The Dunning School

The egalitarianism that emerged in the 1950s, swept across the land like a tidal wave, "cleansing" our culture and, in the process, sanitizing our history. The relatively new medium of television was able to bring these politically correct versions of history to the masses, primarily via the Public Broadcasting System. Although often referred to as "educational television," PBS’s history programs are agenda-driven with no attempt to present balanced views. PBS carefully screens the historians it presents as "experts," selecting those who will adhere to its sanctioned interpretations of history. This modus operandi was evidenced most recently in PBS’s program: Reconstruction: The Second Civil War.

PBS depicted Reconstruction as beneficial with only minor episodes of corruption. Furthermore, PBS’s hand-picked historians felt that Reconstruction was one of the federal government’s better social experiments, its only drawback being that it ended too soon. But this account — which might be called Reconstruction Deconstruction — is at variance with historians who lived during the Reconstruction era, the most prominent being William A. Dunning. Unfortunately, Dunning is considered out of step with today’s political climate, so his books and essays on Reconstruction, as well as those by his students, the Dunning School, are hard to find. Also, some encyclopedias, including Encarta, no longer contain information on Dunning. This is regrettable because his historical analyses of Reconstruction have never been equaled.

William Archibald Dunning was born in Plainfield, New Jersey, in 1857, the son of a wealthy manufacturer with an intellectual bent and a strong interest in American history. Young William grew up during one of the most tumultuous times for our relatively new nation and his father discussed with him events of the day as they unfolded; the sectional conflict between North and South, the War Between the States, and Reconstruction. The "problems of restoring the South to Union" was one of his father’s special interests and it ultimately became the focus of William’s historical efforts.

While still in his teens, his flair for writing gained William reporting assignments with New York newspapers. At the time he was a student at Columbia University where he received a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, and, in 1885, his doctorate degree. His doctoral dissertation was The Constitution of the United States in Civil War and Reconstruction, 1860—1867. This paper illustrates Dunning’s firm grasp of history and political science. It is also a precursor to his growing annoyance with some members of the Republican party, especially Northern intellectuals like U.S. Representative Thaddeus Stevens, Pennsylvania, and Senator Charles Sumner, Massachusetts.

After graduation, Dunning continued his studies at the University of Berlin and the Germanic "scientific" approach to history reinforced his own pragmatic style. Being the son of a business owner made William more realistic than idealistic in his interpretations of history. It is said that Dunning "always tried to avoid generalizing, moralizing, and allocating praise and blame." Unlike many of today’s court historians, Dunning interpreted history with his head rather than his heart. After his postgraduate work at the University of Berlin, he accepted a position at Columbia University where he spent the rest of his life lecturing and writing.

Dunning’s literary style is in the idiom of his generation and he combined elegant writing with a droll sense of humor. After dismissing Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens as being "truculent, vindictive, and cynical" with "a total lack of scruple" he proceeds with this delicious portrayal of Steven’s ultra-liberal compatriot in the Senate, Charles Sumner. "His forte was exalted moral fervor and humanitarian idealism. He lived in the empyrean, and descended thence upon his colleagues with dogma which he discovered there. However remote his doctrines from any relation to the realities of human affairs, he preached them without intermission and forced his colleagues by mere iteration to give them a place in law. He was the perfect type of that narrow fanaticism which erudition and egotism combine to produce, and to which political crises alone give the opportunity for actual achievement."

William A. Dunning fervently opposed slavery but his reading of the trends of the times led him to the conclusion that the institution was coming to an end. The slave trade itself ended in 1808, so for more than 50 years before Fort Sumter was fired on, no new slaves had been imported. Southern slaves began obtaining their freedom in the 1700s by saving money to purchase their freedom; by performing services for the state or the local community (some were freed for assisting in the Revolutionary War) and many were manumitted by the last will and testament of their owners for "faithful service."

Even in the decades before 1860, there were abolitionist groups working in scattered areas throughout the South. Plantation owners and their families were well aware of the slave revolts in Haiti and other Caribbean island where hundreds of Whites had been slaughtered. These stories, coupled with reports of slave uprisings in the American South, certainly must have conciliated many a hardened pro-slavery stance. In fact, before The War Between the States, there were more than 250,000 Free Persons of Color in the South, not only in major cities like Charleston and New Orleans but in smaller towns. These Free Persons of Color were literate and self-supporting. A few owned property and many operated their own businesses.

Knowing these facts, Dunning viewed the War Between the States and governmental intrusion in the South, especially Reconstruction, as unnecessary. In his opinion the War should have been avoided and he viewed Reconstruction as a purely political measure. Not surprisingly, his views and stature attracted a significant number of students from the South. Budding Southern historians flocked to Columbia University to learn from the master.

These Southern students became known as the "Dunning School" because they shared not only Dunning’s views but also his no-nonsense approach to reporting history. During the first few decades of the 1900s, these historians produced highly acclaimed histories of the Reconstruction era in the South. Coming of age in the South during and immediately after the turmoil of Reconstruction gave these students a front row seat for that calamitous era. Their histories denounce the military-imposed regimes in the South; rally to the best aspects of Southern culture and catalog the faults of the Republican Reconstruction governments, primarily the unjust exclusion of Southern Whites from the political process. (A listing of the leading members of the Dunning School and their principal Reconstruction work follows this article)

I don’t want to give the impression that Professor Dunning was an apologist for the South. He wasn’t. He was as critical of that region’s shortcomings as he was of the defects in the Republican plans for Reconstruction. But he made an intense effort to be objective and that sets him apart from many of today’s historians. Also, he didn’t disapprove of all Reconstruction programs, especially those that assisted the Quakers and others in the creation of schools.

It is not possible to adequately describe William Archibald Dunning’s comprehensive assessment of Reconstruction in a short article. But, because many today think there was unanimity among Northern members of Congress regarding conditions for readmitting Southern states, a brief mention should be made of his analysis of the debates over Reconstruction strategies.

Dunning identifies five basic theories considered by Congress for readmitting the Southern states into the Union. The first two, the "Southern" and the "Presidential," were quite similar. To simplify, President Lincoln and his successor, President Johnson, felt that secession did not change the Confederate states or their relation to the Union. So they should be readmitted as painlessly as possible by such devices as freeing slaves, nullifying secession and taking an oath of allegiance to the Union. Basically, this was the same plan put forth by Southern states. Many Conservative as well as Moderate Republicans probably could have accepted a version of these two theories.

At the other extreme, the Radical Republicans offered the "state suicide" theory and the "conquered-province" theory. The first, advocated by Charles Sumner, essentially maintained that Southern states had abdicated all rights they had under the Constitution and had therefore become territories subject to the jurisdiction of Congress. Consequently, Congress could dictate the specific conditions, however extreme, for a resumption of the designation of statehood. Sumner said of his theory that "for a while the freedman will take the place of the master, verifying the saying that the last shall be first and the first shall be last."

The "conquered-province" theory, put forth by Thaddeus Stevens, was similar to Sumner’s "state suicide" theory; however Stevens insisted that the Southern states should not even be considered territories. They were "belligerent enemies" of the Union, so placing them under military rule was justified as was subjecting them to "the absolute will of the United States government." Stevens also proposed that plantations be confiscated and divided up among the freedmen.

As is usually the case when legislative bodies are debating different strategies, a compromise is negotiated. But the so-called "compromise" reached, the "forfeited-rights" doctrine, could hardly be described as "finding the middle ground." This doctrine held that Southern states had never been out of the Union, but that some "political people" within the states had "committed a crime against the nation" and should be dealt with in the same manner as a citizen who has committed a crime. So these states were "at the pleasure of Congress, in a condition of suspended animation." Radical Reconstruction measures were thus justified for as long as Congress deemed necessary. With these doctrines, Congress covertly attempted to expand its authority, as Dunning stated: "Congress, therefore, and not the president, is to direct the rehabilitation of the states."

But President Johnson stood firmly against Congress. His vetoes and other efforts to block their Reconstruction models so angered Radical Republicans that they attempted to remove him from office, dramatically failing by a single vote. Lawyers, from the North as well as the South, traveled to Washington to urge the Supreme Court to overthrow Reconstruction measures which they considered to be unconstitutional. However, Congress prevailed and the ten Southern states were divided into five military districts, each under the control of a military commander. Although non-military state and local government were allowed to exist for "window-dressing," the military was firmly in charge.

This is Dunning’s portrayal of the general mood of Southern Whites during Reconstruction: "The necessity of submission to force had been thoroughly learned, and no organized resistance was attempted to the few thousand troops that were scattered over the ten states" but "the mere consciousness that the center of authority was at military headquarters, and not at the state capital, disheartened the most moderate and progressive classes. It soon appeared, moreover, that military government was not to be simply nominal; the orders of the commanders reached the commonest concerns of everyday life, and created the impression of a very real tyranny."

State treasuries and exorbitant taxes on property owners were used to pay for the military occupation and the salaries of delegates; delegates that most Southern Whites were not allowed to vote for. The Reconstruction Acts excluded from the election process most property owning Southern Whites stating that they "may be disfranchised for participation in the rebellion." The much praised Fourteenth Amendment gave freed slaves the right to vote but withheld that right from Indians, women, and those involved in the Confederate war effort. (In fact, none of the three famous amendments enacted during the Reconstruction era gave civil rights to Indians. This was the Radical Republicans’ version of Jim Crow.)

Abandoned land, usually classified as abandoned because owners could not pay the exorbitant property taxes, was confiscated by the military governments. Vendors wishing to do business with government bodies had to offer substantial kickbacks. These bribes were simply added to the cost of goods and services and passed along to taxpaying citizens. Payola was so common and lucrative that being elected to a legislative position was akin to receiving a license to print money. This unchecked malfeasance worsened the already shattered economy in the South and, in order to financially support their families, many of the regions most qualified men moved to the North.

Some historians attempt to equate the fraud occurring during Reconstruction with government corruption in the North at the time, i.e., it was simply a part of a nationwide trend. They exhibit Boss Tweed’s Tammany Hall scandals in New York to corroborate their argument. But that is intellectually dishonest and they know it. The government outrages in the South were a direct result of Congress’s removal of Southern leaders from office and stacking legislatures with delegates, many of whom, for whatever reason, winked at criminal activity. The unscrupulousness in New York was not caused by ill-advised and unrealistic social experiments enacted by the United States Congress.

As the corruption during Reconstruction became more widespread, many of those sincere Northerners who had come South to assist in the area’s rebuilding, became disillusioned, returning to the North. In Washington, a faction of "liberal" Republicans led by Missouri Senator Carl Schurz, began a movement opposing the "doctrinaire and dogmatic" approach to Reconstruction and advocating a "pragmatic or empiric" approach.

To close, this is William Archibald Dunningu2018s assessment of the legacy of the War Between the States and Reconstruction:

"Only in a very narrow sense, then, was it true that the Union had been preserved. The territorial integrity of the nation had been maintained, but this was practically all. The initial steps in the readjustment after the termination of hostilities were guided by the wide-spread Northern belief that the old Union had been maintained; the final steps in reconstruction revealed with unmistakable clearness the truth of the Southern view that a new Union had been created."

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