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Films >> Birth of a Nation (1915) >> Issue Essay >>

Another Side to Reconstruction: The Dunning School of Thought

By Lyndsey Collins, with comments by Adrianna Abreu and Jena Viviano

[1] All history is socially constructed; the same event or time period can be interpreted in various ways depending on the individual or group. The Reconstruction period (1865-1877) was a time of victory and political triumph for Northerners. White Southerners, however, perceived the Reconstruction period in a drastically different way. Instead of using words like triumph and victory, Southerners described the Reconstruction period as corrupt and evil. Instead of calling it the Reconstruction era, it became known as the "Tragic Era" by white Southerners. William Archibald Dunning, creator of the Dunning School of Thought, claimed that Reconstruction was a "radical republican scheme, motivated by hatred of white southerners, to impose corrupt rule of blacks, scalawags and carpetbaggers on southern states" (Stokes 191).

[2] Dunning's most renowned work, Reconstruction, Political and Economic (1907) details the struggles of white Southerners during Reconstruction. Dunning portrays former plantation owners as honorable citizens with the South's best interest always in mind and regards Confederate soldiers as heroes. Dunning scorns scalawags, or white Southerners that supported Reconstruction, as well as carpetbaggers, or Northerners who exploited the South's vulnerabilities for political gain. Supporters of Dunning and his interpretation of Reconstruction are known as "Dunningites." Famous Dunningites include E. Merton Coulter, author of The South during Reconstruction (1947) and Claude Bowers, who wrote The Tragic Era (1929). In their works, Dunning, Coulter, and Bowers discuss the federal government's infringement on state's powers, corrupt and incapable politicians, and the overall mistreatment of white Southerners throughout the Tragic Era.

[3] The passing of the 15th amendment created great controversy when the federal government stated that citizens could not be denied the right to vote based on their race or color. Southern states were outraged that the federal government was passing laws on issues that were supposed to be left up to the state. Dunning states, "There was, even among Republicans, a great reluctance to transfer the general control of suffrage from the states to the central government" (175). When the Constitution was originally written, Southern states fought vigorously for the reserved powers they received. With this 15th amendment, however, not only the reserved power of voting but all reserved powers were in jeopardy of being lost to the national government. Dunning remarks, "It was inconceivable to the Southerners that rational men of the North should seriously approve of Negro suffrage. A craving of political power was assumed to be the only explanation of an otherwise unintelligible proceeding" (111).

[4] After the 15th amendment was implemented, white Southerners were enraged. Despite the Democrats' best efforts, Radical Republicans and carpetbaggers ensured that blacks participated in elections. Carpetbaggers often persuaded black voters to vote for candidates that were unfit for the position or that were more interested in supporting the needs of the North than the South's. Coulter states, "New leaders under new constitutions now took charge; the elimination of the old Southern leaders, from top to bottom, had been the heart of the congressional plan." Coulter continues, "Most of the people who filled the many offices were untrained and untried -- scalawags, carpetbaggers, and Negroes. Most Negro officeholders were more to be pitied than blamed" (139-46). Dunning adds:

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. (109)

White Southerners feared that changes in local government would greatly alter the success of the South's economy. The South's economy was based primarily on agriculture; newly elected candidates were more interested in the growing industrial economy of the North, however, than the suffering plantations of the South. Bowers says, "It was in these elections that the old Republic of Jefferson went down and the agriculturists were definitely shunted aside to make way for the triumphant industrialists and capitalists" (175).

[5] Reconstruction also brought about daily hardships for many white Southerners. Life at home was a constant struggle for Confederate veterans and Confederate sympathizers. Coulter claims, "There was a withdrawal of pensions from all Confederates who were veterans of past wars. This deprivation extended even to those people who should ‘manifest a sympathy' for the Confederate cause" (13). The little money that Confederates did have became worthless once Southern states tried to re-enter the Union: "Added to the cost of war was the price of peace. All confederate currency became worthless and all bonds were forcibly repudiated as part of the price of re-entering the Union" (4). Many Southern farmers requested government aid to rebuild plantations that had been destroyed in the war, yet they rarely received it. As white Southerner's struggled to support themselves, newly elected officials focused most of their time and energy on recently freed slaves. Coulter resentfully notes the disregard of white Southerner's needs and the overzealous support for freed blacks:

Since in the slave days the Negroes had been supplied with all the necessities of life, in freedom they expected to continue to receive support without seeing that they must continue to work. Encouraged by Northern reformers and schemers, they came to think of themselves as a chosen people relieved of any and all obligation. (222)

When the government failed white Southerners time after time, they looked for someone or something to help them. The Ku Klux Klan became the savior of white Southern America. To Southern whites, the KKK was a symbol of justice and patriotism; they were the people who would put the power back into the right hands, the hands of White America. Dunning explains:

In the spring of 1867 elaborate organizations were effected by the Ku Klux Klan, or Invisible Empire, at Nashville, and the Knights of the White Camelia at New Orleans. The explicit purpose of these organizations was to preserve the social and political ascendancy of the white race. (122)

(see comment by Adrianna Abreu)

[6] The Reconstruction Era was, to most white Southerners, extremely destructive. The North took advantage of the South during a time when they needed help the most. The South endured twelve years of degradation and incompetent government. The Dunning School tells the story not read in textbooks. It reveals an unpleasant side to a story usually thought of as an optimistic revival of the Union. Claude Bowers best summarizes the Dunningite perspective of the Reconstruction Era:

Reconstruction was a battle between two extremes: the Democrats, as the group which included the vast majority of the whites, standing for decent government and racial supremacy, versus the Republicans, the Negroes, alien carpetbaggers, and renegade scalawags, standing for dishonest government and alien ideals. (137)


Adrianna Abreu 2/28/11

While Collins argues well all the negative points of the Reconstruction Period in the South as documented by authors, she seems to leave out the few but important facts that do not portray the South as being so helpless according to its writers. For one, during Reconstruction, the South started to reach a brink of rebuilding, which included roads, bridges, and railroads, which furthermore improved transportation and trade. The building of schools in rural towns, hospitals to help the wounded soldiers, and increased care for the handicapped from the war increased health and education levels in the South. As far as pensions go, Civil War veterans had been receiving pensions for their service since 1862, although it was not until the 1880s and early 1890s that the former eleven states of the Confederacy enacted what is formerly defined as pension systems. In fact, the last confederate soldier widow to receive a pension died in 2004, Alberta Martin, who married Jasper Martin (then 81) when she was 21 in 1927. Also, those of the South who were still well off after the war did not even take their pensions, viewing it as a dependency on the Federal government and a dishonor to the "Lost Cause." (see comment by Jena Viviano)

Jena Viviano

Though I can see Adrianna's point that the Southerners were not exactly helpless in terms of physical rebuilding, it does need to be noted, however, that in terms of social and emotional rebuilding they had a long way to go. Imagine if everything you knew came crashing down around you. Your communities were destroyed. The way in which you socialized would change forever. All of the help (slaves) you had at home were suddenly gone from you. You don't know if you will be able to complete the work in the fields, hence making you unsure of your financial future. There were some RADICAL changes made to the South. Even though the government makes a law, it doesn't mean that everyone is willing to accept it. Things like this take time and restructuring of a different kind. And that is something the Northern government just couldn't offer the South.