H. R. Helper, the Lonely Abolitionist
James Gillespie, American Renaissance, August 11, 2023
Hinton Rowan Helper, Nojoque: A Question for a Continent, New York: G. W. Carleton, 1867, 479 pp.
A common mistake, both then and now, is to believe that 19th-century abolitionists were motivated by altruistic concerns for blacks. That may be largely true of anti-slavery sentiment in New England, but it was far less true in the rest of the country, where the motives for abolishing slavery typically had much more to do with bettering whites rather than freeing blacks.
That was especially true of perhaps the most prominent Southern opponent of slavery, North Carolina’s Hinton Rowan Helper. Through a succession of books in the 1850s and 1860s, Helper gradually developed an evolving attitude toward slavery — a viewpoint that changed from acceptance to mild objection on sociological terms, to opposition for economic reasons, and then finally to outright antagonism towards the race that was held in thrall. Over the course of Helper’s first three books, his language coarsened and he became increasingly shrill and vitriolic.
Although the son of a minor slaveowner in the North Carolina piedmont who had grown up in that culture, after a stay in California, young Helper returned an anti-slavery man. In California, he had mixed with many races and ethnicities, and concluded that the racial mix did not cause what he saw as the chaotic injustice of the frontier. The problem was greed. Men of various colors were abusing other men who were lower in social status and also of different races, just to make money. He concluded that that the problem was not racial but moral and sociological, and this led him toward abolitionism.
After his return from California in 1854, Helper wrote his first book, The Land of Gold, in which he made a tentative case against slavery. He later claimed his anti-slavery argument had been stronger, but that his publisher insisted on removing certain passages. Land of Gold was published in 1855, to a relatively favorable reception but it had tepid sales.
Undeterred, Helper immediately began research for his next book, the one that would make his reputation, for better or worse: The Impending Crisis. It was filled with charts and statistics that he felt made a strong economic argument against slavery. He soon found a publisher, and the book appeared in 1857.
Crisis was addressed to and concerned chiefly with non-slaveholding whites, whom he saw as slavery’s principal victims, because it cheapened honest manual labor, confining it to the low-born. Moreover, it was economically unviable in an industrializing world, and was holding back progress in the South. Although by no means showing himself an admirer of blacks, Helper sometimes adopted a somewhat sympathetic, paternalistic tone. Predictably, reviewers were divided along regional lines: Northern critics praised what they saw as cogent arguments they could use; Southerners condemned it as calumnious anti-Southern propaganda.
Helper thus became something of a hero in the North, but the book virtually sealed his doom as a son of the South, and drove him from the land he professed to love. He would spend most of the rest of his life elsewhere, either in the North or, for most of the war years, in Argentina, where he served the Lincoln administration as US Consul in Buenos Aires.
Ironically (for a Southerner), it was in Argentina during the war that Helper first became intimately familiar with blacks. He developed an unreasoning loathing for them, and the fact that slavery brought Africans into contact with whites became an additional reason for him to oppose slavery.
One of his duties as consul was to approve applications for emigration to the United States. He routinely denied applications by blacks, writing:
As with my present conviction I could not, of my own accord, do anything what-ever to increase or enlarge, even in the smallest degree, the colored population of America—sincerely believing as I do, that population is already too large by the whole number of the same, whether bond or free, black or brown, now inhabiting the continent. [All quotations are from Nojoque unless otherwise noted.]
Helper resigned his position in 1866 and returned to the United States in early 1867. According to his biographer, “[I]deas formulated and developed in Argentina would not only remain with Helper for decades but become an obsessive, relentless, and ultimately tragic pursuit.”
Helper publicized these ideas soon after his return in three books: Nojoque: A Question for a Continent, The Negroes in Negroland, and Noonday Exigencies in America. The first of these has received the most attention from critics and historians and is the principal subject of this review.
Helper resented having been lumped in with South-hating abolitionists, so one of the goals of the book is to distinguish himself from that group by clearly stating his shockingly low opinion of the African race. He does so in the preface to the 479-page book:
[T]he primary object of this work is to write the Negro out of America, and the secondary object is to write him (and manifold millions of other black and bi-colored caitiffs, little better than himself) out of existence. . . .
A few paragraphs later, he adds:
These sluggish and apathetic enemies of true progress, these unimpressible bafflers and repellers of good intentions, have I frequently seen, in painfully loathsome and inauspicious numbers, on both sides of each of the three great Americas, North America, South America, and Central America. I speak of negroes, mulattoes, Indians, Chinese, and other obviously inferior races of mankind, whose colors are black or brown, but never white; and whose mental and moral characteristics are no less impure and revolting than their swarthy complexions.
Thus, Hinton R. Helper, the “Southern outcast” as his biographer called him, who counted as friends such men as the abolitionist Cassius Clay of Kentucky and Lincoln’s secretary of state William H. Seward, sets the stage for the follow-up to the controversial Impending Crisis. Nojoque was just as controversial, but in a much different way.
Like his previous book, Nojoque begins with a statement of a problem. This time, it was the mistake the United States had made, once the slaves had been freed, of not immediately colonizing them.
The book consists of 11 chapters, some of whose titles are juxtaposed against each another, such as, “Black: A Thing Of Ugliness, Disease, and Death” versus “White: A Thing Of Life, Health, and Beauty” and “White Celebrities, and Black Nobodies.”
Chapter I, “The Negro, Anthropologically Considered: An Inferior Fellow Done For,” is essentially a survey of what are known today as “scientific racists,” though in the 19th century they were mainstream. These included Georges Cuvier (The Animal Kingdom, 1817), Samuel George Morton (Crania Americana, 1839), Hermann Burmeister (The Black Man, 1853), Louis Agassiz (“The Plan of Creation,” 1847), and others.
The chapter begins with a question:
What is the best and only true remedy for the present and prospective troubles now brewing in the United States, between the White People and the negroes?
Answer. An absolute and eternal separation of the two.
Helper proceeds to explain why he considers separation necessary, focusing on the biological nature of blacks and their differences from whites, citing then-recognized scientific authorities.
One of those scientists, Hermann Burmeister of the Argentine Museum of Natural History and former professor of zoology at the University of Halle, Germany, had become a personal friend in Buenos Aires. Prof. Burmeister would become a major influence, and this Chapter I is peppered with quotes from him. The two exchanged a series of letters, a few of which have survived, and some are partially reproduced in Nojoque. In one, the consul remarked to the professor that, of those Africans he met, many were suffering from physical ailments. He noted that, when hospitalized, they were “far less likely to come out alive and well than white patients.” He goes on to wonder whether “there is an ever-obvious and uncheckable tendency on the part of blacks, when put entirely upon their own resources . . . to decrease, to die, to disappear?” He then adds, “Why is it that the negroes are so rapidly falling a prey to every manner of fatal affliction? Is it not because Nature is becoming impatient to close her account with them?”
The German replied that the observed frailty of blacks was “new proof that . . . the negro race is inferior to the white race.”
At that time, there was a growing belief in America that if blacks were left to themselves, they would simply disappear because of this alleged frailty. Neither man was the first to voice the idea. An 1863 article called “The Destiny of the African Race in the United States” by the president of Illinois College declared that, after emancipation, the Negro would be pushed into a “lower stratum”:
The consequence is inevitable. He will either never marry, or he will, in the attempt to support a family, struggle in vain against the laws of nature, and his children, many of them at least, die in infancy. . . . Like his brother the Indian of the forest, he must melt away and disappear forever from the midst of us.
The theory that blacks — at least in the Western world — would disappear remained prevalent throughout the century. Even today, a “black mortality gap” persists, though it is invariably blamed on white racism.
Chapter II, “Black: A Thing of Ugliness, Disease, and Death,” continues Helper’s discussion of the Negro race in cultural rather than scientific terms. He cites Homer, Shakespeare, Milton, and others who associate the color black with all things bad, and which Helper sees as symbolic of evil. He writes that even blacks share this view:
The writer hereof has frequently heard his father’s negroes (in North Carolina, near the banks of the South Yadkin) when disagreeing among themselves, tauntingly call each other “nigger,” “black rascal,” “crow-colored scoundrel,” and numerous other epithets of similar sable softness. He also recollects very distinctly, that, on one occasion, when, in his boyhood, he himself called Jack a nigger. Jack, who was also youthful, became quite indignant, and said that, as his mother Judy had told him, there was no nigger except the devil, “For mammy say,” said he, “for mammy say de debble am black for all de time, and can nebber be wash white; and for dat reezun de debble am a nigger; but we slabes is black only in dis prezzen worle; in de nex worle, we is gwine to be white fokes too! You see den dat we’s not niggers.”
In Chapter III, “White: A Thing of Life, Health, and Beauty,” Helper cites religious, literary, and other figures hailing the aesthetics of the color white.
Chapter IV shifts gears with an essay on “The Servile Baseness and Beggary of the Blacks,” in which he argues that the black race is suited for slavery, however much he despises the institution. He writes:
To be a slave of the white man, yet, if possible to be a slave exempt from the necessity of labor, has always been the ruling ambition of the negro not less so now than it was four thousand years ago . . . .
He cites many antebellum newspaper accounts of emancipated slaves eagerly returning to their masters. He also writes of a young white abolitionist in North Carolina who went about preaching abolition to enslaved Negroes in the piedmont but was turned on by his would-be beneficiaries. He quotes from an 1859 item in a Raleigh newspaper:
We learn from a friend that a man who says his name is John D. Williams has been arrested and confined in Hillsborough jail, on a charge of tampering with slaves. He is about 25 years of age, and is traveling as a book-agent. He was twice betrayed by slaves to whom he communicated his Abolition sentiments. He was still in jail on the 3d. We would not be surprised to hear that he has been lynched. He no doubt will be, if he should not leave as soon as he is turned out of jail. [Emphasis in the original]
Helper also cites many reports of slaves volunteering on the Confederate side to “fight the Abolitionists.”
It is in Chapter V, “Removals – Banishments – Expulsions – Exterminations,” that Nojoque considers possible solutions to the Negro problem. Helper begins with a thought experiment: What would be the proper response if a tyrant forced barnyard swine into society? Should not the people rise up, topple the tyrant, and forcibly remove the swine?
Just like pigs, blacks should be removed as far as possible:
[The negro] should never, under any circumstances whatever, be permitted to reside in greater proximity to white people than the distance which separates Cuba from the United States; if the distance could be lengthened to the extent of one thousand miles, so much the better; if, in point of duration, rather than in point of space, the distance could be lengthened from now to the end of time, (supposing such an end possible,) better still.
Blacks should, according to Helper, ultimately be removed from “all the exterior parts of the earth.” And that applies not only to blacks but to “the mulattoes, the Indians, the Chinese . . . and all the other swarthy drones and dregs of mankind.”
Helper cites as an example of removal the government’s relocation of the Indian, whom he regards as “a very miserable fellow” that nevertheless “is a nobleman in comparison with the negro.” Indians, he says, are a disappearing race, perishing from contact with their natural superiors, the whites. So let it be with blacks. But first, he insists, they must be removed. In defense of that idea, he quotes Thomas Jefferson’s famous statement:
Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free; nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live under the same government. Nature, habit, opinion, have drawn indelible lines of distinction between them. It is still in our power to direct the process of emancipation and deportation, peaceably, and in such slow degree, as that the evil will wear off insensibly, and their place be, pari passu, filled up by free white laborers.
According to Helper, history is replete with examples of removal.
- The Tarquins were expelled from Rome 2,377 years ago.
- In 1290, the Jews were expelled from England.
- In 1492, Spain’s King Ferdinand ordered 800,000 Jews expelled from Spain.
Those expelled tended to wither and die, says Helper, and so will blacks and Indians. He quotes then-senator James Doolittle of Wisconsin, who, after noting that in the 1860s nearly a million blacks had perished in the South, said: “Verily, the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord”!
Like most of his contemporaries, Hinton Rowan Helper was a Christian. Born into a Lutheran family, he joined a Presbyterian congregation as a young man. Chapter VI of Nojoque hearkens back to that faith, citing “a score of Bible lessons in the arts of annihilating effete races.” These 20 lessons “will fully explain the Hebrew account of God’s method of ridding the world of those glaringly abortive and worthless races who, like the negroes, the Indians, and all the bi-colored fag-ends of mankind, have ceased to have a useful mission outside the superficies of this terrestrial ball.”
Each lesson is a single passage from the Old Testament. Lesson 14 is Obadiah 1:15–16:
The day of the Lord is near upon all the heathen;
Yea, they shall drink, and they shall swallow down,
And they shall be as though they had not been.
Helper explains that his purpose is not “to deal with the negroes in such summary and sanguinary manner as the Lord God of Israel . . . [because] it would certainly not be proper for us to incur the labor and the responsibility of a quick and indiscriminate extermination of the blacks.” Instead, he writes that God Himself “is actually pleading with us for the privilege to exterminate them by means of the more gentle and beneficent agencies of nature.”
In other words, remove them from among us and let nature take its course.
As Helper explains in Chapter VII, “The United States of America: A White Man Power,” he was a strong unionist throughout the War between the States. He considered his enemy both the slave and the slavemaster, and saw secession as treason. This chapter reprints letters and essays he wrote during and immediately after the war, condemning Confederate leaders but also excoriating blacks, whose importation he regarded as the war’s ultimate cause.
Shortly after the war broke out, he proposed the following Union “war cry”:
Death to Slavery!
Down with the Slaveholders!
Away with the Negroes!
Although Helper made suitable gestures welcoming the “traitors” back into the union, his tone is largely Union-triumphalist. After welcoming the misguided slaveholder back into the fold, he draws a line:
With [the negro] we must come to no terms; with him we must have neither part nor lot. No, no; of the matchless crime of his blackness and slavery and stupidity and self-imposed despicableness, there can be no forgiveness this side the grave; I beg the reader’s pardon; I meant to have said this side the gully, this side the gutter, this side the Gulf of Mexico, or this side the Gulf of Guinea! As thoroughly and as speedily as possible must the negro be fossilized; and then, by the better students of natural history, shall his bleaching bones be held equally sacred with the wire-strung skeletons of his first-cousin congeners, the gorilla and the baboon!
In Chapter VIII, “Thirteen Kindred Pages from The Impending Crisis,” the author again quotes himself, but goes on to view the outcome of the war as not only divinely providential but also as a personal vindication — even though Radical Republicans were even then plotting changes he could not abide, such as enfranchising black men.
In Chapter IX, “White Celebrities and Black Nobodies,” Helper is reduced to compiling lists. The first is a seemingly endless compilation of political leaders, soldiers, philosophers, poets, actors (he includes “Booth,” but this must be the brother or father; for John Wilkes, Helper had little sympathy), even distinguished women, insurers, underwriters, and auctioneers. Among the “Black Nobodies,” there is . . . no one. The whole thing is silly, but for him, it was no joke.
Chapter X, “Spanish and Portuguese America,” returns to a topic of more substance, contrasting the relative success of North America to the relative failure of the nations to its south. Helper identifies Catholicism as the primary obstacle faced by those nations, and he blames that religion for attracting a mélange of colored races. He quotes liberally from one Vicente Pazos of an earlier generation, a Peruvian who had studied for the priesthood but eventually saw through “the superstitions and corruptions of Romanism” and renounced the faith. In a series of letters to Henry Clay, from which Helper quotes, Fr. Pazos exposed “the monstrous and glaring villainies of Catholicism.”
This interesting material gives the modern reader some insight into the anti-Catholic ideology of the time. Helper praises republicanism and condemns popery, which he regards as republicanism’s natural enemy.
Republicanism is something very good. Catholicism is something very bad. Prominent among the regular attendants of Republicanism, are Knowledge, Truth, Virtue, Peace, Power, Prosperity, and Progress. Prominent among the regular attendants of Catholicism, are Ignorance, Falsehood, Vice, War, Weakness, Adversity, and Retrogression.
The chapter ends with a list of recommendations. Briefly, South American whites must throw off monarchy and Catholicism. As colorful as ever, he calls papists pismires (i.e., ants):
The pismires here referred to, are two-legged pismires, frail-limbed, and weak-headed, and are more diversified in color than Joseph’s coat the very dull and deleterious colors peculiar to negroes, Indians, and non-white hybrids, being predominant. In the immediate fossilization of all these pismires, and in the complete extinguishment of the Roman Catholic religion, the most pressing and important interests of both Heaven and Earth would be promoted.
In Chapter XI, “The Future of Nations,” Helper looks to the future and again quotes himself liberally. This time the main passage is from a kind of manifesto that he had written in 1865 on behalf of American Southerners then living in Argentina. It proclaims the group’s acceptance of the War’s outcome and then goes on to review world history to determine what has gone wrong up to now. Finally, he offers recommendations to the world’s whites.
Whites have erred, he maintains, in failing to unify. Allowing their nations to be splintered into tiny principalities and fiefdoms has long hindered the advancement of the race toward its destiny of world dominion. Consequently, he says the world’s whites must remake their countries into an alliance of relatively few, more populous nations. Those nations should all be republics — monarchies having been abolished — and Protestant; Catholicism being likewise abolished. He counts about 110 independent countries and suggests re-constituting them into no more than two dozen larger states.
Here are some of his proposed unions:
- To Russia, give Sweden and Norway.
- To Germany, give Switzerland, Holland, and Denmark.
- To Austria-Hungary, give European Turkey and Greece.
- Great Britain should retain all its Asian and African possessions and receive all “out-of-the-way” islands of the world, except the West Indies (which go to the United States) and those near Australia. Scotland and Wales to remain in Britain, though “the Catholic curse of Ireland” should be “obliterated.”
In North America, the United States would consume the entire continent, from the Bering Strait to Panama, along with Cuba, Haiti, Jamaica, Puerto Rico and all the West Indies.
South America should be divided into only three countries: Colombia, Brazil, and Argentina, each absorbing its closest neighbors.
Control over the rest of the world — Africa, Asia, and Australia — would be divided among the principal white nations: the United States, Britain, and Germany. The total number of world nations in his plan would be 21, each a Protestant republic excluding all Roman Catholics and other “booby-brained bigots.”
Hinton Rowan Helper ends with a triumphant flourish:
From America quickly must the negro take his departure; from every part of the world must the Indian and the bi-colored hybrid soon hie away. No new golden age, general jubilee, no Eden-like millennium, no prolonged period of uninterrupted peace and joy, until in the total absence of all the swarthy and inferior races of men, the happy time thus contemplated shall be ushered in amidst the rapturous melody of a grand and universal chorus of the Whites!
Reading Nojoque is like stepping from a time machine into a strange and almost impossible land. Hinton Rowan Helper was a paradox. A lover of the South who spent most of his life in exile and an ardent abolitionist who despised the enslaved race, he wrote with a vitriol seldom matched either then or now. His language is so harsh and unforgiving that one imagines he was writing only for effect. Yet he was serious. The book is quite literally “no joke.”
For modern readers, the first chapter, “The Negro, Anthropologically Considered: An Inferior Fellow Done For,” and the final chapter, “The Future of Nations,” are probably the most interesting. The first admirably surveys the “scientific racism” of its time. The last describes a potential white utopia, which however far-fetched it appears today, might once have been possible.
Helper went on to publish two more books in quick succession: The Negroes in Negroland (1868) and Noonday Exigencies in America (1871). As with Nojoque, neither enjoyed the success of Impending Crisis. Soon Helper’s writing career was at an end, except for a few documents, generally having to do with a proposed intercontinental railway project he championed in later years. As with the plans and recommendations he proposed in Nojoque, that project failed, and on March 9, 1909, aged 79, Hinton Rowan Helper turned on the gas in his boardinghouse room in Washington, DC, and deliberately ended a largely frustrated life.