The Dunning School: Historians, Race, and the Meaning of Reconstruction
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From the late nineteenth century until World War I, a group of Columbia University students gathered under the mentorship of the renowned historian William Archibald Dunning (1857–1922). Known as the Dunning School, these students wrote the first generation of state studies on the Reconstruction—volumes that generally sympathized with white southerners, interpreted radical Reconstruction as a mean-spirited usurpation of federal power, and cast the Republican Party as a coalition of carpetbaggers, freedmen, scalawags, and former Unionists.
Edited by the award-winning historian John David Smith and J. Vincent Lowery, The Dunning School focuses on this controversial group of historians and its scholarly output. Despite their methodological limitations and racial bias, the Dunning historians’ writings prefigured the sources and questions that later historians of the Reconstruction would utilize and address. Many of their pioneering dissertations remain important to ongoing debates on the broad meaning of the Civil War and Reconstruction and the evolution of American historical scholarship.
This groundbreaking collection of original essays offers a fair and critical assessment of the Dunning School that focuses on the group’s purpose, the strengths and weaknesses of its constituents, and its legacy. Squaring the past with the present, this important book also explores the evolution of historical interpretations over time and illuminates the ways in which contemporary political, racial, and social questions shape historical analyses.
John David Smith is the Charles H. Stone Distinguished Professor of American History at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He is the author or editor of more than two dozen books, including An Old Creed for the New South, Black Judas: William Hannibal Thomas and The American Negro, and Lincoln and the U.S. Colored Troops.
J. Vincent Lowery is assistant professor of history at the University of Wisconsin–Green Bay.
No other existing book examines the whole corpus of "Dunning" scholarship; the individual essays are solidly grounded in primary sources; the evaluation of the books of the various authors is clear, judicious, and timely; and the subject matter will be of great interest to most historians of the South -- John B. Boles, author of The South Through Time: A History of an American Region
William Dunning and the historians he trained or was associated with early in the twentieth century both affected and reflected how Americans viewed Reconstruction and the history of race relations. This study is the first attempt to explain and analyze the lives and work of these historians as a unit. A superb contribution to the history and historiography of the era of the Civil War and Reconstruction, to the study of the historical profession, and to the study of race, racism, and progressivism in America. -- Michael Green, author of Lincoln and the Election of 1860
Students of Reconstruction will be fascinated by this superb, bracing, and insightful collection of beautifully crafted essays. For expertly editing and gathering these essays, we are indebted to John David Smith and J. Vincent Lowery, not least because they help us understand with unusual and sobering precision that what we write today is heavily influenced by past historiographies. The Dunning School will become essential reading for anyone interested in the writing of history and the enduring meaning of Reconstruction. -- Mark Smith, Carolina Distinguished Professor of History, University of South Carolina
The Dunning School provides important, groundbreaking studies of the authors of the first scholarly histories of Reconstruction in the southern states. Expertly introduced by John David Smith, these essays trace the careers and contributions of William Archibald Dunning himself and eight of his students, as well as those of Dunning’s own mentor, John W. Burgess. It is well known that these writers collectively shaped both academic and popular interpretations of Reconstruction as a foolish, if not criminal, enterprise that deservedly failed in its attempt to guarantee full civil and political rights to emancipated slaves. But their views, and their books, were more diverse than is commonly understood, and we learn here how both the experiences of individual authors, and their adherence to the new professional ideal of “scientific” history, influenced their studies. The Dunning School is thus a significant contribution, not just to the historiography of Reconstruction, but also to southern intellectual history more broadly and to the history of the historical profession. -- J. William Harris, author of The Hanging of Thomas Jeremiah: A Free Black Man’s Encounter with Liberty