Michael Bellesiles: Martyr?

Historians in the News

Kimberly Strassel, senior editorial page writer for the Wall Street Journal (Feb. 6, 2004):

History has its fair share of persecuted geniuses, men who were ahead of their time and made to pay for it. There's the hemlocked Socrates, the house-arrested Galileo, the exiled Rousseau. And to this list of giants it seems that we are now expected to add the name of Michael Bellesiles.

Mr. Bellesiles is the former Emory professor who shook the scholarly world in 2000 with his book"Arming America." An academic bombshell, the tome went against long-held beliefs by claiming that few colonial Americans actually owned guns. This set off a riotous public debate over whether the Second Amendment was designed to protect individual gun rights. Mr. Bellesiles was showered with prizes and media praise, becoming an instant academic star.

That is, until his peers started looking into that little thing called research. Reputable scholars in the ensuing months tore apart his work on probate and military records, travel narratives, and other documents. Mr. Bellesiles, when asked to explain, provided ever-more outlandish excuses: that his notes had been lost in a flood, that his Web site had been hacked, that he couldn't remember where he'd found certain documents. The officials of the prestigious Bancroft Prize stripped him of his award, he left Emory and Knopf chose to stop publishing his book. Most of us sighed happily and figured that was the end of that academic scandal.

But oh, no. It turns out that Mr. Bellesiles is still riding his dead horse, his nonexistent guns still blazing. Soft Skull Press (which takes pride in putting out books that other publishers avoid like ricin) has not only agreed to reissue"Arming America" but has decided to release Mr. Bellesiles's latest response to his critics. This 59-page pamphlet,"Weighed in an Even Balance," is a spirited attempt by Mr. Bellesiles to turn himself into the world's latest misunderstood genius. As such, it's worth reading for pure entertainment value.

Much of the booklet is a repeat of the professor's creative excuses and dissembling. He explains again about the flood and helpfully assures us that he is not an agent of the Zionist Occupational Government (though surely that is why the Bancroft panel took away his prize, right?). He does acknowledge a few errors, but only after pointing out that"even the finest scholars . . . make mistakes." As proof, he cites one blooper in esteemed historian David McCullough's 1,120-page biography of Harry Truman.

But the most amusing parts of the pamphlet are those meant to support our scholar's belief that he is up against a stubborn world that refuses to open its mind to the truth. And his sense of persecution and righteousness is very much on display. The very title of his book is taken from Job:"Let me be weighed in an even balance, that God may known mine integrity."

And that's just for starters. The pamphlet is sprinkled with quotations from thoughtful men, all meant to back up Mr. Bellesiles's argument that he is fighting the good fight. We hear from Isaiah Berlin:"Few things have done more harm than the belief on the part of individuals or groups . . . that he or she or they are in sole possession of the truth." One epigraph recounts that in the 16th century, Oxford used to fine any student who diverged from the teachings of Aristotle. We are clearly meant to envision a fiesty Mr. Bellesiles handing over his shillings to the dons.

We are treated to lecturing tracts about the benefits of scholarly disagreement, the complex nature of historical research and the need for academic exploration. And finally, in case readers still aren't getting his drift, Mr. Bellesiles sums it all up in his conclusion:"There are those who rest their very identity on the notion of a certain, unchanging past. The vision that society is unalterable is not just incorrect, it is dangerously undemocratic, and as such should be of concern to every modern historian."

In fact, the academic world is hardly a monolothic creature that resists all change. If it were, we'd still be trying to explain how the sun moves around the Earth. Most historians and scientists are wise enough to realize that new discoveries or interpretations hold out opportunity. But before they completely cast aside mountains of research, they usually demand some proof. Mr. Bellesiles's problem isn't that he's misunderstood; it's that he still hasn't given them any.

Or as the old saying goes:"To be a persecuted genius, you not only have to be persecuted; you also have to be right."

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R. Fogg - 11/20/2004

Thank you so much for your comment. I read Bellesiles' book before the controversy destroyed his reputation and did not find it inflammatory -- and my family are gun owners (albeit gun owners who favor get-tough gun laws)!

Also, I understand that the bits in question in the book have to do with gun history in the post-colonial era, in San Francisco.

Tim M. Matthewson - 3/18/2004

The only reason why Kimberly Strassel,of the notoriously right wing editorial page of the WJW, would write about an obscure academic tome such as "Arming America" is because it has aroused the ire of the National Rifle Association and its allies in the Republican Party, who in their hysterical devotion of distorted notions of the second amembment, have relentlessly hounded an obscure professor by personal and ungrounded attacks. Strassel should start an attack against Belleisless or any other historian by getting her facts straight, a sin which she directs against Belleisles. First, Belleisles's book never was an "academic bombshell"; and neither did it go against "long-held beliefs by claiming that few colonial Americans actually owned guns." Far from it, such facts were generally known, as historian Edmund Morgan noted in his review in the New York Review of Books. What made Belleisles's book stand out was the relentless way he put the story between two covers, not the originality of his thought. Far from it, the books has never been accused of being original in its thought or research!!!