The Dunning School: Historians, Race, and the Meaning of Reconstruction ed. by John David Smith and J. Vincent Lowery (review)
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The Dunning School: Historians, Race, and the Meaning of Reconstruction. Edited by John David Smith and J. Vincent Lowery. Foreword by Eric Foner. (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2013. Pp. 338. $40.00 cloth)

During the two decades around the turn of the twentieth century, Columbia University’s William A. Dunning directed almost twenty dissertations and theses that explored Reconstruction in the southern states. A number of these dissertations became published studies and their authors occupied important academic positions; they exercised broad influence on academic and public understandings of Reconstruction, certainly through the 1950s and 1960s, and probably well beyond. Since those years, however, the “Dunning School” has become shorthand for racism-tainted scholarship. One suspects that this generalization has become such received wisdom that few of the scholars whose work these essays examine are much read these days. This collection performs valuable service not in attempting to defend these historians against their participation in broadly shared contemporary prejudices but rather in showing the variety and indeed the continued benefits of actually reading some of these state-level studies of Reconstruction, a number of which remain, for all their faults, pioneering accounts of their subjects. They certainly defined the terms in which Reconstruction would be studied for well over half a century; for that reason alone, they merit historians’ attention.

This excellent collection of essays effectively demonstrates several important points. First, Dunning himself was not merely an apologist for the white South but rather a well-trained professional historian whose main interest was in chronicling the broad, institution-based national history that was the concern of so many of his contemporary scholars. Next, the term “Dunning School” is itself potentially misleading, as his students were not all of one mind in their approach to Reconstruction or any other national problem. And perhaps most important, the state-level studies that Dunning directed do not deserve to be rejected out of hand, as most scholars [End Page 748] of the last two generations have done, as being so thoroughly tainted by turn-of-the-century racism as to have nothing of value to offer to current students of southern politics and culture. Their innovative work included documenting the Civil War’s economic disruption of southern society and important southern religious and social class divisions, among other matters that continue to animate scholarship on Reconstruction.

No one would argue that the scholarship of the Dunning students should be read in place of the excellent work on Reconstruction of the last two generations. There is no escaping that “the fundamental flaw in the Dunning School,” as Eric Foner writes, “was the author’s deep racism” (p. x). These studies are dated in other ways as well. Their faith in objectivity is no longer our own. Their characterization of African Americans as unprepared for freedom and misled by white opportunists has been replaced by a far different view. And there is no doubt that much of this scholarship built and reinforced the basic notion that Reconstruction had been a failed experiment that should teach the national government the folly of intervening in the southern states’ disposition of race and public policy. Finally, the scholarship of the Dunning School was indeed broadly sympathetic to the white South—at least those white southerners who rejected Reconstruction and its claim of citizenship and equality for black southerners. They considered Reconstruction on the whole as a “twelve-year-long nightmare of debauchery, exploitation and plunder of native white southerners” (p. 23). The end of Reconstruction was a happy event, no matter how accomplished.

One of the most valuable features of this collection is the substantial introduction by John David Smith and J. Vincent Lowery, which amounts to much more than, as is sometimes the case, a brief summary of the essays that follow. The authors show not only that the scholars were products of their time and place—as are we all—but also that the rise and fall of a historiographical school is not driven merely by prejudice or changes in fashion. But they do make it abundantly clear that the nation shared the Dunning School’s interpretation for [End Page 749] so...