Category Archives: Ask Dr. Harris

Six Out of Seven Ain’t Too Shabby

Screen shot 2014-04-30 at 3.55.33 PMThanks to Statcounter I am pleased to report that Keith Harris History now has readers on six out of the seven continents. How about that!!! Worldwide readership.

The thing is – I feel that Antarctica is kinda missing out. So I am calling on you my Antarctic friends!! Aren’t you interested in American history?? I promise – it is really REALLY fascinating. I think if you give it a chance, you will be as captivated as I am.

So come on – don’t get left behind. Check it out.

With compliments,


Moronic Party Politicking


Screen shot 2014-04-14 at 7.45.27 AMFor my latest installment on how not to be a moron during the next election season I offer you this painfully misleading political meme. Yes, Democrats did indeed write, promote, and enforce Jim Crow laws in the segregated South during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. One thing that this meme does not mention, however, is that during this particular period the Democratic Party was – hang on boys and girls – the conservative party. Conservatives during this period were quite adamant about keeping black folks in their “place” after the Republican Party (quite progressively, if you ask me) passed a few Constitutional amendments guaranteeing black people basic citizenship rights. In fact, conservatives did everything they could in the post Civil War decades to insure that free blacks were reduced to slavery in all but name. I’ll put things simply if you are not following along: Democratic Party in the nineteenth century = conservative party. Well, that sort of changes things doesn’t it?

For those of you party politickers (on either side) who think you have stumbled on to something clever and can’t wait to embarrass the living hell out of the opposition…I counsel you to think first about context and to consider that history is quite dynamic. Extracting some bit of information from the past and applying it to a twenty-first century situation is well…ahistorical. (and not that clever at all).

With compliments,


You Ask I Answer: Blogging History

Screen shot 2014-01-18 at 10.25.32 AMA few days ago I got a note from long-time reader Casey Turben. He has been keeping up with my musings since way back in the Cosmic America days and saw me speak on blogging at the CWI conference in 2012. Well, Casey has decided to start a blog of his own: The Unruly Historian. As you might suspect I am a fan of the name – and he has some good things to say as well, so check it out. As he is just starting out he has asked me a few questions to help him along. So here you go Casey, I hope this offers a few insights:

-Do you find yourself trying to not be overly academic?

I cringe at the thought of sounding even slightly academic. There may be place for esoteric language and academic density, but the blogosphere is not it. I believe that this medium is ideal for reaching out to and engaging with the informed public – those who do not have (and probably don’t really want) access to the super-special academic club. I want to expand my readership, not limit it.

-How do you cite your work?

I do not. Blogging is a colloquial format intended as a platform for virtual conversation. You would not, for example, offer citations at the end of every sentence or thought if you were engaged in a face to face talk with a friend about a historical event. So I do not do it here either. If I think it is important enough I will mention where I found a particular source (book, archive, etc) in the post. And, if anyone asks, I will happily supply formal citations via email. But I will not clutter my posts with distracting citations. True story: I once received an email from an irate scholar berating me for my lack of integrity precisely because I had not furnished footnotes for a piece I did on Civil War veterans. He demanded (and used strong language) that I immediately supply formal citations.  I politely (well, politely in my own smug way) responded with my standard anti-citation argument and sent him formal citations. The scholar apparently did not get (or bother reading) my email and once again attacked me in a private message – this time implying academic dishonesty. So, I sent them again. And do you know what? He didn’t even say thanks. Jackass.

-Who is your main audience?

As I mentioned above, I write for an informed public. Blogging, coupled with social media, is the bridge between academia and everyone else. There are plenty of people out there who know their stuff (and plenty who do not, but that’s a question for another day). These folks might agree with me, they might disagree, they might simply be interested in what I am talking about and want to join in the conversation. I want to reach them. In this way we are together forwarding historical inquiry. Blogging is then, in a sense, a collaborative effort between writer and reader. The discussions that emerge from these posts, often taking place on Twitter or by email, have helped shape my thoughts on a number of topics.

-Do you net any income off of your work?

Yes indeed. Blogging has led to paying invitations to write, speak, and appear on television. I have yet earned enough to purchase a Porsche 356C but things are looking up and there is more to come. So stay tuned.

Casey – I hope this helped. And good luck with your blog!

With compliments,


Much Ado About Revisionist History

storyAs you must surely know by now (as I mention this often), I spend a lot of time scouring the Internet for people discussing America history – usually of the 19th-century variety – but I will have a look at nearly anything that piques my interest. Youtube and Twitter are of course my favorite virtual forums – they never disappoint.

I have noticed something that, as a historian, I find really really really disconcerting. The word “revision” seems to carry a negative connotation. And individuals all over the place hold the so-called practitioners of “revisionist history” with the greatest contempt.

Now this comes from both ends of the political spectrum. Those who finger point and accuse don’t necessarily fall into any easily defined category.

But the way I understand things, people who are screaming about revisionism are kinda missing the point. The words “revision” and “revisionist” have simply been reduced to a code for analytical conclusions that disgruntled would-be historians disagree with. (Bitter??? Table for one).

Here’s the deal my angry f-bomb dropping friends. Revision is what historians do. If we didn’t revise, there would be one history book that would cover the whole enchilada. We would all read it, and that would be it.

Oh sure – historians can write with a bias, and what they write can certainly be a reflection of the times in which they live. But is this by definition a bad thing or something that we simply must come to terms with and be aware of? What we learn about history and historians can tell us a lot about ourselves as interpreters of the past. If you really want to impress your friends at parties – get in to historiography. Now that’s some revision we can talk about. Are there noticeable differences in books written before and after the Vietnam era (to use one sorta obvious example)? You betcha.

But all of that aside, I believe that revision is the essential ingredient to reconstructing the past. New evidence always surfaces somewhere, differing analysis produces thoughtful conversations, new insights lead us to reconsider something we may have thought we knew…but didn’t.

In other words – you can get all bent out of shape if someone challenges your precious beliefs. But instead of dismissing that person as a “revisionist” in derogatory fashion, why not just have a look at what they are saying, weigh the arguments in terms of credibility, see if their evidence holds water. Do you really want to learn anything – or do you just want to hold fast to what could very well be long outdated?

I am open to critique…so fire away.

With compliments,


Harrison Gray Otis and the Burning of the Blue Sulphur Springs Resort


This morning I received an inquiry from a reader who was wondering if I had any information on Harrison Gray Otis’s involvement in the November 1863 burning of the Blue Sulphur Springs Resort in West Virginia. As both Union and Confederate armies had used the resort during the war as a camp and a hospital, Federals wanted to ensure that the Rebs could no longer utilize the structure and surrounding area for their war effort and the resort was fired. Only the Pavilion, a Greek Revival structure, remained.

You may recall that Harrison Gray Otis enlisted in the Union Army as a private and climbed through theharrison_gray_otis ranks to Captain in short order. He eventually moved to Los Angeles and enjoyed a prosperous career as a journalist and editor. My reader has found information suggesting that Otis gave the order to fire the resort – but cannot verify these reports.

I turn to you – my knowledgeable amigos…did Otis give the command? (we’ll need proof, of course)

With compliments,