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The Impending Crisis of the South: Summary & Analysis

The Impending Crisis of the South: Summary & Analysis
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

The years leading up to the Civil War were very tense in the United States. Hinton Rowan Helper's book, The Impending Crisis of the South was an important contributor to tensions between the North and South.

Historical Background: Pre-Civil War Tensions

The mid-1800s were a tense period of time in the United States. The North and South were divided over a singular issue: the institution of slavery. New states could not be admitted to the Union without intense debate. Would the state be a free state or a slave state? Would it upset the balance of power in Congress?

Beyond the political arena, the issue of slavery seeped into other aspects of American life. Abolitionist publications printed stories of brutality in the South and pushed for an end to slavery. Meanwhile, people living in the South did all they could to cling to an institution that carried their economy. As the debate continued to rage on, several writers published books that added fuel to the fire. While most people are familiar with Harriet Beecher Stowe's iconic novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, far fewer know Hinton Rowan Helper's book, The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It, a discussion on the negative impacts of slavery on the Southern economy.

Summary of The Impending Crisis of the South

Hinton Rowan Helper, an American Southern critic and writer, published his book, The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It, in 1857, four years before the start of the Civil War. Little did Helper know, his book would become a rallying crying for anti-slavery proponents in the North. At this point, you're probably wondering what was the 'impending crisis' that the South faced? Helper's book spelled it out pretty clearly: slavery was going to be the downfall of the Southern economy. But the South's economy depended on slavery, so how could that possibly be?

According to Helper, Southern slavery had several major drawbacks:

  1. It only benefited the extremely wealthy minority who could actually afford to own slaves
  2. It hurt small-scale farmers, laborers, and skilled tradesmen
  3. It restricted modernization and limited the South's ability to fully compete with the North

Helper's book relied on information taken from the 1850 census that pointed to the economic problems with slavery. In addition to outlining the inherent negatives of the institution and encouraging non-slave-owning whites to consider how it impacted them negatively, he also issued both a warning and a call to action. He alleged that the South was in danger of a slave uprising and offered the slave-owners of the South a single option to stop the 'impending crisis,' which was to willingly do away with slavery, and to do it fast.

Impact of the Book

Hinton Rowan Helper was not the first person to decry the evils of slavery, nor was he the first person to look at statistics to explain why slavery was economically backwards. So what makes his book so significant?

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