William Archibald Dunning
Born(1857-05-12)12 May 1857
Died25 August 1922(1922-08-25) (aged 65)
Occupation(s)Professor, author
Parent(s)John H. Dunning and Catherine D. Trelease
Academic background
Alma materColumbia University
InfluencesHeinrich von Treitschke
Academic work
School or traditionDunning School
InstitutionsColumbia University
Notable studentsCharles Merriam

William Archibald Dunning (12 May 1857 – 25 August 1922)[1] was an American historian and political scientist at Columbia University noted for his work on the Reconstruction era of the United States. He founded the informal Dunning School of interpreting the Reconstruction era through his own writings and the Ph.D. dissertations of his numerous students. Dunning has been criticized for advocating white supremacist interpretations, his "blatant use of the discipline of history for reactionary ends"[2] and for offering "scholarly legitimacy to the disenfranchisement of southern blacks and to the Jim Crow system."[3]

Early life and education

Born in Plainfield, New Jersey, Dunning was the son of a successful businessman who enjoyed the classics. Dunning earned degrees at Columbia University (B.A. 1881, M.A. 1884, and Ph.D. 1885).[4] He spent a year in Berlin studying European history under Heinrich von Treitschke.[citation needed]

Soon after his return and beginning his academic career, in 1888 he married Charlotte E. Loomis. They had no children. She died in 1917.[5][6]


Dunning began teaching at Columbia and was steadily promoted on the academic ladder (fellow, lecturer, instructor, adjunct professor, and full professor); in 1903 he was appointed as the Francis Lieber Professor of History and Political Philosophy.[4]

He published his PhD dissertation, The Constitution of the United States in Civil War and Reconstruction: 1860–1867 (1897), at age 40 after he had been teaching for several years.

His scholarly essays, collected in Essays on the Civil War and Reconstruction and Related Topics, (1897), included work that explained the legal basis for the destruction of slavery, an institution he opposed. His survey Reconstruction, Political and Economic: 1865–1877 (1907), for the "American Nation" series, set the tone. Dunning believed that his Reconstruction book was too superficial. He felt that it had distracted him from his major work on the history of political theory.[7]

Dunning had a dual role in history and political science. He was a long-time editor of Political Science Quarterly.[4] He was a leading expert in the history of political thought, as expressed in his trilogy: A History of Political Theories: Ancient and Medieval (1902), From Luther to Montesquieu (1905), and From Rousseau to Spencer (1920).

Although his health was poor after 1903, Dunning wrote numerous scholarly articles and book reviews for the American Historical Review and the Political Science Quarterly, which he edited from 1894 to 1903. Dunning was a founder and long-time activist of the American Historical Association, becoming AHA president in 1913. He served as the president of the American Political Science Association in 1922.

Evaluating his contributions in 2000, Smith says Dunning was far more important as a graduate teacher than as a research scholar. Columbia was a leading producer of PhDs, and Dunning directed much graduate work in U.S. history and in European political thought. His students included men who became leading scholars and academic entrepreneurs, such as Charles Merriam, Harry Elmer Barnes, James Wilford Garner and Carlton J. H. Hayes. He also mentored C. Mildred Thompson, the history professor who became dean at Vassar College. Thompson drafted the charter for UNESCO (the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization), and worked for civil rights in Atlanta.[8]

Dunning gave lifelong support to his students, providing continuous encouragement in their careers. They honored him with a Festschrift in 1914, Studies in Southern History and Politics Inscribed to William Archibald Dunning . . . by His Former Pupils the Authors (1914).[9]

School of thought

Main article: Dunning School

Many Southerners (and some Northerners) took PhDs in History under Dunning and returned to the South for academic careers, where they dominated the major history departments. Those who wrote dissertations on Reconstruction included James W. Garner, Walter Lynwood Fleming, J. G. de Roulhac Hamilton, Charles W. Ramsdell, C. Mildred Thompson, William Watson Davis, and Thomas S. Staple.[10] They comprised the so-called "Dunning School". Their interpretation of post-Civil War Reconstruction was the dominant theory taught in American universities through much of the first half of the 20th century. Bradley says, "The Dunning school condemned Reconstruction as a conspiracy by vindictive radical Republicans to subjugate southern whites at bayonet point, using federal troops to prop up corrupt state regimes led by an unholy trinity of carpetbaggers, scalawags, and freedmen."[11] Bradley notes that the Dunning interpretation in the 1930s and 1940s also "received compelling treatment in such popular works as Claude Bowers’s The Tragic Era and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind—both the best-selling novel and the blockbuster film."[12]

According to Dunning, Reconstruction's players include the "carpetbaggers", particularly new white arrivals from the North, whom the Dunning School portrayed as greedy interlopers exploiting the South and dominating the Republican Party; the "scalawags", native southern whites collaborating with the Republicans; and the freedmen, whom the Dunning School portrayed as tools of the carpetbaggers with little independent voice. He was sympathetic to the white Southerners, whom they saw as being stripped of their rights after 1865 by a vengeful North. They assumed the black vote was controlled by carpetbaggers.

Dunning and his followers portrayed former planters, the elite political, social and economic class, as honorable people with the South's best interests in mind.[13]

Dunning wrote from the point of view of the northern Democrats[citation needed] and portrayed the Radical Republicans as men who violated American traditions and were motivated by vengeance after the American Civil War.


W. E. B. Du Bois led the criticism of the Dunning School, taking it to task in the introduction of Black Reconstruction in America. Historian Eric Foner wrote that the Dunning School "offered scholarly legitimacy to the disenfranchisement of southern blacks and to the Jim Crow system that was becoming entrenched as they were writing," and that "the alleged horrors of Reconstruction helped freeze the mind of the white South in bitter opposition to any change in the region’s racial system." Foner adds that "the fundamental flaw in the Dunning School was the authors’ deep racism," and that "racism shaped not only their interpretations of history but their research methods and use of historical evidence."[3][14]: x–xi 

Dunning referred to freedmen as "barbarous" and defended the racist black codes as "a conscientious and straightforward attempt to bring some sort of order" out of the aftermath of war and emancipation. Dunning wrote that the freedmen were not "on the same social, moral and intellectual plane with the whites" and that "restrictions in respect to bearing arms, testifying in court, and keeping labor contracts were justified by the well-established traits and habits of the negroes[.]"[15]

In Black Reconstruction in America (1935), Du Bois characterized Dunning's Reconstruction, Political and Economic as a "standard, anti-Negro" text. Du Bois noted, "Dunning admits that "The legislation of the reorganized governments, under cover of police regulations and vagrancy laws, had enacted severe discrimination against the freedmen in all the common civil rights."[16]

Historian Howard K. Beale was a leader of the "revisionist" school of the 1930s that broke with the Dunning interpretation. Beale says the Dunning School broke new ground by escaping the political polemics of the day and used "meticulous and thorough research [...] in an effort to determine the truth rather than prove a thesis."[17]: 807  Beale states that, "The emphasis of the Dunning school was upon the harm done to the South by Radical Reconstruction and on the sordid political and economic motives behind Radicalism."[17]

After 1950, the Dunning School was attacked by a new generation of historians. In keeping with European ideas about history "from the bottom up" and the agency of all classes of people, together with new research, they documented the place of African Americans at the center of Reconstruction. The revisionist view was expanded and revised by Eric Foner and others.[18] They castigated Dunning for his harsh treatment of Blacks in his Reconstruction (1907). However, Muller claimed that Dunning was equally harsh on all the major players: "Dunning's antipathy in Reconstruction is generously heaped on all groups, regardless of race, color, creed, or sectional origins."[19]



  1. ^ "William A. Dunning Biography". historians.org. American Historical Association. Retrieved 7 September 2017.
  2. ^ Gordon-Reed, Annette (26 October 2015). "What If Reconstruction Hadn't Failed?". The Atlantic. Retrieved 3 August 2017.
  3. ^ a b Smith, John David; Lowery, J. Vincent, eds. (18 October 2013). The Dunning School: Historians, Race, and the Meaning of Reconstruction. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky. p. xi. ISBN 978-0-8131-4225-8. Retrieved 3 August 2017.
  4. ^ a b c Merriam, Charles E. (1922). "William Archibald Dunning". American Political Science Review. 16 (4): 692–694. doi:10.2307/1943651. ISSN 0003-0554. JSTOR 1943651.
  5. ^ Mark C. Smith. "Dunning, William Archibald" in American National Biography Online, 2000
  6. ^ J. G. de Roulhac Hamilton, "Dunning, William Archibald," in Dictionary of American Biography (1930), vol 3
  7. ^ Muller (1974) p 331n24
  8. ^ William Harris Bragg, "C. Mildred Thompson (1881–1975)," The New Georgia Encyclopedia (2005)
  9. ^ Smith (2000)
  10. ^ Muller (1974) p 334
  11. ^ Mark L. Bradley, Bluecoats and Tar Heels: Soldiers and Civilians in Reconstruction North Carolina (2009) p 268
  12. ^ Bradley, Bluecoats and Tar Heels (2009), p. 268
  13. ^ McCrary, Peyton, "The Reconstruction Myth" in Encyclopedia of Southern Culture
  14. ^ Smith and Lowery, 2013
  15. ^ Dunning, William Archibald, Reconstruction Political and Economic: 1865–1877.
  16. ^ Essays on the Civil War and Reconstruction, by Dunning, p. 92, cited and quoted in Du Bois, W.E.B. Black Reconstruction in America, 1860–1880 (1935) pp. 179–180.
  17. ^ a b Beale, 1940
  18. ^ Thomas J. Brown, Reconstructions: New Perspectives on the Postbellum United States. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2006.
  19. ^ Muller (1974), p. 335

Further reading