Fall From Grace: Arming America and the Bellesiles Scandal (Part 1)
Bellesiles has dispersed the darkness that covered the gun’s early
history in America. He provides overwhelming evidence that our
view of the gun is as deep a superstition as any that affected Native
Americans in the 17th century.
—Garry Wills, New York Times1
Before there was a scandal, there was a book—Michael A. Bellesiles’s
Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture. In this Review, I
not only discuss the book, benefiting from some of the substantial published
and unpublished literature on it, but review a little of the controversy—at
least the controversy as I understand it at the beginning of 2002.
Let me state my biases up front: I dislike guns; I have never owned a
gun; I have not touched one since the age of nine. Yet I don’t understand
the passion that people bring to the issue of their regulation. My own prior
writing on guns has been on the pro-gun-control side of the dispute, and
some of it is so free from passion as to be soporific.2
Arming America is a well-written and compelling story of how early
Americans were largely unfamiliar with guns until the approach of the Civil
War. It tells a wide-ranging, detailed, but relatively unnuanced story of
gunlessness in early America. Bellesiles writes: “[T]he vast majority of
those living in British North American colonies had no use for firearms,
which were costly, difficult to locate and maintain, and expensive to use.” 3
According to Bellesiles, in seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and early
nineteenth-century America there were very few guns.4 Privately owned
guns were mostly in poor working condition.5 By law, guns were not kept
in the home but rather stored in central armories,6 and guns were too
expensive for widespread private ownership.7 He even claims that men
generally were unfamiliar with guns and that they did not want guns8—
preferring axes and knives instead, in part because guns were so inaccurate
that they were of little use. He argues that few settlers hunted,9 and implies
that axes made very good weapons in hunting.10 According to Arming
America, in battle “the ax [was often considered] the equal of a gun.” 11
Bellesiles claims that states enacted laws that restricted gun ownership
to white Protestants who owned property.12 White-on-white homicide was
rare in colonial America, according to Bellesiles, and guns were rarely the
weapon used in homicides.13 Guns were not culturally important, either:
Travel narratives do not show that guns were part of everyday life,14 even
on the frontier, and few people even wanted to own guns.15 At least in
probate records, women did not own guns.16 Since there were few guns, the
laws passed in the early nineteenth century restricting the right to carry
concealed weapons were directed at knives,17 not guns. He further claims
that the background of the Second Amendment shows that the Anti-
Federalists had no problem with restricting militia membership to those
above the lower social classes.18 Last, with a few exceptions, the militia
were extremely ineffective.19
Two meta-arguments by Bellesiles might have direct public policy
applications (though, as a work of history, Arming America does not
directly advocate any gun policies). One is that guns and violence go
together. In early America, he claims, we had very low gun ownership and
low homicide rates; after the Civil War, we had lots of guns and high
homicide rates.20 The second is that if guns were not widely owned, then it
is unlikely that gun owning was understood as an individual right in the
Since the book’s publication, scholars who have checked the book’s
claims against its sources have uncovered an almost unprecedented number
of discrepancies, errors, and omissions. When these are taken into account,
a markedly different picture of colonial America emerges: Household gun
ownership in early America was more widespread than today (in a much
Arming America is changing the way that some historians think about
their own profession and how some scholars in fields allied to history
regard historical research and publishing. Understanding this book and the
scandal it generated is important for scholars and teachers across the social
sciences, humanities, and law. Any graduate or professional student who
aspires to be an academic might profit by exploring the twists and turns of
the Bellesiles scandal.
I. BEFORE THE BOOK
In 1996 a well-regarded, but relatively obscure, historian at Emory
University, Michael A. Bellesiles, published an article in the Journal of
American History (JAH).21 It urged a mostly novel thesis about early
America—that there were few guns and that there was no gun culture until
the approach of the Civil War. His primary evidence was low counts of
guns in probate records, gun censuses, militia muster records, and homicide
The data fit together almost too neatly. In particular, if anyone had
looked closely at the probate data, they would have seen that it did not look
right. The regional differences were suspiciously slight; the increases over
time were extremely regular; the study did not indicate which counties were
in which categories; and in most unconventional fashion, the probate data
were published with no sample or cell sizes. The results were directly
contrary to the existing literature counting guns in probate records,22
including one source Bellesiles cited but did not discuss,23 all of which had
found substantial numbers of guns.
Last, the 1765-1790 data were mathematically impossible if there were
more than about 200 cases in his sixteen Southern counties over the twenty-six-
year period,24 which any scholar familiar with probate records would
have known had to be true many times over. If the JAH had insisted on cell
counts (which would have been conventional), the impossibility of the
1765-1790 data would have been fairly obvious.25 This entire scandal might
have been avoided in 1996 with more conventional editing at the JAH.
The response by historians to the 1996 JAH article was varied. At a
meeting of the Crime and Justice Network of the Social Science History
Association, historians discussed how such a piece of work could get
through peer review. The consensus was that probably none of the experts
in the room (many of whom were quantitative historians) had been asked to
review it. The Organization of American Historians, on the other hand, had
a different response: They awarded the article the prize for the best article
published in the JAH that year.26 This bipolar response to Michael
Bellesiles’s work on guns continued until recently—those who are most
expert on the subject of guns in early America or tend to understand
numbers best were most skeptical about Bellesiles’s work, while those who
know less about guns or less about numbers were most enamored of it.
Bellesiles’s surprising thesis had a few detractors online, mostly among
pro-gun activists and scholars unaffiliated with universities,27 but most
historians were impressed. Alfred A. Knopf, perhaps the top nonacademic
publisher of serious books of history, agreed to publish a much-expanded
version of the article. The educated public first learned of the forthcoming
book in a long, positive article in the Economist in the summer of 1999,28
over a year before the book came out. The Economist article was followed
by a similarly positive article in the New York Times in the spring of 2000,
still five months before the book’s publication.29
The response to the Economist article was overwhelming. The president
of the National Rifle Association, Charlton Heston, criticized Bellesiles and
his forthcoming book, saying, among other things, that Bellesiles had “too
much time on his hands.” 30 The tone of anti-intellectualism in the NRA
response was patent—and made an easy target for Bellesiles and his
colleagues. Substantively, Heston criticized Bellesiles’s reliance on probate
records, because of their incompleteness.31
In what was to become a pattern, Bellesiles responded in two very
different ways—a political response and a response claiming expertise and
care in his work. First, he obtained (or at least received) a public declaration
of support from other professors. A group of forty-seven law professors and
historians signed a public letter to the NRA expressing a moderately pro-
gun-control view.32 Second, Bellesiles made his own statements supporting
his methods. Defending the use of probate records against criticisms of
incompleteness, Bellesiles made some unusual claims. He said that probate
inventories recorded absolutely everything in an estate, even property given
away during life, and that wills recorded gifts given away up until the time
the will was written.33 These statements conflict not only with common
sense, but with what is written by every probate scholar that I have read or
that Bellesiles cites in Arming America.34 When initially pressed about
problems with the probate records, Bellesiles’s response was to defend his
reliance on them more vigorously with claims that plugged potential holes
in his argument. These claims, however, were not only unsupported but
ultimately proved to be false.
When Arming America was published in September 2000, it was treated
to some rave reviews. First, it was welcomed to the front page of the New
York Times Book Review with an uncritical review by Garry Wills.35 Then
Edmund Morgan wrote an enthusiastic review in the New York Review of
Books.36 Other positive reviews followed.
The only early negative reviews were in conservative, libertarian, or
gun aficionado magazines or websites, most prominently the National
Review37 and Reason.38 By January 2001, an extraordinary number of errors
had been identified in the book and were being discussed on history and
constitutional law discussion lists, including Bellesiles’s claim to have
examined records that did not exist and his use of data that were
Nonetheless, apparently without looking into any of these claims, in
April 2001 Columbia University awarded the Bancroft Prize for history to
Arming America, along with two other books. It was not until a year after
the book’s release that the academic journals began publishing some
devastating critiques—by Robert Churchill in Reviews in American
History,39 Joyce Malcolm in the Texas Law Review,40 Randolph Roth, Ira
Gruber, and Gloria Main in the William and Mary Quarterly,41 and Justin
Heather and me in the William and Mary Law Review.42
† Stanford Clinton Sr. Professor of Law, Director of the Demography of Diversity Project,
Northwestern University School of Law. Chair, AALS Section on Law and Social Science. J.D.,
University of Chicago; B.A., Yale University; currently Ph.D. student, Sociology, University of
Chicago. This Review was funded by the Searle Fund at Northwestern University. I would like to
thank the many unnamed people who contributed to my understanding of Arming America, but
particularly those whose work is discussed here—Randolph Roth on homicides, Robert Churchill
on militia arms and gun censuses, Justin Heather on edge weapons and probate, Eugene Volokh
on legal history, and Clayton Cramer on travel accounts, gun ownership restrictions, and other
matters. I am also indebted to those who located and carefully examined documents in Contra
Costa County—David Golden, Betty Maffei, Dean McLeod, Kathy Beals, and Kathleen Mero—
and to David Golden and the staff of the History Center for their help during my research visit
there. While this Review deals mostly with issues other than probate records, the probate
discussion in particular is based on James Lindgren & Justin L. Heather, Counting Guns in Early
America, 43 WM. & MARY L. REV. (forthcoming 2002), where most of that discussion first
appeared. I benefited from the comments of participants on that paper at faculty workshops at
Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Chicago, William & Mary, Pennsylvania, Berkeley, Indiana, North
Carolina, and Virginia. This Review reflects the state of the dispute in January 2002, although
there are occasional citations to works published later.
* Professor of History, Emory University.
1. Garry Wills, Editorial, Spiking the Gun Myth, N.Y. TIMES, Sept. 10, 2000, § 7, at 5.
2. James Lindgren, Organizational and Other Constraints on Controlling the Use of Deadly
Force by Police, 455 ANNALS AM. ACAD. POL. & SOC. SCI. 110 (1981); James Lindgren &
Franklin E. Zimring, Regulation of Guns, in 2 ENCYCLOPEDIA OF CRIME AND JUSTICE 836
(Sanford H. Kadish ed., 1983).
3. MICHAEL A. BELLESILES, ARMING AMERICA: THE ORIGINS OF A NATIONAL GUN
CULTURE 110 (2000).
4. See, e.g., id. at 445 tbl.1.
5. See, e.g., id. at 13, 109.
6. Id. at 73.
7. Id. at 106.
8. See, e.g., id. at 390.
9. Id. at 110.
10. Id. at 313 (attributing to a hunter the statement that axes made very good weapons).
11. Id. at 67.
12. Id. at 74-75.
13. Id. at 81, 353.
14. Id. at 305-22.
15. Id. at 389-90.
16. Id. at 267.
17. Id. at 309.
18. Id. at 223.
19. Id. at 87-88, 140-41, 146-53, 178-79, 182-83, 193-98.
20. See id. at 434, 436.
21. Michael A. Bellesiles, The Origins of Gun Culture in the United States, 1760-1865, 83 J.
AM. HIST. 425 (1996).
22. GLORIA L. MAIN, TOBACCO COLONY: LIFE IN EARLY MARYLAND, 1650-1720, at 242
(1982); Anna Hawley, The Meaning of Absence: Household Inventories in Surry County,
Virginia, 1690-1715, in EARLY AMERICAN PROBATE INVENTORIES 23, 27-29 (Peter Benes ed.,
1987); Judith A. McGaw, “So Much Depends upon a Red Wheelbarrow”: Agricultural Tool
Ownership in the Eighteenth-Century Mid-Atlantic, in EARLY AMERICAN TECHNOLOGY:
MAKING AND DOING THINGS FROM THE COLONIAL ERA TO 1850, at 328, 340 (Judith A. McGaw
23. ALICE HANSON JONES, AMERICAN COLONIAL WEALTH: DOCUMENTS AND METHODS
24. For a full discussion of this point, see James Lindgren & Justin L. Heather, Counting
Guns in Early America, 43 WM. & MARY L. REV. (forthcoming 2002) (manuscript at 53-54, on
file with author). See also infra note 207.
25. For example, if Bellesiles had listed fewer than 200 estates for sixteen Southern counties
for the twenty-six years 1765-1790, it would have been obvious that the count could not be
correct. There would be more than 200 estates in just a few years of one large Southern county. If
Bellesiles had listed a plausible count of, for example, 3000-8000 cases from the South, then the
overall mean of 14.7% would have been obviously impossible, since he reports only 1200 cases
from the frontier, the only region below the mean. See id. (manuscript at 51-54 & nn.105-13).
26. OAH Binkley Stephenson Award Winners, at http://www.oah.org/activities/awards/
binkleystephenson/winners.html (last visited Apr. 17, 2002).
27. The most thorough and persistent critic since the 1996 article was published has been
Clayton Cramer, some of whose criticisms are confirmed in this Review. See Clayton E. Cramer
& Dave Kopel, Disarming Errors, NAT’L REV., Oct. 9, 2000, at 54; Clayton E. Cramer, Firearms
Ownership & Manufacturing in Early America (Apr. 4, 2001), at http://www.claytoncramer.com/
ArmingAmericaLong.pdf [hereinafter Cramer, Firearms Ownership]; Clayton E. Cramer, Gun
Scarcity in the Early Republic? (Nov. 19, 2001), at http://www.claytoncramer.com/
28. Arms and the Man, ECONOMIST, July 3, 1999, at 17.
29. Anthony Ramirez, The Lock and Load Myth; A Disarming Heritage, N.Y. TIMES, Apr.
23, 2000, § 4, at 3.
30. David Bowman, The Reasonable Gun Nut, SALON.COM, Sept. 7, 2000, at
http://www.salon.com/books/feature/2000/09/07/bellesiles (reproducing a transcript of a taped
interview with Michael Bellesiles). In this interview, Bellesiles stated:
I wrote him [Heston] an open letter because he wrote an editorial in Guns & Ammo
attacking my research from a very postmodern perspective: Evidence doesn’t matter.
He said I had too much time on my hands. I pointed out that I write history and what
use people make of it is their business, not mine.
32. Differing Views on the Second Amendment (Apr. 3, 2000), at http://www.kentlaw.edu/
33. See Bowman, supra note 30. Bellesiles told Salon:
I’d like to know what his evidence is. When Professor Heston gets his Ph.D. and does
the research, I might be open to persuasion. This is one area of law that in colonial
America was far stricter and much more rigorously enforced than it is today. Cheating
on probate was a very great crime because resources were thinly stretched. When
someone died, every single item owned—everything, even broken things—was
recorded. Guns had to be listed. So unless Charlton Heston can come up with evidence
that they made an exception for guns, he should keep quiet. The British Common Law
saw guns as belonging to the state. The state had all priority rights over firearms. They
could appropriate them at any time without recompense. There was actually greater
value placed on recording firearms than any other single item.
Id.; see also BELLESILES, supra note 3, at 13, 267, 484-85 n.132 (claiming that gifts before death
were recorded); Ramirez, supra note 29 (explaining that Bellesiles questioned the evidence for
Gary Kleck’s argument that guns would have been passed on before death).
34. Bellesiles is virtually alone among historians who work with probate records in thinking
that they are more or less complete. Compare BELLESILES, supra note 3, at 13, 109, 266, with
Lindgren & Heather, supra note 24 (manuscript at 56-59) (explaining the general consensus
among scholars that probate inventories are incomplete). Bellesiles offers no evidence for the idea
that probate records are so detailed that they record both all estate assets and most lifetime gifts.
Nor does he offer any evidence for the idea that firearms were more likely to be listed in probate
inventories than other items. On both issues, the historians he cites directly contradict his claims.
See Lindgren & Heather, supra note 24 (manuscript at 56-59). Clothes and land, for example,
were frequently omitted. Id.
In Arming America, Bellesiles raises few hints that probate inventories are not complete.
There is, however, an eloquent general comment about the limitations of using quantitative
records. BELLESILES, supra note 3, at 262.
35. See Wills, supra note 1.
36. Edmund S. Morgan, In Love with Guns, N.Y. REV. BOOKS, Oct. 19, 2000, at 30.
37. Cramer & Kopel, supra note 27.
38. Joyce Lee Malcolm, Concealed Weapons, REASON, Jan. 2001, at 47.
39. Robert H. Churchill, Guns and the Politics of History, 29 REVS. AM. HIST. 329 (2001).
40. Joyce Malcolm, Arming America, 79 TEX. L. REV. 1657 (2001) (book review).
41. Forum, Historians and Guns, 59 WM. & MARY Q. 203 (2002); Ira D. Gruber, Of Arms
and Men: Arming America and Military History, 59 WM. & MARY Q. 217 (2002); Gloria L.
Main, Many Things Forgotten: The Use of Probate Records in Arming America, 59 WM. &
MARY Q. 211 (2002); Randolph Roth, Guns, Gun Culture, and Homicide: The Relationship
Between Firearms, the Uses of Firearms, and Interpersonal Violence, 59 WM. & MARY Q. 223
42. Lindgren & Heather, supra note 24.
This review first appeared in the Yale Law Journal (June 2002), Vol. 111, pages 2195-2249 and is reprinted with permission.
comments powered by Disqus
alan schultz - 9/16/2002
Comment in the above article indicated that NRA's Heston opined that Professor Bellsiles might perhaps have had to much time on his hands. Anti-intellectual or not, Heston might have been more right than wrong there.
Dallis Miller - 8/30/2002
It's a shame that some so called scholars are so biased in there
opinions and politics that they have to resort to printing and publishing out n out lies to get there point across. The shamefull thing is that these people call themselves Americans and actually are allowed to teachour young people. This man should be thrown out of the profession along with all who support him. His kind do as much or more damage to our country
and the minds of our young as the terrorist do.
ed miller - 8/29/2002
sounds like a treatise on disarming the public by the government
ed miller - 8/29/2002
sounds like a treatise on disarming the public by the government
ed miller - 8/29/2002
sounds like a treatise on disarming the public by the government
J. Merrett - 8/28/2002
It seems to me that this article (with its appendix) should put to rest any thought that Bellesiles is something other than a malicious liar.
It is a pity that the consequences of his actions will not include incarceration. It is greater pity that whatever Emory does to him, he may very well end up somewhere teaching people less sophisticated and more vulnerable than his most recent students.
- New PBS DVD From Henry Louis Gates Jr. Explores African Influence on the Caribbean
- The Council on Foreign Relations Honors Kissinger Critic
- Architectural historian discovers Chartres Cathedral has started faking it
- Rick Perlstein hits back at a critic of his book on Reagan
- So Historians Are Surprised by What DNA Can Tell Us?