U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Reflections on David Potter’s The Impending Crisis, part 2

The following is part two in our ongoing roundtable on David Potter’s The Impending Crisis. For part one, by Frank Towers, go here

The Impending Crisis: Supplementing David Potter with Hinton Helper

By Keri Leigh Merritt, who works as an independent scholar in Atlanta, Georgia. She is the author of Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South (Cambridge University Press, 2017) and the co-editor of Reviving Southern Labor History: Race, Class, and Power (forthcoming).

Forty-one years after the publication of The Impending Crisis, David Potter’s work is still widely read. While many recent studies have amended or updated parts of his narrative, Potter’s book remains the most comprehensive political history encompassing the few decades leading to secession. [1]

Although The Impending Crisis offered a broad, sweeping analysis of the political causes of the Civil War, as William Barney put it, “the politicized consequences of sectionalism are stressed to the detriment of tracing out its social origins….it remains for others to accept the challenge of dealing with the social origins and development of America’s greatest crisis.” Over the last four decades scholars have made incredible progress on the social origins of the Civil War, detailing African Americans’ struggles for freedom, the militancy and ethnic conflicts of northern industrial workers, and even the beliefs and lifestyles of landed yeomen farmers. However, one group in particular has remained understudied: poor southern whites. [2] 

In the context of Potter, omitting this antebellum social stratification was ironic, given that his book was titled after Hinton Helper’s infamous 1857 tome, The Impending Crisis of the South. Yet by supplementing Potter’s Impending Crisis with Helper’s Impending Crisis, it becomes more obvious why the rise of the Republican Party ultimately led to secession. Potter – understandably – puts a very heavy emphasis on the issue of slavery as responsible for the Grand Old Party’s ascent. Oftentimes, however, this preoccupation obscures the myriad other ways that Republican ideas threatened the powers and fortunes of the slaveholding oligarchy.

As a non-slaveholder from North Carolina, Helper crafted a statistically-stacked, well-researched volume intended for the masses of white southerners, calling upon them to join the anti-slavery movement out of concern for their own self-interest. Although Helper was rabidly racist, he was simultaneously an abolitionist. Claiming that five million poor southern whites suffered “a second degree of slavery” precisely because of the enslavement of blacks, Helper made a variety of convincing arguments detailing slavery’s detrimental impact on the lives of non-slaveholders.[3]

According to Helper, a small but very wealthy group of slaveholders lorded over the South, controlling politics and dominating the economy. Deeming the master class “a disgrace and a curse to humanity,” he refuted the pro-slavery argument point-by-point, asserting that no free white could compete with slave labor. Contrary to planter claims that black slavery boosted the status of all whites, Helper argued that slaveholding was the main determinant of southern social status.

In their frenzied quest to suppress anything that even mentioned abolition, slaveholders immediately banned The Impending Crisis from the South, clamoring for Helper’s death and arresting or lynching anyone who brought a copy of his book into the region. Their overzealous reaction to Helper’s ideas strongly suggests that his theories may have been more accurate than previously scholars – including Potter – have assumed. Indeed, Helper’s Impending Crisis is the key to understanding why the master class so feared the emerging Republican Party, and how class issues between southern whites helped push slaveholders towards secession. As the U.S. Marshall from Charleston asked a South Carolina Congressman in 1860, “think you that 360,000 Slaveholders will dictate terms for 3,000,000 of nonslaveholders at the South [?] I fear not, I mistrust our own people more than I fear all of the efforts of the Abolitionists.” [4]

Founded on principles of free labor, agrarian reform, and a type of relatively egalitarian, small-scale capitalism, Republicans not only seemed like radicals to slaveholders – they were truly revolutionary, and not solely due to their stance on slavery. The new party clearly elucidated the staggering differences between the two sections of the country, and the comparison did not bode well for the South, where large-scale, unrestrained capitalism reigned supreme.

The region’s dependence upon brutalized, enslaved labor rendered many wage laborers superfluous, and white workers’ pay fell as job opportunities continued to disappear. Slave owners thus created a pervasive criminal system to deal with the impoverished, and employed a variety of vigilante tactics to reinforce the penal state. Conversely, in the free labor North, Republicans argued, artisans, craftsmen, small farmers, and middling-class entrepreneurs helped create a democratic society that was, in many ways, progressive and dynamic. [5]

Moreover, the new Republican Party’s platform not only addressed urban poverty, but also rural landlessness by promoting the Homestead Act – a bill originally proposed by non-elite white Southerners. Slaveholders, of course, loathed the idea of homesteads, worrying that the western states would become filled with anti-slavery small farmers who would tip the balance of power in the federal government. As Charleston’s Mercury reported in March of 1860, the Homestead Act was the “most dangerous abolition bill which has ever indirectly been pressed in Congress.” [6]

The aversion of slave owners to both land and labor reform surely played a role in the branding of Republicans as “Black.” Although the derisive moniker obviously referred to the anti-slavery and abolitionist beliefs of some of the party’s members, it is important to note that African Americans were rarely referred to as anything other than “negroes,” “niggers,” or “colored” in the antebellum era. The term “Black Republican,” therefore, not only denigrated Republicans in regards to race, it also raised the specter of Europe’s Red Republicans – the continent’s most radical and progressive political parties.

Red Republicans generally advocated for workers’ rights and agrarian land reform. As Andre Fleche found, as early as 1848 Democrats in Missouri were denouncing “the St. Louis Republicans’ radical, European-style socialism that attacked property rights, economic privilege, and, by extension, slavery. Democrats began conflating ‘Black and Red Republicans’ and comparing the German unionist platform to the most radical ideologies of ‘Mazzini, Kossuth, Ledru Rollin, and Louis Blanc.’” [7]

Particularly in the South, therefore, the sheer radicalism of these Republicans was more than just political – it was dangerous. With a platform that likely appealed to poor and lower-middling class whites, Republicans could have won adherents throughout the region had it not been for slaveholders’ extremely effective system of censorship. As the 1850s wore on, slave owners increasingly found themselves having defend the peculiar institution on three-fronts: from northern and western abolitionists and free-soilers, from the enslaved themselves, and from poorer southern whites. J. Henly Smith, the non-slaveholding political protégé of Alexander Stephens, worried that if Republicans won, they would “have adherents and supporters all over the South—in every state…The non-slaveholders will very generally adhere to the new party, and slavery will be crushed out forever.” [8]

Clearly, the loyalty and devotion of the region’s poorer whites was high on the minds of slaveholders as they entered the election season of 1860. One master cautioned that Republicans were becoming “powerful” enough to overthrow the slaveholders’ “Union, and extinguish all fraternity amongst those who support it.” Not to be outdone, on the very eve of secession South Carolina Senator James Chestnut, Jr., charged that the Party of Lincoln was “governed by the Red Republican principles of France.” Yet by adding anti-slavery beliefs to an already-radical platform, the Party had “changed its complexion” and “blackened its face.” [9]

Indeed, the inevitable rise of a southern Republican Party was one of the most compelling arguments secessionists had for immediate action. The specter of Black Republicanism was omnipresent; as one historian wrote, secessionists tried their best to portray Republicans as “a foreign menace which should be treated as if it were an infectious disease.” As Roger Shugg found in rural Louisiana, “a few men were thrust into jail because ‘they hurrahed for Lincoln’ or revealed ‘the darkest Abolitionist proclivities.’” All over the Deep South slaveholders scrambled to come up with a plan to preserve slavery, and to do that, they had to blunt or redirect the anxiety of the white masses. The white working class was under-worked, under-paid, and increasingly fed up with the peculiar intuition. As one poor white laborer succinctly put it, “if it came to a war over slavery, he was going to fight against it…perhaps he could get better wages.” [10]

Four decades later, it’s apparent that Potter’s work – as exhaustive and comprehensive as it is – is in desperate need of updating. Just concerning political history, a spate of scholarship has altered some of his key findings. And using Hinton Helper’s Impending Crisis to supplement Potter’s Impending Crisis would certainly go a long way in modernizing Potter’s portrayal of class conflict in the antebellum South. As Helper wrote in 1857, “Now is the time for action; let us work.” [11]

[1] David Potter, The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861 (New York: Harper & Row, 1976). For some of the best recent political studies of the Civil War era, see Manisha Sinha, The Counterrevolution of Slavery: Politics and Ideology in Antebellum South Carolina (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000); Michael Todd Landis, Northern Men with Southern Loyalties: The Democratic Party and the Sectional Crisis (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015); Rachel A. Shelden, Washington Brotherhood: Politics, Social Life, and the Coming of the Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013); and Matthew E. Stanley, The Loyal West: Civil War and Reunion in Middle America (University of Illinois, 2017).

[2] William L. Barney, “Review: Potter’s The Impending Crisis: A Capstone and a Challenge: The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861. By David M. Potter,” Reviews in American History 4, No. 4 (Dec. 1976): 551-557.

[3] Hinton Rowan Helper, The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It (1857; reprint, New York: A.B. Burdick, 1860), 32-33; 191; David Brown, Southern Outcast: Hinton Rowan Helper and the Impending Crisis of the South (Baton Rouge: University of Louisiana Press, 2006).

[4] William L. Barney, The Secessionist Impulse: Alabama and Mississippi in 1860. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974), 48-9.

[5] Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War (1970, reprint; New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 316.

[6] Jonathan H. Earle, Jacksonian Antislavery and the Politics of Free Soil, 1824-1854 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), quoted on 36.

[7] Andre M. Fleche, The Revolution of 1861: The American Civil War in the Age of Nationalist Conflict (Chapel Hill: North Carolina, 2012), 45. As far as I can tell, the association of “Black Republicans” with “Red Republicans” is the primary reason that Republican states are known as “red” states, even in the modern era.

[8] J. William Harris, Plain Folk and Gentry in a Slave Society: White Liberty and Black Slavery in Augusta’s Hinterland (Baton Rouge: University of Louisiana Press, 1985), quoted on 91.

[9] Michael K. Curtis, “The 1859 Crisis over Hinton Helper’s Book, the Impending Crisis: Free Speech, Slavery, and Some Light on the Meaning of the First Section of the Fourteenth Amendment,” Symposium on the Law of Slavery: Constitutional Law and Slavery, 68 Chi. Kent. L. Rev. (1992): quoted on 1167.

[10] Michael P.  Johnson, Toward a Patriarchal Republic: The Secession of Georgia (Baton Rouge: University of Louisiana Press, 1977), 30; quoted in Roger W. Shugg, Origins of Class Struggle in Louisiana: A Social History of White Farmers and Laborers during Slavery and After, 1840-1875 (Baton Rouge: University of Louisiana Press, 1939), 145-6; quoted in David Williams, Bitterly Divided: The South’s Inner Civil War (New York: The New Press, 2008), 31.

[11] Helper, The Impending Crisis, 32-33.