The American historian, author, and educator William Archibald Dunning (1857-1922) was an authority on the Civil War and Reconstruction periods and an influential teacher.
Born in Plainfield, N.J., on May 12, 1857, William Dunning experienced as a young boy the tragic years of the Civil War, which had a profound effect on his career. For the rest of his life he devoted his energies to researching and training students in this watershed period of history.
Although he studied at Dartmouth College and the University of Berlin, Dunning received all of his degrees from Columbia University. In 1888 he married Charlotte E. Loomis of Brooklyn, who died June 13, 1917. Following completion of his doctorate in 1885, Dunning remained at Columbia, reaching the rank of full professor in 1893. In 1904 he was selected to be the first Lieber professor of history and political science.
Dunning possessed the rare talent of being both a distinguished teacher and a brilliant scholar. A perusal of his writings is impressive. After publishing his doctoral dissertation, The Constitution of the United States in Civil War and Reconstruction, 1860-1867 (1885), he produced two other books in the same area: Essays on the Civil War and Reconstruction and Related Topics (1898), a scientific and scholarly investigation of the period; and Reconstruction, Political and Economic, 1865-1877 (1907), a volume in the first "American Nation Series," which although partly refuted by revisionists, remains the best summary of the politics of the era.
Dunning was an equally competent political writer. His A History of Political Theories: Ancient and Medieval, from Luther to Montesquieu (1905) and From Rousseau to Spencer (1920) discuss the development of political theories from ancient to modern times. He also wrote The British Empire and the United States (1914), which analyzes the hundred years of diplomatic relations between the two powers starting with the Treaty of Ghent, and he collaborated with Frederick Bancroft on "A Sketch of Carl Schurz's Political Career" in The Reminiscences of Carl Schurz, vol. 3 (1908). He also wrote many articles and reviews for the American Historical Review, Educational Review, and the Political Science Quarterly and was editor of the last from 1894 to 1903.
The "Dunning school" in Civil War and Reconstruction historiography interpreted the events of the period in a manner more favorable to the South. They defended the planters of the antebellum period, blamed the abolitionists for bringing on the war, and vehemently criticized the Radical Republicans for using Lincoln's death to enhance their political ambitions and economic interests by reducing the South to colonial status.
Dunning was one of the founders of the American Historical Association, serving several years on its council and as its president in 1913. He was president of the American Political Science Association at the time of his death.
In 1914 sixteen former students published Studies in Southern History and Politics, and 10 years later another group published the commemorative volume A History of Political Theories, Recent Times. Dunning died on Aug. 15, 1922.
Further Reading on William Archibald Dunning
There is no single volume on the life of Dunning. For a discussion of Dunning's role in Civil War and Reconstruction historiography see Thomas J. Pressly, Americans Interpret Their Civil War (1954; rev. ed. 1962), and Kenneth M. Stampp, The Era of Reconstruction, 1865-1877 (1965).