As the United States entered the 20th century, Reconstruction slowly receded into popular memory. Historians began to debate its results. William Dunning and John W. Burgess led the first group to offer a coherent and structured argument. Along with their students at Columbia University, Dunning, Burgess, and their retinue created a historical school of thought known as the Dunning School. This interpretation of Reconstruction placed it firmly in the category of historical blunder.
The Dunning School
According to the Dunning School, the defeated South accepted its fate and wished to rejoin the national culture. Thus, white Southerners sincerely hoped to offer the emancipated freedmen rights and protection along with equal opportunity. However, the bullying efforts of the Radical Republicans in Congress (inspired by their inherent disgust for the South) forced black suffrage, corruption, and economic dependence on the South. Carpetbaggers, scalawags and uneducated freedman plunged the South into depression and confusion until the white South banded together to reclaim southern culture and heritage.
While the Radical Republicans were the apparent villains, Dunning and his followers ascribed blame to President Johnson as well saddling him with responsibility for Reconstruction’s failure. Freedmen were portrayed as animalistic or easily manipulated, therefore, lacking the kind of agency they indeed exhibited. While certainly influenced by the racial bias of the day, the Dunning School at least formulated a coherent argument (although an incredibly inaccurate and distasteful one) that refused to fragment. This model of unity did prove somewhat valuable to historians following Dunning, even if their historical research opposed the Dunning School’s argument, “For all their faults, it is ironic that the best Dunning studies did, at least, attempt to synthesize the social, political, and economic aspects of the period.” In contrast, the Progressive historians that followed the Dunning School disagreed with some of its interpretations. President Johnson was not to blame, but rather, the Northern Radical Republicans were at fault. They cynically used the civil rights of freedman as a means to force capitalism and economic dependence on the South.