John Underwood and Economic Invasion

Virginia’s Governor Henry Wise always doubted that John Brown aimed at a slave revolt. So canny a revolutionary, Wise believed, must know that “our border slaves” are already “so liberated … that they” need “no … arms for their” complete “liberation.” Because “the underground railroad is at their very doors,” borderland slaves “can liberate themselves by running away.”1

Might a shrewd raider, Wise wondered, instead seek to arouse jealous nonslaveholders? The governor winced when slaveless fishermen in his Accomac County home base muttered about grandees’ airs. He scoffed that western Virginian plebeians were “coarse and menial and ill-mannered” and “not Virginians in their social or political sympathies.”2 He thus understood why southern hotspurs denounced him for allowing some especially suspect Northerners to enter the state.

A Yankee named John C. Underwood directed the suspicious migration from New York City, after Virginians expelled him. Underwood still owned a farm in Clarke County near Harpers Ferry, where his wife and children continued to reside. Several weeks after Brown struck, Wise heard a rumor that Underwood had slipped back into Clarke County. The governor immediately pulled some investigators off John Brown’s cold trail to follow the hot new lead.3

– 1 –

John Underwood sought northern economic invasion of the South. From his native terrain near New York’s Burned-Over District, Underwood gained a devotion to a free labor economy. From his Virginia wife, who was Stonewall Jackson’s cousin and Underwood’s student when he came down south to tutor, the New Yorker gleaned an understanding of a Southerner’s determination to live on southern land, near southern kin.4

The Underwoods’ marriage, like the union between William L. Yancey’s southern mother and abolitionist stepfather, tested whether North and South could live together. With Mrs. Underwood unwilling to tolerate life in the North and Mr. Underwood unwilling to tolerate the South’s Peculiar Institution, where could they find a mutually congenial home? Between 1848 and 1856, their answer fastened on that Clarke County farm, bought with her dowry and utilizing his New York experience with free labor dairy farms.

Although my wife and I prefer paid white workers, the dairyman reassured a Virginia friend, she is no “fanatical abolitionist.” No member of Virginia’s Jackson clan would “rant” in “denunciation of slaveholders” or succumb to “any weak sympathy for the … slaves.” But after our visits to the North, he reported, my wife believed that men “work better for the cash than the lash. … Whenever we fasten one end of the chain upon the ankle of a fellow being, … the heavier end becomes inevitably attached to ourselves.”5

The Underwoods’ prosperous free labor dairy operation spread over nineteen Clarke County farms, located beyond slaveholders’ favorite valley acres. Slaveholders monopolized the terrain near the Shenandoah River. Underwood preferred the uplands above the valley floor. The rolling terrain reminded him of New York pastureland. Yet the rich turf cost less than equally fertile New York acres. Here an entrepreneurial Yankee could demonstrate that free labor would outperform slave labor in producing an Upper South economic takeoff.

Underwood shared his favorite southern politician’s economic vision. Cassius Clay, like Underwood, thought that an enslaved Upper South would always be underpopulated and thus underdeveloped. The northern South would contain ever fewer slaves, because the more prosperous southern South would pull blacks downward. Yet too few white substitutes would come down from the North, because potential migrants preferred free labor terrain. Since insufficient whites would replace dwindling slaves, land prices would remain low. Land speculators’ profits would remain trifling. Economic development would remain halting.

Underwood saw economic and antislavery opportunity in this stagnant situation. Northerners’ “tide of emigration,” he wrote, “will soon take a southern direction and will certainly double the value of all the real estate of the Old Dominion.” Only the presence of “colored people” had “prevented it” or “could prevent it much longer.”6

Cassius Clay would shorten the preventative period with a delayed emancipation law. His proposed edict would impel Upper South masters to sell blacks to the Lower South before an antislavery deadline. Underwood would add economic lures to political compulsion. If publicity about cheap acres attracted more whites, Virginians would sell more blacks out of the state before future antislavery laws forced the exodus.

Suspicious slaveholders despaired of halting Underwood’s enterprising movement of Yankee whites, so long as the migrants avoided politics and stuck to the dairy business. In 1856, however, Underwood ventured into the political business. Speaking to the first National Republican Convention in Philadelphia as a Virginia delegate, the adopted Virginian warned that his new state’s “blighting curse of slavery” and “the blood of crushed humanity” must not pollute “the fair plains of the west.” The deplorable economic “fate of Virginia” showed “that the curse of Heaven is and ever must be upon human oppression.”7

After word of that heresy wafted back to Clarke County, a potential lynch mob warned Underwood’s wife that her Yankee would be the bleeding human crushed, if the alleged traitor returned to his supposed home. Stonewall Jackson’s cousin meant to retain her southern dwelling, but her Yankee must not continually risk residing in her home. “I could not have Jackson blood in my veins,” Underwood’s wife explained to her husband, without risking “the last drop … in defense of life and liberty; but I do not believe in courting mob law or martyrdom.” Throughout the later 1850s, Underwood only occasionally courted trouble by visiting his mate and their children on the Clarke County farm, where the female Stonewall defiantly remained.8

Here again, black slavery hardly perfected white democracy or domestic institutions. This time, the slave system’s antidemocratic necessities yielded not slave sales, shattering black families, but threatened lynch mobs, scattering a white family. Back in New York City, the victimized husband became a martyr for free speech, and for Christian marriage too. With that doubled moral capital, Underwood meant to revenge himself on Virginia the entrepreneurial way. He would conduct a more threatening antislavery business than milking cows.

Underwood’s new business firm, called the American Emigration Aid and Homestead Society, received its New York state charter in April 1857, with a proposed initial capitalization of $200,000. At this (fleeting) moment of northern prosperity, Underwood offered earthly as well as heavenly profits. His company would buy depreciated Upper South land, then sell northern settlers cheaper acres than could be found in the free labor Midwest. Yankee newcomers would boost Upper South prosperity and land prices. They would thereby convince Southerners that free labor outperformed slave labor, at least in the South’s less tropical areas.

That strategy, duplicating Eli Thayer’s Kansas tactics, dissolved when the Panic of 1857 shrank Yankee capital. Underwood, now unable to raise northern cash to buy southern land, switched his persuasive tactics. He would convince potential settlers, eager to escape northern misfortune, to move to the Upper South (where the panic ruined fewer enterprises than in the North). For his delivery of land buyers, land sellers would pay him a 5 percent to 20 percent commission.

The strategy exploited another difference between Lower and Upper Souths. Down toward North America’s hottest tropics, migrating slaveowners sought land speculators’ choicest acres. But up toward the cooler North, with slaveholders deserting for profits farther south, land speculators needed alternative customers. By introducing (southern) upper-class land sellers to (northern) middle- and lower-class land buyers, Underwood would develop a classless, nonsectional boost to this American area’s economy. My Northerners, he promised a western Virginia entrepreneur, will “double the value of your lands, make your neglected hillsides bloom with cultivation,” lead “your hitherto neglected waterpower” to ring “with the music of the wheel, …and cause your desert to bloom like the rose.” Or as he soared to another Virginian, he could send 50,000 Yankees who would add $2000 per family to Virginia’s property values. I wish no further “revenge” from “the indignities heaped upon me by the misguided sons of that state, now cursed by slavery, but before long to be blessed by freedom.”9

His revenge, he conceded, might free few blacks. His white migrants would mostly push “perhaps inferior” blacks from the redeemed Upper South to the cursed Lower South. But “he loved his own race best” and his Virginia wife most. Because of slavery’s “injurious effects to the white race,” Virginia should be “deAfricanized & settled by white men with all the energy, love of Freedom, order, & education characterizing the Anglo-Saxon Race.”10

Between 1857 and 1860, John Underwood sent not 50,000 but maybe 5000 whites from New York City to the sunny South. His land buyers purchased acres in eastern Tennessee, Kentucky, Maryland, North Carolina, and especially northwestern Virginia. His partner, Eli Thayer, dispatched another 500 northern settlers to Ceredo (from the Roman word for the Goddess of Plenty), located high up in northwestern Virginia.11

The partners wished to avoid lynch mobs, capable of extinguishing their vision of Upper South plenty. So unlike John Fee, Thayer and Underwood sought not agitators but “Neighbors”—Thayer loved that capital-N word—enterprising Yankee Neighbors who will rain profits on parched Southerners. “Niggers”—Thayer unfortunately loved that terrible alternate capital-N word too—“Niggers did not enter into this … speculative money making enterprise, one way or the other.” If Southerners shot half of us for seeking “filthy lucre,” Thayer added, “the rest would press on toward the shining dollars.”12

Beneath this shining mask lay the dissimulating Yankee. In private, Underwood and Thayer predicted that dollars, not speeches, would unfanatically show that free laborers, unlike slaves, neither malinger nor intentionally misunderstand, neither “run away” nor “steal ham and chickens.” The silent demonstration would bring “the subject of free labor” up for a “full, free, and conciliatory discussion.” The Upper South results would “never be doubtful,”13 not after free labor outperformed slave labor.

Posterity thinks of slavery as the South’s leading economic interest. True enough, in the Lower South. But as Thayer and Underwood emphasized, the buying, selling, and working of land, not the buying, selling, and working of slaves, fueled more Upper South materialistic dreams. Again, posterity thinks of the southern nonslaveholder problem as a class threat, since the poor might rise against the rich. But as moneyed economic boosters, Thayer and Underwood saw, more correctly, that southern rich men and poor men alike filled the nonslaveholder ranks, and that all slaveless folk, regardless of class, wished the southern economy to take off.

Again, posterity calls the race problem the South’s special predicament. Thayer and Underwood saw, more correctly, that the population problem comprised the Upper South’s special drawback. With blacks slowly draining out, whites had to be attracted in or the economy would stagnate. Welcome harmless Yankee Neighbors, they said to the population-starved Upper South, and northern white population will flow southward, not westward. Go south, young man, they said to enterprising Yankees, go to the Upper South, where land is cheap and blacks can be pushed exclusively to the Lower South.

Lower South warriors loathed Upper South moderates for failing to shut off this seductive proposition while the seducers remained few. To proslavery visionaries, the Thayer-Underwood vision seemed obviously full of hatred for slavery under the façade of the good Neighbor. If Upper South trimmers could not see through so transparent a mask—well, no wonder that Underwood thought that half the South could be silently infiltrated.

“The logic of dollars and dimes,” warned the Galveston (Texas) News, could become an irresistibly “strong argument” inside the Upper South’s “weak and assailable points.” The Jackson Mississippian asked “reflecting men” to ponder the “condition of the South, when Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, and we may add, Maryland, are successfully colonized with free population.” The New Orleans Delta urged Virginia “to keep her obligations to her sister Slave States” by squelching “a conspiracy to abolitionize the Old Dominion.” The Delta especially tore into Henry Wise, that selfstyled southern hotspur, who did nothing to deter Underwood’s invaders.14

Governor Wise saw the political risk in doing nothing, but he could not “interfere with peaceable and lawful immigrations.” He must welcome all whites, “as long as they will obey our laws.” He would “calmly wait” for “the fact” of “unlawful” acts.15

And then, at the nervous moment of John Brown’s raid, Wise believed that the fact might have arrived. As the governor cast about for the raider’s real plan, he suspected that Brown’s calculations must include hostile nonslaveholders. Then he received secret (and false) word that John Underwood had been spotted at his wife’s Clarke County farm, where the Yankee had received crates of Hinton R. Helper’s books. The governor rushed detectives in to investigate, for Helper had lately honed a defiantly political edge on Underwood’s economic tactics.

– 2 –

John Underwood and the more notorious Hinton R. Helper had linked their slightly different crusades before Wise’s detectives descended to explore the linkage. The two heretics both believed that antislavery should rescue primarily whites from primarily economic trouble. Each conceived that relatively low southern land prices exemplified the trouble. Both speculated that in a lily-white, free labor South, land prices and entrepreneurial progress would match the North’s booming levels.

Still, the New York entrepreneur and the North Carolina author, having suffered different travails on their paths to the same heresy, mounted initially different crusades. Underwood, eager Yankee hustler, steamed about potential lynchers. He sought classless revenge with a corporation, dedicated to enriching poor and rich, Northerners and Southerners. In contrast Helper, frustrated southern nonslaveholder, steamed about limited economic possibilities. He sought class-infested revenge with a book dedicated to rousing the poor against the powerful. Underwood preferred to begin with economic appeals to potential migrants, hopeful that transplanted Northerners would further southern antislavery. Helper preferred to begin with economic appeals to Upper South nonslaveholders, hopeful that antislavery triumph would lure more migrants.

Hinton R. Helper’s preparation for reforming economic visions occurred not in New York’s lush dairy country but in North Carolina’s hardscrabble Rowan County. Helper’s parents never strayed more than twenty miles from their farm in this western piedmont province. Cherishing their (they thought) acres of opportunity, they proudly fastened their county’s name inside their son’s. The son, although forever stuck with the middle name, shuddered to be stuck inside their (he thought) land of too little opportunity.16

With better luck, Hinton R. Helper would have had better Rowan County opportunity. Helper’s father was rising beyond the farm, with a flourishing carpentry business and four slaves, when his death canceled his enterprise. Hinton Rowan, then only ten months old, spent his formative years amidst middle-class relatives, afflicted not with lower-class impoverishment but with middling folks’ limited endeavors. Hopeful that the precocious Hinton would ascend more quickly than usual in rather stagnant Rowan County, the middle-class clan sent him off to Mocksville Academy, where upper-class heirs more often studied.

We cannot know if Mocksville Academy became the place where Hinton first bitterly resented his supposed betters. But boys will be boys, and richer squires do often mock middling compatriots. We also cannot know if Hinton here first plotted his revenge, although Mocksville clearly gave the imminent author the literary skills to lash back. But we do know that after graduation from Mocksville, wealthy gentlemen went onward to college, while poorer lads sank downward to apprenticeships.

We also know that Hinton Rowan Helper despaired enough to become a thief. Apprenticed to a shopkeeper for three years, the frustrated clerk slowly filched $300 from the till. When discovered, Helper paid back the spoils in full, after the store owner promised to keep the robbery secret. Then Helper, his apprenticeship expired, moved from private humiliation in the backwater to, he hoped, better luck in New York City.

After failing to conquer the big city, Hinton Rowan Helper lit out for another American province, the one that allegedly offered gold for the mere digging. But Helper’s scratchings in the California gold fields yielded no more treasure that he could keep than did robbing the North Carolina store. The failed seeker had to trudge back home. In Rowan County, Helper plotted his revenge. He would publish exposés, detailing how rich folk victimized poor folk in the provinces.

In his first book, the poorly selling Land of Gold: Reality Versus Fiction, the ex–gold digger castigated the hucksters who lured poor lads like himself to phony El Dorados. Demagogues, with their lies about gold abounding in the dirt, epitomized California’s “rottenness and its corruption, its squalor and its misery, its crime and its shame.” Helper considered California’s crowning shame to be its “complete human menagerie” of “motley and heterogeneous” nonwhites. The North Carolinian lampooned the Chinese (“semi-barbarians”), the Indians and Mexicans (“filthy and abominable”), and the “fawning” Negro who “wept like a child” when emancipated. Some happier day, the “childlike” race would be moved from cooler North America to steaming Mexico and Central America. There they would toil “under the control of new masters, in the fertile wildernesses and savannas nearer the equator.” Helper here repeated the Caribbean vision of Missouri’s Frank Blair, Jr., the Border South’s most popular antislavery politician.17

Two years after the California exposé flopped in the bookstores, the frustrated author, now twenty-seven, came back to New York City. He brought along the manuscript of his latest book and his meager share from the sale of his deceased parents’ farm. Perhaps unhappiness at the selling price had partly fueled the writing of yet another exposé. At any rate, the manuscript tucked under Helper’s arm claimed that a southern economic crisis impended over slaveholders’ robbery of nonslaveholders. Helper entitled his diatribe The Impending Crisis in the South: How to Meet It.

Not just the mortification of his North Carolina thievery or the disappointment of his California diggings but also resentment of his central piedmont region’s slim opportunities drove Helper’s pen. In Rowan and the surrounding North Carolina counties, around 20 percent of whites owned slaves. Twice as many whites owned no land. Landless whites slowly trickled out of the area. Helper believed the departing rednecks secretly shared his rage at limited opportunity, at taxation skewed for the benefit of the rich, and at political repression of heretical views. He conceived that “tens of thousands of voters in the Slave States wished” to give their votes “to Republicans.” But “the terrors of lynch law…put down the pestilent heresy.”18

In addition to lynch law, slaveholders spread the myth that ownership of slaves comprised the great southern economic interest. But only rich men owned slaves. Poor men owned only acres, if that. Yeomen’s small farms would be worth five times more in the free labor North. Get rid of slavery (and blacks), counseled the recently disappointed southern land seller, and northern migrants would boost land prices. But if poor men helped preserve wealthy men’s slavery, warned Helper, they would own depreciated terrain, if anything at all. “Nonslaveholding whites!” cried Helper, “look well to your interests.”19

Helper felt no “special friendliness or sympathy for the blacks.” His outrage focused on slavery’s economic “curse … to those who own” no blacks, and its political curse too. Slaveholders destroyed their own claim that black slavery forms “the very bulwark of white liberties.” Instead, “the lords of the lash” made nonslaveholding whites’ “freedom …merely nominal.” If the plebeians dared “to think for themselves” or, worse, expressed “any sentiment at all conflicting with the gospel of slavery,” they faced “the terrors of lynch laws,” akin to “the meanest and bloodiest despotism of the Old World.”20

Helper called the New World’s despots “more criminal than common murderers.” They were worse robbers than thieves, for “thieves steal trifles from rich men,” while slaveholders steal free speech from “poor men.” Slaveholders formed a “tyrannical” and “inflated oligarchy.” They reeked of “arrogance and self-conceit.” Their religion stank “in the nostrils of Christendom.” Their politics libeled “all the principles” of “Republicanism.”21

Helper urged fellow nonslaveholders to “wage an exterminating war” against the abomination. Slaveless laborers should never again vote for a “Trafficker in Human Flesh.” They should accept “No Co-operation with Slaveholders in Politics—No Fellowship with them in Religion—No Affiliation with them in Society.” Helper urged “No Patronage to Slaveholding Merchants, … No Fees to Slaveholding Lawyers, … No Recognition of Pro-slavery Men, except as Ruffians, Outlaws, and Criminals.” The South’s impending crisis demanded “Thorough Organization and Independent Action on the part of the Non-Slaveholding whites.”22

Helper’s diatribe, buttressed with fifty-seven statistical tables and still more clever phrases, delighted many New York Republicans. Helper’s solution to the supposed U.S. race problem resembled theirs: Send blacks out of the United States. His emphasis on the Slave Power’s damage to whites’ economy and republic also mirrored Republicans’ anti–Slave Power appeal. By helping southern ideological compatriots, Northern Republicans could undermine slavery where they could not themselves assault the demon, inside the South. That step beyond containment looked more promising than John Brown’s, or John Fee’s, or John Underwood’s.

New York City Republicans published Helper’s Impending Crisis on June 26, 1857, only a few weeks after his arrival in the city. Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune declared that the one-dollar publication at last supplied the southern masses with their fearless, blunt spokesman. Helper relieved his “heavy artillery of numbers” with “rolling volleys and dashing charges of argument and rhetoric.”23

Despite Greeley’s sendoff, Helper soon despaired over another commercial flop. Few Northerners purchased the volume. Few Southerners noticed its insults. When Helper handed his masterpiece to North Carolina’s Governor John W. Ellis, the author suffered a mockery worthy of Mocksville Academy. The proslavery governor lit his pipe with the underling’s sheets. When a North Carolina minister, Daniel Worth, was convicted of spreading Helper’s words, the populace suspended the required public whipping. The crime was too ineffective to warrant punishment. When Henry Wise’s detectives broke into John Underwood’s farmhouse, they found no books by Helper and no evidence of John Underwood’s recent presence. The intruders discovered only Underwood’s irretrievably southern wife. That Stonewall of a lady furiously told them to search elsewhere for John Brown’s supposed southern allies.

Henry Wise, hearing that the Helper-Underwood trail had run cold, sought other leads about John Brown’s mysterious strategy. Meanwhile, almost every southern congressman ignored Helper and sought investigations of Northern Republicans’ relationship with Brown. But Hinton R. Helper would not surrender. He would yet transcend Rowan County’s limits.

– 3 –

Helper’s recovery from failure partially resembled John Brown’s comeback. Just as Brown rescued a smashed raid’s impact with a speech to his judges, so Helper rescued a failed publication’s importance with a plea for a new edition. Just as the South raged less at Brown’s original raid than at subsequent northern cheers for his speech, so the South stormed less at Helper’s original book than at Yankees’ subsequent publication of his abridged text.

Yet Brown’s and Helper’s ascent from failure diverged in a crucial way. Republicans scorned a Yankee invader’s try for a black insurrection against whites. Republicans, however, embraced a native Southerner’s plea for white votes against slaveholders. Helper might propel the Republican Party beyond containing the Slave Power. He might bring Republican appeals inside the South.

Helper, sensing an opening, begged important New York Republicans to publish a cheap edition of the Impending Crisis. Other important Border South heretics endorsed the author’s appeal. Cassius Clay, Frank Blair, Jr., and John Underwood urged Republican moneymen to finance an inexpensive Helper edition. All the various practitioners of southern heresy, except John G. Fee, here came together to seek an alliance of Northern Republicans and a new Southern Republican faction.24 The collaboration would start with the dissemination of Helper’s appeal for the southern white majority to outvote the slaveholders.

Within a year, southern heretics convinced the Republican establishment to finance 100,000 copies of an abridged Impending Crisis. The pamphlet, entitled The Compendium of the Impending Crisis and printed in New York in July 1859, was six times slimmer than the original and cost one-sixth as much. The sixteen-cent publication still retained most of Helper’s most pungent sentences. The Compendium’s producers also augmented Helper’s insults by adding provocative headlines. In italicized words, the Compendium declared its “Revolutionary Appeal to Southern Non-Slaveholders.” The pamphlet urged “The Non-Slaveholders to Strike for Treason.” It proclaimed that a “Revolution must Free the Slaves.” It praised “Revolution—Peacefully if we can, Violently if we must.”

The Compendium printed the names of sixty-eight Northern Republican congressmen (62 percent of the party’s members of the House of Representatives). All declared that they “cordially endorse the opinion, and approve the enterprise.” Cassius Clay and Frank Blair, Jr., helped collect those signatures, while John C. Underwood served on the committee of circulation. The Compendium supplied 100,000 proofs that Northern Republicans hoped to enable native Southern Republicans to crack open the South’s cordon sanitaire. The evidence portended the fourth and climactic act of the drama that John Brown had initiated, featuring a national crisis over Republicans’ most auspicious route past containment.

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