note: As the Washington
Bulletin reports today, in an important development, the head
of Emory University's history department is demanding that historian
Michael Bellesiles write a detailed defense of his award-winning
book, Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture.
Melissa Seckora reported on the book and many of its false claims
in "Disarming America," below.
power of image and myth repeatedly overwhelms reality in discussions
of early American firearms," writes Michael A. Bellesiles,
a professor of history at Emory University, in his book, Arming
America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture. "America's
gun culture is an invented tradition."
has done some inventing of his own. His book which won this
year's Bancroft Prize, the most prestigious award in the writing
of American history is one of the worst cases of academic
irresponsibility in memory. Yet his remarkable performance has not
been enough to cause either his employer, Emory, or his publisher,
Knopf, to act.
Some of the
most significant statements in Arming America are "based"
on data that simply do not exist. In other words, they are based
on nothing. For example, Bellesiles claims to have counted guns
in probate records of the estates of people who died in 1849 or
'50 and 1858 or '59 in San Francisco. The problem is that, according
to everyone who should know, all the probate records that Bellesiles
allegedly reviewed were destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake
and fire. Rick Sherman of the California Genealogical Society has
said, "I am unaware of the existence of any surviving San Francisco
probate files for 1849-1859. If this involves an out-of-body experience,
I'd like to know how to pull it off."
Bellesiles sets out to prove is that there were very few guns in
early America, let alone a gun culture, and that most of the guns
that did exist were old and broken. He published an article on the
subject in 1996, in the Journal of American History
a piece that won "Best Article of the Year" from the Organization
of American Historians. Five months before the book came out, Anthony
Ramirez of the New York Times promoted Bellesiles's thesis,
presumably based on the earlier, award-winning article. He said
that the probate records were the author's "principal evidence."
John Chambers, a military historian from Rutgers, reviewed the book
for the Washington Post, saying that the probate records
were Bellesiles's "freshest and most interesting source."
Edmund Morgan, one of the country's leading historians of colonial
America, followed suit, exclaiming in the New York Review of
Books, "The evidence is overwhelming. First of all are
the probate records."
especially those with a strong quantitative bent were
skeptical of Bellesiles's data, but many others, including Garry
Wills, uncritically embraced Arming America, most likely
because it appeared to confirm what they have long wanted to believe:
that the Second Amendment protects only a collective right to bear
arms, that individual gun rights were deemed unimportant at the
time of the writing and ratification of the Constitution.
One of those who were skeptical was Joyce Malcolm, a history professor
at Bentley College who has written a book on the Anglo-American
conception of gun rights. She says, "Bellesiles fails to provide
even basic information about the probate figures that form the basis
of his claims for the rarity of guns. And he repeatedly makes general
statements that are extreme. But if you check his footnotes, a more
disturbing pattern emerges. It is not just an odd mistake or a difference
of interpretation, but misrepresentation of what his sources [if
they exist] actually say, time after time after time."
website, and in correspondence with other scholars, Bellesiles
has not only reasserted that he used records in San Francisco, he
has embellished his story by giving a location: the Superior Court.
In a long interview I conducted with him, he confirmed more than
once that the archives he used were at the Superior Court, and said
further that he had read hundreds of probate records in both San
Francisco and Los Angeles. "There were only a few hundred cases,
but that's a lot of cases."
When I asked
him point-blank whether he had used probate records from San Francisco
County, he answered: "I used county probate records from the
Superior Court. I had to go the courthouse the San Francisco
Superior Court." But the deputy clerk of the court, Clark Banayad,
says flatly, "Every record at the San Francisco Superior Court
predating 1906 was destroyed by fire, or other causes, in the 1906
earthquake." This is common knowledge among California probate
and genealogical authorities. The probate records cannot be found
at the History Center of the San Francisco Public Library either.
Librarian Susan Goldstein says that the center stores some archives
of the city and the county, including property deeds, general indexes,
and contracts, but that it has "no record of the number of
guns owned in the city of San Francisco prior to the 1906 earthquake."
Kathy Beals, author of three books on San Francisco's early probate
records, says that "to my knowledge, there are no official
probate files in existence for years prior to 1880, and only scraps
from 1880 until 1905."
I then informed
Professor Bellesiles that the probate records could not be found
at the San Francisco Superior Court. He changed his story: "Did
I say San Francisco Superior Court? I can't remember exactly. I'm
working off a dim memory. Now, if I remember correctly, the Mormon
Church's Family Research Library has these records. You can try
the Sutro Library, too."
appears to have been in error yet again. According to Martha Whittaker,
a reference librarian at San Francisco's Sutro Library, the records
do not exist. "All official probate records were destroyed
by the San Francisco earthquake and fire because the city hall burned
down." As for the Family Research Library, Elaine Hasleton,
supervisor of public affairs, says that the library has an index
of all estates in probate in the city and county of San Francisco
from 1850, but that the index does not list information about gun
ownership. "The index only lists names and the locations of
the actual probate records. It does not list possessions."
The San Francisco Superior Court, the Sutro Library, and the Mormon
Church's Family Research Library are not the only places that do
not have an archive that Bellesiles purports to have used. In correspondence
last year, Bellesiles assured would-be replicators of his research
that for all but "several" of the 40 counties he examined,
he did his probate research via microfilm at the Federal Archives
in East Point, Ga. He wrote: "The probate records are all on
microfilm in the National Archives. I went to the East Point, Georgia,
federal center to read these microfilms." When it turned out
that the archives in East Point did not have these materials, Bellesiles
admitted that he might have been mistaken. His new story was that
he went around the country doing most of his probate research in
over 30 different county or state archives looking at original records,
not microfilm of the original records, as he had first claimed.
One wonders how he could have forgotten whether he did his research
in a single library near his office or in more than 30 archives
around the country.
It could have
something to do with the fact that his "database" consisted
merely of tick marks on pads of paper. "For the research in
the book," he said in our interview, "I was going through
sample years, counting numbers of inventories and checking off how
many had guns with cross hatches. It was very rough reading of very
difficult documents." Bellesiles claims to have counted 11,170
probate inventories; his was, at a minimum, a rather unorthodox
and not very modern system for recording great amounts of historical
information. What's more, Bellesiles says that all of his tick-mark
notes got wet in a flood in his office and had to be discarded,
leaving him with no documentation at all to back up his probate
study. "All of my notes were destroyed in boxes on the floor
of my office, and they got drenched, pulped."
a Northwestern University law professor, criminologist, and probate
expert, trained in quantitative methods, and his coauthor, attorney
Justin Heather, have identified many other errors in Bellesiles's
work in their paper "Counting Guns in Early America."
They found that Bellesiles purported to examine about a hundred
wills in Providence, R.I., that simply do not exist, and that he
also misused records that do exist: repeatedly counting women as
men, counting as old or broken guns that were not so listed, and
claiming that there were a "great many" state-owned weapons
when there was only one.
Heather have also determined that Bellesiles's main 18th-century
probate contentions are mathematically impossible. In his book,
Bellesiles reports a national mean for the period 1765-90 of 14.7
percent of probate inventories listing a gun, when every other published
probate researcher including Anna Hawley, Gloria Main, Alice
Hanson Jones, and Harold Gill has found three to five times
that many. "It's a simple sixth-grade math problem, computing
an overall mean from samples," says Lindgren. He and his coauthor
elaborate on this at length in their paper. Oddly, Bellesiles has
never disputed any of the pair's main charges. The closest he has
come so far to admitting any wrongdoing was in a letter he sent
to the Wall Street Journal (which had reported critically
on his case): "I have come to feel that the use of my sample
sets is not as statistically sound as I would like."
who have looked into the matter concur that Bellesiles's allegations
are false. Lindgren "utterly devastates Bellesiles's research,"
says Albert Alschuler, a law professor at the University of Chicago
and author of a recent biography of Oliver Wendell Holmes. Randolph
Roth of Ohio State University, the leading expert on early-America
homicide rates, has looked at Lindgren and Heather's counts of guns
in the Providence inventories and found them correct. A third scholar,
UCLA's Eric Monkkonen, one of the country's foremost quantitative
historians, says, "Lindgren's data show that Bellesiles was
this, the book's editor, Jane Garrett, still defends the book. Knopf
declined to answer questions, but in a written statement Garrett
said, "Hosts of reputable scholars continue to defend [Bellesiles's]
methods and his conclusions. Controversies of this nature are not
uncommon in the historical profession. That's what makes history
Yet it is not
so "interesting" as that. Bellesiles suggested that I
speak to ten professors who knew his work, of whom I was able to
speak to six. All were either negative about his work though
stopping short of accusing him of outright fraud or cautious
in their praise. And almost none of those who continue to support
Bellesiles has bothered to explore the criticism of him. None could
identify a single criticism as false. In fact, when I asked Bellesiles
himself to point out such a criticism, he could only identify a
few criticisms that, on examination, proved true. In general, my
investigation of this case did not support the impression of some
such as Knopf's Garrett that there are distinguished
scholars on both sides who have carefully gone over the challenged
evidence. Those who have taken the trouble have Bellesiles dead-to-rights.
of Ohio State is one of the historians whom Bellesiles suggested
I contact. He has looked into criticism of the author, but could
not identify any particular errors in it. Cornell says that some
of the criticism has been "hysterical [and] ideologically driven,"
while other criticism such as Lindgren and Heather's
has been "thought-provoking [and] powerful": "We
are all waiting to see what Michael's response to it will be. Even
if he is proven wrong, it is possible to write an important book
that moves the debate forward, even if it is flawed. We are all
in Bellesiles's debt for opening the debate."
Jack Rakove, winner of a 1997 Pulitzer Prize in history, takes a
much different view. A historian's claims, he says, ought to be
verifiable: "Other scholars should be able to go to the archives
to see whether you've quoted them accurately and used them correctly.
Bellesiles will have to defend himself. If he can't do it, we will
know. If he has really screwed up, he will be held accountable."
who has also found several major problems with Bellesiles's homicide
counts (which he will discuss in a forthcoming article in the William
& Mary Quarterly as part of a forum on Arming America),
agrees: "If I am wrong, I want you to be able to fix my mistakes.
The only way that can happen, however, is if I share my data and
make clear exactly what sources I looked at. Michael hasn't done
that yet. That is the big problem."
Those who have examined Arming America have documented hundreds
of possibly intentional misconstructions of sources or outright
falsehoods. The probate records aside, Bellesiles has egregious
problems in the areas of homicide data, gun censuses, reports on
militia arms, hunting accounts, travel accounts, the opinions of
the anti-Federalists, and laws governing guns. So far it appears
that Bellesiles has not been able to validate any of the challenged
portions of his book. Indeed, in a new paperback edition of Arming
America being released this fall, he has quietly capitulated
on some of the critics' claims, retracting or altering the challenged
statements about probate data from Providence.
Career Sails On
Bellesiles told me he plans on spending the next ten years or so
reconstructing the information he lost in the flood and posting
it on his website. "That is what I am working on now
it is my hobby," he says.
his university position seems secure, and he continues to win academic
plums. Walter Adamson, outgoing chairman of the Emory history department,
told me, "Nothing has come forward to me that indicates that
Bellesiles deserves to be treated or included in that company of
people who have been judged to fabricate their sources." He
said this, however, before the revelation of Bellesiles's San Francisco
And what about
Knopf? Says one scholar, "What has happened to ethics [there]?
They have allowed a rogue author and an editor of apparently compromised
judgment to go forward unchecked. If Knopf doesn't know that it
is publishing false data, it is only because it chooses not to know.
The very image of Knopf as a serious publishing house has been compromised."
One could only
imagine the outcry if a conservative scholar, fabricating evidence
to prove a pet conservative point, had been found to be careless
(to say the least). If the purpose of historical scholarship is
to construct a past that is congenial to oneown biases, then Michael
A. Bellesiles can be judged a success. But that is not, of course,
the purpose of historical scholarship. Those who understand that
can take heart: Arming America has been disarmed by its own