The Dunning School: Historians, Race, and the Meaning of Reconstruction

The Dunning School: Historians, Race, and the Meaning of Reconstruction

The Dunning School: Historians, Race, and the Meaning of Reconstruction

The Dunning School: Historians, Race, and the Meaning of Reconstruction

Excerpt

In 1916 the historian Arthur C. Cole of the University of Illinois noted the emergence of what he termed the new “southern school of historians.” The pupils, largely “historical students of southern birth and breeding” and “representatives of the new south,” had “migrated northward to the class room of a northern guide and philosopher to receive words of wisdom and inspiration.” Their school was Columbia University in New York City, and their teacher was Professor William Archibald Dunning (1857–1922), one of the most important figures in developing and legitimizing southern history and the Reconstruction era as research fields. During the first half of the twentieth century Dunning reigned as the foremost authority on Reconstruction.

In 1922 the Independent reported, “No other American has ever so exhaustively studied the period of reconstruction as professor Dunning did, and no other writer, historian or publicist, has so deeply or so sanely influenced later American thinking upon the rights and wrongs of that unhappy time.” According to the historian John Higham, Dunning “maintained such Olympian aloofness from the northern bias of previous scholars that Southerners flocked to Columbia to study with him.” More recently and more critically, the historian David Levering Lewis dubbed Dunning “high priest of the regnant dogma in Reconstruction writing—the Dunning School, whose successive generations of historians deplored the decade of federal intervention in the South as the ‘tragic era’ of Negro misrule.”

In 1930 the Vanderbilt University historian Frank Lawrence Owsley singled out Dunning and the “Dunning School” of southern historians for repelling what Owsley considered the arrogant, condescending, and smug intellectual and spiritual victory that northern intellectuals had held over Southerners since Appomattox. Complimenting his “tough-mindedness,” Owsley applauded Dunning for how his disciples “scorned the injustice and hypocrisy of the condemnation of the South” and credited them with prefiguring the 1930s “Southern renascence” and for challenging “the holiness of the Northern legend,” especially its concomitant ideology of southern war . . .

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