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A History Blog by W. E. Skidmore II

Introduction to Essay

Hi everyone,

Here is the introduction to my final essay.  As we move towards the end of the semester, I will start posting sections of my essay on this blog. Feedback is welcomed (on anything).

For this week, I worked on writing the introduction and thesis, while also outlining which books I will review in this work (See footnote 4):

“The Splendid Failure of Reconstruction Historiography”

            In July 1940, Howard Beale published a provocative essay in the American Historical Review where he called for a sweeping reassessment of American Reconstruction.  More specifically, Beale posed the question, “Is it not time that we studied the history of Reconstruction without first assuming, at least subconsciously, that carpetbaggers and Southern white Republicans were wicked, that Negroes were illiterate incompetents, and that the whole white South owes a debt of gratitude to the restorers of white supremacy?”[1]  This question struck at the heart of many basic assumptions of the Dunning School’s understanding of Reconstruction.[2]  Outside of attacking Dunning and his followers, Beale’s essay also drew heavily on a work that many contemporary historians disregarded: W.E.B Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction in America (1935).  “In describing the Negro’s role,” Beale wrote, “Du Bois has presented a mass of material, formerly ignored, that every future historian must reckon with.”[3]  Beale’s essay correctly assumed that scholars for the next several decades would have to wrestle with questions first posited by Du Bois, especially on issues such as labor relations and black agency during the American Civil War and Reconstruction.

As a scholar, activist, leader of pan-Africanism, and the founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Du Bois was a towering figure in modern American society.  Until the late 1950s, however, the historical profession largely dismissed Black Reconstruction as serious scholarship.  In fact, this work was never reviewed in the American Historical Review, the profession’s leading journal.  As the Civil Rights Movement gained traction in the United States, however, scholars returned to Du Bois’ study with a new appreciation.  Using his work as a springboard, revisionist historians overturned the Dunning School’s interpretations by placing African Americans at the center of the Reconstruction narrative.  This historiographical essay will trace the influence that W.E.B Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction had on subsequent generations of historians.  In light of the large corpus of Reconstruction literature, this essay will only review a small representative sample of monographs from three generations of scholars (revisionists, post-revisionists, and modern scholars).[4]  My intention is to understand how Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction has shaped the historiographical field of Reconstruction since the 1960s.

Before continuing, it is important to establish two things.  First, I want to highlight the basic underpinnings of the Dunning School of Reconstruction.  From 1900 to 1950, William Archibald Dunning and his followers established the mainstream narrative of Reconstruction.  Dunning historians often described this period as the “nadir of national disgrace.”[5]  In the Tragic Era (1929), Claude Bowers, for instance, portrayed Reconstruction as a “tragic era” (hence the title) where the “Constitution was treated as a doormat” and southern whites were “put to torture by rugged northern conspirators” (such as Thaddeus Stevens). Bowers, in short, provides a stunning indictment of “Republican rule” in the “black and bloody drama” of Southern Reconstruction.[6]  Other Dunning scholars also illustrated Reconstruction in a similar vein.  They blamed Radical Republicans, northern carpetbaggers, southern scalawags, and freedpeople for the devastating socioeconomic turmoil of the period, while praising white southerners for restoring order to the South (“redemption”).

Second, I want to provide a brief overview of W.E.B Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction (which I will expand on throughout this essay).

My next move is to provide a brief overview of Du Bois’ work and then continue with assessing the the revisionist generation of Reconstruction.  For this, I will examine three work in the next section (outside of Du Bois):

Kenneth Stampp, The Era of Reconstruction 1865-1877 (New York: Vintage Books, 1967)

Joel Williamson, After Slavery: The Negro in South Carolina During Reconstruction 1861-1877 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1965)

Robert Cruden, The Negro in Reconstruction (New York: Prentice Hall Publishing, 1969)


[1] Howard K. Beale, “On Rewriting Reconstruction History,” American Historical Review, 45 (July 1940): 808.

[2] For Dunning School accounts on Reconstruction see:  William A. Dunning, Reconstruction Political and Economic 1865-1877 (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1907); Walter Fleming, The Sequel of Appomattox (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1919); Claude Bowers, The Tragic Era: The Revolution After Lincoln (Cambridge: Houghton Mifflin, 1929); E. Merton Coulter, The South During Reconstruction 1865-1877 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1947).

[3] Although Beale criticized Du Bois for distorting his work in order to “mold facts into a Marxian pattern,” he praised Du Bois for his “race and social philosophy,” which “gave Black Reconstruction freshness.” See Beale, “On Rewriting Reconstruction History,” 809.

[4] Kenneth Stampp, The Era of Reconstruction 1865-1877 (New York: Vintage Books, 1967); Joel Williamson, After Slavery: The Negro in South Carolina During Reconstruction 1861-1877 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1965); Robert Cruden, The Negro in Reconstruction (New York: Prentice Hall Publishing, 1969); Leon Litwack, Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery (New York: Vintage Books, 1980); Jonathan Wiener, Social Origins of the New South: Alabama 1860-1885 (Baton Rogue: Louisiana State University Press, 1978); Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877 (New York: Harper and Row, 1988); Steven Hahn, A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005); Moon-Ho Jung, Coolies and Cane: Race, Labor, and Sugar in the Age of Emancipation (Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 2008); Dylan Penningroth, The Claims of Kinfolk: African American Property and Community in the Nineteenth-Century South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002); Michael Fitzgerald, Splendid Failure: Postwar Reconstruction in the American South, (New York: Ivan R. Dee Publishers, 2008).

[5] Dunning scholars have often described this phase in American history as the “Tragic Era,” “The Age of Hate,” “The Dreadful Decade,” and “The Blackout of Honest Government.”  William A. Dunning, The American Nation: A History; Reconstruction Political and Economic 1865-1877 (New York: Harper Book, 1907), 281.

[6] Claude Bowers, The Tragic Era, vi.

One Response to “Introduction to Essay”

  1. Looks like you’re off to a good start!