Chapter 6. Making history by analogy

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Most scholarship on historical analogies emphasizes the dangers of misperception of current events through facile comparisons with the past. Instead, through a detailed rhetorical and historical analysis, this essay argues that an extended historical analogy that highlights difference as well as likeness has the potential to generate new and productive understandings of recent experience. The essay examines the public lecture “William the Silent,” written and delivered by African American civil rights advocate Frederick Douglass in the aftermath of the U.S. Civil War. This lecture analogizes the history of the Netherlands in the sixteenth century to recent U.S. history, suggesting explanations for political decisions and military strategies. Douglass’s careful comparison and contrast of William of Orange and Abraham Lincoln are key elements of the analogy. Through the analysis presented here, this neglected popular lecture emerges as a significant part of Douglass’s own rhetorical trajectory as he sought to make sense of the recent war and the turbulent peace, as he made history by analogy. The dynamics of this case call attention to the importance of contextualizing analogies by form and function, in order to enrich our understanding of specific analogical uses and to deepen our comprehension of the power of analogy generally.


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