Although history was becoming increasing “ professional ” at the turn of the twentieth century, one of the most influential works on Reconstruction was drafted by an amateur historian, James Ford Rhodes, a businessman from Ohio who had retired at an early age to devote his time to the study of American history. The two volumes (6 and 7) of his History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850 to the McKinley-Bryan Campaign of 1896 which dealt with Reconstruction were issued in 1906. Rhodes firmly believed that blacks were inferior and that giving them the franchise had been a grievous mistake (Taylor 18-20).
A similar reading of Reconstruction was propounded by John W. Burgess and William A. Dunning, whose works were to exert a lasting influence on Reconstruction historiography, giving birth to the “ Dunning school. ” An anecdote related by Peter Novick reveals the ideological subtext of these writings of history. John W. Burgess, a Tennessean who taught political science at Columbia University, was approached by a publisher who thought the time had come for a complete reconciliation between the two sections opposed in the Civil War. Such a reconciliation could be achieved through a better understanding of the points of view of North and South on the war and its aftermath. Burgess undertook to write a history of the period, a task which he saw as a “ sacred duty ” to his country (Novick 74). In the preface to his 1902 Reconstruction and the Constitution, Burgess made clear that secession had been a mistake, but that it was time for the North finally to acknowledge that the means taken to achieve Reconstruction had been a failure as well. For Burgess, Reconstruction constituted a “ blunder-crime against civilization ” (Burgess 252), in which the federal government vastly exceeded its constitutional powers, and Congress placed freedmen — “ ignorant barbarians ” —in control of the South (Burgess 252). Burgess also argued that the experience of the recent Spanish-American War and of the “ imperial enterprises ” undertaken by the country under the leadership of the Republican party, had brought the North to a closer understanding of the Southern attitude toward African Americans: “... the North is learning every day by valuable experiences that there are vast differences in political capacity between the races, and that it is the white man’s mission, his duty and his right, to hold the reins of political power in his own hands for the civilization of the world and the welfare of mankind ” (Burgess viii-ix).
In 1907, another Columbia University professor, historian William Archibald Dunning, a Northerner who had studied under Burgess, published Reconstruction, Political and Economic, which formed volume 22 of the series The American Nation: A History. In his introduction to the volume, Albert Bushnell Hart, Professor of history at Harvard University and editor of the series, summarized Dunning’s thesis: “ The purpose of this volume is to show that Reconstruction, with all its hardships and inequities, was not deliberately planned as a punishment and humiliation for those formerly in rebellion, though the spirit of retribution had its part. It was an effort, clumsy and partisan, yet in the main honestly meant to make provision for the inevitable consequences of the Civil War; though it failed it left a state of things out of which has slowly grown the consciousness of a national harmony far stronger and more lasting than that before the war ” (xiv). In his preface, Dunning explained that his account of the period focused on the nation at large, rather than merely “ the struggle through which the southern whites, subjugated by adversaries of their own race, thwarted the scheme which threatened permanent subjection to another race ” (xv). According to Dunning, radical Republicans deliberately misconstrued the black codes passed by Southern provisional governments in the winter of 1865-1866 as an attempt to re-establish slavery, whereas they in truth represented “ in the main a conscientious and straightforward attempt 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 ” (58). The black codes allowed the radicals to push for their plan for Reconstruction, leading to new Southern governments headed by freedmen, carpetbaggers and scalawags, governments stained by rampant corruption. Dunning emphasized the despair of white Southerners under these governments, while maintaining that propaganda in respect to alleged racial violence exerted by former rebels on blacks and on white Republicans ensured the North’s continued acquiescence to radical Reconstruction.
The Dunning school was all the more influential as its findings were based on meticulous and thorough research work, even if its interpretation was biased by racism (T. Brown 3-4). Furthermore, the audience of Dunning and his students was not confined to the small readership of scholarly monographs. In 1929, Claude Bowers, a journalist and amateur historian, whose ideas of Reconstruction were largely derived from the Dunning school (Tyrrell 56), published The Tragic Era: The Revolution after Lincoln. This bestselling work was, according to John Hope Franklin, the most widely read book on Reconstruction for more than a generation (Race and History 22). The Tragic Era described the white Southerners’ “ dramatic struggle for the preservation of Southern civilization and the redemption of their people ” (Bowers vi). According to Bowers, freedmen, children really, had fallen under the influence of demagogues —soldiers, Freedmen’s Bureau agents, and carpetbaggers —, although “ Left to themselves, ” Bowers contended, “ the negroes would have turned for leadership to the native whites, who understood them best ” (Bowers 198). Bower’s narrative pits good and sensible men, like Andrew Johnson, against an array of vengeful and uncompromising villains, with Thaddeus Stevens at their head. Bowers’s depiction of the black members of the South Carolina legislature could have been lifted straight from Griffith’s Birth of a Nation  Franklin considered the 1915 film the single greatest...: “... the members’ feet upon their desks, their faces hidden behind their soles. Chuckles, guffaws, the noisy cracking of peanuts, and raucous voices disturb the parliamentary dignity of the scene ” (Bowers 353). The “ tragic era ” ended on the 1876 election, which struck the hour of “ the South’s redemption from military despotism ” (Bowers 538).