinations of the slave-owning elite: “Never were the poorer classes of a people so basely duped, so adroitly swindled, or so damnably outraged.” The planter oligarchy, or the “lords of the lash” as Helper referred to them, were accused of the most supreme indifference to the lot of their unmoneyed kinsmen. The White workers were “regarded with less esteem and attention than Negroes, and though the condition of the slaves is wretched beyond description, vast numbers of whites are infinitely worse off.” He quoted a South Carolinian to the effect that “a large portion of our poor white people are wholly neglected, and are suffered to while away an existence but one step in advance of the Indian of the forest.”

Helper was convinced that the slave owners kept the White masses unlettered and unknowing, the better to manipulate them: “They have purposely kept you in ignorance, and have, by moulding your passions and prejudices to suit themselves, induced you to act in direct opposition to your dearest rights and interests.”

Though they vastly outnumbered the slave owners, the non-slave-owning Whites were, Helper said, virtually excluded from the political system. Under this state of affairs the latter “have never yet had any part or lot in framing the laws under which they live. There is no legislation except for the benefit of slavery and slaveholders.”

Helper felt deeply, and by the 1850s he was correct in saying it, that anyone who dared to question the wisdom of the slave system was subject to both psychological and physical intimidation. Dissenters were liable “to be crushed with stern rebukes, cruel oppressions, or downright violence. If they dare to think for themselves, their thoughts must be forever concealed.”

The solution which Helper proposed in The Impending Crisis was eminently sound. Given the history of human folly, however, it was probably too sensible to have any hope of adoption. According to Helper, the slave owners should free their slaves and give each one $60 for boat fare. Everything that would float should be rounded up and should be kept “constantly plying between the ports of America and Africa, until all slaves shall enjoy freedom in the land of their fathers.”

Helper was basically on firm ground in his critique of the slave system. Unfortunately, he carried his personal antipathy to the slave-owning class too far. His suggestion that the planters should reach the same conclusion that Judas came to and hang themselves is typical of his invective on the subject. He failed to see that the White masses clung to the “squirearchy” as a bulwark against the spectre of a slave revolt. Any crack in the wall of White solidarity appeared to them to augur nothing but disaster. The dream of repatriation to Africa must have seemed too good to be true. Perhaps it was.

At any rate, in June 1856 Helper disposed of his share in the family farm for $280 and set out to have his book published in New York. He knew better than to try to publish below the Mason-Dixon line. In the slave states it was a criminal offense to distribute “incendiary documents.”

Eventually Helper used his connections with the Republican Party to promote The Impending Crisis in a condensed, mass-market version. Sold mostly at cost, some 75,000 copies were put into circulation. The book became famous, or infamous, and was the focal point of a national brouhaha in the last antebellum Congress. Convinced, in the backwash of John Brown’s murderous raid, that a slave insurrection was being plotted, pro-slavery Congressmen waved copies of The Impending Crisis in the faces of their Republican colleagues, demanding that they disavow the book. An indication of the volatility of the situation is the fact that most of the members of Congress went about armed.

When war came Helper found himself in an uncomfortable position. Unable to support secession, he was equally unwilling to serve in an invading army. In 1861 he managed to wangle a diplomatic appointment to Argentina, where he served as U.S. consul until 1867. During this tenure he found a wife in Marie Louisa Rodriquez, a well-bred Spanish Argentinian. On his return to North Carolina he began a period of intense literary and political activity. He addressed the race problem in America, proposed a solution, and strove to put it into practice.

Published in 1867, Nojoque, A Question for a Continent was the first volume of a trilogy by Helper on America’s racial problem. He was, to say the least, disappointed by the form the abolition of slavery had taken. Instead of being promptly repatriated, the freed slaves were unleashed on the South like an infestation of killer bees. With the publication of Nojoque there could be no confusion in anyone’s mind as to where Helper stood. He had, he assured his readers, “ever regarded the Negro as a very inferior and almost worthless sort of man, to be freed, colonized, justly and liberally provided for, and then put wholly upon his own resources and left to himself.”

The remarkable thing about Helper’s writing is its clarity of vision. In uncompromising terms he drove home again and again the nature of the race crisis and relentlessly declared the solution: “No slave, no Negro or mulatto, no Chinaman nor unnative Indian, no black nor bi-colored individual of whatever name or nationality will again find domicile anywhere within the boundaries of the United States.”

To a large extent Nojoque was a pastiche of expert testimony on the undesirable traits of Homo africanus. Among the sources cited were the Transactions of the London Ethnological Society and William B. Carpenter’s Principles of Human Physiology. Anthropological evidence was reinforced by personal observation. In the halls of Congress Helper had “beheld there, uncouthly lounging and dozing upon the seats, a horde of vile, ignorant, and foul-scented Negroes.” He saw the Black as a natural slave who had nothing to lose and everything to gain by latching on, remora-like, to White civilization: “To be a slave of the White man, yet, if possible to be a slave exempt from labor, has always been the ruling ambition of the Negro.”

Helper wrote his next book, The Negroes in Negroland, in 1868 to awaken Northerners to the infernal nature of what was being done to the South under the label of Reconstruction. The White masses of the South were suffering an unprecedented martyrdom. Politically they were powerless, having been disenfranchised as former Confederates. Economically they found themselves in competition with the freed slaves, who were hired en masse by their former masters at subsistence-level wages. This was the era when many Southerners disappeared overnight, leaving a cryptic “GTT” (“gone to Texas”) scrawled on a barn door. While shoeless White women begged for bread in the streets, Helper noticed “multitudes of sleek, stupid, filthy, greasy, and grinning Negroes, occupying places which would have been infinitely better occupied by whites.”

With the growing influence of Radical Republicanism, worse was to come. As crime became the primary means of subsistence and amusement for many of the former slaves, Helper wrote of a terror that “reigns supreme among the white females of every family.” His hope was that decent men of good will could save the Republican Party from the Radicals, whose program he labeled “a consummate outrage, an unmitigated despotism, an unparalleled infamy, and atrocious crime.”

Negroes in Negroland was especially aimed at the negrophobic public in the Old Northwest (today’s Midwest). It included a vivid catalog of the racial peculiarities of the blackamoor, witness: “. . . his low and compressed forehead, his small, backward-thrown brain, his projecting snout-like mouth, the malodorous exhalations from his person, his puerility of mind, and his apathetic indifference to all propositions and enterprises of solid merit.”

Helper quoted the opinions of a number of people concerning “the black imps of Africa,” as he called them. David Livingstone (of “I presume” fame) allowed that “among the Negroes, no science has been developed, and few questions are ever discussed, except those which have an intimate connection with the wants of the stomach.”

Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia produced more grist for Helper’s mill. The man claimed as their spiritual forebear by today’s renegade Democrats knew his Blacks, as evidenced by his comment on “their disposition to sleep when distracted from their diversions and unemployed in labor.” Furthermore, “I think . . . [a Negro] could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid.”

Abraham Lincoln himself was anything but a negrophile. As a true son of the Northwest he told a delegation of Blacks in 1862, “We have between us a broader difference than exists between any other two races. As I think your race suffers greatly by living with us, ours suffers from your presence.”

On a trip to Africa, Helper had a chance to study his “black imps” in their native habitat when his ship stopped at Dakar. His remarks on the occasion were blunt, devastating, and rather humorous. While the women seemed to spend most of their time scurrying about with outsized water jugs perched atop their woolly domes, the men declined to bestir themselves “except to loll and loiter about, beg, grin, giggle and guffaw.” Much the same spectacle can, of course, be seen on a thousand ghetto street corners today.

More exotic was the sight of underdressed Negresses pounding millet, their pendulent mammaries vibrating “like globules of calves-foot jelly on a dish in transit.” Helper watched three females pursue a reluctant chicken for the better part of an hour, and though his sympathies were with the unfortunate pullet, “many a circus has afforded me much less amusement.”

Unlike those who to this day insist on pestering inoffensive aboriginals in the name of Yahweh, Helper was sceptical of missionaries and their doings. In Dakar he found the local Jesuit particularly unnecessary. In Helper’s opinion the gentleman just as well could have carried on “in a community of gorillas or baboons.”

While he was capable of appreciating the laughable side of the Blacks’ eccentricities, Helper was always acutely aware of the gravity of the problem they posed. For him it was “utterly impossible for clean-natured and clean-sighted white men ever to disdain the Negro in a manner at all commensurate with his manifold and measureless demerits.”

There was nothing funny about the election of Ulysses Grant in 1868. The Radicals were now in the saddle, digging their spurs hard into the flanks of a prostrate South. Helper became convinced that the mainstream political parties were beyond redemption. His answer to the challenge thus raised was a plan to form a new party dedicated to the well-being of the White working class, North and South.

In 1869 Helper contacted William J. Jessup, president of the New York State Workingman’s Association. Jessup was impressed enough to present Helper’s ideas to the convention, meeting in Philadelphia that year, of the National Labor Union, which had been organized in 1866. It was resolved to form a committee to study the idea of a new party.

Helper put his program into book form with Noontide Exigencies in America. With the symbiotic rise of Radical Republicanism and industrial-financial plutocracy, the White masses were in a bad way. Inevitably, things were worst in the erstwhile Cotton Kingdom. Many White women, in their desperation, had turned to the oldest profession. Blacks were monopolizing “the light work which, by the laws of right, honor, fitness, and decency, should be given to white females only.”

Those White women who found honest work were often forced to labor in the fields, where they were subject to the attacks of Black marauders. Helper wrote, “The very Negroes which we have taken within, are, in effect, encouraged to pursue and outrage the same unfortunate white females whom we have turned without.”

The first step toward setting things right was to deny employment to all non-Whites. The man who hired Blacks was “a vile traitor to his race, and a sower of seeds of immorality, dissension, strife, demoralization, and ruin.”

Helper proposed an 18-point platform for the new party, including:

Immediate purchase of San Domingo, Haiti, or Cuba, to be used as a sort of wastebasket receptacle for our American Negroes and mulattoes and for all our other black and brown rubbish of the genus Homo . . .

Recognition by law of the obvious distinctions which Nature has been pleased to make in the several races of mankind; no more tyrannical forcing of white people into intimate association or relations with Negroes; no denying white men justice by having Negro jurors; no degrading of white children by sending them to Negro schools; no fraternization with Negroes in the community . . .

No encouragement to Chinese or other Asiatics to become coolies in the United States . . .

Liberal inducements to all Negroes, mulattoes, and Mongolians to emigrate beyond the prospective limits of the United States . . .

No more sending of Negroes abroad as representative Americans. The white man only is the representative American. Wherever it is not proper for the white man to go in that capacity, no one else should be sent.

In 1870 the National Labor Union took the first steps toward political activism. Whether Helper’s prompting decided them is problematic, but the members purged their ranks of Blacks and demanded an end to Chinese immigration. When it came to challenging the Democrats and the Republicans head on in the national political arena, however, the trade union leaders seem to have lost their nerve. The intellectual cadre tried to soldier on, and in the national election of 1872 they nominated Associate Supreme Court Justice David Davis of Illinois for the Presidency. He withdrew at the last minute, and by 1873 the National Labor Union was kaput.

After this Helper, who had made no money to speak of from his books, turned his attention to the task of rehabilitating a dilapidated exchequer. He became, with some success, an agent for people with financial claims against various South American governments. His dealings with the tinpot tyrants of half a dozen banana republics were in themselves worthy of a dime novel, but Helper needed no Ned Buntline. He did the job himself in his Oddments of Andean Diplomacy.

By no means did he lose interest in the question of race, however. He was struck by the contrast between the mobs of mestizos and the White Latins, whom he called in his last-named book “the peers if not the paragons of the politest and highest-toned people in the world.” The throngs of mongrels were a different matter, dismissed by Helper as “an idle, vicious, and worthless population of Negroes, Indians, and bi-colored hybrids; vile-visaged and deleterious forms of human rubbish.”

A dream began forming in Helper’s fecund imagination. He envisioned a double-tracked railroad extending from America’s heartland through Mexico and Central America, all the way down to the Argentine pampas. He imagined a flood of American exports, material and human, vitalizing the entirety of Latin America, lending support to the rule of the better elements, and eventually sweeping aside the biological clutter which by its inertia kept the area so backward. He expounded his dream in yet another book, The Three Americas Railway.

The concept was bold and stirring, worthy of a great people and a great nation. It became more difficult to relinquish than it had been to conceive. As chimeras have a way of doing, the Three Americas Railway remained a glittering maybe. Helper impoverished himself attempting to promote it, and believed in its inevitability to the end.

The end came in 1909, at the age of 79. In poverty and alone, Helper made the decision to step into eternity with a final exercise of his sovereign will.

We needn’t exaggerate the stature of Hinton Helper to honor him. He wasn’t a world-heroic figure. Basically he was a man who used his eyes to see, and who had the guts to tell others what he saw. He was a brave man and he was true-blue.

All honor to you, Hinton Helper. You fought the good fight. We can and will do no less.


1. William Gregg, in an address to the South Carolina Institute, 1851. Gregg (1800–1867) was another Southerner whose opposition to slavery was based on the effects the institution had on working-class Whites; like Helper, he tried to break the monolithic, plantation-based economy of the South, which left no room for them. He retired from his profession as a watchmaker and silversmith in 1838 and established the South’s first typical cotton-mill village, near Aiken, SC, employing only White workers in his mill.

Source: National Vanguard, no. 100, May 1984, pp. 9–13.