Part 11 Michael A. Bellesiles: Mega Anti-Gun-Nut

Larry Pratt

Despite the fact Michael A. Bellesiles’ scholarship is being shredded and called into serious question — to put it mildly — this has not stopped Columbia University from awarding him its annual 2001 Bancroft Prize for his book Arming America: The Origins Of A National Gun Culture (Alfred Knopf, 2000). This prestigious prize, worth $4,000, is given for “distinguished works in American history and diplomacy.”

But, Bellesiles’ book is not deserving of such an award. An article in the Wall Street Journal (4/9/2001) by Kimberley A. Strassel, an assistant editorial features editor for the paper, says there is a problem with Arming America: “A growing number of respected scholars, from across the political spectrum, are saying that Mr. Bellesiles’ research and conclusions are wrong. They’ve charged that [it] is riddled with errors so enormous as to seriously undermine his work. They argue he has incorrectly tabulated probate records, failed to include facts that strongly argue the opposite case, and misquoted and miscited sources.”

In this piece, Gerald Rosenberg, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, says: “From what I’ve seen, the evidence is so overwhelming that it is incumbent upon Bellesiles as a serious scholar to respond. He has to admit error, or somehow show how his work is right.” When we interviewed Rosenberg, he said he’s critical of Bellesiles’ book even though he (Rosenberg) is “an avid gun-control freak” who “wishes Bellesiles was right.”

In the Journal article Eric Monkkonen, a professor of history and public policy at UCLA, says of Bellesiles’ book: “It didn’t feel quite right, especially these dramatic changes he found, between a non-gun-owning country to a gun-owning one. Dramatic changes are more exciting than slow ones, but rare.”

In a separate interview, Monkkonen, who says he read Bellesiles’ book “carefully,” tells us: “To me the criticism of his use and errors on the probate records sounds accurate and that’s certainly making me re-evaluate the book.” Monkkonen says he is “a left-winger” who is pro-gun control. And, like Rosenberg, he adds that he “would like for [Bellesiles’ book] to be right, actually, but it doesn’t look right.”

In any event, on April 19, 2001, we caught up with Prof. Bellesiles at Columbia University when he was there to get his Bancroft Prize. We interviewed him. In this column I will comment briefly on some of what he said. More detailed comments on some of what he said will be addressed in several other columns. A complete text of this slightly edited interview is available on our website at in the Bellesiles section.

For openers, we asked Bellesiles if he has answered specifically any of his critics such as Northwestern University Law Professor James Lindgren, Bentley College History Professor Joyce Lee Malcolm or Clayton Cramer? Yes, he said, his replies were on his website. But, they are not. He does not reply, specifically, by name, to any of the critics mentioned, on his website.

In fact, at one point, Bellesiles says, angrily, that he does not, for example, consider Malcolm to be a serious critic because she said that his book said America was “gun-free” prior to the Civil War and “that’s nonsense.” He says he never said this adding: “So, I can’t take her seriously.” When pressed as to whether he was saying Malcolm used the exact words “gun-free,” Bellesiles says yes, that’s what she said in her review of his book in Reason magazine.

But, wrong again! Bellesiles — who seems to have trouble reading a simple text — is mistaken. Malcolm does not say what he says she said. In her Reason review (January, 2000), she says Bellesiles’ book says guns were “rare” before the Civil War, that he claims America was “nearly gun-free.”

But, what if Malcolm had used the words “gun-free”? So, what? Would this one misquote be a reason for dismissing as a serious critic a distinguished scholar like Malcolm who, among other things, is the author of To Keep And Bear Arms: The Origins Of An Anglo-American Right (Harvard University Press, 1994)? I think not.

Interestingly, the publication American National Biography (Oxford, 1999) says of Frederic Bancroft (1860-1945) — the man whom the Bancroft Prize is named after — that he was “vitriolic and intolerant of those who disagreed with him.” Hmmmmm. “Vitriolic and intolerant,” eh? Sounds a lot like Bellesiles’ attack on Malcolm.

Finally, a disturbing footnote. When we attempted to find out why Bellesiles’ book was chosen for this year’s Bancroft Prize, who the judges were that made this award, and whether they checked out any of his work, we were told this was not possible because these jurors are anonymous and their names cannot be revealed.

We were similarly stonewalled by the History Book Club which offers Bellesiles’ book as one of its selections. In a letter signed by Deborah L. Sinclaire, Editorial Director of the Club, she says, in part, that they offer no book “unless it has been read and evaluated by one or several of our board of historian-advisors. They judge a book’s importance, accuracy, and reliability.”

Wonderful, we thought. So, we spoke with Sinclaire and asked for the names of the historian-advisors who checked out Bellesiles’ book. No way, she said. “We keep this information confidential. This is a confidential list.”

One name we do know, however, because he wrote a History Book Club byline review of the Bellesiles book when it first came out, before critics began to demolish Arming America. This man’s name is Sanford Levinson, a Law Professor at the University of Texas. In his review, he, among other things, praised the Bellesiles book as “revisionist history at its best.”

But, in an interview, Levinson has, well, revised his review. He tells us it wouldn’t surprise him if Bellesiles’ book is found to have some “fairly major problems.” He says that if he reviewed the book today his review “might be a little less enthusiastic because I assumed the data more uncontroversial than they turn out to be. If I was reviewing the book now, I would say there’s a real debate about this.” Indeed. And Bellesiles is losing it — big time.