Mr. Bellesiles’s Response to Mr. Sternstein


Click here to read Mr. Sternstein's essay, Are Michael Bellesiles's Critics Afraid to Say What They Really Think?

Click here to read Mr. Sternstein's Response to Mr. Bellesiles.

It is difficult to know where to begin in responding to this relentless polemical attack. First and foremost I must observe that the author of this piece does not rely on Arming America or on anything I have published on the book, but primarily on what others say the book says. I have no idea what Mr. Sternstein is talking about in much of his extensive narration and take exception to almost every statement that I do understand. I am astounded that a reputable journal would publish such a bitter denunciation. I regret having to repeat so much of what I have found it necessary to say in the past, but please allow me to respond to some examples of the numerous errors in this article.

In the William and Mary Quarterly forum I also did not respond to every accusation, for to do so would have quickly become tedious. Thus Randolph Roth refers to the Vermont Court records as having been"missing since the early twentieth century." They were missing until I found them while working on my dissertation in 1984. At the time I was working on this dissertation, everyone told me that the records were lost. With the help of Oscar Knowles of Newfane, Vermont, I found those records in the abandoned jailhouse in Newfane. Those records and many others were stacked in boxes in the jail cells and I spent the next four months taking notes from those sources in unheated rooms by the light of a Coleman lantern. I used those records at length in my book Revolutionary Outlaws, as Professor Roth knew, since he reviewed that book. The records are now in the Newfane Historical Society and their existence can be verified by Vermont's State Archivist, Gregory Sanford. The citation in Arming America refers only to the Vermont Superior Court as that is where the five murder cases are recorded. There were no murder cases recorded in the other court records, as Professor Roth is aware.

The author does not see fit to quote from my response to Professor Roth, in which I go through some of his examples of my misleading evidence and demonstrate that the criticisms are themselves misleading. For instance, Professor Roth seeks to correct my statement that there were no white-on-white homicides in Plymouth Plantation during the forty-six years from 1636 to 1681 inclusive, maintaining instead that there were between eleven and fifteen homicides. Professor Roth was correct that I had missed an infanticide in another record book that I did not cite. That was an error on my part, not deceit. The remaining ten to fourteen cases were either not homicides, fell outside of the period covered, or were not white-on-white acts of violence. Is Professor Roth's error evidence of deceit? I said not in my response, taking his findings as honest misunderstandings. As a scholar, I would prefer that Mr. Sternstein apply the same standard to me and my critics, but at the very least it seems elementary that he should quote from my profuse defenses of my scholarship.

Most attacks on Arming America concern the probate materials, charges to which I have repeatedly responded. It is ironic to me that in November 1999, Charlton Heston stated that I had"too much time on [my] hands" precisely because I was known to be spending so much of it in various archives looking at probate materials. But once I posted the information on various historical list serves that those notes had been destroyed, suddenly the very task for which I was once attacked now became non-existent. Now Mr. Sternstein is actually questioning my integrity for exactly that which scholars value most highly, to the despair of our families: spending years in the archives. Yes I worked alone, and yes I did most of it at my own expense. Damn foolish of me, I guess. The alternative model being suggested here is an elite form of scholarship in which we hire others to do our research and focus narrowly on only a single body of evidence. I do believe that we should be more cooperative in our research, but I hope that there is yet room for books that attempt to encompass larger spans of time and tackle big questions.

As I have repeatedly attempted to make clear, the probate materials are not, as Mr. Sternstein implies, the core of the book. Just four paragraphs and one sentence of the 444 pages of text of Arming America address the probate data (pp. 74, 109-110, 266-67, and 386 -- there are some other quotations from individual probate files that have not been questioned). Since I announced in August 2000 that my notes to these paragraphs were destroyed in the flood in Bowden Hall in May 2000 (I was in Europe in the intervening months), critics have shifted their focus entirely to those records, well aware that I could not possibly defend myself by producing the materials. Therefore, accusations that my material is"mathematically impossible" is, well, mathematically impossible. Unfortunately, I do not have these numbers, and neither does anyone else.

I have continually encouraged research in these records and offer to post such on my web site. As I have often stated, I feel now that my sample set method, which carefully avoided times of war that I thought might bias a sample, is insufficient. I therefore hope to build much more extensive samples over periods of at least ten years. I am certain that whatever results will modify my initial findings, but that is how it should be in scholarship. I am not wedded to the thesis of Arming America, only interested in exploring the subject more openly in the future. The real story of Arming America and the response it evoked, it seems to me, is how little attention historians have paid to the role of firearms in American society and culture. I trust that this avoidance is now at an end, though worry that only research supportive of a certain political stance will be undertaken because of the obvious dangers of publishing contrary findings.

Mr. Sternstein states that"Bellesiles has offered several incorrect and varying locations for the probate records he contends he thoroughly examined." That statement is completely false. I had to reconstruct the location of the forty different probate districts I examined from memory, putting them in my bibliography on web site in September 2000. Each of those citations has been verified by my critics and apparently all but one is correct (indicating that my memory is a bit better than I thought). My memory faltered on where I read the sources I labeled San Francisco. It is true that I failed to properly recall the archive in which I read these records, and it may also be true that they are in fact from Contra Costa County rather than San Francisco County; but no one has disputed that they exist or that my statement that the majority of them contained guns is accurate. I have no problem correcting their provenance to Contra Costa, which strikes me as a minor detail since I do not even discuss them in my book.

However, I must note that I have never said that"the inventories [I] researched were primarily on microfilm in the National Archives." That is just plain false. Neither my book nor my web site give that location for the probate materials, most of which are in local archives. I did use the National Archive's microfilm readers to read some probate records that I brought with me. I do not believe that use violates any federal regulation or known standard of scholarship. I used these microfilm readers for the simple reason that they were easier on my eyes than those in my own library, and also to break up the tedious task of going through hundreds of pages of microfilm material in the National Archives' collection. For those with open minds, there is a great deal of material and name by name compilations of probate files on my web site.

Mr. Sternstein's lack of human sympathy and fairness is remarkable. It is not enough that he criticizes me for hard work and for being so foolish as to lose my notes in a flood, he mocks me because some of my notes survived. Let me explain in superfluous detail my losses in the flood. (By the way, I assume that the"100,000 pages of documents" is a misunderstanding of what I said about Mr. Lindgren's first communication with me. In an email, Mr. Lindgren demanded a photocopy of every probate record I had examined. My estimate is that this would total some 100,000 pages.) It was my ambition to enter the probate records into my computer upon my return from Europe at the end of the summer, 2000. Those and several other note pads (some twelve total) were sitting in an open box along with scraps of paper and index cards. I had been working on this project for ten years and had accumulated a mountain of paper. I refuse to apologize for being old fashioned in this regard, it is how I worked, though I was determined to learn the ways of the computer.

When the ceiling of my office collapsed under the waters (our pipes are in the ceiling), the water seems to have come down right on top of that box of pads. Everything in that box was destroyed, as was the chair under it (I was not there, so I cannot be certain). The papers and chair were taken away. I did file a claim for several books and other materials destroyed, but not for the paper. What is the value that one attributes to lost notes? I suppose I should have made a scene and threatened to sue, but I did not. I resolved simply to work to reconstruct my evidence. The Vermont material survived, with the help of our library staff, because it was research from my dissertation. Those notes had all been on recycled paper and index cards, and I kept them in blue binders on the bottom shelves of my bookcase. They were damaged, but mostly readable. Those papers that had suffered lesser damage I dried out myself at my house in Atlanta. Mr. Sternstein seems unable to imagine what it is like to have your life turned upside down by an event over which one has no control, such as a flood, and the ensuing confusion of trying to determine what remains. Nor can he imagine what it is like to attempt to respond to such losses at the same time that persons motivated by anger and fear are sending a deluge of hate messages, computer viruses, and threats. Try to imagine what it is like to come home and have your daughter play an expletive-laced phone message. Now imagine being attacked relentlessly for failing to have notes that have been destroyed.

Who would have ever expected that it would be necessary for a scholar to give this level of detailed response? Would it be necessary if my book Arming America was about any but the highly sensitive subject of guns? Why do critics feel it appropriate not just to disagree with the author, but to attempt to destroy his credibility and his career? Why do they focus their attention so relentlessly on the few paragraphs of the book that the author admits currently lacks supporting material? Does the book stand without those sentences?

Like most of those who have attacked Arming America, Mr. Sternstein holds me to a different standard from my critics. All alternative readings of my sources are errors, all errors indication of fraud. Errors by the critics are not mentioned, and their objectivity is assumed. For instance, Mr. Sternstein greatly admires James Lindgren, failing to note that he has himself been heavily criticized for his work for the right-wing Federalist Society, his statistics denounced by the American Bar Association as"junk science," and his research exposed for a number of biases in the Journal of Law and Politics. I regret mentioning this information, but must remind Mr. Sternstein of the importance of being equitable in considering sources.

I have often admitted to making some mistakes in Arming America, and have worked to correct them. I appreciate greatly the spirit of honest inquiry that guides those who point out errors in order to correct and alternative readings in order to enter into an informed discussion. For others, casting errors as deceit is a weapon to be wielded in a higher cause. Those unclear on this process would be well advised to read David Brock's Blinded by the Right.

Like all the politically driven critics, Mr. Sternstein refuses to engage with the issues raised by Arming America, seeking instead to forestall any further discussion of the subject. Because the author foolishly suffered the loss of his notes to a small segment of the book, both the book and the author should be dismissed. Yet if I am utterly wrong, then what is correct? Why did the government of the early republic work so hard to promote gun production and to arm the militia? Why did they meet such disinterest with the former and resistance to the latter effort? How could political and military leaders at every level have been so incredibly misinformed as to think that their compatriots had little interest in firearms? Does it matter that their policies were premised on this misperception? If most Americans were armed, where did they get the guns in the absence of a single gun manufacturer in North America prior to the establishment of the federal armories? Why could Congress never fill its gun orders despite offering premiums? There are so many questions that still need to be addressed and so much research that needs to be done, with or without graduate assistants. Arming America makes no pretense of answering them all, or any of them definitively. I saw the book's purpose as raising these issues for further scholarly investigation. The angry critics seek to shut that door and punish any who would dare to approach it. This is not how history is done; this is not how knowledge is enhanced.

Sincerely, Michael Bellesiles

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More Comments:

Andy Freeman - 4/10/2002

> Most attacks on Arming America concern the probate materials,
> charges to which I have repeatedly responded.

Okay - let's talk about the other evidence.

I don't have access to probate materials, but I do have copies
of some of the contemporary books that Dr. Bellesiles referred

My admittedly cursory examination leads me to conclude that
Dr. Bellesiles seems to have "overstated" the extent to which
they support his thesis.

Mr. Cramer[1] has done what looks to be a more complete review
and provides evidence consistent with my conclusion. Where is
his analysis substantially in error?

[1] For the purposes of this discussion, let's assume that
Cramer's character and politics are flawed and look at just
what the evidence shows. Or, do those factors necessarily
refute any position that he might hold, such as whether the
sun rises in the east?

Billc - 4/10/2002

The dust will settle one day, hopefully in the not too distant future. I foresee several outcomes. First, Bellesiles's Arming America will resound down the hallways of history as a groundbreaking revelation of our collective past. Second, new research will force us to toss the book onto the trash heap of debunked tales of misdirected research. Lastly, both sides will lick their collective wounds and a common ground will be reached. This outcome alone may be a victory for Arming America.

What I do object to is the blatantly subjective trashing Bellesiles has endured from the start. Valuing Chuck Heston's opinions on scholarly research would be akin to viewing his mumblings on quantum mechanics as scientifically correct postulations. Sternstein's indictment of Bellestiles's work is, however, another matter altogether.

Sorry about this Mr. Bellesiles, but the burden of proof is on you. Yes, by all means dismiss the "flakes" who take unwarranted potshots at your work, however, you best be prepared, flood or no, to stand your book up to the harsh bright lights of your critics. That is the way it should be. I will also say this, as a late in life graduate student in history, I have been subjected to increased questioning of my own research work. If I quote it, if I paraphrase it, or even if I merely draw conclusions from it, my sources must be rock hard, well documented, reliably traced, and, most of all, correctly presented for reader and critic alike. All as it should be.