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AHHS — Chapter 39

Chapter 39 – How and Why to Study History, by Howard Ray White of N. C., S. I. S. H.


How to study history has been a passion of co-editor Howard Ray White, a retired chemical engineer who became interested in history at midlife.  He emphasizes biography, judging the character of important leaders, looking at what they did instead of what they said, keeping history in strict chronological order to see action, reaction, action, etc. (cause and effect), sorting propaganda from fact.  White purposefully transports himself back in time to the era being studied, choosing to know what people of that era knew, forgetting subsequent history for the moment, for they knew not the future, which to you is now history. So pay close attention as your read about “How and Why to Study History.”  And keep in mind that you will soon be in charge of leading America, sifting through propaganda in search of truth.  You must know the past to wisely steer forward.

How and Why to Study History

As I have studied American History over the past 20 years, with a focus on 1763 to 1885, I have come to appreciate the importance of numerous rules helpful in the study of history – rules needed to make sense of it all.  And making sense is important.  Otherwise history becomes just a maze of meaningless and dry facts and dates.  We now begin.

Study Rule One — Live it!

To make sense of history you have to live it.  Ignore relevance to today’s knowledge and today’s issues, mentally transport yourself back in time and just live it.  Biographies will help.

I mentally transport myself to the time period being studied, to take on the life of those people, for only then can I truly understand history from their perspective.

Commentary: Biographies are an essential ingredient in any study plan that strives to “Live it.”  Here are the seven biographies that have meant the most to me:

  1. Andrew Jackson by Marquis James (1938).
  2. Sam Houston (The Raven) by Marquis James (1929).
  3. Jefferson Davis by Hudson Strode (3 volumes, 1955, 1959, 1964).
  4. Charles Sumner by David Donald (2 volumes, 1960, 1970).
  5. Old Thad Stevens by Richard Current (1942).
  6. Stephen A. Douglas by Robert Johannsen (1973).
  7. Abraham Lincoln by David Donald (1995).

Study Rule Two — The Right Name

To understand an issue you have to call it by the right name.

It is important to name political movements for what activists claimed they were for; never what they claimed they were against.

Commentary — I follow the rule of Confucius, the great Chinese teacher, who 2,500 years ago taught his students, “To understand an issue you have to call it by the right name.”  Confucius understood that the study of an issue should be directed at understanding it and thereafter applying the “right name” so that confusion over that particular issue no longer complicated the study of subsequent issues.  I never name a movement, “Anti-something.”  It is important to name a political movement for what Activists claimed they were for, never for what they claimed they were against.

Study Rule Three — Chronology, Context, etc.

Meaning can only be found in the context of time, place and situation.

So pay close attention to chronology, place and available knowledge of that time.

Commentary — You should find my emphasis on these issues to be a familiar concern.  Politicians today often complain of being quoted out of context.  But it was much worse 150 years ago.  During the 23 years, starting in 1854 with the birth of the Republican Party and the start of Bleeding Kansas, and ending in 1877 with the withdrawal of Federal troops from the conquered Confederacy, political attitudes and events were changing so rapidly that close attention to chronology, place and available knowledge, year by year, is essential to understanding that history.

Study Rule Four — Actions and Reactions

Examine actions and reactions.

Most political activities are reactions to competitive political activities.

Primarily look at actions, not words, because politicians often claim to advocate a certain policy to win votes, but make no effort to implement that policy once elected.

Commentary — Always remember, most political activity is in reaction to other political activity.  In studying history, look for understanding of the give and take of political tugs.

Study Rule Five — Judge the Means

The end does not justify the means.

Focus on the means.

History is a process, not an outcome.

Commentary — The end does not justify the means.  Period.  End of story.  So you must set aside thoughts concerning the ends while you focus on the means.  Study history as a process and judge it accordingly.

Study Rule Six — Ignore “What-If” Scenarios

Do not be drawn into “what-if” discussions.  They are only fantasies.

No one knows how history would have evolved if a major issue had been decided differently.

You cannot judge history against an alternative scenario, which never happened.  You must judge history against broad, eternal moral standards.

Commentary — I had lunch with a newspaperman one day.  When discussing what really happened in our Civil War, we agreed.  When speculating on what might have been the outcome, had the Federals failed to conquer the Confederacy, our views were quite different.  But who cares?  It may be fun, but it is fruitless for the student of history to debate “what if.”

Study Rule Seven — The Victors Write the Histories

Remember, the victors write the histories of political and military conquests.

So you must search hard for the writings of the defeated.

Commentary — I have searched long and hard to uncover many important aspects of our history from 1854 to 1877.  Many events crucial to understanding are hidden from view.  So be persistent in your investigation.

Study Rule Eight — Land, Land, Land

The three major prizes sought through war are land, land and land.

Subordinate prizes include captives, treasure, tribute and spoils.

If anyone ever tells you that a major war was once started over the price of imported tea, do not believe it.

If anyone ever tells you that a major war was once started to force the other side to stop using slave labor, be very suspicious of the claim.

Commentary — Look at a map of the United States as of 1860 — the Federal States of the North and the Confederate States of the South just prior to secession.  What do you see?  I see land, land and land.

Study Rule Nine — Scientific Rigor

Apply scientific rigor as you study history.

Validate important information.

Investigate motives and clues.

Identify who controls the money and the land.

Be like Sherlock Holmes.

Commentary — Scientific rigor is as natural to me as having breakfast in the morning.  As a trained chemical engineer, I always apply scientific principles of truth-finding whatever issue I am investigating.  I am not other-directed.  I am self-directed.  Being politically correct is like putting your head in the sand.  For centuries it was not politically correct to claim that the earth was round, or that it revolved around the sun.  Anyway, I have never cared much about how many fairies can dance on the head of a pin.

Study Rule Ten — Don’t be a Monkey

Monkey see, and monkey do.

Monkey be politically correct, too.

You are a human with a mind of your own.

Use it!

Commentary — This jingle is related to being a good scientific investigator when studying history.  So don’t be a monkey.  Be yourself.

Study Rule Eleven — Scientifically Correct Truth

Choose scientifically correct truth over what is alleged to be “politically correct truth.”

Commentary — I suppose I want to drive this point home, even if I am accused of repeating myself.

Study Rule Twelve — Academia is Biased

Far too many teachers and professors in American academia are biased toward being “politically correct.”

Their most frequent sin is the sin of omission.

You have to uncover the stones to discover the history they leave covered up.

Commentary — O. K.  Here lies the challenge.  In middle home school you are expected to learn elementary history.  In high home school you are expected to gain a solid grounding in basic history.  But, when it comes to American history, especially from 1854 to 1877, very few students ever learn true history.  Those that do dig it out for themselves such as you are striving to do in your home school environment.

I am a chemical engineer, for many years retired.  I did not major in history in college.  I am not a member of academia.  And, believe it or not, that is a distinct advantage when it comes to the teaching of truthful history.

Study Rule Thirteen — Stones and Snakes

Turn the stones over!

That’s where the snakes are.

Commentary — When I was a young boy of around twelve, my friends and I would occasionally wade the nearby creek and look for things.  It was beside a golf course.  We would only see a few minnows and an occasional white golf ball until we started turning over the stones in and alongside the creek.  It was only under those stones that we found crawfish, salamanders and water snakes.  Seeking important facts in search of comprehensive history is like that.  The important historical facts you seek are hidden under the rocks.  Yep!  Turn the stones over.  That’s where the snakes are.  Need I say more?

Study Rule Fourteen — Character, Character, Character

Pay close attention to the character of political leaders, including even personal family relations.

That is why biographies are important study tools.

Commentary — I have already shown you my most useful biographies.  History is a process, and the character of important political leaders tells us much about that process.  Compare the character traits of Jefferson Davis and his wife Varina to the character traits of Abraham Lincoln and his wife Mary.  That is instructive.  Judge the character traits of Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens.

Study Rule Fifteen — Be Suspicious of Lawyers

There are far too many lawyers in American politics.

That is true today and was true in 1861.

Be suspicious of them.

Commentary — I am not a lawyer.  My older son is an electrical engineer and his wife is a physician.  My younger son and his wife own and operate two thriving businesses.  A grandson is an accomplished computer science engineer and a granddaughter is a veterinarian.  My parents and my wife’s parents were teachers.  There are no lawyers in my family.  I rather like that.  It troubles me that legislatures are made up mostly of lawyers who, therefore, write the laws that keep fellow lawyers in business.

Study Rule Sixteen — Unmask the Demagogues

Unmask the political demagogue and judge him harshly.

Commentary – You are growing up and will soon be voting.  Pay close attention to candidates and their behavior.  When you spot a demagogue, advocate for his or her opponent.  Demagogues are prone to be destructive.

Study Rule Seventeen — Seek the Truth

“Seek the truth in every endeavor, for the truth shall set you free.”

Commentary – That rule concerning the importance of seeking truth has been around a long time.  No better rule has ever been uncovered.

Study Rule Eighteen — Understand Logical Fallacies

Understand the classic debating techniques of the political demagogue and be not deceived by them.

Pay close attention to Ambiguity, Quoting out of Context, One-Sidedness, Red Herring, Straw Man and dozens more.

Study the science of logical fallacies.

Study Rule Nineteen – Always Endeavor to Answer a Properly-Framed Question

Before engaging in addressing a question, make sure it is properly framed toward arriving at a truthful answer.

A common way to deceive people on an issue is to miss-characterize the question to ensure confusion.  Several examples follow:

  1. No Question – Just gathering facts without any notion of utility.
  2. Too Many Questions – Makes answering impractical.
  3. This or That Questions – Restricting a choice between two answers when others may be better.
  4. Questions that are Unanswerable through Experience – Such as “why” questions.
  5. Fictional Questions – “What if” history turned out differently
  6. What to name it Questions – Diverting attention toward merely what name should apply.
  7. Declarations pretending to be Questions – Omits questions’ open end, making it self-answered.
  8. B reconstructing A’s Question – One historian rethinking another’s study, whose question may have actually been fallacious in the first place.
  9. Pretense of a choice between two ideas that mean the same thing – a taunt.
  10. Contradictory Questions – It is false by definition and contradicts itself.
  11. Questions for others to Answer – Historian A framing a question for another branch of academia to answer.


Regarding “How” to study history, the inquisitive student must be discerning and investigate diligently.  The task is not easy.  Regarding “Why” to study history, be assured that productive citizenship and personal liberty requires truthful knowledge of it.  Discuss these issues with your parents.  Suggest the whole family engage in a discussion of this subject after all have individually read this chapter.  The student should seek knowledge from parents and grandparents, for they have lived through quite a bit of history already and most likely gained valuable wisdom in the process.

Perhaps the most important message I can deliver to you today is that good old fashion common sense will serve you well when evaluating the actions and rhetoric of others, including the writings of historians.

Suggestions for Class Discussion

How does a student of history sort truth from falsehood, the right story from the propaganda?  Why must the student transport himself or herself back into the times of the history being studied to truly understand the events of that era?

Recommended Reading

When seeking to understand the War Between the States, look for histories and biographies written before 1940.  Books published between 1900 and 1940 are often the most reliable sources of truthful histories and biographies.  Of course, there are exceptions, but this can be a good guide.

For a complete treatment of historical fallacies, go to by Gary N. Curtis or get a copy of David Fischer’s book, Historians’ Fallacies, Toward a Logic of Historical Thought.