Letter to the Newberry Library


Ms. Munson is deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Editor's Note: Last month the NEH required the Newberry Library to remove the NEH's name from a fellowship awarded to Michael Bellesiles. Below is the letter the NEH sent announcing its decision. The letter has not previously been made public. (Click here to read the Newberry's response to the NEH decision.)

May 20, 2002

James Grossman
Vice President for Research and Education
Newberry Library
60 West Walton Street
Chicago, IL 60610-3380

Dear Dr. Grossman:

The NEH is in receipt of your mailings of May 1st and 6th and we thank you for your prompt responses.

At the direction of Chairman Bruce Cole, I have reviewed these materials with the assistance of the agency's Inspector General and General Counsel. Based on the findings detailed below, we have concluded that the Newberry Library was in error when it awarded Professor Michael Bellesiles an NEH-supported fellowship without due consideration of the serious charges raised within the scholarly community about his work. We are, therefore, revoking the NEH name from this fellowship.

We have examined closely the chronology of the Newberry's decision to award a fellowship to Professor Bellesiles and the published debate over his book, Arming America. Contrary to your assertion that"this fellowship was awarded prior to the existence of any scholarly controversy relating to Professor Bellesiles' work," we found that numerous scholars had raised serious questions about the quality, indeed the veracity, of Professor Bellesiles' findings well before the Newberry awarded him an NEH-supported fellowship on February 21, 2001.

Writing in the Washington Post on October 29, 2000, Professor John Chambers of Rutgers University argued that Professor Bellesiles'" conclusions frequently overreach the evidence" and that his"extensive research is undermined by errors of fact, omission and judgment." He said that Professor Bellesiles' argument that"before the 1830s few Americans hunted game with guns…defies belief." Professor Chambers is the author of several books on American military history and editor of The Oxford Companion to American Military History.

In addition, the Chronicle of Higher Education has reported that by November 2000"debates over Arming America rage[d] among historians (both professional and amateur) on several Internet discussion boards." Postings to the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture discussion network included a paper in January 2001 by Professor James Lindgren of Northwestern University, who had looked closely at Professor Bellesiles' research and concluded that"Bellesiles appears to have substantially misrecorded or misremembered the 17th and 18th century probate data he presents." On January 17th Professor Lindgren responded to a posting from Professor Bellesiles by telling the readers of the Omohundro list that"the inaccuracies in Michael Bellesiles' probate study are so massive that it would take only an hour with the Providence records…to see that his counts are way off." Concurrent with this and similar exchanges on the Omohundro discussion group debating the findings in Arming America, Newberry officials were regularly posting announcements on the same discussion list, suggesting that your institution should have been aware of the scholarly controversy.

Also in January 2001, Joyce Lee Malcolm, a professor of history at Bentley College and a senior fellow at the MIT Security Studies Program, published a review of Arming America in Reason magazine, claiming that Professor Bellesiles'"findings are not supported by his sources." Professor Malcolm said that Professor Bellesiles"presents a skewed selection of records, dismisses contradictory information, and even alters the language of quotations and statutes." On January 16th--still more than a full month before the Newberry awarded the fellowship--Professor Bellesiles and three other scholars debated the validity of his scholarship on Chicago's National Public Radio station, WBEZ. In that hour-long debate, Boston University Professor Randy Barnett said that scholarly inquiries into Bellesiles' work thus far"raise serious questions about the accuracy" of Arming America.

Had this extensive criticism of Professor Bellesiles' book somehow gone unnoticed by Newberry officials, letters of recommendation submitted in support of Professor Bellesiles' fellowship application clearly called attention to it. Two of Professor Bellesiles' recommenders felt it important to describe the controversy his work had generated. One opined that Arming America had" created a sensation," arguing that awarding Professor Bellesiles a fellowship"would be a public service" in light of the"financial resources available to the gun rights groups." Another forecast that"his next book, which focuses on the history of gun laws, promises to upset even more people." These comments should have caught the Newberry's attention and engendered further research. Of course, the NEH also hopes that the Newberry would have discounted this sort of praise in its evaluation of Professor Bellesiles' application, though this is not indicated in any of the review materials you supplied.

The debate over the accuracy of the scholarship underpinning Arming America was already serious and widespread by the fall of 2000 and only intensified during the early months of 2001. Even if the external review committee making recommendations to the Newberry overlooked these serious challenges to Professor Bellesiles' research, it was the Newberry's responsibility to weigh them appropriately.

Because the name of the National Endowment for the Humanities represents a standard that Professor Bellesiles' application did not meet, we are revoking the NEH's name from this fellowship. Please remove from all Newberry materials, including your website, any association of Professor Bellesiles with the NEH. Also, convey the NEH's decision to Professor Bellesiles in writing, making it clear that he is not to use the name of the NEH in association with any publication which grows out of the work done while on this fellowship. Please supply us with a copy of this correspondence.

In light of the findings cited above, it is the Endowment's opinion that the Newberry's procedure for handling cases of research misconduct is flawed, in part because it does not extend to claims made in applications to the library. Please know that the federal government defines research misconduct as"fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism in proposing, performing, or reviewing research, or in reporting research results." The federal research misconduct policy calls for investigation and adjudication of fraudulent claims made not only in grant products, but also in applications for federal funds submitted to federal agencies and to their institutional grantees.

NEH's decision to revoke our name from Professor Bellesiles' fellowship does not rest on any conclusion this agency has drawn about specific charges against Arming America. No NEH support was provided for the research or writing of Arming America, and this agency does not presume to adjudicate those allegations. However, because of the serious questions concerning academic integrity, which the Newberry gives no evidence of having considered, Professor Bellesiles' application must be deemed insufficiently competitive to warrant an NEH-sponsored fellowship.

If you have any specific questions pertaining to this correspondence please contact NEH Acting General Counsel Laura Nelson.


Lynne Munson
Deputy Chairman

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