The Persistence of the Dunning School

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?

32 thoughts on “The Persistence of the Dunning School

  1. Jeff Davis July 25, 2011 / 12:08 pm

    I think a film on Andrew Johnson is long overdue. And something that realistically portrays the plight of Blacks in the post-bellum South ought to be part of that.

    Maybe it starts with Johnson basically undoing much of what Lincolon had in place, or lined up. And perhaps a small section on the treatment of James Longstreeet during the post-bellum period might help put the problems into the political context that existed, all the better to draw the racial divide even more clearly.

    Whatever you do, don’t let the Scott brothers touch that project though!.

    • Absolom_Absolom August 9, 2015 / 1:24 am

      Jeff Davis wrote: “I think a film on Andrew Johnson is long overdue. And something that realistically portrays the plight of Blacks in the post-bellum South ought to be part of that.

      Maybe it starts with Johnson basically undoing much of what Lincolon had in place, or lined up. ”

      Such as Lincoln’s plan to ship them (freed slaves, and –judging from his statements to Black ministers who visited the White House — free Blacks too) all to Belize? 😉

      • Brooks D. Simpson August 9, 2015 / 8:51 am

        Anyone who has followed the debate over Lincoln’s colonization policy knows that what Lincoln advocated in 1862 he no longer advocated by 1865. So your version of events is historically inaccurate on several counts.

        • Alex Hidell January 26, 2016 / 3:54 pm

          agreed. Lincoln had the gift of being very willing to change his mind if/when he saw the flaws in a position he had taken or if a better viewpoint as he saw it, presented itself. Detractors try to claim that something he said in the 1840’s or 1850’s discredits him, however he simply moved to a better outlook and position.

          • Daniel Coyne December 15, 2018 / 8:56 am

            Lincoln also had to wait for circumstances and public sentiment to change to do what was right with slavery–abolish it. When that happened, he acted. Colonization was offered as a salve to white Americans who were terrified by the prospects of free blacks competing with them in society as equals. It was part of his prudent political approach to an intractable problem.

  2. Jeff Davis July 25, 2011 / 12:14 pm

    Don’t you think Foner made a decent recounting of Reconstruction?

    • Brooks D. Simpson July 25, 2011 / 12:18 pm

      I don’t think dense scholarly works, no matter how well researched, are going to find the audience of a good 100 minute film entitled “Forcibly If We Must: Mississippi 1875.”

        • Brooks D. Simpson July 25, 2011 / 3:13 pm

          I think there’s room for a different sort of collaboration than I’ve seen to date. You must pick the right story and the right approach, but, if you do, I think there’s room for something better than a cable tv documentary with talking heads.

  3. Nick July 25, 2011 / 4:10 pm

    I find it ironic that some of the people who have recently attempted to argue via Tocqueville’s writings that the South was inherently less racist than the North before the war, have used other sources to claim that slavery wasn’t that bad, claimed that some high ranking Confederates such as Robert E. Lee were devoutly anti-slavery before the war (as a friend tried to convince me), and generally attempt to downplay the role of racial tensions in Southern society, are the same ones that, when attempting to look at the role of race in the South after the war, would buy into the “Dunning School” of thought. Through this interpretation, the attempts to elevate the freedmen (“ignorant blacks”) to equal status by the Federal Govt. are “too fast” for Southerners, akin to “punishment” and “subjugation” of all Southern society. They weren’t ready for the massive social change of the 13th -15th amendments or the Civil Rights Act of 1866, and letting all those ignorant freedmen loose “provoked” outrage from white southerners in the form of Union Leagues, the KKK, etc., and it was the fault of the “responsible public men” of the Republican Party. Somehow, the South was ahead of the curve racially before the war, but after the war the sight of a black sheriff or politician led to deadly violence.

    Well, if the South was really that enlightened when it came to race before the war, if slavery wasn’t that big of a deal, if those in power were really anti-slavery, then why didn’t the Southern state governments enact their own plans for granting civil rights and equality to the freedmen immediately after war, before Congress met in December 1865? Why did they embrace subsequent acts by the federal govt. with lynchings on blacks and unionists?

    The “Dunning School” removes any form of agency from blacks, turning them into pathetic, ignorant characters who can’t make decisions for themselves while absolving Southerners of any responsibility for their actions during Reconstruction.

  4. Dan Weinfeld July 26, 2011 / 7:45 am

    I’ve noticed that the Dunning School as you describe above is alive and well in some circles minus the explicit derogation of black intellect. Instead of arguing that blacks were incapable or inferior, the neo-Dunning-ites contend that blacks were “not ready” to take an active part in politics. The argument continues that blacks would have realized that Southern whites “knew them best” and were “their best friends” except that blacks were mislead and exploited by carpetbaggers. It’s kind of parallel to the black confederates meme that all Southerners were brothers who were divided by meddling outsiders.

    Instead of a movie, I was thinking more along the lines of an HBO miniseries – a sort of Deadwood for Reconstruction.

  5. TF Smith July 26, 2011 / 9:42 am

    Deadwood for Reconstruction would be fascinating – and, if there ever was a “wild south” I’d expect it was the Deep South from 1865-1877…

    Bruce Chadwick’s “The Reel Civil War” is a nice exploration of how firm the memes of Dunning et al remain in play in the entertainment industry, even in the late 20th Century.


  6. Terry Walbert July 29, 2011 / 1:26 pm

    Maybe the problem is the history textbook as a dispenser of reprocessed history. I don’t believe in book burning, but…

  7. Terry Walbert July 29, 2011 / 1:48 pm

    Just for the fun of it I looked up George Fort Milton’s 1930 The Age of Hate: Andrew Johnson and the Radicals. Amozon lists two sponsored links as Age In Love at and How Will You Look Old? at

    Somebody didn’t get the cateloguing right. Reminds me of the time I found Genovese’s Roll Jordan Roll in the section with books on Syria, Lebanon, and Israel.

  8. Roger Zeimet January 26, 2016 / 2:09 pm

    Saw a review recently about a forthcoming film starring Matthew McConaughy about Jones County in the South during the Civil War and Reconstruction. It might fill the bill for an answer to Birth of a Nation. Won’t be sure until it comes out.

  9. Gerald R. Greenfield January 26, 2016 / 4:01 pm

    I’d like to have a neutral party inform me of this period of US history! I grew up in southern Calif., had friends who were Mexican/American, Black, and white. We mostly got along pretty well. My first exposure to the “Black Issue” was when I was visiting Prescott, Arizona, around 1952. I went to a public, but private, swimming hole and was greeted with a sign that said “Whites Only.” I thought that was a 19th century concept — certainly foreign to me. Later I was going through Little Rock when Gov. Faubus tried to keep the Black students from integrating Central High School. I’d just graduated from high school myself, and was appalled to see armed national guardsmen “protecting” the school — all because some Black kids wanted an education. So I’m willing to listen to all the arguments about Reconstruction and the events leading to the Civil Rights Act of 1964(?). Tell me how to get a multi-sided explanation what really happened.

    • Brooks D. Simpson January 26, 2016 / 4:03 pm

      Try John Hope Franklin’s concise treatment of Reconstruction. It’s an older treatment, but it hits some important points rather well.

  10. Sandi Saunders January 26, 2016 / 4:42 pm

    Having had an argument on my local newspaper site with just such a “history” pusher, I think we have really erred in thinking FOX news and right-wing media invented the best use of propaganda in this nation. I was berated for daring to refute the “scholarly” works of his “historians such as Lochlainn Seabrook, Thomas Delorenzo, The Kennedy Brothers”, I was “ignorant” and should “read” and “learn something”. You cannot make this stuff up. Goebbels would be proud!

  11. billwolfe57 January 31, 2016 / 7:35 pm

    Got to this site via a link – went to read some of the Amazon reviews of the 1999 article you linked to and noted that serval were taken down very recently , on 1/28/16

      • Jerry Greenfield February 1, 2016 / 1:57 am

        My reply was because of some negative comments about Hillery Clinton’s response to reporter’s question on Democratic “debate” last week (Jan. 24-31?). The question was who she thought was best president. She said Lincoln — I thought that a great political answer — and she gave good rationale. There were several letters in newspaper & Internet regarding the “Dunning school” being old fashioned, out-of-date idea of history. I am admittedly unfamiliar with Reconstruction history, so I had no concept of the Dunning school — I did a little research. I ended up buying copy of Foner’s analysis of that period. I found some of his study of it was funded by a grant from a trust at Columbia Univ. named for Prof. Dunning. I haven’t received Foner’s book yet but I assure you I will read it. I enjoy reading history & have been thinking for some time I lack an understanding of the Civil War, the causes, and & its aftermath. I guess this is a start. I’ll just find out where it went before I’ll find out how we got there. Any suggestion on what reading would answer this latter issue? — i.e., what lead up to and caused the Civil War. It was clearly more than slavery.

  12. Andy Najera March 14, 2016 / 7:39 pm

    What was the downfall of Andrew Johnson? His love of the Constitution? or his love for the poor southern white farmer?

      • John Foskett March 15, 2016 / 7:32 am

        …and maybe his love for “spiritous drink”….

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