The Changing Democratic Perception of Reconstruction

The Reconstruction Era has been one of the most litigated eras among American historians. At the turn of the century, a certain historian became prominent for his writings on Reconstruction. William Archibald Dunning (1857-1922) was a professor at Columbia University who authored The Constitution of the United States in Civil War and Reconstruction: 1860-1867 (1897). This work as well as Reconstruction (1907) and his teaching influenced a generation of historians. Although he was not a Southerner, his politics fit right in with the Northern Democrats of the 1860s, who were universally opposed to the Radical Republicans as well as the 14th and 15th Amendments. He cast the Radical Republicans as the vengeful villains of the story of Reconstruction, portrayed “carpetbaggers” as corrupt (in fairness, some were), denounced “scalawags” (white Southerners who cooperated with Reconstruction), and regarded freedmen as moral and intellectual inferiors. In Dunning’s view, this justified severe restrictions on basic civil rights. This portrayal of history elevated the presidential reputation of Andrew Johnson while trashing Ulysses S. Grant, the latter interpretation which has only recently undergone some reevaluation. This interpretation of history influenced such films as Birth of a Nation (1915), Gone with the Wind (1939), and Tennessee Johnson (1942). In the latter film, the main villain is Pennsylvania Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, a prominent Radical Republican who led the impeachment push against President Andrew Johnson. American culture was greatly influenced by this interpretation of history, and this included presidents. Although this cultural trend’s most notable president was Woodrow Wilson, there are others who followed this interpretation as well, and one of them was John F. Kennedy.

Image result for John F. Kennedy

John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage (1957) (ghostwritten by Theodore Sorensen), detailed the acts of eight senators that constituted courage and put their careers in jeopardy or ruin. One of the eight is Senator Edmund G. Ross of Kansas, the deciding vote to acquit Andrew Johnson (who probably had been bribed for this vote). Although Kennedy didn’t necessarily agree politically with all of the eight senators, as he often voted against the stances of Senator Robert Taft of Ohio while the latter was alive, but he similarly praised other Republican senators of the 1860s who broke with the Radical Republicans. On January 10, 1956, he spoke before the Philadelphia Inquirer Book and Author Luncheon, in which he praised Senator Edgar Cowan, a Pennsylvania Republican who had a penchant for bucking the GOP on matters both economic and related to the civil rights of freedmen and was punished for it by being denied reelection in 1866 as well as a post as Ambassador to Austria. Similar praise was given to Wisconsin’s James Rood Doolittle and Missouri’s John Brooks Henderson in Profiles in Courage, who opposed the Radical Republicans and Andrew Johnson’s impeachment. He stated his agreement with historian Claude Bowers on Reconstruction as an “age of hate”, who was one of the leading promoters of the Dunning School. It is interesting to note that Bowers was a staunch Democrat who condemned the Federalist, Whig, and Republican Parties as parties of aristocrats. Kennedy also believed in Bowers’ interpretation of the Democratic Party as it started under Jefferson, one meant to fight privilege and oppression, to support democracy, and to ensure equal opportunity for Americans regardless of class.

Kennedy himself wasn’t bad at all on civil rights, as he supported ending the poll tax, the first two civil rights laws under Eisenhower, and work on what would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964 started during the Kennedy Administration with its support. Additionally, his record in the Senate was mostly in line with New Deal liberalism. It is fascinating to me that he still operated from a historical viewpoint that the Radical Republican crusade for the rights of freedmen was a negative for the country. This just goes to show how greatly the times and historical interpretation have changed since Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. They changed so much that some Republicans claim that Kennedy would have been one of them today, Thomas Jefferson was for a time embraced by Tea Party Republicans, the Democrats of today would identify with the Radical Republicans (stances on other issues notwithstanding), and Alexander Hamilton is one of the Democratic Party base’s most popular Founding Fathers thanks to a certain Broadway play. A hundred years ago, most people would never have believed developments of this sort could have occurred, but truth is stranger than fiction.


Professor D.W. Houpt, review of Democracy’s Muse: How Thomas Jefferson Became an FDR Liberal, a Reagan Republican, and a Tea Party Fanatic, all the while being Dead, (review no. 1850)

Retrieved from

“Remarks of Senator John F. Kennedy at the Philadelphia Inquirer Book and Author Luncheon, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, January 10, 1956”. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.

Retrieved from

Smith, R.C. (2013). John F. Kennedy, Barack Obama, and the politics of ethnic incorporation and avoidance. Albany, NY: State University of New York.

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