The historian Michael Bellesiles is making a comeback. Scott McLemee remembers why he had to leave in the first place.
The new titles that arrive from publishers each week usually come with promotional material that, apart from remembering to recycle, I carefully ignore. But over the past week -- thanks to an eagle-eyed colleague -- I have been making up for this practiced neglect by lingering over one publicist's letter in particular.
It is remarkable. It may be the most striking and provocative bit of prose concerning a scholarly book to have circulated in some while. The passage in question runs to one paragraph appearing about two-thirds of the way down the page of a note accompanying the page proofs for 1877: America’s Year of Living Violently by Michael A. Bellesiles, to be published by the New Press in August. Here it is:
“A major new work of popular history, 1877 is also notable as the comeback book for a celebrated U.S. historian. Michael Bellesiles is perhaps most famous as the target of an infamous ‘swiftboating’ campaign by the National Rifle Association, following the publication of his Bancroft Prize-winning book Arming America (Knopf, 2000) -- ‘the best kind of non-fiction,’ according to the Chicago Tribune -- which made daring claims about gun ownership in early America. In what became the history profession’s most talked-about and notorious case of the past generation, Arming America was eventually discredited after an unprecedented and controversial review called into question its sources, charges which Bellesiles and his many prominent supporters have always rejected.”
These sentences have absorbed and rewarded my attention for days on end. They are a masterpiece of evasion. The paragraph is, in its way, quite impressive. Every word of it is misleading, including “and” and “the.”
Bellesiles has a certain claim to fame, certainly, but not as “the target of an infamous ‘swiftboating’ campaign.” He is, and will be forever remembered as, a historian whose colleagues found him to have violated his profession's standards of scholarly integrity. Arming America won the Bancroft Prize -- the highest honor for a book on American history. But far more salient is the fact that the Bancroft committee took the unprecedented step of withdrawing the prize.
It is true that he drew the ire of the National Rifle Association, and I have no inclination to give that organization's well-funded demagogy the benefit of any doubt. But gun nuts did not force Bellesiles to do sloppy research or to falsify sources. That his scholarship was grossly incompetent on many points is not a "controversial" notion. Nor is it open to dispute whether or not he falsified sources. That has been exhaustively documented by his peers. To pretend otherwise is itself demagogic.
If a major commercial press wants to help a disgraced figure make his comeback, that is one thing, but rewriting history is another. The New Press published many excellent books by important authors. It is out of respect for that record that I want to invite it to make a public apology for violating the trust its readers have in it.
The saga of Michael Bellesiles (pronounced "buh-LEELS" or "buh-LAYELS," depending on who you ask) was at its height in 2001 and came to a resolution (or so one thought) the following year, when Bellesiles resigned from his position as professor of history at Emory University. As the case was unfolding, I followed it rather closely, but until seeing the New Press statement last week had managed to forget it almost entirely.
This was not just a matter of midlife memory loss. The affair was embarrassing and disgraceful, and it left Bellesiles in a position where he had little left that anyone would recognize as dignity. If you regard Charlton Heston as a role model for political activism, maybe the whole thing seems like a glorious chapter in recent history. For anyone else, to forget the whole thing was a mercy.
Matters began with an article Bellesiles published in The Journal of American History in 1996. He claimed that his research among probate records suggested a very low rate of individual gun ownership in colonial America -- and indeed well into the 19th century. What Bellesiles called a “gun culture” only really developed in the wake of the Civil War,he argued, when mass-production of firearms made them more affordable.
Expanding on his thesis in Arming America, the author presented a new way of looking at the early days of the country. Firearms had been scarce and expensive, and were not found in most households. Hunting mostly involved using traps, rather than shooting. What guns were commonly available were usually old and in bad shape. The men who took up arms for their country during the American Revolution mostly got them from depots. And those citizen-soldiers didn't shoot very well, for not many of them were accustomed to handling guns. Since, again, guns were expensive and scarce.
Bellesiles cited many and diverse sources for all of these claims, but the most impressive aspect of his work -- the part he mentioned in interviews, and the part that professional historians and journalistic reviewers alike always stressed -- was the statistical evidence from his examination of probate records.
Now, people who care about no other part of the Constitution so much as the Second Amendment were incensed by Bellesiles's counternarrative of early history, which is hardly surprising. Besides conducting themselves in the usual polemical matter WHICH OFTEN INVOLVES WRITING LIKE THIS, they started to examine his notes and sources very, very closely. That is not surprising, either. Who else would have the incentive?
But the gun nuts were not the only people who had problems with Bellesiles’s work. Arming America received many favorable reviews in major journals of opinion, but fellow historians had been expressing reservations about the probate data ever since that article had appeared in the JAH a few years earlier. For one thing, there were questions about how Bellesiles had gathered his information, and where; and about whether he was counting things correctly. He treated wills as if they were a completely reliable list of the whole of someone's property, even though the experts on probate know better, and even though he cited some of those scholars in his own notes.
The statistical claims in particular were a problem. Scholars would later try -- and fail -- to duplicate the results Bellesiles reported from his number-crunching. At first, it was possible to shrug this off as evidence that he was clumsy with the calculator. But things were not that simple.The figures on Bellesiles’s statistical tables were the tip of the iceberg.
People following up his notes kept finding problems: inaccurate quotations, mischaracterized sources, failure to include evidence that ran contrary to his thesis, and so on. At first, it was easy to dismiss the complaints because they had a screed-like quality. But qualified scholars who looked into the matter came away shaking their heads. A symposium on Arming America appeared in the William and Mary Quarterly in early 2002, followed not much later by James Lindgren’s review-essay in The Yale Law Journal.
At the request of Emory University, three prominent historians, assisted by graduate students, examined the evidence about Bellesiles’s work. In particular, they looked at his claims concerning what probate and militia records showed about gun ownership in early America -- and, in what proved even more of a problem, at how he accounted for the discrepancies between what he claimed and what the archival records actually showed. The resulting “Report of the Investigative Committee in the Matter of Professor Michael Bellesiles,” released in October 2002, was devastating.
“We have interviewed Professor Bellesiles,” the committee reported, “and found him both cooperative and respectful of this process. Yet the best that can be said of his work with the probate and militia records is that he is guilty of unprofessional and misleading work. Every aspect of his work in the probate records is deeply flawed.... Subsequent to the allegations of research misconduct, his responses have been prolix, confusing, evasive, and occasionally contradictory. We are surprised and troubled that Bellesiles has not availed himself of the opportunities he has had since the notice of this investigation to examine, identify, and share his remaining research materials.”
While acknowledging that "unfamiliarity with quantitative methods or plain incompetence" possibly accounted for some of the deficiencies in Bellesiles's statistical data, the committee found that he was also in violation of the standards of scholarly integrity as defined by the American Historical Association, which (to quote its report) "includes ‘an awareness of one’s own bias and a readiness to follow sound methods and analysis wherever they may lead,’ ‘disclosure of all significant qualifications of one’s arguments,’ careful documentation of findings and the responsibility to ‘thereafter be prepared to make available to others their sources, evidence, and data,’ and the injunction that ‘historians must not misrepresent evidence or the sources of evidence.’ ”
Bellesiles was culpable on all points. “In fact,” the report noted, “Professor Bellesiles told the committee that because of criticism from other scholars, he himself had begun to doubt the quality of his probate research well before he published it in the Journal of American History.”
So much for the myth of a scholar whose greatest crime was making “daring claims” that left him vulnerable to "swiftboating." Michael Bellesiles's greatest enemy was never the NRA. It was Michael Bellesiles.
Just after reading the promotional letter accompanying Bellesiles's new book, I contacted the New Press to find out more about this campaign to rehabilitate him. The publicist offered to provide me with a copy of the chapter on Arming America from Jon Wiener’s book Historians in Trouble: Plagiarism, Fraud, and Politics in the Ivory Tower, published by the New Press in 2005.
As it happened, I had already seen the chapter, and have ended up going over it a couple of times over the past week while reading other material on l'affaire Bellesiles. Wiener portrays his subject as the victim of a witch hunt -- suggesting that his errors were few in number, limited in significance for his argument, and finally of a rather unremarkable sort. They were the result of being sloppy about record-keeping and venturing too far out of his depth in the cliometrics department. To be human is to make mistakes. Besides, everybody forgets about those parts of Arming America where there weren’t any problems.
This seems generous to a fault. Anyone trying to form an assessment of the affair needs to read the Emory report -- keeping in mind that the committee ignored numerous problems with claims and evidence. Indeed, a fairly useful pedagogical tool for students in history, law, and journalism would be a casebook on Arming America, including documentation from Bellesiles's various attempts to explain himself and the evidence that made his efforts more difficult (such as this, for example).
In any case, I finally got in touch with Marc Favreau, his editor at the New Press, to ask whether any sort of due diligence had been practiced with Bellesiles's new book, considering the author's reputation. He responded that he was "well-versed" in the scholarly disputes over Arming America and referred me to Wiener's book. "What we are concerned with, then and now," he told me, "is the extent to which the fury around Michael’s thesis was stoked by a virulent pro-gun movement."
Now, this is hardly satisfactory. A thing may be true even if Charlton Heston said it. But in any case, Favreau insisted that Bellesiles's new book 1877 will be uncontroversial as to both argument and methodology. "In our initial conversations with him we were impressed by his knowledge of and passion for his subject matter," he said. "Although trade publishers rarely, if ever, solicit peer reviews (unlike university presses), we've nevertheless been very pleased to receive wonderful advance quotes from a number of prominent scholars and historians."
It also seemed appropriate to get in touch with Bellesiles himself. He is currently an adjunct in history at Central Connecticut State University. I wrote to him to ask what he hoped the book would accomplish, given that his return to public life must necessarily include questions about his credibility. Had he taken any particular steps that would inspire confidence in someone who was acquainted with his colleagues' findings about Arming America?
"I rest my credibility on the basic standards of scholarship," he responded by e-mail, "and have done what every reputable historian does, and exactly what I did in Arming America: I cite my sources."
At this point while reading his note, I found my eyes turning away from the screen in embarrassment. Eight years ago, when reputable historians found Bellesiles's work to lack scholarly integrity, none of them claimed he had failed to cite sources. Anyone can cite sources. The pro-gun arguments of John Lott are decked out with the apparatus of scholarship, but that doesn't mean his statistical claims aren't dubious.
In any case, Bellesiles has made himself "familiar with modern technology, computer databases, and all aspects of our digital world," he told me. "All my notes to 1877 are digitized and thoroughly backed up in a number of different formats."
All things considered, this is only just so reassuring.
- A Lesson From the Churchill Inquiry
- Bad Scholarship, Bad Politics or Bad Luck?
- Why Doesn't Plagiarism Matter?
- Scholars and Scandal
- 3 Historians Win Bancrofts
- Review of Peter Charles Hoffer, 'Clio Among the Muses: Essays on History and the Humanities'
- Chemerinsky and Irvine: What Happened?
- Truth and Consequences
Search for Jobs