A VERY DETERMINED gun rights proponent has delivered the ammunition to shoot down Arming America, last year’s Bancroft Prize for American History. Clayton Cramer, software engineer by day, historian by night, has spent the last 18 months documenting the lack of historical accuracy as well as the fabrication of data in a book that had been hailed as "brilliantly researched and very well written."
When Alfred A. Knopf published Bellesiles’ book in 2000, I received a review copy complete with copies of positive reviews. I quoted Michael Zuckerman’s prophecy: "Michael Bellesiles is the NRA’s worst nightmare," in my review of Disarming America. Thanks to Clayton Cramer and others willing to challenge academia’s liberal biases we now know Zuckerman is wrong, and the nightmare really belongs to Michael Bellesiles.
Cramer’s odyssey began in 1996 when Michael A. Bellesiles published an article in the Journal of American History, where he first postulated the underlying premise of Arming America: that guns had been rare in America prior to the mid-nineteenth century. At the same time, Clayton Cramer was researching the question of why eight slave states had developed regulations concerning concealed weapons in the period 1813-1840. Cramer began investigating Bellesiles’ claim of gun scarcity to see if it matched his own research.
As he read Bellesiles’ sources, Clayton found major disagreements with Bellesiles’ interpretation. Clayton also uncovered other sources that Bellesiles conveniently overlooked. Thus he concluded that Bellesiles’ "use of the sources is so biased that one is hard pressed to take seriously any claim that he considered both sides of his argument."
After Arming America was published, Cramer began publishing his findings in National Review Online, Shotgun News, and on his website.
But Clayton wasn’t the only reviewer critical of Arming America. On October 29, 2000 John Whiteclay Chambers II, professor of history at Rutgers University, wrote a review in the Washington Post. Chambers took Bellesiles to task by writing, "extensive research is undermined by errors of fact, omission and judgment."
Professor Joyce Malcolm of Bentley College, a recognized scholar on the history of firearms, also reviewed Arming America. Her extensive review can be summarized by her statement; "The controversial book Arming America has the facts all wrong." Her scathing indictment includes references to both Professor John Lindgren’s analysis of probate records as well as Cramer’s findings of factual errors.
When Columbia announced that Bellesiles would be the Bancroft Prize recipient, the debate over the validity of Bellesiles’ history finally got the attention of national media. On April 5, 2001 Kimberly Strassel, an assistant features editor of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page, wrote an Opinion Editorial titled, "Arm-Twisting." It was the first time a major newspaper acknowledged errors in Arming America. She stated, "A growing number of respected scholars, from across the political spectrum, are saying that Mr. Bellesiles' research and conclusions are wrong."
The debate over Bellesiles’ research even reached Australia, as theage.com.au published an article titled "Historian wounded as theory backfires."
On September 11, 2001 two articles, one in the Boston Globe and the other in National Review online, concerning the historical accuracy of Arming America were published. Due to the unfortunate events of that date, neither article generated much interest.
National Review’s October monthly magazine republished Melissa Seckora’s original September 11 article, "Disarming America." Ms Seckora pulls no punches in her analysis of the book. Not only does she call his book "one of the worst cases of academic irresponsibility in memory," she calls him to task for continually citing probate records from San Francisco, when, "according to everyone who should know, all the probate records that Bellesiles allegedly reviewed were destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire." She even recounts an interview with Bellesiles where he contradicts himself.
On October 3, 2001 Emory University History Department chairman James Melton made a very unusual request that Michael A. Bellesiles "defend himself and the integrity of his scholarship immediately.''
Melton’s request resulted in more attention by mainstream media. On October 8, Fox News online published a column by Glenn Harlan Reynolds, a Law Professor at the University of Tennessee, which took the media to task for praising the book and never questioning the research upon which it was based.
Finally on December 8, 2001 the New York Times, which originally had nothing but praise for Arming America, printed an article titled "Historian's Prizewinning Book on Guns Is Embroiled in a Scandal." The article quotes historian Randolph Roth’s criticism of Bellesiles’ research. Roth, a history professor at Ohio State University, says, "the records they could check showed an astonishing number of serious errors, almost all of them seemingly intended to support his thesis."
The latest article by Robert Stacy McCain published in the Washington Times summarizes the errors that many scholars have found in Arming America. He concludes, "serious errors in "Arming America" have been exposed in the Boston Globe and the New York Times, and pundit Russell Baker has dubbed Mr. Bellesiles "the Milli Vanilli of the academic community." McCain quotes Cramer calling Bellesiles’ work a "fraud" and "a massive misrepresentation of his own sources."
Without Clayton Cramer’s search for historical accuracy, no one may have questioned the veracity of Bellesiles’ scholarship. His interpretations of cited documents certainly leave others baffled. Maybe Bellesiles can once again call on his supernatural powers used to recreate destroyed San Francisco probate records, to resurrect all his notes that were damaged when water flooded his office at Emory University.
Short of that, it has become evident that Arming America is not a new version of history, but a historical novel. Isn’t it time for the Academy of Historians to reclassify it as fiction?