Reading William Dunning

Members of the Reconstruction Klan in costume

Members of the Reconstruction Klan in costume

Reconstruction scholarship had hit the news this week, with Hillary Clinton giving her questionable take on the matter. Others have written well on her poor understanding of the era and her decision that, finding herself in a hole, she had best try for China. I don’t propose to retread that ground. The customary recitation of the historiography of Reconstruction might do in its stead; it must lurk in any discussion of the topic just as the historiography of every subject does. I will probably indulge eventually, but today I have in mind something off to one side of that.

Back in fifth grade, during the fall of 1991, I read an American history textbook cover to cover. My teacher suggested it. (Thank you, Mrs. Taylor.) Between its pale blue covers I learned a great deal of history for the first time, Reconstruction included. I still remember the sepia-toned drawing of three men with bags over their heads, members of the Ku Klux Klan. My textbook told me that they used costumes to frighten freedmen away from the polls. The book might have mentioned violence as well, but if so I don’t recall it appearing to any prominent extent. I read about scalawags and carpetbaggers. These had something to do with a thing called Reconstruction, which radical republicans launched to punish the South for the Civil War. My book didn’t tell me that in as many words that Reconstruction deserved opposition and we should cheer its failure, but did make it very clear that black Americans lacked the education and character to participate in government. We had it hard in the Bush years; you had to put things together yourself. I didn’t know then and would not know for more than a decade thereafter that I’d just gotten a dose of the Dunning School. Most everyone still gets plenty of them, hence the ritual condemnations whenever Reconstruction comes up.

I make it my habit, partly as a prophylactic, to read good history before bad. As I’ve yet to undertake a serious study of Reconstruction, until now I’ve opted out of reading anything by William Archibald Dunning, his students, and fellow travelers. Today I made an exception when a lengthy article by the man himself came across my twitter feed. Why not let Dunning speak for himself? I can only scratch the surface of even the article without making this post tediously long or once again making an extended departure from Kansas, but it deserves a look all the same.

Dunning makes no bones about his position, laying it out in the opening paragraphs:

the completion of the reconstruction showed the following situation: (1) the negroes were in the enjoyment of equal political rights with the whites; (2) the Republican party was in vigorous life in all the Southern states, and in firm control of many of them; and (3) the negroes exercised an influence in political affairs out of all relation to their intelligence or property, and, since so many of the whites were disfranchised, excessive even in proportion to their numbers. At the present day, in the same states, the negroes enjoy practically no political rights; the Republican party is but the shadow of a name; and the influence of the negroes in political affairs is nil.

You could hand this list to Eric Foner or any other modern historian of Reconstruction and see them nod along with the facts, save the highlighted portion. From that axiom, all the rest that makes the Dunning School so notorious follows.

Dunning concerns himself often with the political interests of the Republican party in sustaining Reconstruction. He avoids calling partisan interest the chief objective of the undertaking by so narrow a margin as to almost say the opposite in plain terms:

by the time the process was complete, a very important, if not the most important part had been played by the desire and the purpose to secure to the Republican party the permanent control of several Southern states in which hitherto such a political organization had been unknown. This last motive had a plausible and widely accepted justification in the view that the rights of the negro and the “results of the war” in general would be secure only if the national government should remain indefinitely in Republican hands, and that therefore the strengthening of the party was a primary dictate of patriotism.

One can’t quite argue with the facts here either. A Republican government would hardly seek to redeem the cause of the movement which it just defeated. As most southern whites understood Republicans and freedom for black Americans as both utterly inimical to their interests, they would hardly vote the party of Lincoln handy majorities. They just spent four years engaged in a tremendous war where they spent blood, much of it their own, and treasure to save slavery, save white supremacy, and prevent so much as the possibility of a southern wing of the Republican Party. Consequently, any Republican party in the South must depend on black votes for its support.

If this makes the Republicans less than disinterested, altruistic paragons of virtue then we might as well ask if the majority of white Southerners did better. Dunning takes white supremacy for granted, to the point of understanding it as an interest which whites pursued out of conscious partisanship. This would leave him, at best, declaring a plague on both houses. It turns out that human beings don’t comport themselves with perfect virtue. Who knew?

Dunning makes it clear that white supremacy decided things. He considered black Americans too stupid and ignorant to competently manage politics. He doesn’t quite say that they couldn’t manage even basic freedom, but Dunning clearly had some doubts on the subject. However, he argues that Southern whites had more than racial animus informing them. They tried, if at gunpoint, black governance:

The extravagance and corruption of the state administration had become so intolerable to the whites that questionable means of terminating it were admitted by even the most honorable without question.

Dunning spends page after page on the precise mechanics of how to disenfranchise, most of them clearly amused by the ingenuity they involved. Yet he offers only this single line on the famous corruption that helped justify rolling back black freedom. We must take his word for it.

We must also take his word that violence played only a small part. Dunning admits to lynchings, and wrote in their heyday, but paints violence as the exception rather than the rule:

There was relatively little “Ku-Kluxing” or open violence, but in countless ways the negroes were impressed with the idea that there would be peril for them in voting. […] But if a party of white men, with ropes conspicuous on their saddlebows, rode up to a polling place and announced that hanging would begin in fifteen minutes, though without any more definite reference to anybody, and a group of blacks who had assembled to vote heard the remark and promptly disappeared […] Or if an untraceable rumor that trouble was impending over the blacks was followed by the mysterious appearance of bodies of horsemen on the roads at midnight, firing guns and yelling at nobody in particular, votes again were lost

If we bend over backwards on Dunning’s behalf, we might allow him a technical point. We ought to distinguish between intimidation and violence. We should not go further and treat intimidation as innocuous or, as Dunning might like us to, pretend that black Americans heard only empty threats. They could count the lives lost, the scars left, and see who hung from trees just as well as any white person. A threat might very well remain a threat only when they complied. While some whites might have made idle threats, the record argues very strongly that most spoke in deadly earnest. No one could know with confidence until hazarding it at peril of one’s life whether one had a band of blowhards or the local Klavern just looking for an excuse. The distinction between violence carried out and violence merely threatened thus, at the point when one would have to make the decision, proves fleeting.

All of this led to what Dunning considered the natural conclusion:

The negroes, though numerically much in excess of the whites, were very definitely demoralized by the aggressiveness and unanimity of the latter, and in the ultimate test of race strength the weaker gave way.

The corruption might matter, though Dunning could as well have looked at his own New Jersey or Tammany Hall just across the Hudson for examples of that, but ultimately the whites won. Thus we know for a fact that the superior race prevailed. Winners win and losers lose. Had blacks really deserved equality, they would have raped and murdered their way to it just as the whites did. The fact that whites imagined black men as rapists and murderers nearly by definition and arrayed themselves to combat these simultaneously inferior and remarkably puissant foes brings us to one of the inevitable paradoxes of white supremacy: an inferior race which requires such heroic measures to keep in its place hardly seems very inferior.

Dunning goes on, charting the restoration of white supremacy up to the time of writing. Toward the end he expresses his relief that at last, politics have advanced to the point where white Southerners need not apologize or make excuses for their actions. They can cheerfully state their business honestly and in the open:

the stronger faction, headed by Mr. Tillman, promptly took the ground that South Carolina must have a “white man’s government,” and put into effect the new Mississippi plan. A constitutional amendment was adopted in 1895 which applied the “understanding clause” for two years, and after that required of every elector either the ability to read and write or the ownership of property to the amount of three hundred dollars. In the convention which framed this amendment, the sentiment of the whites revealed very clearly, not only through its content, but especially through the frank and emphatic form in which it was expressed, that the aspirations of the negro to equality in political rights would never again receive the faintest recognition.

I don’t know that I can do Dunning’s enthusiasm for the trend the justice it deserves. Dunning never makes his disinterested academic act entirely convincing, but one can almost hear the fanfare sounding in his mind when reading this. He spends paragraph on paragraph, page after page, detailing how white Americans took back from black Americans almost everything they briefly gained. Though Dunning denied the violence, he proudly recounts the trickery, fraud, and legal sophistry deployed over the course of a generation and change to reduce black Americans from at least within sight of political equality to a state near to slavery.

In the end, Dunning unites the past and present:

the ultimate root of the trouble in the South had been, not the institution of slavery, but the coexistence in one society of two races so distinct in characteristics as to render coalescence impossible; that slavery had been a models vivendi through which social life was possible; and that, after its disappearance, its place must be taken by some set of conditions which, if more humane and beneficent in accidents, must in essence express the same fact of racial inequality. The progress in the acceptance of this idea in the North has measured the progress in the South of the undoing of reconstruction. In view of the questions which have been raised by our lately established relations with other races, it seems most improbable that the historian will soon, or ever, have to record a reversal of the conditions which this process has established.

We have come far, if not near so far as we like to tell ourselves. I needn’t delve further back than a few days to find arguments that would make Dunning smile.

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