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Radical Reconstruction 69 Chapter Three Radical Reconstruction Shepherd W. McKinley The historiography of Congressional, or as it is more popularly known, Radical, Reconstruction, has been a “dark and bloody ground” paralleling the arcs of race relations and politics in the United States.1 After Reconstruction’s end, the so-called Dunning School of historians, the students of Columbia University’s William A. Dunning, adopted the white South’s victimized voice, hanging (this time in effigy rather than by ropes) the Radical Republicans, providing the dominant historical interpretation of the period 1867– 1877 for most of the twentieth century. Revisionist historians began attacking the Dunning interpretation in the 1930s and within three decades had rehabilitated Radical Reconstruction generally and the Radicals in particular. Federal intervention in racial questions and the civil rights laws of the 1960s seemed, to these historians, to justify Congressional Reconstruction . In fact, historians often label the modern civil rights movement as the Second Reconstruction. As the optimism of the civil rights movement faded in the 1970s and all but disappeared during Reagan’s America, a breed of so-called postrevisionist scholars discovered that the Radicals had not been so radical after all, that Radical Reconstruction had been a rather conservative affair. In 1988, historian Eric Foner reconciled the revisionist and postrevisionist viewpoints and ended the century-long debate over whether the era 69 shepherd w. mckinley 70 was a lost revolutionary moment (as described by liberals and progressives ) or a chamber of horrors (as defined by conservatives and reactionaries). Although no post-postrevisionist historiographic school has yet emerged, recent historians have generally followed Foner’s lead, exploring previously neglected aspects of Radical Reconstruction . They underscore the Reconstruction Era’s essential complexity, again suggesting how historiography tends to mirror political and social thought at any given time. Today’s scholars argue that although Reconstruction defies facile conclusions, even an overall synthesis, close study of the topic nevertheless improves our understanding of this most wrenching period in American history. The Dunning School represented the first scholarly generation to interpret Radical Reconstruction. Dunning’s Columbia mentor John W. Burgess, Dunning himself, and later their students utilized primary sources and sought to create histories using the so-called scientific historical method. To a large extent, these historians succeeded in moving the writing on Reconstruction away from rank partisanship, and their scholarship helped reunify northern and southern whites. However, not surprisingly, the works of the Dunning School authors also reflected the era’s racist attitudes and justified the emerging Jim Crow laws. The school’s interpretation of Radical Reconstruction remained ingrained in the popular imagination decades after the revisionist onslaught of the 1950s and 1960s undermined its once glowing reputation.2 In general, most Dunningites portrayed Reconstruction–era white southerners as willing to admit defeat, to be fair to the newly freed blacks, to genuinely seek readmission to the Union, and to accept Abraham Lincoln’s and Andrew Johnson’s Reconstruction plans. Labeling most Republicans as Radicals, the Dunning scholars accused the party of Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner of plotting to overthrow Presidential Reconstruction in order to secure political domination of the South and to punish former Confederates and their allies. (Later, Progressive historians such as Charles and Mary Beard substituted an economic motive for the political one; they viewed Radicals as mere “agents of Northern capitalism.”) The Dunningites believed that the Radicals Radical Reconstruction 71 empowered the allegedly dishonest carpetbaggers and scalawags and ignorant freedmen in order to dominate and plunder white southerners. They almost uniformly considered black suffrage as Reconstruction’s original sin. Radical Reconstruction represented, so the Dunningites’ narrative went, an unparalleled period of corruption , and therefore, native white southerners were justified in violently and fraudulently resisting and then overturning it. Beneath this interpretation lay the belief of innate black inferiority . White Republican manipulation of blacks, the Dunningites charged, proved the latter’s inability to shoulder the responsibilities of full citizenship and thereby proved the wisdom of limiting, by any and all means, the blacks’ civil and political rights.3 Although Civil Rights Era historians tended to besmirch the Dunning School historians as a homogenous group of racists and apologists for white supremacy, recent scholarship on the Dunning scholars has identified variations as to their motivations and interpretations. For example, Burgess’s belief in the Teutonic germ theory constituted part of a worldview that justified colonialism and elite rule. Dunning himself praised some Radical Reconstruction policies and maintained that in fact the South would have benefited from a...


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