In a speech delivered in front of the American Historical Association in 1979, association president and Howard University history professor John Hope Franklin declared, “It may be said that every generation since 1870 has written the history of the Reconstruction era. And what historians have written tells as much about their own generation as about the Reconstruction period itself.” Franklin was speaking from experience; his 1961 landmark work Reconstruction: After the Civil War, which has helped shape interpretations of Reconstruction for more than four decades, was informed by the civil rights movement that developed after World War II. In Franklin’s time black Americans were seeking to regain some of the political and social equality they had enjoyed briefly during the first years of Reconstruction, when the nation passed several civil rights bills and amendments granting black men the right to vote and prohibiting certain kinds of racial discrimination.
Franklin’s work also served to counter what had been the dominant critique of Reconstruction, William Archibald Dunning’s late nineteenth-century theory that the failure of Reconstruction could be blamed on carpetbaggers (northern Republicans who migrated to the South after the Civil War), scalawags (southern Republicans who had remained loyal to the Union), and freed slaves. Franklin, in contrast, defended the actions of southern blacks and their white supporters and blamed the era’s failings on President Andrew Johnson and conservative white southerners. The differing views held by these two men is likely due to the eras in which they lived. Dunning lived and wrote during a time when corruption in Republican governments was a recurring problem, which may explain his distaste for the Republican Party, while Franklin’s work was published as the post–World War II civil rights movement was reaching its peak. The opposing interpretations of Dunning and Franklin show that as society has changed over time, people’s understanding of Reconstruction has also changed. Because historical interpretation is always colored by the era in which the historian lives, a definitive interpretation of major events such as Reconstruction will likely never be reached.
Although Reconstruction is generally understood to have spanned from 1865, when the Civil War ended, to 1877, when the remaining federal troops were withdrawn from the South, plans to reunite the United States and rebuild the South began as early as 1863. With the Union army in control of large swaths of the Confederacy by late 1863, President Abraham Lincoln began to develop a plan for reconstruction that included amnesty and pardons for inhabitants of the rebellious states. However, Lincoln’s assassination precluded the institution of his plan. The responsibility for Reconstruction fell to his successor, Andrew Johnson, who found himself at odds with Radical Republicans—men such as Pennsylvania congressman Thaddeus Stevens whose primary goals were to provide freed slaves with civil rights and prevent southern white Democrats from controlling former Confederate governments. The Radical Republicans, who, for the most part, dominated government, achieved some of their goals, most notably the passages of the Civil Rights Acts of 1866 and 1875 (although much of the latter was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1883) and the ratification of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, which ended slavery, made blacks citizens, and gave them the right to vote, respectively. However, the president and moderate and conservative forces in the House and Senate were able to thwart many Radical goals. The Radical Republicans’ power began to fade in the late 1860s and early 1870s, and by the 1876 presidential election, they had little power in the South. It was during the first two decades following the Radical Republicans’ weakened position in the South that William Archibald Dunning began his influential scholarship.
Born in New Jersey in 1857, William Archibald Dunning’s interest in Reconstruction was initially sparked by his father. The younger Dunning continued his explorations while a student at Columbia University, the school where he would later become a political science professor. At the age of twenty-eight, he published The Constitution of the United States in Civil War and Reconstruction, 1860–1867. In his introduction to an edition of Dunning’s 1898 collection, Essays on the Civil War and Reconstruction, David Donald explains that Dunning’s 1885 tome had three key effects: It made post–Civil War history a respectable field for scholars; it secured Dunning’s employment at Columbia, where he would work for the rest of his life; and “it caused Dunning to be sought out by some of the very best graduate students entering the field of history.” His influence, however, went beyond Columbia— Dunning was president of both the American Historical Association and the American Political Science Association.
In addition to his 1885 and 1898 works, Dunning penned Reconstruction, Political and Economic: 1865–1877, published in 1907. His books centered on the theory that, as explained by University of Arkansas professor Carl H. Moneyhon, “the Republicans represented the worst elements of society: ignorant blacks, malicious southern whites, and ‘carpetbaggers.’” Dunning believed that Reconstruction failed because of the incompetency and corruption of the Radical Republican state governments that were established in the South in the mid-to-late 1860s. In Reconstruction, Political and Economic, Dunning questioned the administrative and economic skills of “the ambitious northern whites, inexperienced southern whites, and unintelligent blacks who controlled the first reconstructed governments.” He was especially critical of their financial decisions, asserting that these new governments worsened state debts by increasing spending on new jobs and salaries. Dunning’s questioning of the Reconstruction Republicans was shaped, as Donald explains, by the corruption of Republican governments in the 1870s and 1880s. During that era in American history— known derisively as the “Gilded Age,” after a novel by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner—Republican politicians, including members of the Grant administration, often became entangled in suspicious dealings with oil and railroad barons or traded lucrative civil-service jobs for votes.
Incompetency and corruption were not Dunning’s only targets. He also wrote extensively on the new rights granted to blacks and the efforts of southern governments to limit those freedoms. In Reconstruction, Political and Economic, Dunning asserted that black suffrage embittered southern white Democrats—many of whom were plantation owners—who failed to convince the newly franchised blacks to vote with their former masters. Dunning sided with the Democrats, expressing his concern for what he considered the lack of political understanding by blacks: “Without a clear comprehension as to what it all meant, the mass of the freedmen were sure that they must be Union men and Republicans.” In addition, as Donald explains, Dunning believed that the causes of the South’s trouble were rooted in efforts to force the black and white races to coexist. Donald writes, “Slavery, [Dunning] declared, had provided ‘a modus vivendi through which social life was possible,’ and any subsequent political arrangement in the South, to be enduring, must recognize ‘the same fact of racial inequality.’” Dunning’s support for southern white Democrats was also indicated by his defense of black codes, laws passed by southern legislatures that placed a number of restrictions on blacks, including prohibitions on jury service, intermarriage, and leases. Northerners believed that southern governments used these codes as a way to subjugate blacks and make them nearly as powerless as they had been before emancipation. Dunning disagreed, writing that the purpose of these laws was “to bring some sort of order out of the social and economic chaos which a full acceptance of the results of war and emancipation involved. . . . The freedmen were not, and in the nature of the case could not for generations be, on the same social, moral, and intellectual plane with the whites; and this fact was recognized by constituting them a separate class in the social order.” Dunning opined that the “wellestablished traits and habits of the negroes” justified restrictions on some civil rights such as gun ownership and the right of blacks to testify in court.
The Freedmen’s Bureau was another target of Dunning’s opprobrium. Established by Congress in March 1865, the bureau was intended to aid newly freed slaves and southern white refugees. Although the bureau was successful in some respects, for example establishing more than four thousand schools, its fate was determined by the antipathy of President Johnson and most white southerners. Dunning wrote of the bureau agents:
However much tact and practical good sense the local agent was able to bring to the performance of his delicate duties, he in most cases, being a northern man, was wholly unable to take a view of the situation that could make him agreeable to the whites of the neighborhood. He saw in both freedman and former master qualities which the latter could never admit. Hence the working of the bureau, with its intrusion into the fundamental relationships of social life, engendered violent hostility from the outset on the part of the whites.
The Freedmen’s Bureau dissolved in 1872. Five years later, Reconstruction ended as well. Under the Compromise of 1877, Democrats agreed to give Republican presidential candidate Rutherford B. Hayes twenty disputed electoral votes, thereby awarding him the presidency, in exchange for the withdrawal of federal troops from the South and the end of federal interference in southern state governments. For Dunning the compromise was an appropriate and necessary conclusion to Reconstruction. He declared:
Generalized, this famous bargain meant: Let the reforming Republicans direct the national government and the southern whites may rule the negroes. Such were the terms on which the [Hayes] administration took up its task. They precisely and consciously reversed the principles of reconstruction as followed under [President Ulysses S.] Grant, and hence they ended an era. Grant in 1868 had cried peace, but in his time, with the radicals and carpet-baggers in the saddle, there was no peace; with Hayes peace came.
However, Dunning was not completely critical of Republicans. He praised Reconstruction governments for establishing a system of universal public education in the South and acknowledged that while many government officials were corrupt and incompetent, the higher-ups in the Freedmen’s Bureau and state governments were honest and showed good judgment. In the end, however, as University of Maryland professor Herman Belz explains, “In Dunning’s view, the purpose of Reconstruction was to give freedmen and white Unionists power to organize governments and control the former Confederate states indefinitely.”
Dunning’s impact was far-reaching. As a professor Dunning mentored a number of students, men and women who would become known collectively as the Dunning school. The most notable of these students were southerners, among them Walter L. Fleming, who wrote The Civil War and Reconstruction in Alabama, and W.W. Davis, author of The Civil War and Reconstruction, in Florida. Donald writes of these students, “[Their] dissertations . . . provide our basic knowledge of the political history of the South during the postwar years. Yet, with every conscious desire to be fair, these students of Dunning shaped their monographs to accord with the white Southerners’ view that the Negro was innately inferior.” Dunning’s students condoned the Ku Klux Klan and other white terrorist organizations while decrying blacks’ involvement in Reconstruction governments. However, these racist beliefs cannot be considered to completely mirror Dunning’s beliefs. Donald contends, “Dunning allowed his students to pursue their own paths, and it is hardly surprising that his young Southerners, themselves products of the dark days that followed Reconstruction, should have adopted sharply sectional views.”
Roberta Sue Alexander, who teaches history at the University of Dayton, suggests that the racism and nationalism that marked the United States at the turn of the twentieth century influenced the Dunning school.
Responding to Dunning
Although there were a few exceptions, such as civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois’s 1910 article “Reconstruction and Its Benefits” and 1935 book Black Reconstruction, the Dunning school of thought went largely unquestioned until the 1960s. In his article “The New View of Reconstruction,” historian Eric Foner explains, “Anyone who attended high school before 1960 learned that Reconstruction was an era of unrelieved sordidness in American political and social life.”
By 1960, however, the American political climate was changing. In November the nation voted the liberal John Fitzgerald Kennedy into the White House. Meanwhile, a civil rights movement had been in full swing since the mid-1950s. With black Americans once again engaged in a struggle to achieve political and social equality, the time was ripe for a new look at Reconstruction. The leader of this new school was John Hope Franklin.
Franklin joined the history department at historically black Howard University in 1947. One year later, according to Professor Alexander, Franklin “called for a new direction in Reconstruction historiography, one rejecting interpretations that, like those of William Dunning, treated blacks with contempt, ignored Presidential Reconstruction, and saw southern whites uncritically as heroes.” The synthesis of Franklin’s ideas culminated in the 1961 publication of his book Reconstruction: After the Civil War, labeled by Alexander “the first major synthesis of the revisionist interpretation of Reconstruction.”
Franklin’s perspective on Reconstruction was almost point-forpoint the exact opposite of Dunning’s. While Franklin acknowledged that Radical Republican governments were often corrupt, he mostly defended the actions taken by freed blacks, southern white Republicans, and what he termed “so-called carpetbaggers.” Unlike Dunning and his pupils, who questioned the political know-how of blacks, Franklin lauded the skills and aspirations of black politicians such as South Carolina treasurer Francis L. Car- dozo and Mississippi legislator (and future congressman) John Roy Lynch. Franklin further asserted that rather than try to demoralize and dominate white southerners, black politicians were largely conciliatory—for example, they sought to allow ex- Confederates, who in the period immediately following the war had been stripped of many of their civil rights, to again vote and hold office. He also maintained that freedmen had little desire to instigate an economic or social revolution: “Negroes attempted no revolution in the social relations of the races in the South. . . . Negroes, as a rule, conceded to the insistence of whites that they were a race apart; and they made little or no attempt to destroy white supremacy except where such supremacy rejected Negroes altogether as human beings.”
Franklin also sought to refurbish the image of carpetbaggers and scalawags. Previous historians, Franklin observed, had described Republicans who migrated from the North as “gangs of itinerant adventurers, vagrant interlopers,” men who sought the economic and political exploitation of southerners for their own personal gains. According to Franklin, these purported “carpetbaggers” were more interested in building up industries, especially iron and coal, in the South, than in taking over local and state governments. He writes, “[These] so-called carpetbaggers were not simply Radicals with no consideration for the welfare and development of the South,” adding that many of these migrants were well liked by white southerners. Franklin further asserted that white southerners known as “scalawags” had been misjudged. While he acknowledged that they were partially to blame for the graft and corruption that marred Reconstruction governments, “[Their] most serious offense was to have been loyal to the Union during the Civil War or to have declared that they had been loyal and thereby to have enjoyed full citizenship during the period of Radical Reconstruction.”
Dunning had treated southern blacks, southern white Republicans, and northern white migrants as a powerful triumvirate, working together to dominate former Confederates. By Franklin’s estimation, that coalition was not as united as Dunning had surmised. In fact, according to Franklin, the three groups often found themselves at cross-purposes: “At times the position of the Negro leaders approached that of the crusading abolitionists. Meanwhile, the so-called carpetbaggers frequently preoccupied themselves with building up the alliance between the business community and the Republican-controlled state government. All too often, moreover, the loyal Southerners talked and acted like the conservative former Confederates whom they presumably opposed.”
The Freedmen’s Bureau and black codes also received different interpretations from Franklin than they had in Dunning’s works. Franklin observed that the bureau not only improved education in the South but also protected freedmen’s labor rights by enabling them to work at fair wages and choose their employers. Whereas Dunning had castigated bureau agents for interfering in “fundamental relationships” between blacks and whites, Franklin placed the early death of the bureau at the hands of white southerners and President Johnson. He wrote, “It can hardly be said that rule by the former Confederates was by any means destroyed by the Freedmen’s Bureau. It would be more accurate to say that the former Confederates, with the aid of President Johnson, did much to destroy the effectiveness of the Bureau.” He also contended that the black codes were not a justifiable response to alleged moral and intellectual disparity between the races; rather they exemplified the efforts made by white southerners to maintain supremacy and turn the clock back to the pre–Civil War era. As Franklin explained, “The Confederacy was beaten, but it refused to die. The spirit of the South and the principles underlying it were very much alive. More than that, those who had fought against the Union were in control, pursuing most of their prewar policies as though there had never been a war.”
The efforts of southern Democrats known as Redeemers to regain control of their region reached fruition in 1877. While Dunning believed that the Compromise of 1877 brought peace to the United States, Franklin looked upon it as a way for the South to “[retreat] further from democracy and . . . institutionalize and make permanent the redemption policies by which it had overthrown reconstruction.” Within a generation southern states had instituted poll taxes and literacy tests that made it nearly impossible for blacks to vote and had also instituted laws that relegated blacks to low-paying and menial jobs.
A Changing Society
Other important new looks at Reconstruction followed in the path of Franklin’s Reconstruction: After the Civil War. These books included 1965’s The Era of Reconstruction, 1865–1877, written by Kenneth Stampp; Avery Craven’s 1969 book, Reconstruction: The Ending of the Civil War; Rembert W. Patrick’s The Reconstruction of the Nation, published in 1967; and Hans Trefousse’s 1971 Reconstruction: America’s First Effort at Racial Democracy. Although these authors did not agree on every point, they largely followed Franklin’s lead, evincing greater sympathy toward freedmen and northern and southern white Republicans. All of these books were written in the wake of the successes of the 1960s civil rights movement, in particular the June 1964 passage of a civil rights bill that outlawed racial discrimination in public places (the first such bill since the ill-fated Civil Rights Act of 1875). As had been the case during the height of Reconstruction, the United States was once again led by a southern president named Johnson; only this time, the president came from Texas, not Tennessee, and Lyndon Baines Johnson encouraged, rather than vetoed, civil rights legislation. With support for civil rights in the United States reaching previously unknown heights, it is not surprising that the radical forces behind Reconstruction were examined in a more favorable light.
Reconstruction is one of the most controversial periods in American history, and it is unlikely that historians will cease interpreting those twelve complex years. However, as American society changes, so too will the nation’s attitude toward the efforts made to rebuild the United States after the Civil War. While there will likely never be a definitive interpretation of Reconstruction, the opposing perspectives offered by key Reconstruction figures and prominent historians can provide students and other interested readers with a general understanding of the era. In Opposing Viewpoints in World History: Reconstruction, the authors evaluate the highlights and lowlights of Reconstruction in the following chapters: Reconstructing a Nation: Opposing Plans; Conflicts During Reconstruction; The New Social Order; and Historians Debate Reconstruction. In these chapters the contributors show not only how difficult the reunion of the North and South was but also how complex historical interpretation can be.