Michael Bellesiles Is PC
Historians have been getting in the news quite a bit lately, but not to their liking. Quite a bit of ink has been spilled on the sins of Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin, both of whom have been caught engaging in the great academic no-no---plagiarism. Both are best-selling authors of popular history; they will not suffer in employment and loss of income from their exposure. If anything, the general public probably does not even care whether or not key passages from their books were taken verbatim from the work of others. As far as most readers are concerned; both writers tell a story well and offer fully developed character studies. Of course, if they were actually teaching in a college or university, the outcome might be somewhat different. Joseph Ellis did his own work, but the revelation that he made up a good chunk of his personal story and lied to his classes about his role in the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement led to his suspension from his teaching post and much personal embarrassment.
But now a much more serious crisis has emerged in the land of academic historians. This one has graver implications, and reflects not only on the personal drama surrounding Emory University professor Michael A. Bellesiles, but on the nature of the crisis surrounding the field of academic history itself. Bellesiles, as readers of this site most probably are already aware, is the author of Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Cult (Knopf, 2000). His thesis, quite simply, is that the belief that early America was heavily armed is nothing but a great myth. Gun ownership was actually exceptional, Bellesiles argued. Most available guns didn’t work, and one could not find gunsmiths easily who could fix them. The evolution of a"gun culture," he argued, was something that arose only after the Civil War. Immediately opponents of gun ownership and enemies of the National Rifle Association made the book their prize weapon in their current day political fight. If Bellesiles was correct, they claimed it meant that Americans never had a right to bear arms; there was never a heavily armed America that represented the heart and soul of a great nation. As historian Michael Zuckerman of the University of Pennsylvania put it,"the way we think about guns and violence in America will never be the same." Michael Kammen, a former President of the Organization of American Historians, proclaimed Bellesiles’ book to be a" classic work."
Because of the political implications made from his study, this academic treatise---the kind of book usually read only by scholars - received major attention. Garry Wills offered a rave lead review which appeared on the cover page of The New York Times Book Review in September 10, 2000. Clearly, what enthralled Wills is the challenge the book made to the belief that"for many Americans, the gun is a holy object, the emblem and guarantor of their identity." The author, Wills wrote,"deflates the myth of the self-reliant and self-armed virtuous yeoman of the Revolutionary militias." And when guns became numerous in the Civil War, it was not that of a lone gunman and his revolver, but those of the government’s cavalry rifle. The American love affair with guns, Wills wrote, is merely a"superstition." The next month, the distinguished historian Edmund Morgan gave it a similar treatment in The New York Review of Books issue of Oct.19. Morgan was taken in completely. Guns, he wrote,"somehow generate beliefs that are obviously contrary to observable fact." Bellesiles, he proclaimed,"has the facts," and has written"so compelling a refutation of the mythology of the gun." And Bellesiles’ use of probate records, he wrote, provided evidence that is"overwhelming." Bellesiles, he wrote,"requires us to reconsider, indeed to reverse, the common view of the role of firearms in early America." That view"is wrong," Morgan wrote, and, he then added,"we know why the National Rifle Association wants to believe that early Americans were as well equipped with arms as their overequipped descendants." Morgan then went on to condemn The Patriot as a"recent cinematic fantasy." Of course, one has to then take up the"absolutist dogmas" surrounding the Second Amendment. Morgan made the political implications of Bellesiles’ scholarship most succinctly: "Bellesiles has deprived modern gun owners of the portion of our past that has lent the most respectability to their claims of historic validity" (my emphasis). This will not stop"true believers," he noted; they are"seldom troubled by facts." His book would help reduce"the credibility of the fanatics who endow the Founding Fathers with posthumous membership in...a cult of the gun."
Then in April 2001, Bellesiles received the important and prestigious Bancroft Prize in History awarded by Columbia University for the best work in American History. By all accounts, his academic study of gun ownership in colonial and early America had changed our view of the nation’s past. Professor Bellesiles was on his way to becoming one of the most important historians working in the United States. He had received the two most important slots in the most prominent book reviews, and the accolades of the historical Establishment.
All that was about to change. First, supporters of gun ownership and amateur historians checked his work, and suggested that it contained numerous omissions and loopholes. Because these critics were often political supporters of the NRA, most academic historians ignored their charges. Moreover, angry opponents of Bellesiles not only issued personal attacks on him; some threatened him personally. This kind of behavior did not help Bellesiles’ critics get their arguments heard.
Then, however, some non-partisan historians and other scholars began to look over his book. Northwestern University professor of Law James Lindgren, whose work involved use of probate records and quantitative data, revealed what he said were major serious errors in Bellesiles’ book. His use of probate records, Lindgren determined, was internally inconsistent and mathematically impossible. Moreover, records that Bellesiles said he had examined simply did not exist. Bellesiles had said he had read probate inventories at a National Archives Center in East Point, Georgia. The center told Lindgren they had no such archives. This was just the beginning.
Soon, the Boston Globe got on the case, and found that Bellesiles’ claims about sources he cited and places where he supposedly used probate records did not check out. It quickly became apparent that historian Bellesiles regularly began to change his story about how and where he did his research work. Admitting an error, he told the Globe that he must have used the records somewhere else, and simply forgot where. In addition, National Review Online (NRO) writer Melissa Seckora wrote a series of articles detailing continually new findings about non-existent probate records that Bellesilles claimed to have examined. Her articles have continued until the most recent one she posted on NRO earlier this week.
All of this has had an effect. This week, the cover story of the very liberal magazine of the academy, The Chronicle of Higher Education, (Feb.1, 2002) features Danny Postel’s lead article, listed on the cover as"History Under the Gun," with the subtitle telling readers that the"profession praised Arming America, ignoring critics who have since been vindicated." Scholars, the cover adds,"now ask why it took them so long to raise questions." Indeed, this is a rare example of how careful and sustained research by Bellesiles’ many critics has made their point: he has, to date, been unable to defend his conclusions. Indeed, he has been unable to offer for examination the sources he claims to have examined. His data, he says, were destroyed in an office flood; he examined so many records that he simply does not remember where he used them, and has therefore come up with different stories about archives that cannot be found. Writing in the November 2001 issue of the Organization of American Historians newsletter, Bellesiles tried to defend himself, but as the Chronicle article puts it,"Mr. Bellesiles offered little detail... and did not respond to many of the toughest criticisms that had been made about the book." Why, Seckora asked in NRO, won’t he"seriously respond to his critics?"But most important is the revelation in the Chronicle article that the many challenges to Bellesiles’ data and arguments have changed the mind of some who at first bought his analysis completely. Edmund Morgan, Prof. Emeritus at Yale University, now says that the criticisms are"pretty incriminating," and that if people find that he has" cheated on the evidence, it could discredit the whole thesis." Gary Wills, however, simply refused to be interviewed, and having made his political points, now says he would need time to reconsider the issue and he does not have that time. But John Wilson, who praised the book in Books and Culture, in a cover review in the September/October 2000 issue, now writes that he was"badly wrong" and that it took him a long time to"grasp just how wrong....I allowed myself to be seduced by the thrill of a thesis that overturned common wisdom." Now, the final judgment of the profession awaits reading of the forthcoming issue of the journal William and Mary Quarterly, the academic journal of early American history, which will feature a long response by Bellesiles to all of his critics. Some warn, as does Ohio State’s Randolph Roth, that Bellesiles refuses to post his sources on the Quarterly’s website, and that he still"makes it impossible for scholars to resolve the controversy." Others are even stronger. Don Hickey, a historian at Wayne State College in Nebraksa, originally supported Bellesiles’ work, and had recommended publication of an early version of his research in The Journal of American History. Now he says"it is a case of genuine, bona fide academic fraud." Some historians, committed to the standards of historical work, are simply furious that their trust in Bellesiles has led their own reputations to be compromised. And Randolph Roth says that the book was an example of"history addressing an important social issue in a courageous way. If it were true this would be history at its best. The problem is it just happens to be wrong." Thus it is nothing less than a" crushing blow." And this comment gets us to what the debate over Arming America says about the state of the historical profession. Early critics were ignored; they were seen as ideological warriors of the NRA, whose criticisms could easily be ignored and viewed as predictable. It probably didn’t help people listen to them when Charlton Heston assailed Bellesiles in November 1999, as a man who had"too much time on his hands." The Left, assuming that historical evidence had to justify their views, could write off this kind of criticism as nonsense from the Right wing. In fact, what the Bellesiles controversy shows is that left-wing academia rushed to judgment about his book, without even considering whether the research behind his findings was accurate. James Lindgren is correct, when he told the Chronicle’s Postel that the book was treated"not as a matter of evidence, but rather as one of narrative, taste and politics." I would argue that it essentially was completely a question of politics---as critics of conservatives like Gary Wills saw the book as a new chance to wage their political war against the gun lobby. That is why scholars jumped on the bandwagon, heralding Bellesiles Arming America as the book that proves the myth of early gun ownership. The Left academy, whose own very politicized scholarship always talks about the impact of"race, class and gender" on the"hegemonic" oppressive American political structure---and whose own big guns miss no opportunity to use their academic standing to condemn conservatives and to argue that the American past proves the validity of the radical Left’s world view---proved to be true to form. They assumed that those who found flaws in Bellesiles’ scholarship had to be wrong, and were just ideological right-wing fanatics. They gave him one of the profession’s most coveted prizes, and have refused to reconsider the award. Two professional associations passed resolutions condemning the"harassment" of Bellesiles, while refusing to comment on the nature of his work. Melissa Seckora is correct. She wrote that"one could only imagine the outcry if a conservative scholar, fabricating evidence to prove a pet conservative point, had been found to be careless." And Postel ends his article with a telling point. When The Bell Curve appeared, scores of people were deeply offended by the implications of Charles Murray and Richard Hernstein’s book. There was no end of scores of liberal and left-wing scholars who subjected every claim both authors made to minute scrutiny, and who came forth with a mountain of detailed criticism, much of it deserving. But for Arming America, these same brigades remained silent. Even after the judgment that the book lacks veracity is now becoming commonplace, most left-wing historians refuse to acknowledge the criticism or change their early enthusiastic responses. We should not be surprised. Their non-response is itself proof of the triumph of ideological history over scholarship.
This article first appeared on FrontPageMagazine.com. and is reprinted with permission.
comments powered by Disqus
Gordon Langston - 8/23/2002
You are entirely correct. You would not likely challenge sources if you agreed with the thesis. However, once the sources were challenged and found non-existent you might be guilty of conspiracy if you maintain your agreement or remove yourself from the discussion quietly. Then again, Gary Wills could be as busy as he claims.
Ronald Dale Karr - 2/22/2002
The reality is that when professional historians conduct research in original sources, readers presume that it has been conducted accurately and fairly. Most historical controversies concern conclusions, not the accuracy of data. We have to make this presumption, since few of us have the time to replicate other people's research. The loss of confidence in the accuracy of historical research would be disastrous. Let's hope this is an isolated case. No matter how much I may sympathize with Bellesiles' politics, if the charges against him are true he should be drummed out of the historical profession.
There is nothing conspiratorial about the fact that sources are likely to be challenged primarily by people who disagree with the argument being presented. Why in the world would I challenge the sources cited by Professor X if I agree with the thesis being advanced?
Jon Koppenhoefer - 2/21/2002
I'm not all that concerned if Bellesile's work turns out to be flawed or whatever. I'm not all that concerned that 200 years ago it was felt that an 'armed militia' was necessary. I'm sure the Framers or Founders (note the respectful capitals!) acted with the best possible intent considering they wanted others to ratify the Constitution.
I'm more concerned with the way the debate over gun ownership and street violence seems to slip away from NOW and into THEN, as we divine the records of the past for some clues to living in the present. Tradition is nice for designing wedding ceremonies and similar cultural celebrations, but I'm not sure if it helps us deal with rapid technological and social change when we are distracted from the current facts into an argument about probate records.
Scholarship has a contribution to make; but right now it seems to be contributing to more confusion about what we should be doing about gun control. I was wondering who remembers the opening scene of Clint Eastwood's film "Unforgiven" in which the municipal gun policy is clearly posted at the edge of town: "NO GUNS ALLOWED"
You practicing historians might tell the rest of us if this policy was historical fact, anywhere in the West, or if it's just more nonsense. I'd like to know if, for example, Wyatt Earp settled Dodge City by removing all the guns from the civilian populace, and what effect that had on the incidence of violent crime?
T.J. Stiles - 2/21/2002
It is unfortunate that the debate over "Arming America" has been driven in large part by the book's relevance to the framing of the Second Amendment. As a result, the argument has focused almost entirely on Bellesiles's writing on the colonial period. But little comment has been made on his treatment of the nineteenth century. Can anyone dispute the fact that both sides were drastically underarmed when the Civil War began? Can anyone dispute that gun ownership sharply rose after the Civil War, largely as a result of the war, and that revolvers were far more widespread after the conflict? Bellesiles's argument, as it relates to this pivotal period, still stands after his much-debated probate evidence is eliminated.
But does that advance anyone's agenda? It is entirely possible that rates of gun ownership were fairly high during the colonial period, then declined, then rose after the mass-arming of the Civil War. It is even possible that the Second Amendment was indeed meant to guarantee individual gun rights, because the Framers were nervous about the very lack of weapons. Such possibilities are too complex to fit neatly into anyone's political program, and so it would be good if we considered them. Bellesiles's book deserves to be assessed and debated as a work of scholarship, one that perhaps has it half right, yet aids no one's cause.
Andrew Miller - 2/20/2002
"Even after the judgment that the book lacks veracity is now becoming commonplace, most left-wing historians refuse to acknowledge the criticism or change their early enthusiastic responses."
Is this the case? Mr. Radosh cites one historian, Gary Wills, who refuses to respond to the mounting evidence of Mr. Belleisle's malfeasance. But as Mr. Radosh himself admits, Don Hickey, Randolph Roth, John Wilson, and Ed Morgan have changed their opinions in the face of the evidence. Also, as both Mr. Radosh and Mr. Postel note, the whole community of early Americanists is eagerly awaiting the January issue of the _William and Mary Quarterly_, which will provide enough material to finally embrace or dismiss Mr. Belleisle's claims. So just who are these supposed legions of historians who continue to revere _Arming America_ without qualification?
I am skeptical of the claim that this affair points to deep rot in the historical profession, as Mssrs. Postel and Radosh would have us believe. Mr. Belleisle's book was published; it was embraced; some scholars pronounced its arguments unsound; these scholars persuaded more and more people, until the book is now generally regarded as suspect. While these developments took over a year to unfold, that is par for the course in the glacially-moving academy. If there is any matter for concern here, it is that the book's critics were ignored for so long, easily explained by the fact that--as Radosh notes-- the critics had to share space with those uttering ad hominem attacks and death threats. One is careful of drinking from a poisoned well.
Ultimately, it seems that a book with unsound claims has been exposed for what it is. Perhaps it should have happened sooner, but I see no evidence here that the community of historians is practicing groupthink.
- West Point historian says if his cadets can understand the history of war, so can Congress
- Australian historian Alan Atkinson wins $100,000 literary prize
- Duke honors historian John Hope Franklin with year-long series of events
- What New Left History Gave Us