An Effective Analogy: A Response

The other day I posted an analogy ("An Effective Analogy") by William Blair which tries to draw a connection between the importance of slaveholding for non-slaveholding white southerners with our own attitudes towards home ownership.  I have to admit that I was quite impressed with Blair’s analogy before I read this very thoughtful and skeptical response by Hiram Hover.  I was so impressed that I decided to post it so that more might be forced to think critically about his challenge to Blair.  Here is Hover’s response:

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

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.

My question is whether the analogy can still be salvaged.  Any idea?

9 comments… add one
  • Kevin Levin May 28, 2006 @ 7:30

    Thanks to everyone who chimed in on this one. You’ve given me a great deal to think about. I may at some point go through and summarize the positions for a post on what makes for a good historical analogy.

  • Richard F. Miller May 24, 2006 @ 22:31

    Chris: In calling for the teaching of slavery “as it was” I do not mean to suggest that there is no room for interpretation. Quite the contrary. As we have no living witnesses or victims of the system, virtually anything we say will be interpretative; indeed, if a critical mass of historians begin to say the same thing, soon we have a “schooled” viewpoint. As we are both aware, these too, will pass. But my “as it was” comment does suggest that there exists a substantial body of primary source material that permits even different schools to discourse. We have abundant statistical evidence about slave ownership, the slave economy, reports of owners and testimonies of slaves. The plate is more than full. The difficulty I have with analogies–at any level–is how invidious their uses become. For example, the “Munich 1938: analogy was frequently used to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But in the end, the event proved that Saddam’s evil had to assessed (as do all historical circumstances) with the knowledge that he was evil in his own way and not that of Adolf Hitler. Thus, pre-emptive war, perhaps justified against Germany in 1938, strikes me as a thin reed on which to have based our Iraq invasion. My point is that historical analogies are dangerous, sometimes libelous to earlier generations of problem solvers. Indeed, if I were teaching a course on slavery, I would feel far more comfortable with a good actor portraying the well-known life and struggles of Frederick Douglas than using analogies which are foreign to the period. The modern concept of home ownership–which has served as an exit vehicle from inner-city poverty for millions of African-Americans–simply strikes me as inappropriate. Of course, the ability of human beings to analogize is one of the wonders of symbolic reasoning, and I would be the last to “ban” such intellection even if I could (and I never would). I’m just calling for caution, especially in the realm of history. Analogies–Munich, the Domino Effect, Saddam and now Iran as Hitler–can be very dangerous. Sitz im Leben the German academics always cautioned, and right they were! I leave good analogies to the good poets who are, as a class, much smarter than historians!

  • Chris May 24, 2006 @ 21:52

    Richard, you make good points. I think it is wise for a teacher to not only challenge their students, but to challenge themselves to be “better” teachers. However, I do question your comment, “Why not try teaching the history of slavery as it was and as it unfolded?” Tell me exactly how it “was”? Is this not at the heart of the debate. And I ask this question with respect, you are an accomplished historian. But I think you assume that it is possible to teach, anything, exactly how it was. That’s at the core of this issue. There is no immaculate perception that can take place, especially for 16 or 17 year old students. I feel analogies, though sometimes not perfect, are the best ways to even attempt to bridge that gap between “presentism” and any understanding of the past. Just my two cents…

  • Richard F. Miller May 24, 2006 @ 17:28

    Chris: Yes, indeed–most historical analogies drawn from different eras are in fact flawed, and one typically finds them employed in the service of causes–usually politics and homilies–that care little for historicity but a great deal more for some agenda unrelated to historical truth. Unfortunately, using “damaged goods” as some “way to reach kids” is foolish. Why not try teaching the history of slavery as it was and as it unfolded? An effective teacher at any level ought to know her material well enough to teach it and not some other nonsense. Although perfection isn’t required, teaching the underlying material is. What’s not required is sloppy thinking, fallacious analogies, or catch phrases that elicit seemingly knowing but empty nods.

  • Jonathan Dresner May 24, 2006 @ 16:03

    The analogy is flawed and, I think, irredeemable (You might have more luck positing analogies to future AI devices, a la ST:TNG’s Data) as such: HOWEVER, I think that could actually make it quite useful in the classroom. Hiram Hover’s objections shouldn’t be hard for students to come to themselves, with a little backround, discourse and guidance.

  • Cash May 24, 2006 @ 13:05


    In my opinion, the analogy doesn’t need to be salvaged. It doesn’t have to be perfect, just good enough. It puts into perspective the view that if someone didn’t own slaves they wouldn’t support the institution of slavery. The analogy is good enough to show that this viewpoint is flawed. One can come up with a number of items a large number of people don’t own which would demonstrate the flaw in that viewpoint–Cadillacs come to mind. A number of people own cars, but relatively few own Cadillacs. Does that mean Chevy owners don’t support the idea of being able to own a luxury car?

    Asking the question of young adults seems most appropriate to me, since that was the age of the typical confederate soldier.


  • Chris May 24, 2006 @ 11:30

    Well, then any analogy would be anachronistic, would it not? I didn’t see this as Kevin trying to develop a hypothesis for a paper, but simply a way to reach kids (high school students) and engage them with this topic. I think the analogy, though far from perfect, would successfully engage his students in critical thinking and could be a starting point for higher learning.

  • elementaryhistoryteacher May 23, 2006 @ 22:07

    Interesting. Just when I had it all thought out you’re making me think critically again. I have a headache. Just kiddin’.

  • Richard F. Miller May 23, 2006 @ 21:31

    Kevin: The analogy cannot be “salvaged” nor should it be. For starters, it’s anachronistic. While private property has been a feature of American life since the first settlements, home ownership in the sense of a social entitlement has only existed since the federal government began subsidizing home mortgages in the late 1930s (with dramatic extensions following WWII.) By contrast, slave ownership was never an entitlement, although a social order based on race was. Today, few would argue with the proposition that home ownership is largely is an unsullied social good. By contrast, slavery was always sullied, as the Constitutional debates reveal and as the final document conceded in its prohibition of slave importation after 1808. Moreover, even after the 1820s, careful readers can detect an apologetic tone present in the arguments of even the most enthusiastic advocates of slavery. That Western Europe and the North had entirely outlawed slavery by 1840 (I believe slave ownership remained legal in New Jersey until that year) no doubt accounts for this tone. You will note that this tone is entirely absent from issues relating to FNMA, GNMA, and other providers. In short, the analogy is specious and its use in intelligent discourse little more than cant. As you know, Dr. Blair is editor of Civil War History, and it’s probable that if anyone ever submitted an article seriously arguing this proposition, it would be rejected out of hand, and rightly so.

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