When historians write about the Civil War and Reconstruction, their attention is usually engaged elsewhere. For better or worse, studies of the period also serve as a way to evaluate the nation’s core values: What does the United States stand for?
The demands of the present weigh so heavily on this particular period that the literature veers wildly between hope and despair, a situation that says as much about historians’ concerns with law and government now as it does about their involvement in the past. The historians of the Dunning School established the precedent, characterizing Reconstruction as a repudiation of national ideals that required a violent “redemption” to reclaim government. Recently, the literature has taken a more optimistic tone, with historians tending to approach Reconstruction in terms of its possibilities. Notes of despair, however, punctuate these studies, with historians faulting the nation’s failure to achieve the very principles that the Dunning School saw as problematic: instead of going too far, the nation did not go – and still has not gone – far enough in writing its ideals into its governing structure.
Although the historiographical conclusions are different than they were in the early twentieth century, the conceptual frame is not. That conceptual frame explains national development, primarily, in terms of the laws and institutions of the federal government. Historians of the Dunning School set the standard by conflating questions about the nation’s character with those about the federal government, as if the two were one and the same.