An Effective Analogy

One of the most common retorts to the argument that slavery was central to the Southern way of life is to point out that only 1 in 4 white southerners actually owned slaves.  The argument suggests that ownership of slaves was a precondition for any decision that involved secession and even a reason to go off to war.  Recent studies of Southern society clearly show that the maintenance of the institution of slavery mattered in more ways than simple ownership.  It propped up a hierarchical society based on race and provided a means for advancement within society.  After all it took only one slave to be considered a "slave owner."  I find it difficult to make these points in class in a way that students identify with.  Luckily William Blair offers a wonderful analogy in his essay on slavery and secession which recently appeared in the new edited volume Struggle for a Vast Future. 

Imagine asking the question to a room full of primarily 18- through 21-year olds, "How many of you are homeowners?"  The predictably few hands that go up might provoke the following question: "Then does that mean you are against homeowning?"  The absurdity of the question strikes them almost immediately.  They understand that they have grown up in a society based on property owning by individuals, with homeowning as a means of measuring success.  Although listed on a census as non-homeowners, most have grown up in domiciles owned by parents and, even if they begin their independent adult lives as renters, wish to find property reflective of their social stations as soon as conditions allow.  Those who were raised in apartments admit to the power that homeowning holds on the culture.  Furthermore, while renters derive no benefit from the tax code that credits expenditures for interest rates on mortgages, few of them storm the tax office and cry for an end to the advantage, even if they grumble on tax deadline day about the lack of similar breaks for themselves.  Similar to our ancestors, we can overlook the contradictions within our society.  Many of us can walk by the homeless on the street and believe that a character flaw contributes to their condition, rather than challenge the individualism that undergirds our society or question whether we ought to accept the poverty-stricken as unfortunate, if inevitable casualties of a free-market system.

As Blair points out students can see the possibilities of a future war over the rights of homeowning and property, especially if it is couched in a broader ethical/moral language regarding a way of life. Slavery and homeowning both involve the rights of property ownership which makes this such an effective analogy.  Students can reflect on all the ways that homeowning fits into their broader economic and social world view.  What would it mean to lose this opportunity as an individual (freedom and self esteem) and a society? 

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4 comments… add one

  • David Woodbury May 22, 2006

    Kevin,

    The home ownership analogy sounds like a pretty effective way to bring the point “home” to students. It’s also effective to speak of the percentage of slave owners in terms of families, as in, about 25% of Southern families owned slaves. That, more accurately, suggests how pervasive the institution was. Not everyone in the family will be listed as a slaveowner in the census, but the notion of “ownership” went far beyond the head of the household.

    David

  • Lee White May 22, 2006

    I like it, in fact Im going to use that one in my World of the Common Soldier talks this summer at Chickamauga. Thanks for posting that one Kevin.

  • This is a fantastic analogy. I’ve always struggled with the fact that my own dirt poor ancestors fought for the south yet owned no slaves. This analogy puts it into perspective why they would sacrifice so much for a section of society that kept them at bay.

  • Hiram Hover May 23, 2006

    I’ll confess that I’m not that impressed with Blair’s hypothetical here, for several reasons.

    1. The question about homeownership is being asked of kids/young adults, and not of a range of adult men–who are the ones who participated in elections that involved questions of slavery and sectionalism before the Civil War.

    2. One reason the difference matters is because of the question of future expectations. You’re asking this question about homeownership of relatively privileged high school/college kids in a society where homeownership is a normal and expected part of the life path for people like them. Slaveownership was not the normative condition of adult white men in the antebellum South. The kids of slaveowners might have wanted and expected to follow in their parents footsteps. But esp. by the 1850s, rising slave prices made it very hard for those who didn’t already own slaves to break into the ranks of slaveowners–even if they wanted to do so. That inability, in turn, could lead to frustration and resentment that might not make a non-slaveowner into an abolitionist, but could easily give him reason to cast a suspicious eye on political ideas and programs designed to defend other men’s ownership of slaves. (Here, the question isn’t whether non-home owners do or would storm the tax office to protest the deductibility of interest on home mortgages. The better analogy is to ask how they’d respond if homeowners proposed to destroy the federal union after the election of a president who supported the “ultimate extinction” of the home mortgage interest deduction.)

    3. The homeownership analogy also writes the possibility of moral and political objections out of the picture. The premise is that of course these kids want to become homeowners–there may be financial obstacles to buying a home, or practical reasons it’s not advisable (don’t buy now because of a housing bubble, or because you might leave the area in a year or two), but there’s nothing politically or morally objectionable about homeownership per se–it’s hard in modern America even to imagine what those objections might be. But of course, that was hardly the case with slaveownership in antebellum America. I’m not suggesting that most non-slaveowning white Southerners objected on moral or political grounds to slavery, but it seems unwise to start off with a teaching technique that effectively excludes such possibilities from the start.

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