Michael Bellesiles: He Should Have Turned to an Academic Press

Historians in the News

David Glenn, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education (Jan. 9, 2004):

Michael A. Bellesiles is having his say again. A revised edition of Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture has been issued by Soft Skull Press, a small New York City imprint. The previous edition was withdrawn by Vintage Books in January 2003, after two scholarly committees found serious problems with Mr. Bellesiles's use of historical data. In the months before Vintage's cancellation, Mr. Bellesiles resigned from the faculty of Emory University, and Columbia University rescinded the 2001 Bancroft Prize in History, which had been awarded to the book.

Soft Skull has also released Weighed in an Even Balance, a 74-page pamphlet in which Mr. Bellesiles responds to his critics. ...

Not everyone is pleased with Mr. Bellesiles's choice of publishers."I think he made a very serious mistake in not turning to a university press, not going through peer review," says Saul Cornell, an associate professor of history at Ohio State University who is completing a book about the Second Amendment for Oxford University Press. Mr. Cornell shares Mr. Bellesiles's skepticism toward the National Rifle Association's view of guns in American history, but says that Mr. Bellesiles"should have taken time to think hard about the criticisms of his book. Not just about the charges of misconduct, but about the general criticisms of how he framed the issues."

"I thought that what happened to Arming America was the ugliest thing I've ever seen in my time in academia," says Richard B. Bernstein, the author of the new Thomas Jefferson and the Revolution of Ideas (Oxford), who has been a friend of Mr. Bellesiles's for several years."As far as I'm concerned, my faith in his integrity is unshaken. ... I am very glad that this book is going to get a second lease on life."...

Mr. Bellesiles writes that the pamphlet is"an effort to respond to every specific accusation against Arming America that has been brought to my attention." Only 7 of the pamphlet's 74 pages, however, directly deal with the probate-records dispute that led to his departure from Emory. An investigative committee appointed by Emory found, for example, that Mr. Bellesiles was guilty of"egregious misrepresentation" when he omitted data from 1774 to 1776 in a table describing gun ownership during the period 1765 to 1790. The pamphlet contains no explicit discussion of that quarrel. (The table in question, however, has been entirely revised in the book's new edition. It now includes data from only 2,633 probate inventories, as opposed to 11,170 in the previous version, but contains inventories from 1774 to 1776.)

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ThinkTank - 1/7/2004


his is why Jefferson's critics referred to him as the "Negro President"--because, they said, he had ridden into the White House on the backs of otherwise voiceless slaves whose sole raison d'être was to multiply their owners' political and economic clout. As one newspaper declared at the time, it was as if "New England horses, cows, and oxen" had been used to expand Adams's tally. Federalists were stunned, yet generations of historians, both liberal and conservative, have mobilized to cover up on Jefferson's behalf. Wills notes that two book-length accounts of the Revolution of 1800 by respected academic historians, one published by Knopf in 1974 and the other by Morrow in 2000, ignored the three-fifths clause altogether, as did Page Smith's two-volume 1962 biography of Adams and Dumas Malone's whopping six-volume biography of Jefferson, published between 1948 and 1981. David McCullough's discussion of the clause's role in his 2001 Adams biography is so fleeting that some readers may have missed it. "What was surprising" about the election of 1800, he writes, "was how well Adams had done.... he had, in fact, come very close to winning in the electoral count.... Also, were it not for the fact that in the South three-fifths of the slaves were counted in apportioning the electoral votes, Adams would have been reelected." His man was robbed, yet all McCullough can muster is a single sentence.

Did anyone do to these authors what was done to Bellesiles? Certainly not, even though they helped perpetuate a myth from america's slave holding past.

ThinkTank - 1/7/2004