John Sherman and “the Helper book”

John Sherman
John Sherman, representative from Ohio

On September 14, 1860, John Sherman (William Tecumseh Sherman’s younger brother, by the way) gave a speech to a large Republican meeting in Philadelphia, which was interrupted by clashes with Bell supporters in the crowd. The New York Times reported the next day:

[Voices in the crowd, "How about the Helper book?" followed by shouts.] Mr. SHERMAN thanked the gentleman for that inquiry, and said if the people on the other side would only keep quiet he would tell them all about the Helper book. [Great cheers and clapping of hands.] Mr. HELPER, a native of North Carolina, had compiled a book on the manifold evils of Slavery. Mr. FRANCIS BLAIR, a native of Maryland and a large slaveholder, came to him and told him that the book was calculated to impart much information on that great subject, and asked him to recommend it to his countrymen. He thought that which one slaveholder had compiled and written, and another slaveholder had indorsed, could not be injurious, and having implicit confidence in Mr. BLAIR, the bosom friend of Gen. JACKSON, he assented to his request and recommended the book without having read it. Since then he had carefully perused it, and found in it much to approve and much to condemn, but he had never regretted, and did not now regret, having recommended it. [Vociferous cheering.]

In Ohio, where he was born, they read all sorts of books, and some very bad ones, [laughter,] but they believe out there it to be one of the rights of American citizens to read just what books they pleased, and he hoped they did so here in Philadelphia. [Terrific cheers, followed by yells, ringing of bells, and shouts for JOHN BELL.]

Hinton Rowan Helper
Hinton Rowan Helper

In 1859, Sherman was one of a large number of Republicans who endorsed the publication of a “compendium” or abridgment of Hinton Helper’s 1857 book “The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It1. Sherman was mistaken about Helper — he was a nonslaveholding southerner, actually. His book was a carefully documented argument that slavery was impeding the economic development of the South. He called on nonslaveowners to unite to abolish it through the democratic process. Helper was interested primarily in the well-being of southern whites, or at least he couched his argument in those terms. He wanted the slaves freed, but felt they were an “undesirable population” in America, and should be deported to Africa2. He may not have been any more racist in his attitudes than Lincoln himself, but he did later find himself at odds in some cases with Northern abolitionists3, who favored social equality of blacks and whites. Although it is frequently claimed that Helper did not think that slavery was morally wrong, his book clearly states otherwise: “To say that the Bible sanctions slavery is to say that the sun loves darkness; to say that one man was created to domineer over another is to call in question the justice, mercy, and goodness of God4.”

In any case, his book was taken up by Northern abolitionists as a weapon in their cause. The slaveholding elite in the South were violently opposed to his thesis, as it presented them with the real danger of being outvoted by the nonslaveowning majorities. They therefore suppressed its distribution in the South. Sherman’s remark on the right of Americans “to read what books they pleased” was a jab against Southern censorship. Although Sherman, as he admits here, hadn’t actually read the book himself when he endorsed it, the issue prevented him from being elected speaker of the House in January, 1860, due to opposition from Southern representatives. Obviously it was still a bit of a sore point, as he went into some detail on the issue in this speech nine months later.

1 For more on the Sherman/Helper/Impending Crisis issue, see Potter, The Impending Crisis.

2 For more on the view of Helper as racist, see Cardoso JJ. 1970. Hinton Rowan Helper as a racist in the abolitionist camp. Journal of Negro History 55 (4): 323-330.

3 For a more balanced view of Helper and his work, see Brown D. 2004. Attacking slavery from within: The making of The Impending Crisis of the South. Journal of Southern History 70: 541-576.

4 Helper HR. The Impending Crisis of the South. New York: Burdick Brothers, 1857. p.276

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