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Films >> Birth of a Nation (1915) >> Scene Analysis >>

“The Tragic Era” Exposed

By Ian Garsman, with comments by Tom Bianchi and Patrick O'Brien

[1] William Archibald Dunning and those who followed the lead of his Reconstruction, Political and Economic, 1865-1877 (1907), such as Claude Bowers, known as the Dunning School of Historians, believed the South had been tragically destroyed during Reconstruction. The Dunningites criticized Scalawags --southerners disloyal to the Confederacy -- and Carpetbaggers -- Northern whites migrating south to seek economic and political gain -- but the object of their greatest scorn was the Radical Republican representative from Pennsylvania, Thaddeus Stevens. After Lincoln’s assassination the politically powerful Stevens seemed the source of Northern desire -- typified in historian/president Woodrow Wilson’s words -- "to put the white South under the heel of the black South." D. W. Griffith is a Dunningite, and his Austin Stoneman, whose “strange house on the Capitol Hill” is the Reconstruction White House, is the Thaddeus Stevens of Birth of a Nation. A look at Griffith’s characterization of Stoneman reveals how the Dunningites regarded the Reconstruction period as “The Tragic Era.” (see comment by Patrick O'Brien)

[2] Thaddeus Stevens not only acted the villain, but he looked like one. Dunningite Claude Bowers described “his countenance” with “more the stony features of authority than sweetness” (66). Griffith’s Austin Stoneman is likewise repulsive. In every scene Stoneman is harsh, pale, bitter, unappealing. He’s an ugly man: his eyes bulge, his lower lip protrudes from his face beast-like. In addition, Stoneman is lame. His ever-present cane, symbol of political authority, exposes his real fragility, most strikingly in the scene in which his friends frantically rush to aid him when he drops it. Even Stoneman’s personal and domestic life feel Griffith’s scorn: his tilted wig comically undercuts the validity of a daughter’s tender loving care, and his moral judgment is compromised by the love affair with his mulatto housekeeper.

[3] But, of course, it is Stoneman’s politics -- “We shall crush the white South under the heel of the black South”-- not his personal appearance or personality, that is most important in making Reconstruction the “Tragic Era.” Dunningites believed that only “a craving for political power” could explain the “otherwise unintelligible proceedings” of Northern politicians like Stevens (Dunning, Reconstruction 111). In Birth Stoneman’s proceedings likewise show he is exploiting black emancipation to unfairly punish the white South as well as gain political power through the process. For instance, at the same time we see Stoneman raise his arm triumphantly claiming to make all equal, he is simultaneously, in fact, destroying and denigrating the southern white population. This contradictory and hypocritical nature exemplifies the Dunningite idea that “never have American public men in responsible positions, directing the destiny of the Nation, been so brutal, hypocritical, and corrupt” (Bowers 5).

[4] The intertitle “Don’t scrape to me. You are the equal of any man here” is a pious statement made by Stoneman that is undercut by Griffith’s film technique. The focus of the camera switches in the scene separating a powerful and strong looking Stoneman from Silas Lynch, who lacks confidence and an authoritative demeanor. The director uses Lynch’s character to exemplify the Dunningite idea that Reconstruction politicians’ “ignorance and inexperience in respect to political methods were equaled only by the crudeness and distortion of their ideas as to political and social ends” (Dunning, Reconstruction 112).

[5] It was the Scalawags, the Carpetbaggers, and the evil Radical Republicans led by the brutish and corrupt Thaddeus Stevens who made Reconstruction a tragedy. It is obvious that Griffith’s characterization of Austin Stoneman and the use of powerful intertitles within scenes is purposely done to gain sympathy for the South, to promote and exemplify Dunningite ideas, and to inform the population that Reconstruction was not an attempt to restore the nation to greatness but rather a ploy to wrongfully punish the South and thus the nation. (see comment by Tom Bianchi)


Patrick O'Brien 7/19/12

It is correct to call Griffith (and Dixon) a Dunningite. Indeed, Birth of a Nation represents the early to mid-twentieth century mainstream view of Reconstruction, which codified in pop culture what scholars such as William Dunning had legitimized in the academic realm at Columbia University. The historiography of Reconstruction can be broken into three parts. The first was the Dunning School, otherwise known as the New South interpretation, which emerged in the first few decades of the twentieth century. Dunning, and his followers, grew up in the postwar south. This view argued that Reconstruction was radical, misguided, and punitive because it imposed unnecessary changes on the South that went far beyond what they perceived was needed to settle the issues of the war and restore the union. The blame for the failure of Reconstruction is placed squarely at the feet of the Radical Republicans. Ultimately, the Dunning School of Reconstruction Historiography, and its film counterpart, represented an expression of national reconciliation, which necessitated a collective distortion of Reconstruction. Essentially, this is the narrative that much of the North and South told themselves (and is also present in Gone With the Wind) in order to more quickly facilitate reconciliation. As Eric Foner states, this view is founded in the assumption of Negro incapacity and, as such, justified decades of white supremacy in the south, as well as de facto segregation in the north. Essentially, both the north and south engaged in collective historical amnesia, altering the interpretation of the war and Reconstruction to not only remove slavery and race as a primary cause of the war, but also viewing Reconstruction as a dark period in American history, in which blacks were unleashed on southern society, only to ruin the state governments by virtue of their incompetence and manipulation by unscrupulous northern carpetbaggers and southern scalawags. It provided scholarly justification for the Jim Crow south, their opposition to change as exhibited in the Civil Rights Era, and in the north, for about a century, it fostered indifference towards such Jim Crow tactics. It should be noted that a number of historians did challenge the Dunning School, but to little avail. The most well-known example would be W.E.B. Du Bois, whose Black Reconstruction (1935), emphasized the role of freed blacks in Reconstruction, and ,in fact, Du Bois can be considered the first “revisionist” Reconstruction historian.

This dark and distorted (and wholly incorrect!!) view of Reconstruction began to change after WWII and with the advent of the Civil Rights Movement. Historians such as John Hope Franklin, Herman Belz, Kenneth Stamp, and C. Vann Woodward formed what became known as the Revisionist approach to Reconstruction. It was at this time that we began to distance ourselves from our own scientific racism and eugenics, having born witness to the horrible route Hitler had taken with similar ideas. Hitler, in a sense, made us rethink our racial past. Indeed, the civil rights movement heavily influenced these scholars, who called it the Second Reconstruction. The revisionists turned the Dunning School upside down by arguing that the Republicans were not vindictive but progressive, realistic, and necessary. Andrew Johnson and the South, whose reputations soared when the Dunningites controlled the narrative, were viewed by revisionists as reactionary and obstructionist, and the blame for the failure of Reconstruction was placed at their doorstep.

The historiography of Reconstruction changed again during and after the 60s with scholars like Eric Foner, who took it a step further and argued that not only was Reconstruction not a dark period, but it didn’t go far enough. While this is technically not a separate school of thought, they are known as post-revisionists. They argue that the Radical Republicans SHOULD have gotten more of their agenda. As they see it, not only was Reconstruction moderate and always a compromise between radical and moderate Republicans (i.e. not controlled by Radical Republicans like Thaddeus Steven, on whom Stoneman is based) but the mostly white governments that were established under Andrew Johnson were still there during so called “Radical Reconstruction.” The freed blacks in the South NEVER achieved a majority in any governmental body (save for two brief instances, yet we see the “hopeless white minority” in the film), and the governing bodies in which blacks did participate before the state was “redeemed” were quite effective. Indeed, the highest state position achieved by any black was Lieutenant Governor, which was what the film depicted. As the post-revisionists see it, the Reconstructionists’ conception of their task was too limited and restricted and, rather than being too radical and extreme, was quite moderate. They are quick to point out that the Radical Republicans never controlled Reconstruction policy and always had to compromise, as evidenced by much of the legislation. Indeed, as the post-revisionists see it, the moderate republicans (i.e. most of them) did not hold racial views significantly different from their adversaries. Eventually, the post revisionists, most notable Eric Foner, began to move away from an emphasis on the conservatism of the, as they saw it, overly cautious Republicans, to emphasize the successes and struggles of postwar freed blacks in the South.

Tom Bianchi 2/27/11

I agree that Reconstruction did not only lack an attempt to restore the country to greatness but it also heavily appeared to be a more of a bad thing than positive. The South and true Confederate people did not want Reconstruction. They saw much unfinished business from the Civil War. In Birth of A Nation there were many hints that the Southerners were getting extremely annoyed with the reconstruction since the end of the fighting. In one particular scene ex-slaves are brought from the fields and streets to receive free supplies from the Freedman's Bureau. Also, black Union soldiers are shown marching through the town and past the Cameron home just as the Little Colonel walks out. Lynch approaches Cameron, noticing the disgusted look on his face, and informs him of the blacks' right to be on any street they wish. Cameron reacts angrily towards this comment essentially against the nation's decision of the Freedman's Bureau. Because of this, eventually the KKK is born and becomes the hero. The KKK's responsibility seems to be to stop and calm the reconstruction going on. On a side note, I also recall one of the slides after a scene referring to the blacks in the streets as the "crazed africans." Punishing the progress of the South following the Civil War with the KKK and the stabs Africans, made this movie's definition of "Reconstruction" very difficult for me as well.