One of the most notable characteristics of Reconstruction scholarship is the need felt by many scholars to launch their studies by reviewing the evolution of Reconstruction historiography. Generally this starts with a reference to what has become known as “the Dunning School,” named after Columbia University Professor William A. Dunning and his graduate students (although in this case other work is also grouped under this label, including the writings of Dunning’s colleague, John W. Burgess). Indeed, “Dunning School” is something of an artificial construct, in that Dunning and his students were not the only people espousing these views: rather, their scholarship gave the sanction of historical scholarship to them (today a detractor might well call them “politically correct” scholarship for its time).
The principles of the “Dunning School” tend to be as follows: after the war, with Lincoln dead, a group of vengeful Republicans sought to take control of national politics. Casting aside any notion of sectional reconciliation with former Confederates, they forged a patchwork alliance of ignorant blacks (and “ignorant” is the kindest portrayal of the freedpeople in these accounts), corrupt and conniving carpetbaggers (northern-born whites who had migrated south), and cowardly and sniveling scalawags (native white southerners), who together embarked on an orgy of corruption and exploitation the likes of which had never before been seen. Gallant white southerners, pledged to restore law and social order, struggled against this catastrophe, and organized into patriotic groups to reclaim what was rightfully theirs (cue Birth of a Nation). Such brave crusaders in their flowing white robes redeemed the South, ended corruption, ousted the adventurers, returned the blacks to their rightful place in southern society (because all white southerners asked for was to be left alone), and marked the triumph of good over evil. Or something like that. Some of these stories conceded the incompetence of Andrew Johnson; others portrayed him as a courageous defender of constitutional liberty. Grant, his generosity toward the defeated at Appomattox overlooked, was at worst the idiot puppet of corrupt forces, and at best misguided by notions that black people ought to be given an opportunity and deserved protection from violence — I mean, virtuous attempts to restore the proper social order. The inferiority of black people was assumed; the notion that southern whites knew what was best for them was also assumed; and so were the dastardly motives of most Republicans (allowance was made for a few naive wild-eyed idealists in some accounts, although the racism of most Republicans was also assumed in many other accounts).
This school of interpretation dates back over a century … and yet it persists in the minds of many people. Take any college textbook produced in the last forty years and you’ll see that the section on Reconstruction begins with a review of the literature that focuses on the Dunning School and its refutation in mainstream scholarship beginning in the 1950s (several black historians, notably W. E. B. DuBois, and a few white historians had already challenged this narrative, but their work was ignored or cast aside by many scholars; of the work of Dunning’s students, only James W. Garner’s study of Reconstruction in Mississippi had any staying power as scholarship).
This textbook discussion is in most cases the most extended exercise in historiography to be found in a survey course. It transcended the usual efforts to set one’s work in context, a traditional exercise in monographs. And, for me at least, it became a questionable exercise, in part because it drew attention to an already discredited interpretation … or so I thought.
I think the Dunning School is mislabeled in large part because it gives far too much credit to one professor and his students. Other scholars were sounding the same themes, including a future president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, whose scholarly prose appears in Birth of a Nation (no wonder he liked the film: he was, in a sense, the first talking head). So were writers of fiction, including Thomas Dixon, whose works formed the basis for Birth of a Nation. And, of course, there was the powerful movie itself, offering a vivid representation of prevailing thought, and in turn becoming prevailing thought, becoming a standard in popular historical literature, notable Claude Bowers’s The Tragic Era (1928), which in the 1970s was a volume easily found in used book stores and library sales. Even today, the Amazon page for the book announces:
Never have American public men in responsible positions, directing the destiny of the Nation, been so brutal, hypocritical and corrupt than in the period between 1865 and 1877. This is the detailed story of that tragic era.
One of the useful characteristics of Amazon is that it tells you what other books were purchased by buyers of this book (who apparently are unaware of the great stock of used copies of this book: it was in fact reprinted in 2001). Among those titles: Lincoln Über Alles: Dictatorship Comes to America; Nullification: How to Resist Federal Tyranny in the 21st Century; and War Crimes Against Southern Civilians, as well as several more traditional scholarly tomes (see for yourself: I’m sure someone who likes Bowers’s message will claim I’m being unfair).
And then there are reviews (one five-star review comes from a contributor to our favorite Yahoo discussion group, and the review celebrates Bowers as great scholarship) and comments on reviews, which offer interesting reading, too:
The only thing ‘debated’ is “How can we demolish this author’s reputation for telling the Truth?” Bowers was a NORTHERNER, first off. Secondly, he merely was a ‘chronicler’ of the events. Thirdly, he lived before the mandatory, bend-the-knee anti-gospel of ‘equality’ became more important than acting morally toward one’s fellow man, and was justifiably shocked at the EVIL that the northerners embodied.
And that’s being kind, given this series of responses to a 1999 review that underscored the book’s agenda and assumptions.
This view of Reconstruction received another boost with the publication of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind in 1936 and the release of the movie bearing the same title several years later. She claimed that she based her accounts upon existing scholarship, and, given where she was bound to look, I have no doubt that she did just that.
I sense that in truth few historians, let alone general readers, have read William A. Dunning’s own work (I have). I also sense that few people have read the dissertations/monographs finished under his direction (they vary in quality, and are usually state studies, although I have also found insightful a book of essays by his students). But I also sense that this need at the outset to refute the Dunning School is something of an imperative that is not criticized by many scholars (as opposed to, say, the criticism we’ve seen from some quarters about efforts to discredit proponents of the Black Confederate Myth; I’ve never seen anyone claim that efforts to discredit Dunning, Bowers, & co. legitimizes their perspective). Why? Perhaps it is because of the way that this approach has become part of popular understandings through vividly-written popular histories and spellbinding films.
In short, perhaps Reconstruction scholars have to pause and contemplate the task in front of them. Perhaps they’ve chosen the wrong weapons in this battle over popular memory. What current scholars need is a Claude Bowers or a sensational movie or two of their own to convey their message. A film looking at the Colfax massacre or the workings of the Mississippi Plan of 1875 might be a place to start. And hey, if you found Lord Voldemort disturbing, why not a film on Andrew Johnson? In the battle for popular memory, perhaps it’s time to understand the relationship between form and function, and take the battle from the textbooks to the screen and the shelves of popular history. Instead of mocking films, why not show them how to do them?