HISTORIANS have been getting in the news quite a bit lately, but not to their liking. Quite a bit of ink has been spilled on the sins of Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin, both of whom have been caught engaging in the great academic no-no plagiarism. Both are best-selling authors of popular history; they will not suffer in employment and loss of income from their exposure. If anything, the general public probably does not even care whether or not key passages from their books were taken verbatim from the work of others. As far as most readers are concerned; both writers tell a story well and offer fully developed character studies. Of course, if they were actually teaching in a college or university, the outcome might be somewhat different. Joseph Ellis did his own work, but the revelation that he made up a good chunk of his personal story and lied to his classes about his role in the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement led to his suspension from his teaching post and much personal embarrassment.
But now a much more serious crisis has emerged in the land of academic historians. This one has graver implications, and reflects not only on the personal drama surrounding Emory University professor Michael A. Bellesiles, but on the nature of the crisis surrounding the field of academic history itself. Bellesiles, as readers of this site most probably are already aware, is the author of Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Cult (Knopf, 2000). His thesis, quite simply, is that the belief that early America was heavily armed is nothing but a great myth. Gun ownership was actually exceptional, Bellesiles argued. Most available guns didn’t work, and one could not find gunsmiths easily who could fix them. The evolution of a “gun culture,” he argued, was something that arose only after the Civil War. Immediately opponents of gun ownership and enemies of the National Rifle Association made the book their prize weapon in their current day political fight. If Bellesiles was correct, they claimed it meant that Americans never had a right to bear arms; there was never a heavily armed America that represented the heart and soul of a great nation. As historian Michael Zuckerman of the University of Pennsylvania put it, “the way we think about guns and violence in America will never be the same.” Michael Kammen, a former President of the Organization of American Historians, proclaimed Bellesiles’ book to be a “classic work.”
Because of the political implications made from his study, this academic treatise---the kind of book usually read only by scholars—received major attention. Gary Wills offered a rave lead review which appeared on the cover page of The New York Times Book Review in September 10, 2000. Clearly, what enthralled Wills is the challenge the book made to the belief that “for many Americans, the gun is a holy object, the emblem and guarantor of their identity.” The author, Wills wrote, “deflates the myth of the self-reliant and self-armed virtuous yeoman of the Revolutionary militias.” And when guns became numerous in the Civil War, it was not that of a lone gunman and his revolver, but those of the government’s cavalry rifle. The American love affair with guns, Wills wrote, is merely a “superstition.”
The next month, the distinguished historian Edmund Morgan gave it a similar treatment in The New York Review of Books issue of Oct.19. Morgan was taken in completely. Guns, he wrote, “somehow generate beliefs that are obviously contrary to observable fact.” Bellesiles, he proclaimed, “has the facts,” and has written “so compelling a refutation of the mythology of the gun.” And Bellesiles’ use of probate records, he wrote, provided evidence that is “overwhelming.”
Bellesiles, he wrote, “requires us to reconsider, indeed to reverse, the common view of the role of firearms in early America.” That view “is wrong,” Morgan wrote, and, he then added, “we know why the National Rifle Association wants to believe that early Americans were as well equipped with arms as their overequipped descendants.” Morgan then went on to condemn The Patriot as a “recent cinematic fantasy.” Of course, one has to then take up the “absolutist dogmas” surrounding the Second Amendment. Morgan made the political implications of Bellesiles’ scholarship most succinctly: “Bellesiles has deprived modern gun owners of the portion of our past that has lent the most respectability to their claims of historic validity” (my emphasis). This will not stop “true believers,” he noted; they are “seldom troubled by facts.” His book would help reduce “the credibility of the fanatics who endow the Founding Fathers with posthumous membership in…a cult of the gun.”
Then in April 2001, Bellesiles received the important and prestigious Bancroft Prize in History awarded by Columbia University for the best work in American History. By all accounts, his academic study of gun ownership in colonial and early America had changed our view of the nation’s past. Professor Bellesiles was on his way to becoming one of the most important historians working in the United States. He had received the two most important slots in the most prominent book reviews, and the accolades of the historical Establishment.
All that was about to change. First, supporters of gun ownership and amateur historians checked his work, and suggested that it contained numerous omissions and loopholes. Because these critics were often political supporters of the NRA, most academic historians ignored their charges. Moreover, angry opponents of Bellesiles not only issued personal attacks on him; some threatened him personally. This kind of behavior did not help Bellesiles’ critics get their arguments heard.
Then, however, some non-partisan historians and other scholars began to look over his book. Northwestern University professor of Law James Lindgren, whose work involved use of probate records and quantitative data, revealed what he said were major serious errors in Bellesiles’ book. His use of probate records, Lindgren determined, was internally inconsistent and mathematically impossible. Moreover, records that Bellesiles said he had examined simply did not exist. Bellesiles had said he had read probate inventories at a National Archives Center in East Point, Georgia. The center told Lindgren they had no such archives. This was just the beginning.
Soon, the Boston Globe got on the case, and found that Bellesiles’ claims about sources he cited and places where he supposedly used probate records did not check out. It quickly became apparent that historian Bellesiles regularly began to change his story about how and where he did his research work. Admitting an error, he told the Globe that he must have used the records somewhere else, and simply forgot where. In addition, style='mso-bidi-font-style: normal'>National Review Online (>NRO) writer Melissa Seckora wrote a series of articles detailing continually new findings about non-existent probate records that Bellesilles claimed to have examined. Her articles have continued until the most recent one she posted on >NRO earlier this week.
All of this has had an effect. This week, the cover story of the very liberal magazine of the academy, The Chronicle of Higher Education, (Feb.1, 2002) features Danny Postel’s lead article, listed on the cover as “History Under the Gun,” with the subtitle telling readers that the “profession praised ignoring critics who have since been vindicated.” Scholars, the cover ads, “now ask why it took them so long to raise questions.” Indeed, this is a rare example of how careful and sustained research by Bellesiles’ many critics has made their point: he has, to date, been unable to defend his conclusions. Indeed, he has been unable to offer for examination the sources he claims to have examined. His data, he says, were destroyed in an office flood; he examined so many records that he simply does not remember where he used them, and has therefore come up with different stories about archives that cannot be found. Writing in the November 2001 issue of the Organization of American Historians newsletter, Bellesiles tried to defend himself, but as the Chronicle article puts it, “Mr. Bellesiles offered little detail…and did not respond to many of the toughest criticisms that had been made about the book.” Why, Seckora asked in NRO, won’t he “seriously respond to his critics?”
But most important is the revelation in the Chronicle article that the many challenges to Bellesiles’ data and arguments have changed the mind of some who at first bought his analysis completely. Edmund Morgan, Prof. Emeritus at Yale University, now says that the criticisms are “pretty incriminating,” and that if people find that he has “cheated on the evidence, it could discredit the whole thesis.” Gary Wills, however, simply refused to be interviewed, and having made his political points, now says he would need time to reconsider the issue and he does not have that time. But John Wilson, who praised the book in Books and Culture, in a cover review in the September/October 2000 issue, now writes that he was “badly wrong” and that it took him a long time to “grasp just how wrong….I allowed myself to be seduced by the thrill of a thesis that overturned common wisdom.”
Now, the final judgment of the profession awaits reading of the forthcoming issue of the journal William and Mary Quarterly, the academic journal of early American history, which will feature a long response by Bellesiles to all of his critics. Some warn, as does Ohio State’s Randolph Roth, that Bellesiles refuses to post his sources on the Quarterly’s website, and that he still “makes it impossible for scholars to resolve the controversy.” Others are even stronger. Don Hickey, a historian at Wayne State College in Nebraksa, originally supported Bellesiles’ work, and had recommended publication of an early version of his research in The Journal of American History. Now he says “it is a case of genuine, bona fide academic fraud.” Some historians, committed to the standards of historical work, are simply furious that their trust in Bellesiles has led their own reputations to be compromised. And Randolph Roth says that the book was an example of “history addressing an important social issue in a courageous way. If it were true this would be history at its best. The problem is it just happens to be wrong.” Thus it is nothing less than a “crushing blow.”
And this comment gets us to what the debate over Arming America says about the state of the historical profession. Early critics were ignored; they were seen as ideological warriors of the NRA, whose criticisms could easily be ignored and viewed as predictable. It probably didn’t help people listen to them when Charlton Heston assailed Bellesiles in November 1999, as a man who had “too much time on his hands.” The Left, assuming that historical evidence had to justify their views, could write off this kind of criticism as nonsense from the Right wing.
In fact, what the Bellesiles controversy shows is that left-wing academia rushed to judgment about his book, without even considering whether the research behind his findings was accurate. James Lindgren is correct, when he told the Chronicle’s Postel that the book was treated “not as a matter of evidence, but rather as one of narrative, taste and politics.” I would argue that it essentially was completely a question of politics as critics of conservatives like Gary Wills saw the book as a new chance to wage their political war against the gun lobby. That is why scholars jumped on the bandwagon, heralding Bellesiles Arming Americaas the book that proves the myth of early gun ownership. The Left academy, whose own very politicized scholarship always talks about the impact of “race, class and gender” on the “hegemonic” oppressive American political structurem and whose own big guns miss no opportunity to use their academic standing to condemn conservatives and to argue that the American past proves the validity of the radical Left’s world view proved to be true to form. They assumed that those who found flaws in Bellesiles’ scholarship had to be wrong, and were just ideological right-wing fanatics. They gave him one of the profession’s most coveted prizes, and have refused to reconsider the award. Two professional associations passed resolutions condemning the “harassment” of Bellesiles, while refusing to comment on the nature of his work.
Melissa Seckora is correct. She wrote that “one could only imagine the outcry if a conservative scholar, fabricating evidence to prove a pet conservative point, had been found to be careless.” And Postel ends his article with a telling point. When The Bell Curve appeared, scores of people were deeply offended by the implications of Charles Murray and Richard Hernstein’s book. There was no end of scores of liberal and left-wing scholars who subjected every claim both authors made to minute scrutiny, and who came forth with a mountain of detailed criticism, much of it deserving. But for Arming America, these same brigades remained silent. Even after the judgment that the book lacks veracity is now becoming commonplace, most left-wing historians refuse to acknowledge the criticism or change their early enthusiastic responses. We should not be surprised. Their non-response is itself proof of the triumph of ideological history over scholarship.