Fall From Grace: Arming America and the Bellesiles Scandal (Part 3)





Mr. Lindgren is Stanford Clinton Sr. Research Professor at Northwestern University School of Law.

 

C. Was Homicide Rare?

 

Bellesiles claims that, in step with low gun rates, homicide rates were

low until the Civil War. Bellesiles claims that “[w]hites rarely assaulted

other whites in the colonies and almost never killed one another.”118 These

claims are not only unsupported by the evidence he offers, but also false.

Randolph Roth, who has studied homicide rates throughout early America,

exposes this error in his review in the William and Mary Quarterly.119 Roth

points out that homicide rates during much of the seventeenth century were

actually higher than they are today. In other places and times in early

America, rates were similar to those today:

 

The homicide rate for adult European colonists in New England

before King Philip’s War was as high as the rate in the United

States today, 7-9 per 100,000 adults per year. Before the Pequot

War, the rate was higher still: roughly 110 per 100,000 adults per

year, or 11 to 14 times the rate today. A number of those colonists

were murdered by Native Americans, but the homicide rate was

still very high if one discounts those murders, as Bellesiles does.120

 

How does Bellesiles make such a basic error? In part, he just presents

false counts in the records he cites or makes claims that could not possibly

be supported by the evidence on which he relies. For example, Bellesiles

claims that “in forty-six years Plymouth Colony’s courts heard five cases of

assault, and not a single homicide,” 121 citing the standard published version

of seventeenth-century records of Plymouth Colony courts.122

 

There are many homicide cases heard in Shurtleff’s Records of the

Colony of New Plymouth Colony in New England, and they are relatively

easy to find. One need only look in the indices to find the murder and

manslaughter prosecutions. As Randolph Roth writes:

 

The records cover 1633-1691, with some gaps. Bellesiles does not

state which 46 years he studied, but every contiguous period of 46

years contains homicides. The 11 homicides are in 1:96-97; 2:132-

34; 3:70-72, 73, 82, 143, 205, 5:159, 167-68, 264-65, 6:82, 113,

141-42, 153-54; 7:305-07. A probable homicide appears in 2:170-

71, and 3 suspicious deaths that may have been homicides in 3:202-

03, 217-18, 4:32-33, 5:141. The 3 multiple murders during King

Philip’s War are in 5:204-06, 209, 224. Three additional murders in

Plymouth Colony appear in William Bradford, Of Plymouth

Plantation, 1620-1647.123

 

Relative to other crimes, homicide prosecutions appear to be common.

Bellesiles misses every homicide prosecution in these records.

 

Nearly as stunning is Bellesiles’s claim: “[D]uring Vermont’s frontier

period, from 1760 to 1790, there were five reported murders (excluding

those deaths in the American Revolution), and three of those were

politically motivated.” 124 The source he cites for this count is the Vermont

Superior Court records. He presumably meant the Vermont Supreme Court,

since Vermont had no Superior Court in that period. But he could not

possibly have used these Supreme Court records to count murders for

thirty-one years in Vermont, from 1760 to 1790. As Roth explains about the

Vermont Supreme Court:

 

[T]hat court did not open until December 1778, and its minutes

from September 1782 to August 1791 have been missing since the

early twentieth century. In fact, Vermont, together with the rest of

New England, had an elevated homicide rate during the American

Revolution, and 70 percent of known adult homicides and probable

homicides in Vermont, 1760-1790, were committed with guns.125

 

Thus, Bellesiles could not have counted Vermont murders during 1760-

1790 in the source he cites because that source did not exist for more than

half of the period and is lost for most of the rest of the period. Where did

Bellesiles come up with his numbers for thirty-one years of Vermont data?

We may never know.

 

These are not the only problems with Bellesiles’s accounts of murder.

His counts in his main table of homicide data (Table 6)126 do not add up. He

relates that he has 735 cases of homicide and that he drew 501 cases from

one source and “an additional 184 cases” 127 from a list of newspapers. But

this still leaves Bellesiles exactly fifty cases short of his total of 735 cases.

Where did the other fifty cases come from? Readers are left to speculate.

 

Finally, Bellesiles’s unsupported claim that homicide rates rose after

the Civil War128 is much too simple a story. Just as the gun culture and the

romance of the gun were supposedly taking over (in the decades after the

Civil War), homicide rates were actually plummeting throughout much of

the country, while in the Reconstruction South murder was rising.129 The

relationship between guns and homicides over time is so complex that it

cannot be reduced to the easy formula put forward in Arming America that

high gun ownership and high homicide rates go together.

 

 

D. Were Privately Owned Guns Mostly in Poor

Working Condition?

 

While it is not surprising that government-owned guns might be rusting

away in armories during peacetime, Bellesiles claims that guns in private

hands were also mostly old or broken. For example, he claims that 53% of

the guns in frontier probate inventories were listed as broken or defective:

“An examination of more than a thousand probate records from the

frontiers of northern New England and western Pennsylvania for the years

1765 to 1790 revealed that only 14 percent of the inventories included

firearms; over half (53 percent) of these guns were listed as broken or

otherwise defective.” 130 Bellesiles makes a similar claim about the guns

listed in Providence, Rhode Island, probate inventories: “More than half of

these guns are evaluated as old and of poor quality.”131

 

Neither claim is true. Justin Heather and I have completed a careful

analysis of data from four of the six counties in Bellesiles’s 1765-1790

frontier sample (those from Vermont) and a partial analysis of inventories

from the other two counties (those from Western Pennsylvania). So far the

rate of guns “listed” as old or broken is less than 15%, not the 53% that

Bellesiles claims.132 Bellesiles’s own website report on guns in frontier

Vermont now shows very few listed as old or broken.133

 

As to the Providence, Rhode Island, data, Bellesiles has dropped the

claim from the hardback edition of Arming America that the guns in the

inventories were evaluated as old or broken and now claims that the

majority of guns are so low-valued that he reappraises them as old or

broken.134 There are a number of problems with this claim. Most important,

historians should not reappraise 300-year old guns that they have never

seen based solely on evidence of their monetary value. Bellesiles does not

provide a sufficient basis for his reappraisal. He does not reappraise a few

very low-valued guns. Rather, he appraises the median-priced gun in

Providence as old or broken. The best evidence we have for what a typical

gun cost in Providence, Rhode Island, is the very probate data showing that

guns cost about one pound.135 This is consistent with other data, as I show

in the next Section. A new military-quality weapon in a time of war might

go for two to three times that amount, but that does not mean that an

ordinary working gun or fowling piece in a time of peace would go for

more than about a pound. In addition, Bellesiles should have at least

disclosed the fact that he made such a reappraisal in his original

publication. Instead, he claimed this reappraisal only after his error was

exposed.

 

Finally, as to the frontier data on dysfunctional guns, Bellesiles says

that they are listed as such. It is not possible to change this claim based on a

reappraisal. Of the estates that Heather and I examined, 83-91% of them

listed guns that were not described as old or broken.136 This does not, of

course, indicate that most of these guns were of military quality or even

suitable for battle. Many were undoubtedly fowling pieces, better suited for

hunting birds. But this is solid evidence that many Americans owned

functioning guns.

 

 

E. How Expensive Were Guns?

 

Michael Bellesiles claims that guns were too expensive for widespread

private ownership, a claim that has often been repeated by positive

reviewers.137 Bellesiles writes that “a flintlock cost £4 to £5.” 138

 

Of course, everything was expensive in colonial America for a

populace that was very poor by today’s standards. Reviewers apparently

failed to note that Bellesiles provides no source for his claim about what

guns cost. Yet good evidence exists, and it conflicts with Bellesiles’s claim.

 

First, there are auction data. In North Carolina auctions in 1774, a

simple “gun” sold for less than £1 (median price: £0.8).139 This was

roughly the same as a table, a chair, a dictionary, a great coat, or a saddle.140

Comparing the cost of buying a simple shotgun or pistol at Wal-Mart today

to buying these other items would suggest that guns were not relatively

more expensive then than they are today.

 

We also have extensive probate data from the colonial period, most of

which shows median prices for guns not listed as old or broken from just

under £1 to about £1.5.141 Further, with median probated estate sizes in

1774 of more than £200,142 a gun at about £1 was a relatively minor

expense. Even if one rightly assumes that probated estates are skewed

toward the wealthier decedents, an analysis of the effect of wealth shows

that guns were listed in substantial portions of estates above the very

poorest.143 Only for estates below £10 did fewer than thirty percent of

inventories list guns. And, whatever the cost, people bought guns before

other seeming essentials. In the earlier colonial period, Gloria Main and

Anna Hawley both found more guns than tables or chairs or stools.144 When

men could afford to buy a gun, they did.145 This suggests either that they

were very useful tools or that they had an important social meaning (for

example, to reinforce their owners’ masculinity or provide peace of

mind)—or both.

 

Randolph Roth mentions a newspaper ad from 1785 for 3000 new

British muskets at only $3 apiece, a very low price compared to other

common items. Here is Roth’s account:

 

Gun dealers, for their part, knew that they had to appeal to farmers,

gardeners, and small-game hunters who fired shot as well as to

militiamen who had to own military-grade, ball-firing weapons. For

instance, when Joseph and William Russell of Providence, Rhode

Island, advertised the sale in 1785 of 3,000 “EXCELLENT NEW

BRITISH MUSKETS” for three dollars each, they hastened to add

that at least 600 were “neat Fowling Pieces.” 146

 

Almost all of the existing evidence suggests that in a world where

nearly everything was expensive, guns were not particularly so. They were

within the reach of most families, especially if the families thought them

more important than having a table or a chair, as many apparently did, since

guns were roughly as commonly listed in probate inventories as these

seeming essentials. Part of Bellesiles’s confusion may stem from looking at

the prices of new military weapons in a time of war, and not accounting for

condition, temporary shortages, or type of weapon. A more typical price for

an ordinary used gun in colonial America would have been £1, not the £4 to

£5 asserted in Arming America.

 

 

F. How Effective Were Guns, Bladed Weapons, and

the Militia?

 

Arming America’s accounts of military actions, militia ineffectiveness,

and battle weaponry show similar problems in the use of evidence, though

Bellesiles’s overall view of the militia is a standard one. As to the

ineffectiveness of militia compared to regular army troops, Bellesiles offers

an extreme, unnuanced version of the standard view, but his view is widely

shared. To present a more balanced analysis of the historical record would

take greater expertise on the history of militia than I have and more space

than one section of a review. But to give one example, George Washington,

who according to Bellesiles was unrelentingly negative about militia,147

actually had an ambivalent view of militia—as is evident in Mark

Kwasny’s excellent analysis, Washington’s Partisan War.148

 

Yet even where Bellesiles is more or less correct, he takes his evidence

further than it will bear. As Clayton Cramer has discussed, he quotes

Washington out of context on the poor state of militia reporting for duty149

without noting that Washington was only referring to a few troops out of a

large number about which he was not complaining.150 What Washington

clearly treated as exceptional is taken by Arming America as the norm.

 

In his account of Lexington and Concord, Bellesiles systematically

understates the effectiveness of guns and the militia, emphasizing hand-to-hand

combat. He goes to great lengths in Arming America to replace the

“myth” of the American with a gun with a new myth of Americans often

relying on an axe as a weapon. For example, Arming America claims: “At

Menotomy, Massachusetts, the Americans fell on the British with a

vengeance; the combat was almost entirely hand-to-hand, axes against

bayonets.” 151 Justin Heather has gone through the accounts that Bellesiles

cites and neither claim is true—it was not “almost entirely” hand-to-hand

combat, and there is no mention of Americans using axes. Heather finds

that guns were a very important part of the battle.152 Indeed, the idea that the

Americans fought the British with axes is questionable even without

checking sources, since axes were unwieldy for hand-to-hand combat.153

 

In Bellesiles’s fervor to establish the shortages of guns and the

unfamiliarity of American militia with guns, he misstates evidence. For

example, he writes:

 

Pikemen were present at nearly every encounter in King Philip’s

War, as there were not enough guns to go around. Nonetheless, in

October 1675, the Massachusetts General Court ordered that,

“whereas it is found by experience that troopers & pikemen are of

little use in the present warr with the Indians . . . It is ordered by the

court . . . that all pikemen are hereby required . . . to furnish

themselves with fire armes.” But they could not locate sufficient

guns, leading one Massachusetts soldier to recall in 1681, “I

thought a pike was best for a young soldier, and so I carried a pike,

and . . . knew not how to shoot off a musket.” 154

 

The quotation is used by Bellesiles to support three propositions:

gunlessness, reasonable reliance on edge weapons (in this case, a pike), and

unfamiliarity with guns. The account, however, was not from a

Massachusetts soldier recalling his days of gunlessness during King

Philip’s War. Instead, the quotation is from John Dunton, an English

bookseller on a five-month vacation to America in 1686,155 who wrote a

letter back to England about the unusual habits of American settlers:

 

But from Love, I must make a Transition to Arms; and cou’d you

think that [I] . . . wou’d ever make a Souldier? Yet so it fell out: For

’tis their Custom here for all that can bear Arms, to go out on a

Training Day: But I thought a Pike was best for a Young Souldier,

and so I carry’d a Pike; and between you and I, Reader, there was

another Reason for it too, and that was, I knew not how to shoot off

a Musquet. But ’twas the first time I ever was in Arms; which tho’ I

tell thee, Reader, I had no need to tell to my Fellow-Souldiers, for

they knew it well enough by my awkward handling of them. For I

was as unacquainted with the Terms of Military Discipline, as a

wild Irish Man [who did not know his right hand from his left] . . . .

But we were even here, for tho’ they understood Arms better than I,

yet I understood Books better than they.156

 

Unlike American settlers, this bookish English visitor knew nothing about

arms. Dunton observes American familiarity with guns, and the fact that he

was armed by others suggests no shortage of firearms. As to his preference

for pikes, Dunton explains his reasons, which mostly do not apply to the

Americans he is writing about. Last, Bellesiles uses the word “recall” as if

Dunton is speaking about his past experiences in King Philip’s War, rather

than his current experience in arms for the first time. Bellesiles also

mistakenly shifts the date (1686) to five years closer to King Philip’s War,

and he uses the source to support his contention that there were gun

shortages during that war.157 Bellesiles somehow turns a tale of American

familiarity with guns, reliance on guns, and well-armed units into the

opposite.

 

 

G. Were Guns Kept in the Home?

 

In one of the book’s stranger arguments, Bellesiles argues that, by law

and in fact, privately owned guns were not kept in the home, but rather

were stored in central armories.158 This has profound implications for his

thesis, because if guns were not kept in the home, they were not generally

available for homicide, vermin control, target practice, war, or defense

against Native Americans or criminals. How could the trusty musket (or

rifle) be kept over the mantelpiece if by law it was centrally stored?

 

Further, Bellesiles claims:

 

[L]egislators feared that gun-toting freemen might, under special

circumstances, pose a threat to the very polity they were forced to

defend. Colonial legislatures therefore strictly legislated the storage

of firearms, with weapons kept in some central place, to be

produced only in emergencies or on muster day, or loaned to

individuals living in outlying areas.159

 

Bellesiles cites a long string of statutes in support of his unusual claim,160

but as Clayton Cramer points out, these statutes do not state that privately

owned guns must or should be centrally stored in armories.161 Either they

say nothing about Bellesiles’s fanciful claim, or they provide for the central

storage of gunpowder, which was explosive and dangerous to keep in large

quantities in the home.162

 

One class of data that seems to support the widespread use and keeping

of guns in the home is the accidental firearm death data that Randolph Roth

has collected. Roth concludes that accidental firearm deaths in New

Hampshire and Vermont between 1783 and 1824 were suffered at rates

slightly higher than today’s annual rate of four per million persons.163 The

occurrence of so many accidents in what was essentially peacetime supports

the notion that guns were kept in the home (and therefore actually used),

not centrally stored.

 

 

H. Were Guns Common in Travel Accounts?

 

Arming America also relies on travel accounts to demonstrate the

unimportance and ineffectiveness of firearms and the importance of axes as

weapons.164 Bellesiles concludes:

 

Generally stated, an examination of eighty travel accounts written

in America from 1750 to 1860 indicates that the travelers did not

notice that they were surrounded by guns and violence. . . . That

absence of discussion about guns in travelers’ accounts is

intriguing . . . .165

 

There are a number of problems with Bellesiles’s use of this body of

evidence. First, guns are frequently mentioned in the very travel accounts

that Bellesiles cites, as Clayton Cramer and others have pointed out.166

Second, Bellesiles uses the travel accounts to push the ineffectiveness of

firearms and the relative effectiveness of axes. Bellesiles’s statements in

support of the relative importance of the axe over the gun are not supported

by the cited sources and at least one of the views attributed to a traveler

cannot be found in the cited source.167

 

The traveler whose account gets the fullest treatment in Arming

America is Frederick Gerstaecker.168 But Bellesiles, pushing his pro-axe

theme, puts words into Gerstaecker’s mouth. Bellesiles wrote: “He

[Gerstaecker] noted that they [Americans] were very ‘expert’ at the use of

axes, ‘which they begin to wield as soon as their arms are strong enough to

use them,’ adding that axes made very good weapons.” 169 Gerstaecker did

note that American frontiersmen were “particularly expert with the axe,

which they begin to wield as soon as their arms are strong enough to lift

it.” 170 He also explained that Americans use the axe “for a variety of

purposes—building houses, laying roofs and floors, forming the chimneys

and doors, the only other tool used being the auger.” 171 Gerstaecker did not,

however, add “that axes made very good weapons,” as Arming America

claims.172

 

Arguing that guns were not needed for personal use, Bellesiles

paraphrases the immigrant account of Ole Rynning: “Rynning advised his

Norwegian readers to bring ‘good rifles with percussion locks,’ as such

good guns were far too expensive in America and could be sold there for a

solid profit. Guns thus had an economic value, but if thought requisite for

self-protection, it remained an unstated assumption.” 173 As Clayton Cramer

has pointed out, Rynning actually urges immigrants to bring “‘good rifles

with percussion locks, partly for personal use, partly for sale.’” 174 If

Bellesiles had just quoted the four words after those he did quote, his

readers could have seen for themselves that Rynning believed guns should

be brought for personal use; this was not an “unstated” assumption.

 

Some of the very travel accounts that Bellesiles quotes for the “absence

of discussion about guns in travelers’ accounts” 175 and the proposition that

“travelers did not notice that they were surrounded by guns and

violence” 176 contain strong statements that guns were all around them.

Baynard Rush Hall, writing under the pen name Robert Carlton, for

example, describes his love of rifles and their use in Indiana territory:

 

Let none think we western people follow rifle shooting, however,

for mere sport; that would be nearly as ignoble as shot gun

idleness[.] The rifle procures, at certain seasons, the only meat we

ever taste; it defends our homes from wild animals and saves our

corn fields from squirrels and our hen-roosts from foxes, owls,

opossums and other “varments.” With it we kill our beeves and our

hogs, and cut off our fowls’ heads: do all things in fact, of the sort

with it, where others use an axe, or a knife, or that far east

savagism, the thumb and finger. The rifle is a woodsman’s lasso.

He carries it everywhere as (a very degrading comparison for the

gun, but none other occurs), a dandy a cane. All, then, who came to

our tannery or store came thus armed; and rarely did a customer go,

till his rifle had been tried at a mark, living or dead, and we had

listened to achievements it had done and could do again.177

 

This passage shows not only the wide use of guns, but the passion for guns

that Bellesiles argues was absent in early America. In many of the travel

accounts that Bellesiles cites, the settlers or travelers describe the

ubiquitousness of guns and the skill of Americans in using them.178 The

accounts support widespread gun ownership on the frontier and suggest that

guns, not axes or bladed weapons, were the primary weapons for combat

and hunting.179

 

 

I. How Central Are the Errors to the Thesis of

Arming America?

 

One of the oddest claims to surface recently is that the problems with

Arming America touch only the probate data (as if contrary evidence could

just be ignored) or touch only the quantitative data (as if there was not a

public scandal long before the quantitative errors were discovered). To

address such a belief is one of the reasons that I wrote this Review. Too

much attention has focused on the probate data. The probate data are

important to the book’s thesis, though they are discussed on only about

thirteen pages of the book,180 plus some additional footnotes. They were the

original impetus for the book.181 In early positive reviews of Bellesiles’s

work in the press and in scholarly articles, the probate data were the most

frequently mentioned statistical source material.182

 

Indeed, just to read an account of what the book was about from the fall

of 2000 is to realize how much people have recently tried to recast it.183 It is

revealing to see what Bellesiles himself said in his interviews with the press

from the early months before the probate data were revealed to be false,

such as in the Emory Report,184 Salon,185 or Playboy.186

 

Consider these questions and answers from a taped interview in

Playboy:

 

PLAYBOY: You suspected the image we have of a musket over

every fireplace. When did you first begin to notice the missing

guns?

 

BELLESILES: . . . . I was studying probate records, the most

complete records, the most complete record of property ownership

in early America. They contain lists of absolutely everything that a

person owned—scraps of metal, broken glasses, bent spoons,

broken plows. . . . While studying these probate records, I realized I

was not seeing guns. They were supposed to be in every single

home. When I looked at the frontiers of western Pennsylvania and

northern New England, I found guns in only 10 percent of the

probate records, and half of those guns were not in working order.

Since then, I’ve read 11,150 probate records, samples over a 100-

year period, and I have found guns in 13 percent of the probate

records. Prior to 1850, the gun is just not there.

 

PLAYBOY: What else did you look at?

 

BELLESILES: States kept inventories of weapons. . . . [A]ll the

governments regularly took a census of firearms. They sent the

constables door-to-door to ask, “What guns do you have? What

condition are they in?” . . .

 

PLAYBOY: How many guns did the states find in the census?

 

BELLESILES: It depends on the state. In the Colonial period, there

were only enough guns for about one and a half to two percent of

the populace. . . .

 

PLAYBOY: Who was allowed to own guns?

 

BELLESILES: Only white male Protestant property owners. Not

indentured servants. Not slaves. Not Indians. Not Catholics. . . .

 

PLAYBOY: What did a gun cost in the 18th century[?]

 

BELLESILES: A functional gun would cost five to six pounds,

which is equivalent to a year’s wages for an unskilled laborer,

about half a year’s wages for a skilled artisan. . . .

. . . .

PLAYBOY: The current gun debate is mired in homicide rates. If

there were no gun culture in the Colonial era, how did we die?

 

BELLESILES: Scholars of violence who have looked at homicide

found that there was little interpersonal violence in America prior

to the 1840s. . . . When I was doing my research, I found county

court records that did not show a homicide in a 50-year period.187

 

If one reads these claims in light of what has been revealed since, one sees

one error after another. Bellesiles claims:

 

(1) Probate records list “absolutely everything that a person

owned—scraps of metal, broken glasses, bent spoons, broken

plows”—when it is generally accepted that probate records are

radically incomplete;188

 

(2) In “the frontiers of western Pennsylvania and northern New

England, I found guns in only 10 percent of the probate records”—

rather than the roughly 40% of inventories that actually listed

guns;189

 

(3) “[H]alf of those guns were not in working order”—rather than

fewer than 15% actually listed as not working;190

 

(4) “[A]ll the governments regularly took a [door-to-door] census

of firearms”—when none of Bellesiles’s gun censuses are in fact

full censuses of arms in all hands and apparently none were done

door-to-door;191

 

(5) “[T]here were only enough guns for about one and a half to

two percent of the populace”—when the best estimate is that about

54% of adult males owned firearms in their probate estates, and all

published estimates are much higher than Bellesiles’s;192

 

(6) “Only white male Protestant property owners” were “allowed

to own guns”—when Catholics were rarely barred from gun

ownership and women and poor white freemen were never barred

in any source Bellesiles cites for propositions such as this;193

 

(7) “A functional gun would cost five to six pounds”—when

ordinary guns usually cost about £1;194

 

(8) “[T]here was little interpersonal violence in America prior to

the 1840s”—when homicide rates were as high or higher than

today;195 and

 

(9) County court records “did not show a homicide in a 50-year

period”—when Bellesiles missed 100% of the homicide

prosecutions in the 46 years of Plymouth records that Bellesiles

says had no prosecutions for homicide.196

 

Every one of these claims is false, and they are a pretty fair sampling of the

errors discussed in this Review. If I had pulled the corresponding claims out

of the book, I might have been accused of selectivity; yet seeing them one

after another in a taped interview suggests just how central these myths are

that Bellesiles advances. These are the sorts of claims that were praised on

the book’s release, but have now been exposed as false.

 

To support his claim of low gun ownership, Bellesiles himself cited the

probate data and the militia data.197 And in April 2000, the New York Times

called the probate data “Mr. Bellesiles’s principal evidence.” 198 When

Charlton Heston tried to dismiss the probate data as irrelevant and

incomplete, he was rightly criticized for not wanting to face facts and for

anti-intellectualism.199

 

The actual probate data can’t be easily put aside. They clearly undercut

the book’s thesis on many of its main points about early America—the

number of guns in private hands, the era when gun ownership was first

widespread, the condition of guns, where guns were kept, the price of guns,

the familiarity of Americans with guns, the relative desire for guns, the

gender breakdown of gun ownership, and the change in gun ownership over

time. These are not just isolated facts; they go to the role and social

meaning of guns in early America.

 

But what if the probate data could somehow be made to disappear? The

sad fact is that we would still have the worst historical scandal in decades.

The errors in the probate data may be the easiest to see, but they are not the

only serious ones. There was a scandal before Justin Heather and I exposed

Arming America’s probate errors, and there will be a scandal now that our

position is widely accepted, and the focus is returning to other parts of the

book.

 

Unless one goes through all the book’s comments on a particular topic

and the evidence cited to back them up, one can’t really see just how

systematic the errors are. Randolph Roth has done this for Bellesiles’s

homicide data; Robert Churchill has done this for the gun censuses and

militia counts; Justin Heather and I have done this for the probate data;

Heather has done this for the stories about axes, bayonets, and edge

weapons; Clayton Cramer has done this for several types of sources,

including the gunsmith information, militia statutes, and substantial

portions of the travel accounts. When one goes through an entire body of

evidence, some errors are big and some are small, but the overall effect is

shocking, indeed unprecedented for a Bancroft-Prize-winning book. Nearly

every sentence that Bellesiles wrote about probate records in the original

hardback edition of Arming America is false.200 Nearly everything that

Bellesiles says about homicide is either false or misinterpreted, as is most

of what he wrote about the relative merits of the axe over the gun.201 When

the sources do not support the main premise of Arming America, Bellesiles

sometimes misreports their content in a way that fits his thesis, as he does

in over 200 instances mentioned in this Review.202 Using Arming America,

one could build a wonderful course for graduate students about historical

methods—each student checking a different body of sources. Indeed, Eric

Monkkonen is teaching such a course at UCLA this year.

 

There are two recurrent characteristics of Bellesiles’s problems

throughout the book and the dispute: (1) innumeracy, and (2) a failure to

reconcile his findings with the existing literature. Bellesiles thinks that

counting is important, indeed crucial to the book: “Without such efforts at

quantification, we are left to repeat the unverifiable assertions of other

historians, or to descend into a pointless game of dueling quotations—

matching one literary allusion against another.” 203 Yet he created no

database for any of his data.204 He just made tick marks on a legal pad—in

the case of the probate data, over 11,000 of them.205

 

It is clear from Bellesiles’s responses to criticism, moreover, that he

does not understand how someone could prove his probate data false

without checking all of it.206 For the last year, Knopf and Bellesiles have

published a book whose most prominent data are not only false, but known

to be mathematically impossible. The math, which has been verified by

Randolph Roth, could be done by an average middle schooler; it is just

computing a mean from several means.207 Why Knopf has not investigated

this problem is unclear.

 

Bellesiles’s innumeracy slides into his more general failure to reconcile

his findings with the existing literature. Bellesiles claims that South

Carolina had the lowest homicide rates in the country, while other

historians wrote the opposite.208 Bellesiles doesn’t explain why he got

different results. In this case, it’s because he treated explicitly partial data as

if they were complete and then compared these data to the state population.

Bellesiles finds low counts of guns in probate records, but there are actually

fairly high counts in the sources he cites. Again, he has made no attempt to

figure out why his numbers are so different from everyone else’s. Bellesiles

claims that probate inventories list every item in an estate, but the scholars

he cites say the opposite. Again, he has made no attempt to reconcile his

conclusions.

 

When I first contacted Bellesiles privately in November 2000 with

serious problems with his probate counts, I started with the Providence,

Rhode Island, data. Bellesiles published (and confirmed in correspondence)

that he used the published Records of the Town of Providence.209 I offered

to lend him a copy to facilitate his checking. Resolving differences in

counts ideally should be a matter of cooperation among scholars. It was not

hard to see that he had counted women as men and intestate estates as

having wills; an hour in the library would have shown that. Bellesiles wrote

back that he would recount Providence, but that it was not “a top

priority.” 210 It was as if he were not surprised that he had miscounted most

of the estates in Providence, or at least not curious whether he had done so.

 

In January 2001, when I first publicly presented the paper that I wrote

with Justin Heather, Bellesiles responded to the criticism in a way that he

repeated throughout the scandal—he mentioned all the hostile e-mail

invective that he had received from gun lovers and attacked the quality of

work of everyone who disagreed with him, including Alice Hanson Jones,

whom he praises in the acknowledgements to the book.211 Bellesiles

claimed that the deceased Jones, a giant in the field for whom the prize in

economic history is named, confused the word “gown” for the word “gun”

and avoided the poorer estates in her sample.212 Of course, he provided no

evidence for these claims. I have checked enough of Jones’s estates against

the original records to know with relative certainty that she made no

systematic reading errors. In one form or another, Bellesiles has quietly

backed off on all the main claims that we showed were erroneous in that

first January 2001 draft of our probate study.

 

 

III. CONCLUSION

 

Arming America is an impressive book, especially to those not versed

in the materials that Bellesiles wrote about. It is extremely well-written for

a book that covers so many apparent specifics of gun ownership and use.

Superb historians praised it on its release. Yet even from the beginning,

there were those who found disturbing differences between Arming

America and its sources. As time has passed and other scholars have

entered the debate, these errors—which once looked like such serious

defects that they could not be true—have been confirmed. So far Bellesiles

has not successfully defended any challenged portion of the book. Nor has

he or any of his dwindling corps of defenders been able to point to any

specific errors that Bellesiles’s academic critics have yet made.

Undoubtedly, those whose scholarship has uncovered errors in Arming

America have made mistakes—everyone does from time to time. What is

unprecedented in such a prominent book is how many errors it contains and

how systematically the errors are in the direction of the thesis.

 

The book and the scandal it generated are hard to understand. How

could Bellesiles count guns in about a hundred Providence wills that never

existed, count guns in San Francisco County inventories that were

apparently destroyed in 1906, report national means that are mathematically

impossible, change the condition of guns in a way that fits his thesis,

misreport the counts of guns in censuses or militia reports, have over a 60%

error rate in finding guns in Vermont estates, and have a 100% error rate in

finding homicide cases in the Plymouth records he cites? We may never

know the truth of why or how Arming America made such basic errors, but

make them it did.

 

As scholars, we must content ourselves with correcting errors and

searching for the realities of gun ownership, use, and social meaning.

Beyond that, we might try to figure out how to avoid a repetition of this

unfortunate episode.

 

The historical profession will survive the Bellesiles scandal. If people

had gone to the library when questions were raised over a year ago, then

much of the acrimony could have been avoided. The errors in the

Providence materials (e.g., counting women as men and counting guns in

about a hundred wills that never existed) are just as clear and just as easy to

check as those of Stephen Ambrose or Doris Kearns Goodwin. But

Ambrose and Goodwin did not claim that they were political martyrs. They

knew that people would eventually check the source books and see for

themselves; they knew there was no point in denying the claims of error.

 

Bellesiles took a different tack. I was surprised when he did not take the

usual scholarly approach of grudgingly admitting his errors—either when I

contacted him privately or when I later presented my scholarship publicly.

 

Perhaps Bellesiles acted differently than Ambrose and Goodwin did

because his errors are so much more serious. They go to issues at the heart

of the book—how many guns there were, what condition they were in, who

owned them, how they were used, and how much they cost. Even if

Bellesiles withdrew the probate data, there would still be other problems—

problems that scholars other than Justin Heather and I are examining with

great care. Only by looking closely at the militia counts, gun censuses,

battle stories, travelers’ accounts, and every other type of source that

Bellesiles relied on can the historical profession evaluate Arming

America—and the new mythology of relative gunlessness in early America

that it tried to create.

Click here for the appendix.

 

 

118. Id. at 81; see also id. at 353 (claiming that there were only five murders in Vermont

from 1760 to 1790).

119. Roth, supra note 41, at 234.

120. Id. at 235.

121. BELLESILES, supra note 3, at 82.

122. 1-10 RECORDS OF THE COLONY OF NEW PLYMOUTH IN NEW ENGLAND (Nathaniel B.

Shurtleff et al. eds., Boston, William White 1855-1861).

123. Roth, supra note 41, at 234 n.31 (citations omitted).

124. BELLESILES, supra note 3, at 353.

125. Roth, supra note 41, at 236 (citations omitted).

126. BELLESILES, supra note 3, at 450.

127. Id.

128. See id. at 434, 436.

129. See ERIC H. MONKKONEN, MURDER IN NEW YORK CITY 9-10 (2000). Randolph Roth is

finding the same pattern as Monkkonen in many areas outside New York City, except in the

South, where homicide was increasing. Randolph Roth, Toward Better Ways To Count Guns,

Panel Presentation Before the Social Science History Association (Nov. 2001).

130. BELLESILES, supra note 3, at 13.

131. Id. at 109.

132. Lindgren & Heather, supra note 84.

133. Bellesiles, supra note 85.

134. Compare BELLESILES, supra note 93, at 109, with BELLESILES, supra note 3, at 109.

135. See 6, 7, 13 & 16 EARLY RECORDS OF THE TOWN OF PROVIDENCE, supra note 80.

136. See Lindgren & Heather, supra note 24 (manuscript at 25, 28 tbl.3, 42 tbl.8, 49);

Lindgren & Heather, supra note 84.

137. See, e.g., Paul Finkelman, Taking Aim at an American Myth, 99 MICH. L. REV. 1500,

1501 (2001) (book review).

138. BELLESILES, supra note 3, at 106.

139. 3 JONES, supra note 23, at 1691-720.

140. Id.

141. See, e.g., id.; Lindgren & Heather, supra note 84.

142. See Lindgren & Heather, supra note 24 (manuscript at 32 tbl.7).

143. Id.

144. Id. (manuscript at 6-10 & nn.9-24) (citing MAIN, supra note 22, at 288-89 tbls.C.3-4;

and Hawley, supra note 22, at 28).

145. Id. (manuscript at 6-10 & nn.9-24, 32 tbl.7).

146. Roth, supra note 41, at 232 (quoting Advertisement, BOSTON GAZETTE, Mar. 7, 1785).

147. BELLESILES, supra note 3, at 159, 193-95.

148. MARK V. KWASNY, WASHINGTONS PARTISAN WAR, 1775-1783, at 16 (1996)

(“Washington presented a more complex attitude toward the use of the militia in the

Revolutionary War than the traditional description allows.” ); see also id. at 17, 83, 110, 135, 185.

149. See BELLESILES, supra note 3, at 159. Bellesiles wrote:

 

Colonel Washington reported on the militia to Governor Dinwiddie: “Many of them

[are] unarmed, and all without ammunition or provision.” In one company of more than

seventy men, he reported, only twenty-five had any sort of firearms. Washington found

such militia “incapacitated to defend themselves, much less to annoy the enemy.”

 

Id.

150. Washington wrote:

 

I think myself under the necessity of informing your Honor, of the odd behaviour

of the few Militia that were marched hither from Fairfax, Culpeper, and Prince William

counties. Many of them unarmed, and all without ammunition or provision. Those of

Culpeper behaved particularly ill: Out of the hundred that were draughted, seventy-odd

arrived here; of which only twenty-five were tolerably armed.

 

I proposed to the unarm’d, that as they came from home (at least with a shew) of

serving their country; and as they were, from the want of arms, incapacitated to defend

themselves, much less to annoy the enemy, or afford any protection to the Inhabitants;

that they shou’d (during their short stay here) assist in forwarding the public works; for

which I offered them 6d. per day extraordinary. But they were deaf to this and every

other proposition which had any tendency to the interest of the Service.

 

As such a conduct is not only a flagrant breach of the law, and a total contempt of

Orders, but will be such a precedent (shou’d it pass without impunity) as may be

productive of the most dreadful consequences. I therefore flatter myself, your Honor

will take proper notice of these men. I have written to their County Lieutenant on this

subject.

 

Letter from George Washington to Robert Dinwiddie (June 27, 1757), in 2 THE WRITINGS OF

GEORGE WASHINGTON FROM THE ORIGINAL MANUSCRIPT SOURCES, 1745-1799, at 78, 78-79

(John C. Fitzpatrick ed. 1931); see Cramer, Firearms Ownership, supra note 27, at 51-52.

151. BELLESILES, supra note 3, at 174.

152. Justin Lee Heather, Weapons of War in Colonial America: A Situational Hierarchy

(2001) (unpublished manuscript, on file with author).

153. Id.

154. BELLESILES, supra note 3, at 117 (quoting Letter from John Dunton to George Larkin

(Mar. 25, 1686), in JOHN DUNTONS LETTERS FROM NEW-ENGLAND 56, 140 (William H.

Whitmore ed., Boston, T.R. Marvin & Son 1867)).

155. William H. Whitmore, Preface to JOHN DUNTONS LETTERS FROM NEW-ENGLAND,

supra note 154, at i, xxii-xxiii.

156. Letter from John Dunton to George Larkin, supra note 154, at 140-41.

157. Compare supra text accompanying note 154, with Letter from John Dunton to George

Larkin, supra note 154.

158. BELLESILES, supra note 3, at 73.

159. Id.

160. Id. at 472-73 n.10.

161. Clayton E. Cramer, Primary Historical Sources, at http://www.claytoncramer.com/

primary.html (last visited Apr. 18, 2002).

162. Id.

163. Roth, supra note 41, at 232-33.

164. BELLESILES, supra note 3, at 305-22.

165. Id. at 306.

166. See, e.g., Cramer, Firearms Ownership, supra note 27, at 37; Heather, supra note 152, at

26.

167. See infra notes 168-172 and accompanying text.

168. BELLESILES, supra note 3, at 311-15 (discussing FREDERICK GERSTAECKER, WILD

SPORTS IN THE FAR WEST (London, Routledge 1854)).

169. Id. at 313 (quoting GERSTAECKER, supra note 168, at 241).

170. GERSTAECKER, supra note 168, at 241.

171. Id.

172. BELLESILES, supra note 3, at 313; see also Heather, supra note 152 (manuscript at 24)

(discussing Gerstaecker’s travel account).

173. BELLESILES, supra note 3, at 341 (emphasis added).

174. Cramer, Firearms Ownership, supra note 27, at 147-48 (quoting OLE RYNNING, OLE

RYNNINGS TRUE ACCOUNT OF AMERICA 99 (Theodore C. Blegen ed. & trans., 1926)) (emphasis

added).

175. BELLESILES, supra note 3, at 304.

176. Id.

177. ROBERT CARLTON [BAYNARD RUSH HALL], THE NEW PURCHASE, OR, SEVEN AND A

HALF YEARS IN THE FAR WEST 107-08 (James Woodburn ed., Princeton Univ. Press 1916)

(1816).

178. WILLIAM N. BLANE, AN EXCURSION THROUGH THE UNITED STATES AND CANADA,

DURING THE YEARS 1822-23, at 145 (London, Baldwin, Craddock & Joy 1824) (“Every boy, as

soon as he can lift a rifle, is constantly practicing with it, and thus becomes an astonishingly

expert marksman.” ); FORTESCUE CUMING, SKETCHES OF A TOUR TO THE WESTERN COUNTRY

(1810), reprinted in 4 EARLY WESTERN TRAVELS, 1748-1846, at 46 (Reuben Gold Thwaites ed.,

1904) (“The inhabitants of this country in common with the Virginians, and all the back woods

people, Indians as well as whites, are wonderfully expert in the use of it: thinking it a bad shot if

they miss the very head of a squirrel.” ); 1 CHARLES AUGUSTUS MURRAY, TRAVELS IN NORTH

AMERICA 118-19 (London, Richard Bentley 1839) (“ [N]early every man has a rifle, and spends

part of his time in the chase.” ); 2 ISAAC WELD, TRAVELS THROUGH THE UNITED STATES OF

NORTH AMERICA, AND THE PROVINCES OF UPPER AND LOWER CANADA, DURING THE YEARS

1795, 1796, AND 1797, at 150 (London, John Stockdale 1807) (comparing Canadian hunters to

U.S. hunters, and stating that “[t]he people here, as in the back parts of the United States, devote a

very great part of their time to hunting, and they are well skilled in the pursuit of game of every

description” ). Bellesiles cites these reports at BELLESILES, supra note 3, at 542-44 n.5. I am

indebted to Clayton Cramer for identifying these accounts.

179. See Cramer, Firearms Ownership, supra note 27, at 131-51. Bellesiles cites Trabue’s

account for the proposition that “North Americans often perceived the ax as the equal of a gun.”

BELLESILES, supra note 3, at 76. Trabue’s account, properly considered, shows reliance on

firearms rather than axes. WESTWARD INTO KENTUCKY: THE NARRATIVE OF DANIEL TRABUE

44-46, 111 (Chester Raymond Young ed., 1981).

180. See supra note 106 and accompanying text.

181. BELLESILES, supra note 3, at 13.

182. Supra notes 108-112 and accompanying text.

183. A Chicago Tribune review (which is quoted on the back of the paperback edition of

Arming America) is fairly typical:

 

Bellesiles, a professor of history at Emory University with a specialty in the culture of

violence, argues . . . that early Americans had little use for guns and owned them hardly

at all, and that gun ownership did not become widespread until a combination of

government subsidy and clever marketing forced guns upon a heretofore unwilling

population. This is a book guaranteed to make a lot of people angry.

In many ways, “Arming America” is the best kind of non-fiction. Bellesiles is

trying to do a big thing—explain how the U.S. became so enamored of the firearm—

and he goes about it with imagination and the care of a good historian. He stumbled on

his thesis, he writes, when examining early American probate records for a study of

frontier economics. In more than 1,000 records from New England and western

Pennsylvania from 1765 to 1790—records that included property down to broken

teacups—only 14 percent listed guns, and of those, more than half noted that the guns

were in useless condition. “That was the beginning of this project,” he writes, “a ten-year

search for a word that isn’t there.”

 

What follows is more than 600 pages, copiously footnoted, that absolutely

devastate the myth of the gun in early America. Bellesiles starts with the guns

themselves. Guns in the 17th and 18th Centuries were so complicated, delicate,

inaccurate and expensive that they were little more than status playthings for the rich.

 

Dan Baum, Targeting America’s Gun Culture: A New Book Shoots Down the Conventional

Wisdom About the History of Our National Passion for Firearms, CHI. TRIB., Sept. 3, 2000, at C1.

184. Terrazas, supra note 48.

185. Bowman, supra note 30.

186. James R. Petersen, Arming America: When Did We Become a Gun Culture?, PLAYBOY,

Jan. 2001, at 69, http://www.guncite.com/gun_control_bellesiles_plby.html.

187. Petersen, supra note 186.

188. See supra note 34 and accompanying text.

189. Lindgren & Heather, supra note 84.

190. See supra note 132 and accompanying text.

191. See supra Subsection II.B.1.

192. See supra note 77 and accompanying text; see also Lindgren & Heather, supra note 24

(manuscript at 25 & n.64).

193. See Cramer, supra note 161 (presenting scanned copies of militia and other statutes).

194. See supra note 141 and accompanying text.

195. See supra note 120 and accompanying text.

196. See supra notes 121-123 and accompanying text.

197. See supra note 113 and accompanying text.

198. Ramirez, supra note 29.

199. Bowman, supra note 30.

200. For example, five of the six sentences on probate records on page 13 of Arming America

are false; of the twenty-one sentences about probate records on pages 109-10, seventeen are false,

two are misleading, and only two sentences (having little to do with the thesis) are true.

BELLESILES, supra note 3, at 13, 109-10; supra Subsection II.B.3.

201. See supra Sections II.C, II.F.

202. Over 170 of these involve basic misreadings of probate inventories or wills in

Providence, Rhode Island, and Vermont, confirmed in print by Robert Churchill or Randolph

Roth. See Churchill, supra note 39; Roth, supra note 41. See generally infra Appendix.

203. BELLESILES, supra note 3, at 262.

204. E-mail from Michael Bellesiles to author (Sept. 19, 2000) (on file with author).

205. Id.

206. Alison O. Adams, Silenced: Is Uncivil Discourse Quelling Scholarship on Controversial

Issues?, EMORY ACAD. EXCHANGE, Dec. 2001-Jan. 2002, at http://www.emory.edu/ACAD_

EXCHANGE/2002/decjan/silenced.html. Adams wrote:

 

Although Bellesiles was quoted in the Chronicle of Higher Education saying that

Lindgren’s criticisms were “valid,” he emailed the Academic Exchange, “I have never

understood Lindgren’s logic of mathematical impossibility. Since neither he nor I have

the numbers, which were lost in the Bowden [Hall] flood [in 2000], I am at a loss to

grasp his omniscience.”

 

Id.

207. If there are more than 201 inventories from Bellesiles’s sixteen Southern counties (at his

mean of 18.3% guns) for the twenty-six years 1765-1790, then Bellesiles’s national mean of

14.7% of estates listing guns is mathematically impossible, since there are only 1200 inventories

from the only region below the mean—the frontier, at 14.2% with guns. In fact, there are

thousands of Southern inventories in his sample, not the 201 or fewer that could mathematically

support his mean. We have shown his mean to be false with actual data both from Maryland and

from Charleston, South Carolina. Lindgren & Heather, supra note 24 (manuscript at 53-54). An

analogy might make the logic clearer. If someone tells you that they have a 3.9 GPA with thirty

grades, but the first ten grades you check are Bs, you know that the 3.9 GPA is false. You don’t

have to check all the grades to prove that the GPA is false. Similarly, you do not need to recount

all twenty-six years of data in Arming America to show that its national mean is false, just six

months of data in one large Southern county, Charleston, South Carolina.

208. Roth, supra note 41, at 237 (explaining that the historian whose evidence Bellesiles cites

to support low homicide rates in South Carolina actually concluded from that evidence that it was

a “homicidal place” ).

209. In Arming America, Bellesiles disclosed that he obtained his Providence data from three

volumes of the published records: “This data is drawn from Horatio Rogers et al., eds., The Early

Records of the Town of Providence, 21 vols. (Providence, RI, 1892-1915), vols. 6, 7 and 16.”

BELLESILES, supra note 3, at 485 n.133.

He confirmed that his Providence data were drawn from the published records in

correspondence: “Finally, I am sorry to hear that you come up with different numbers from

Horatio Rogers, et al., eds., The Early Records of the Town of Providence (21 vols. Providence,

R.I., 1892-1915). I used these books at the Huntington Library six years ago and have not yet

come across my notes.” E-mail from Michael Bellesiles to author, supra note 95.

210. E-mail from Michael Bellesiles to author, supra note 95.

211. BELLESILES, supra note 3, at 582.

212. Posting of Michael A. Bellesiles, mbelles@emory.edu, to H-OIEAHC@h-net.msu.edu

(Jan. 9, 2001) (copy on file with author). Bellesiles wrote:

 

[Jones’s] sample set does not constitute a complete run for every county in the years

covered, and I noticed that the shorter probate inventories were generally the ones

ignored. I was also struck by how often the word “gun” appeared, when in the

eighteenth century that word generally referred to cannon. I turned to the original files,

where I read words like “gown” that were recorded as “gun.”

 

Id. Bellesiles has never been able to provide even one example of Jones confusing gowns for guns

or of her supposed missampling in any county.

 



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Clayton E. Cramer - 8/28/2002

If the evidence had been obscure, it might have been tolerable that historians were so easily taken in. What depresses me is how widespread the evidence was that Bellesiles was, at least, wrong. I've been reading a number of recent histories of Bacon's Rebelion; it is apparently well known that Governor Berkeley complained what misery it was to govern a colony when six out of seven men are "Poore Endebted... and Armed." At one point, Berkeley complained that Bacon had 2000 armed men behind him, and 600 men with guns actually showed up at the capital to back up Bacon--and this without any use of the public arms.

Historians operate on the "union card" principle: if you are a professor, you know what you are talking about; if you aren't, they ignore you (even if you have an MA in History and can document what you are saying). I am reminded of the famous lines from one of the late 19th century plays (by George Bernard Shaw?) A paraphrase: "What shall we do with this private? He is an idiot." "Make him a general, and then everything he says will make sense."


John G. Fought - 8/28/2002

Thank you for your careful and systematic work
on the whole range of factual errors in the book,
and for putting them into a clear relationship to
its argument. Everyone involved, with perhaps one
exception, is in your debt.

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