William Archibald Dunning

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William Archibald Dunning (1857–1922) was an American historian and political scientist at Columbia University noted for his work on the Reconstruction era of the United States. He founded the informal Dunning School of interpreting the Reconstruction era through his own writings and the PhD dissertations of his numerous students. Historian Howard K. Beale was a leader of the "revisionist" school of the 1930s that broke with the Dunning interpretation. Beale says the Dunning School broke new ground by escaping the political polemics of the day and used "meticulous and thorough research...in an effort to determine the truth rather than prove a thesis."[1] Beale states that, "The emphasis of the Dunning school was upon the harm done to the South by Radical Reconstruction and on the sordid political and economic motives behind Radicalism.[2]

Early life and education[edit]

Born in Plainfield, New Jersey, William Dunning was the son of a successful businessman, who enjoyed the classics, and his wife. Dunning took his degrees as Columbia University (B.A. 1881, M.A. 1884, and Ph.D. 1885). He spent a year in Berlin studying European history under Heinrich von Treitschke.

Soon after his return and beginning his academic career, in 1888 he married Charlotte E. Loomis. They had no children. She died in 1917.[3][4]


Dunning began teaching at Columbia and was steadily promoted on the academic ladder (fellow, lecturer, instructor, adjunct professor, and full professor); in 1903 he was appointed as the Francis Lieber Professor of History and Political Philosophy.

He published his PhD dissertation, The Constitution of the United States in Civil War and Reconstruction: 1860–1867 (1897), at age 40 after he had been teaching for several years.

His scholarly essays, collected in Essays on the Civil War and Reconstruction and Related Topics, (1897), included work that explained the legal basis for the destruction of slavery, an institution he opposed. His survey Reconstruction, Political and Economic: 1865–1877 (1907), for the "American Nation" series, set the tone. The Essays were path-breaking. Dunning believed that his Reconstruction book was too superficial. He felt that it had distracted him from his major work on the history of political theory.[5]

Dunning's were considered the first major academic studies of the Reconstruction era.[citation needed] But, they were not based on primary sources of manuscripts and local sources, which his students used to more advantage.[citation needed]

Dunning had a dual role in history and political science. He was a leading expert in the history of political thought, as expressed in his masterful trilogy: A History of Political Theories: Ancient and Medieval (1902), From Luther to Montesquieu (1905), and From Rousseau to Spencer (1920).

Although his health was poor after 1903, Dunning wrote numerous scholarly articles and book reviews for the American Historical Review and the Political Science Quarterly, which he edited from 1894 to 1903. Dunning was a founder and long-time activist of the American Historical Association, becoming AHA president in 1913. He served as the president of the American Political Science Association in 1922.

Evaluating his contributions in 2000, Smith says Dunning was far more important as a graduate teacher than as a research scholar. Columbia was a leading producer of PhDs, and Dunning directed much graduate work in U.S. history and in European political thought. His students included men who became leading scholars and academic entrepreneurs, such as Charles Merriam, Harry Elmer Barnes, James Wilford Garner and Carlton J. H. Hayes. He also mentored C. Mildred Thompson (1881-1975), the history professor who became dean at Vassar College. Thompson drafted the charter for UNESCO (the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization), and worked for civil rights in Atlanta.[6]

Dunning gave lifelong support to his students, providing continuous encouragement in their careers. They honored him with a Festschrift in 1914, Studies in Southern History and Politics Inscribed to William Archibald Dunning . . . by His Former Pupils the Authors (1914)[7]

Dunning School[edit]

Many Southerners (and some Northerners) took PhDs in History under Dunning and returned to the South for academic careers, where they dominated the major history departments. Those who wrote dissertations on Reconstruction included James W. Garner, Walter Lynwood Fleming, J. G. de Roulhac Hamilton, Charles W. Ramsdell, C. Mildred Thompson, William Watson Davis, and Thomas S. Staple.[8] They comprised the informal "Dunning School". Their interpretation of post-Civil War Reconstruction was the dominant theory taught in American universities through much of the first half of the 20th century. Bradley says, "The Dunning school condemned Reconstruction as a conspiracy by vindictive radical Republicans to subjugate southern whites at bayonet point, using federal troops to prop up corrupt state regimes led by an unholy trinity of carpetbaggers, scalawags, and freedmen."[9] Bradley notes that the Dunning interpretation in the 1930s and 1940s also "received compelling treatment in such popular works as Claude Bowers’s The Tragic Era and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind—both the best-selling novel and the blockbuster film."[10]

According to Dunning, Reconstruction's players include the "carpetbaggers", particularly new white arrivals from the North, whom the Dunning School portrayed as greedy interlopers exploiting the South and dominating the Republican Party; the "scalawags", native southern whites collaborating with the Republicans; and the freedmen, whom the Dunning School portrayed as tools of the carpetbaggers with little independent voice. He was sympathetic to the white Southerners, whom they saw as being stripped of their rights after 1865 by a vengeful North. They assumed the black vote was controlled by carpetbaggers.

McRary says Dunning and his followers portrayed former planters, the elite political, social and economic class, as honorable people with the South's best interests in mind.[11]

Dunning was a Democrat; like most historians of his period, he denounced the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson.[citation needed] Dunning wrote from the point of view of the northern Democrats and portrayed the Radical Republicans as men who violated American traditions and were motivated by vengeance after the American Civil War.


Historian Eric Foner writes that the Dunning School "offered scholarly legitimacy to the disenfranchisement of southern blacks and to the Jim Crow system that was becoming entrenched as they were writing," and that "the alleged horrors of Reconstruction helped freeze the mind of the white South in bitter opposition to any change in the region’s racial system." Foner adds that "the fundamental flaw in the Dunning School was the authors’ deep racism," and that "racism shaped not only their interpretations of history but their research methods and use of historical evidence."[12]

For example, Dunning referred to the freedmen as "barbarous" and defended the racist black codes as "a conscientious and straightforward attempt to bring some sort of order" out of the aftermath of war and emancipation. Dunning wrote that the freedmen were not "on the same social, moral and intellectual plane with the whites" and that "restrictions in respect to bearing arms, testifying in court, and keeping labor contracts were justified by the well-established traits and habits of the negroes[.]" [13]

In Black Reconstruction in America (1935), Du Bois characterized Dunning's Reconstruction, Political and Economic as a "standard, anti-Negro" text. Du Bois noted, "Dunning admits that "The legislation of the reorganized governments, under cover of police regulations and vagrancy laws, had enacted severe discrimination against the freedmen in all the common civil rights." [14]

Dunning's followers generally rejected Du Bois and his Marxist interpretation of the history of Reconstruction. Publishing in the midst of the Great Depression, DuBois believed that the poor, both black and white, had common cause against the rich. Part of his analysis of Reconstruction was an assessment of how the classes were aligned, and how the white elite struggled to keep power, withholding it from blacks and poor whites both.[15]

After 1950, the Dunning School was attacked by a new generation of historians. In keeping with European ideas about history "from the bottom up" and the agency of all classes of people, together with new research, they documented the place of African Americans at the center of Reconstruction. The revisionist view was expanded and revised by Eric Foner and others.[16] They castigated Dunning for his harsh treatment of Blacks in his Reconstruction (1907). Muller noted that Dunning was equally harsh on all the major players: "Dunning's antipathy in Reconstruction is generously heaped on all groups, regardless of race, color, creed, or sectional origins."[17]

Since the 1960s historians have documented positive roles for the freedmen and the leadership of educated blacks who had been free before the war. Numerous African Americans elected to office in the South had lived or been educated in the North, and had returned South after the war to help build a new society.

Books by Dunning[edit]


  1. ^ Beale, 1940, p 807
  2. ^ Beale, 1940, p 807
  3. ^ Mark C. Smith. "Dunning, William Archibald" in American National Biography Online, 2000
  4. ^ J. G. de Roulhac Hamilton, "Dunning, William Archibald," in Dictionary of American Biography (1930), vol 3
  5. ^ Muller (1974) p 331n24
  6. ^ William Harris Bragg, "C. Mildred Thompson (1881-1975)," The New Georgia Encyclopedia (2005)
  7. ^ Smith (2000)
  8. ^ Muller (1974) p 334
  9. ^ Mark L. Bradley, Bluecoats and Tar Heels: Soldiers and Civilians in Reconstruction North Carolina (2009) p 268
  10. ^ Bradley, Bluecoats and Tar Heels (2009), p. 268
  11. ^ McCrary, Peyton, "The Reconstruction Myth" in Encyclopedia of Southern Culture
  12. ^ [1]
  13. ^ Dunning, William Archibald, Reconstruction Political and Economic: 1865 - 1877.
  14. ^ Essays on the Civil War and Reconstruction, by Dunning, p. 92, cited and quoted in Du Bois, W.E.B. Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880 (1935) pp. 179-180.
  15. ^ John B. Boles; and Bethany L. Johnson (2003). Origins of the New South Fifty Years Later: The Continuing Influence of a Historical Classic. Louisiana State U.P. pp. 11–12. 
  16. ^ Thomas J. Brown, Reconstructions: New Perspectives on the Postbellum United States. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2006.
  17. ^ Muller (1974), p. 335

Further reading[edit]

  • Beale, Howard K. "On Rewriting Reconstruction History," American Historical Review (1940), 45#4 pp. 807–827 in JSTOR
  • Du Bois, W.E.B.. Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880 (1937) p. 179-180.
  • Fitzgerald, Michael W. "Political Reconstruction, 1865-1877," in A Companion to the American South, ed. John B. Boles (Blackwell, 2002), 84-302.
  • Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. 1988.
  • Franklin, John Hope. "Mirror for Americans: A Century of Reconstruction History," presidential address, American Historical Association. 1979.[2]
  • Hamilton, J. G. de Roulhac. "Dunning, William Archibald," in Dictionary of American Biography (1930) vol 3
  • McCrary, Peyton. "The Reconstruction Myth," in Encyclopedia of Southern Culture (University of North Carolina Press: 1989)
  • Muller, Philip R. "Look Back Without Anger: A Reappraisal of William A. Dunning," Journal of American History (1974): 61 #2 325-38. in JSTOR
  • Simkins, Francis B. "New Viewpoints of Southern Reconstruction," Journal of Southern History (1939) 5#1 pp 49–61; in JSTOR
  • Smith, Mark C. "Dunning, William Archibald" in American National Biography Online Feb. 2000, Access Date: May 19, 2013
  • Stephenson, Wendell Holmes. South Lives in History: Southern Historians and Their Legacy (1969)
  • Weisberger, Bernard A. "The Dark and Bloody Ground of Reconstruction Historiography," Journal of Southern History (1959) 25: 427-447. in JSTOR
  • Wharton, Vernon L. "Reconstruction," in Writing Southern History: Essays in Historiography in Honor of Fletcher M. Green, ed. Arthur S. Link and Rembert W. Patrick (Louisiana State University Press, 1965), pp 295–315
  • Williams, T. Harry. "An Analysis of Some Reconstruction Attitudes," Journal of Southern History (1946) 12:469-486 in JSTOR
  • Zeitz, Joshua. The New Republic, 18 January 1999, pp. 13–15.