On little-known books with large political impacts

September 6, 2011

Warning: history and political science geekery ahead.

Got into an interesting discussion at APSA this past weekend about books that have had large contemporaneous political impacts. The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair, came up. So did Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson. The hands-down winner, of course, was Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Setting aside Lincoln’s famous (and probably apocryphal) quote implying that the book started the war, it is without question the most politically influential book in American history. It’s the best selling book of the 19th century save the Bible, and it’s an overtly political tract, despite being fiction (it’s main target, however, is not exactly slavery per se; the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 is more narrowly in its cross-hairs, and despite being an obvious abolitionist piece in its sentimentality and tone, from the post-war received perspective the book kinda identifies more with the growing anti-slavery ideology of the early 1850’s than the (still then) radical abolitionist movement. Remember, the book was written prior to the Kansas-Nebraska Act).

But there’s another book published in the 1850’s that, while probably not known by 1 out of a 1000 people, also had a huge impact on the late-decade descent into war. The book was 1857’s The Impending Crisis of the South, by Hinton Helper. Helper was a southerner who dared say something that had long gone unspoken: that the planter class’s wealth was built on the continued poverty of the non-slaveholding whites in the south, and that the interests of said non-slaveholding whiltes were not in line with the interests of the planter class, nor were they advanced by the continuation of southern slavery.

This was perhaps the most dangerous idea — from the point of view of the planter class — that could be fostered in the south: aside from directly promoting slave insurrection, nothing struck fear into the slave power more than the idea of a class-based political division in southern politics. The chief objective of the slaveocracy in this regard was to advance the principle that race was the defining mechanism of division, and thus that all whites — rich, poor, slave-owning, and non-slave-owning — were equal in status, rights, and reward. To challenge this thesis was to put the entire system in danger; the non-slaveholding whites vastly outnumbered the planters and represented a very trivial proportion of the wealth in the south. Any political movement unified around Helperism — as it came to be known — would be devastating to the existing power structure.

And thus Helperism was an idea that required suppression. As with most antebellum anti-slavery books, The Impending Crisis of the South was banned by statute in all southern states except Kentucky. This, of course, did not stop its printing in the north; to the contrary, it was mass-produced in serial throughout the north, in a condensed version that omitted much of its technical empirical analysis and made it easier to read. Unlike with Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852, by 1857 there existed a well-funded and widely-networked anti-slavery institution in the North — the Republican Party — that helped pay for and spread the serialized version of Helper’s book.

When the House of Representatives sough to organize in 1859 for the 35th Congress, the Republicans for the first time had the plurality of seats (113), but still not a majority (there were 234 total seats, 118 for a majority). Neither did the Democrats (96), who also had the problem that a large number of the few remaining northern Democrats had declared themselves as anti-LeCompton or Independent Democrats and were not going to necessarily align with the southerners. The balance of power sat with the the American party (9 seats) and the Opposition Party (16 seats), both reflections of the breakdown of the Whigs in south and north. A two-month deadlock ensued over the election of the Speaker; the Democrats could not coordinate on a viable candidate, each wing finding candidates from the other unacceptable. The original Republican candidate, John Sherman, probably could have gotten over the top except for one problem: he, along with about half of the Republican Members, had endorsed The Impending Crisis of the South. This made him too radical for the minor party voters to touch him, and the Republicans eventually substituted William Pennington of New Jersey, who proved able to win the necessary votes, but less capable of effectively leading the 35th Congress under what became crisis-like conditions.

Helper’s book also precipitated a crackdown in the South, and an increase in the already-substantial paranoia of the planter class. For several years, the decaying agriculture and culture of the intensely aristocratic elite of coastal South Carolina had been leading to a slow rise of opposition politics in the poorer inland, and this was accelerated with the onset of Helper’s book, at least in planter perception. Steps were taken to reduce inland influence in the legislature, and to further tighten the free flowing of dangerous ideas, all with the goal of crushing any latent Helperism. Paranoia — or perhaps justified fear — of a Republican President also increased significantly with the onset of Helperism, because Helper had issued a roadmap as to how an anti-slavery party might expand in the south once in control of the executive branch. And the Republicans looked poised to follow such a map if they should win the contest in 1860: they would uncensor the mails, offer patronage jobs (mostly postmaster positions) to non-slaveholding whites in exchange for party loyalty, and they would infuse the concepts of Helperism and class-conflict into the portions of the upper south  — Maryland, Delaware, and especially Missouri, where a small anti-slavery party already existed — in an attempt to topple slavery in the border states, where it was already shakiest.


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