Echoes of Reconstruction: Who the Hell Was William Dunning & Did He Distort Reconstruction History?

Emerging Civil War is pleased to welcome back Patrick Young, author of The Reconstruction Era blog. 

A year ago I wrote a Martin Luther King Day essay on the critique the great Civil Rights leader had of the way the history of Reconstruction had been distorted by a number of white historians of the first half of the 20th Century. While the article was met with a number of supportive comments and an equal number of derogations, there were several questions raised about the “Dunning School” historians who directed the distortion. Shortly after the article went up, I was hospitalized and was not able to get back to responding to the inquiries from readers.

In his speech commemorating the 100th Birthday of African American historian W.E.B. DuBois, King spoke about how the Dunning School manipulated the history of Reconstruction and how DuBois’s book Black Reconstruction had challenged that white consensus. Dunning School history systematically altered the history of Reconstruction along lines pioneered by adherents of the Lost Cause a quarter century earlier. But the Dunningites were not ex-Confederates trying to justify their struggle against the United States, they were academics with doctorates from fine universities in the South and North.

The Dunning School is named after its founding father, Professor William Dunning. William A. Dunning was a Northerner born in Plainfield, New Jersey, in 1857. A true Columbia man, he received his bachelor’s degree there in 1881, his master’s there in 1884, and his doctorate there in 1885. In 1885 he began teaching at Columbia University and in 1904 he was chaired as the Francis Lieber Professor. He later served as the president of both the American Historical Association and the American Political Science Association. This was no obscure historian.

Dunning’s writings led many Southern students to enroll at Columbia to study under him. His doctoral students would take on a decades-long program of creating Reconstruction studies of most of the Confederate states. They would also create primary source collections that are still important today. The Dunning School’s work was disseminated in popular media. According to historian John Smith:

For decades it dominated the popular understanding of Reconstruction thanks to its dissemination in David W. Griffith’s film The Birth of the Nation (1915), Claude G. Bowers’s The Tragic Era: The Revolution after Lincoln (1929), George Fort Milton’s The Age of Hate: Andrew Johnson and the Radicals (1930), and Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone With the Wind (1936) and the film of the same title that appeared three years later. (The Dunning School: Historians, Race, and the Meaning of Reconstruction ed. by  John Smith Kindle Locations 142-144).

According to the Dunning School, Reconstruction history followed this timeline:

  1. Lincoln had planned on a mild restoration of the Union without any fundamental changes in Southern society apart from the ending of slavery. His death removed his powerful guiding hand from restoration of the Union.
  2. Southern whites accepted emancipation and hoped to restore orderly and peaceful state governments after the war.
  3. Andrew Johnson organized new state governments after the war, mobilizing moderate white Southerners to assume the offices of the reconstructed state and local governments.
  4. Radical Republicans, seeking profits and power, fought against Johnson’s efforts at reconciliation, going so far as to illegally impeach him.
  5. Radicals cynically gave Black men the right to vote in order to maintain control of the South.
  6. Blacks lacked the mental capacity to see that their real allies were Southern whites and that they themselves were mentally and morally incapable of participating in government.
  7. The governments set up by the Radicals encouraged Black indolence and allowed the Radicals to steal the region’s wealth.
  8. White leaders redeemed the Southern states from Black and Radical rule and installed fair governments in which all were protected, even though Blacks were disenfranchised.

The views of the Dunning School were transmitted through elementary and high school textbooks in the early 20th Century. In some Southern colleges, Dunningite volumes became the acceptable histories of Reconstruction. But the Dunning School scholars attracted an audience well beyond the South. When they were writing, white Americans were coming to terms with the emergence of the United States as a world power, controlling non-white peoples in places like Puerto Rico and the Philippines. The role of whites as a world-wide ruling race was more a popular proposition in 1900 than perhaps at any other time in American history. The “unnaturalness” of “imposing Black rule” over white Southerners seemed apparent to many Northern whites four decades after Reconstruction.

One of Dunning’s most influential books was Reconstruction, Political and Economic, 1865–1877  (1907). Hopefully you can stand a Deep Dive into this paragon of distortion.

Dunning begins the book in the days after Emancipation. African Americans, who frequently left the plantations of their former enslavers when they were freed to look for sold-off family members, are described as “aimless” wanderers by Dunning:

With the collapse of the Confederacy all the slaves became free, and the strange and unsettling tidings of emancipation were carried to the remotest corners of the land. As the full meaning of this news was grasped by the freedmen, great numbers of them abandoned their old homes, and, regardless of crops to be cultivated, stock to be cared for, or food to be provided, gave themselves up to testing their freedom. They wandered aimless but happy through the country, found endless delight in hanging about the towns and Union camps, and were fascinated by the pursuit of the white man’s culture in the schools which optimistic northern philanthropy was establishing wherever it was possible.

Right after the war, former Confederate States under all-white government elected by all-white voters passed the Black Codes. These were designed to control the bodies and labor of Black people.  Incredibly, Dunning described the severe disabilities placed on Black freedom as a sensible response to the inferiority of blacks:

The restrictions in respect to bearing arms, testifying in court, and keeping labor contracts were justified by well-established traits and habits of the negroes; and the vagrancy laws dealt with problems of destitution, idleness, and vice.… A few of the enactments, such as that of Mississippi excluding the blacks from leasing agricultural land, were clearly animated by a spirit of oppression, reflecting the antipathy of the lower-class whites to the negroes; and others doubtless were lacking in practical sagacity and in the nicest adaptation to the purpose in hand; but, after all, the greatest fault of the southern law-makers was, not that their procedure was unwise per se, but that, when legislating as a conquered people, they failed adequately to consider and be guided by the prejudices of their conquerors. Sagacious southerners warned the legislators that some of their acts would produce a dangerous effect in the North. But the personnel of the new governments did not include the most shrewd and experienced politicians of the states, and the legislatures, in yielding to the tremendous pressure of social and economic distress, set lightly aside some very urgent considerations of political expediency. (Kindle Locations 710-726)

Dunning expressed a lot of sympathy for racist President Andrew Johnson who opposed the Civil Rights Act passed by Congress in 1866. The bill simply declared that non-white people born in the United States were citizens and that they were entitled to certain civil rights. Dunning wrote:

Johnson was soon obliged to confront another measure which was much more subversive than the Freedmen’s Bureau bill of his most cherished constitutional convictions. This was the Civil Rights bill, designed to secure to the freedmen through the normal action of the courts the same protection against discriminating state legislation that was secured in the earlier bill by military power. It declared the freedmen to be citizens of the United States, and as such to have the same civil rights ‘ and to be subject to the same criminal penalties as white persons; and it provided with great fullness for the punishment of any one who, under color of state laws, should discriminate against the blacks. It was a plain announcement to the southern legislatures that, as against their project of setting the freedmen apart as a special class, with a status at law corresponding to their status in fact, the North would insist on exact equality between the races in civil status, regardless of any consideration of fact. The constitutional questions involved in this measure were of the most profound and intricate nature, and the theory of citizenship which it embodied was such as to make conservative constitutional lawyers stare and gasp.

Later in the book, Dunning related that the reaction of Southern whites against the enfranchisement of Blacks was the imposition of Black Rule because in some jurisdictions most people were Black! The occupation military forces prevented violence against Black voters, which apparently gave Blacks an undeserved advantage. Here is how Dunning described this:

In these elections, as in the registration, the military authorities assumed the duty of promoting in every way participation by the blacks, and of counteracting every influence tending to keep them from the polls. The result of the elections was a group of constituent assemblies whose unfitness for their task was pitiful.

The principal problem with the new constitutions was, according to Dunning was:

the guarantee of entire equality, civil and political, among the citizens regardless of race…

The rest of the book is filled with similar sympathies and prejudices presented as scientific history. This view would dominate popular understanding of the period for three-quarters of a century and still maintains a hold on the minds of some.

14 Responses to Echoes of Reconstruction: Who the Hell Was William Dunning & Did He Distort Reconstruction History?

  1. Sure, but the Foner book similarly omits uncomfortable facts regarding black Americans not ready for freedom and open violence by freed blacks and Federal occupiers against white Southerners. There were many reliable reports of Republicans manipulating black votes. That was not just a “Lost Cause” myth. The sheriff of Orleans parish – i.e. New Orleans – was paid $60,000 in 1868, a time when skilled labor was paid just $600-800 per year. Foner discusses corruption just briefly, arguing that the corruption post war was similar to pre-war corruption in the South. But, seriously, no Sheriff was ever paid $60,000 per year prior to the war.

    There is little in the Foner book about the devastated Southern economy after the war. Land values plummeted after the war throughout the South. You really need to read both Foner and pre-Foner books to get a balanced picture of Reconstruction. We are essentially replacing the Lost Cause myth with a new myth. History suffers under both perceptions.

    1. “Black Americans were “ready for freedom” two hundred years before Emancipation.” Shallow analysis, designed more to demonstrate virtue than to explain the challenges of newly freed men and women.

  2. It amazes me how the vast majority of post 60’s historians suddenly became more informed than were those who came before them. Most of those who came before lived during a time when primary witnesses still lived and could be interviewed. A time when historical memory was first hand. A time when modern fabrications such as “lost cause myth” were not being applied to historical truths that did not fit a post civil rights political agenda. And certainly not a time when “woke” ideology ruled the day!

    A few years ago I spoke with a sociologist who had recently returned from a trip to study the “Os Confederados,” the descendants of some 20,000 Confederates and their former slaves who had emigrated to Brazil at the close of the Civil War to form the city of Americana. He said he was amazed at the close and congenial relationships between the descendants of former masters and former slaves. When he inquired as to why there was no racial tensions in Americana, the answer he received from those descendants was, “There was no Reconstruction here to create a legacy of racial tension.”

    When you read historians who champion the likes of W.E.B. DuBois, M.L. King Jr., and even Eric Foner, all men with strong sentiments for “Marx-ism,” beware the skewed lens of an oppressor/oppressed paradigm that informs their historical interpretation. As the late great Dr. Ludwell Johnson, Professor of History Emeritus, College of William and Mary cautioned, “Various theoretical “”’isms’ arriving from Europe in the 1960’s still endanger the very existence of what has so long been thought of as history.”

    The Dunning school may have had its faults, but they do not approach the historical fiction created by modern historians of a fashionable “politically correct school.” The historical evidence that has to be suppressed to spin the popular modern historical narrative is mind boggling in its dishonesty! Here is just a small sampling of primary evidence being suppressed that far more supports the Dunning School than anything being called history today:

    – Hiram Rhodes Revels, the first African-American to serve in the United States Congress, wrote to President Grant complaining of Reconstruction tactics of the Republican Party: “Since reconstruction, the masses of my people have been . . enslaved in mind by unprincipled adventurers, who, caring nothing for country, were willing to stoop to anything, no matter how infamous, to secure power to themselves and perpetuate it… My people… A great portion of them have learned that they were being used as mere tools… My people have been told by these schemers when men were placed upon the ticket who were notoriously corrupt and dishonest, that they must vote for them; that the salvation of the party depended upon it; that the man who scratched a ticket was not a Republican. This is only one of the many means these unprincipled demagogues have devised to perpetuate the intellectual bondage of my people… We do not believe that Republicanism means corruption, theft, and embezzlement. These three offenses have been prevalent among a great portion of our office-holders…. The bitterness and hate created by the late civil strife has, in my opinion, been obliterated in this State, except, perhaps, in some localities, and would have long since been entirely obliterated were it not for some unprincipled men who would keep alive the bitterness of the past and inculcate a hatred between the races, in order that they may aggrandize themselves by office and its emoluments to control my people, the effect of which is to degrade them… If the State administration had adhered to republican principles, advanced patriotic measures, appointed only honest and competent men to office, and sought to restore confidence between the races, blood-shed would have been unknown, peace would have prevailed, Federal interference been unthought of; harmony, friendship, and mutual confidence would have taken the place of the bayonet. In conclusion, let me say to you, and through you, to the great Republican Party of the North, that I deemed it my duty, in behalf of my people, that I present these facts in order that they and the white people (their former owners) should not suffer the misrepresentations which certain demagogues seemed desirous of encouraging.”

    – Booker T. Washington, in his book “Up from Slavery: An Autobiography” wrote a very Dunning School sounding critique of Reconstruction:

    “THE YEARS from 1867 to 1878 I think may be called the period of Reconstruction. This included the time that I spent as a student at Hampton and as a teacher in West Virginia… Though I was but little more than a youth during the period of Reconstruction, I had the feeling that mistakes were being made, and that things could not remain in the condition that they were in then very long. I felt that the Reconstruction policy, so far as it related to my race, was in a large measure on a false foundation, was artificial and forced. In many cases it seemed to me that the ignorance of my race was being used as a tool with which to help white men into office, and that there was an element in the North which wanted to punish the Southern white men by forcing the Negro into positions over the heads of the Southern whites. I felt that the Negro would be the one to suffer for this in the end.”

    – The last appointed Reconstruction Governor of South Carolina, Daniel Chamberlain, sounding a lot like the Dunning School, would later admit the true motives of the Republican Party in granting voting rights to former slaves:

    “Underneath all the avowed [Republican] motives . . . lay a deeper cause . . . the determination to secure party ascendency and control at the South and in the nation through the negro vote. If this is hard saying, let anyone now ask himself . . . if it is possibly credible that the [1867] reconstruction acts would have passed if the negro vote had been believed to be Democrat.”

    – Major Theodore G. Barker denounced the racial hatred promoted by the Republican Union League early in Reconstruction as it sought to consolidate the black vote. He confessed…. “If the counsels of corrupt Republican leaders, from the very highest and most cultivated to the coarsest and lowest dog in the Radical kennel, had been followed, blood and hate would have marked the history of the State for eleven years past. To the natural kindliness between the native white and the blacks which has always existed in South Carolina – to the refusal of both the former master and the former slave to suffer themselves to be arrayed in strife against each other by miserable carpet-baggers of both races – and to this alone is due the fact that to-day we are at peace . . . “

    It is fashionable today to spin a historiographical method that weaponizes pejoratives such as “the Dunning School” and “Lost Cause Myth” while ignoring or suppressing the vast amount of primary source evidence that doesn’t support to political agenda that drives the method.

  3. Discussions like this make my heart sing! We owe it to ourselves and every historian ever to work fluidly among prior work and isms. This is what develops our own points of view. Dunning is part of Civil War history as surely as any soldier or politician. I will be reading this post again and again, and I suspect amazon will be getting an order from me pretty soon for more “old books.” Well done, ECW!! Well done Patrick Young & all who respond. This makes me want to drop everything, read a bunch more, and invite all of you over for a “porch view” afternoon!

  4. Thsnk you, Patrick Young. I am not a professional historian. I am just a person, native Mississippian who still at age 91 struggles with some of the “truisms” I was taught by well-meaning teachers and other adults.

    It is,a continuous effort. Thanks for your clarifying information. Keep them coming.

    F. Norman Vickers, member Pensacola Civil War Roundtable

  5. I agree with Meg. Reconstruction was incredibly complex and deserves all the scholarly attention it can get. It bears mentioning that all of the social and political issues were playing out in a section of the country that had been completely destroyed economically. My in-laws grew up in the South in the ’30s and ’40s and no one, white or black, had any money even at that late date. It is a credit to ordinary Americans, from all backgrounds, that the United States was able to enter the 20th century as a functioning republic, however imperfect.

  6. So this is what they mean by “discrediting Dunning”. There is a significant difference between William A. Dunning and the writers being critiqued in the collection of essays in “The Dunning School”, something not made clear in your essay above. To clarify, Dunning was totally a Northerner; his goal was to write a political history of Reconstruction. He spared no one, and was an acute and accurate observer of the times. His book is not “a paragon of distortion”, no matter how important it is to you that it be characterized that way. He also had a dry wit; his description of the remarkable election of 1876 is a must-read. His subject was the post-War political turbulence affecting everyone involved; he did not focus on the plight of African Americans except as it affected the entire fabric of the story. If he left the details of that plight to future writers, it does not in any way discredit his insights and observations. Not once in the above essay is it mentioned that most former Confederate males were disenfranchised and under military control by the North, and that corruption by some of all groups involved was rampant. Dunning/the Dunning School were correct that Lincoln was in favor of a ‘soft-landing’ for the South; read Lincoln’s last speech. They are correct that military occupation and hard control of the South by the North followed when Grant became President and was easily manipulated by Republican Radicals. The various writers of “The Dunning School” had varying points of view; but almost to a person, they were Southerners who had, in reality and/or in their history, “boots on the ground” in the South, and were no more racist than anyone in the North. The key and crucial difference is that they had first hand, in some cases, lived, experience with the realities of the South. It’s amazing that you never mention that in 1860 there were 225K freedmen in the entire North and 250K freedmen and 4 million enslaved persons in the South, or c. half the latter’s population. It’s amazing that you have avoided any mention at all of the pre-War and post-War existence of “black codes” in the North, despite the very limited presence of freedmen in any Northern State. It’s amazing that you fail to understand and acknowledge the state of destruction and chaos in the South from the War and from the abrupt emancipation of 4 million enslaved persons, or half the population, into a failed economy and destroyed infrastructure. It’s hard to understand that you believe you are allowed to exclude very significant parts of this story in your zeal to discredit any input from people who had a very different lens in the subject than you and most of the people criticizing them could ever have or have had. You are also remarkably remiss in understanding the economic pressures on the South, from sources both internal and external to the US, greatly affecting the lack of progress in that region for the century following the Civil War and, as a consequence, its essentially economic policies toward its varied population. And, you are prone to misinterpretation in your quest; in the quote you chose from Dunning, beginning “With the collapse of the Confederacy….”, Dunning remarks that former slaves were “aimless”, which was factually correct as is well documented, but goes on to say that “they were fascinated by pursuit of white man’s culture …” (in new schools, etc.), rather a positive impression. Further, you hope to score by quoting “The restrictions in respect to bearing arms….etc.” which is both an astute analysis of post-War conditions and a criticism of the failings of Southern legislatures at the time to understand the repercussions of their actions. The fact that most African Americans at that time were not prepared for abrupt freedom was recognized, belatedly, by the North itself and acknowledged by the appearance of the Freedman’s Bureau to aid in that endeavor, so it’s odd that you would make every effort to deny the problem. This discussion could go on for quite a while but, in sum, your cleverness in trying to “discredit” Dunning, who understood very well the political motives of the North and the realities of the South, and blur the boundaries between Dunning and the people who studied with him – products of differing situations and backgrounds, but all with at least some meaningful experience of the actual South – has not succeeded. A legitimately successful historian would put down the Banner of Virtue and assess each stance, and have at least a cursory background in the economic history of the US, and particularly the South, 1860 – 1960, which is critical to any meaningful understanding of this history. I recommend, for bare bones starters, “Southern Wealth and Northern Profits”, Kettell (Northerner), “Disowning Slavery”, Melish (Northerner), both of which might be loosely referred to as ‘why all this happened’, and “Empire of Cotton”, Beckert (Northerner), or ‘the bigger picture and why it’s very important to this discussion’. Keep in mind that in 1900, 90% of African Americans still lived in the South; by 1940, 77% were still there.

  7. “Black Americans were ready for emancipation for 200 years” No kidding. I mean after two hundred years of slavery, black people were not fit to have civil rights or move freely? How many centuries would it have taken for white Alabama(for example) to decide its Black citizens were in fact citizens? I suspect the answer is “never, because they are Black.”

  8. Also, for an on-the-ground history of one State’s government during Reconstruction, try “The Prostrate State”, James Shepherd Pike, again a Northerner, who had a first hand acquaintance with South Carolina during that period. It’s mostly financial and economic but he gives a fair and unflinching of virtually everyone involved. Interestingly, Wikipedia has a good summary of Black Americans in State and Federal goverment 1865-1900, under that title or similar. Many but not all were successful and even popular with their constituency at large.

  9. To echo a commenter above, Reconstruction was “incredibly complex,” and even that characterization is a pale attempt to describe it. The emotional, social, and political turmoil and upheaval was all more than we can grasp. We’re indebted to Eric Foner and his contemporaries for giving us a more complete and, I think, more accurate understanding of the Reconstruction years than what we have from the Dunning School.

    I don’t think it’s useful, however, to say that Dunning “distorted” Reconstruction history, as that implies that he was deliberately dishonest in his historical analysis. His interpretation of Reconstruction was bound by his time and culture, and he wrote it as he saw it, providing a helpful window for us in understanding how Reconstruction was viewed – and acted on – by people of his time and before. Certainly what we now consider “distortions” are present in his work, but one reason we know they are distortions is because we have more documentation and fewer blind spots to work with. There’s nothing to be gained by characterizing him and his contemporaries as villains. That only makes our discussions more antagonistic.

    Studying history requires of us so much humility, recognizing that every individual experienced their life and times in their own particular way. There are as many “histories” as there were individuals, and each were vastly different.

  10. “Dunning expressed a lot of sympathy for racist President Andrew Johnson who opposed the Civil Rights Act passed by Congress in 1866. ”
    The author mentions Andrew Johnson’s racial views like they were unusual for the time. It does seem an unnecessary point to make, perhaps intended to make some contemporary point?

  11. irishconfederates, I did not indicate that racist views were “unusual for the time.” The fact that many other white Americans had similar views does not make them irrelevant. I have also written elsewhere that individuals were “Union veterans” or “former slaves.” Those designations do not indicate that there were not others who had the same characteristics.

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