Part 15 Michael A. Bellesiles: Mega Anti-Gun-Nut

Larry Pratt

One of the many scandals swirling around Emory History Professor Michael A. Bellesiles’ book Arming America: The Origins Of A National Gun Culture (Knopf, 2000) is the way supposedly reputable academics have praised Bellesiles — and, implicitly, his work — without knowing if what he has written is true. A case in point is Professor Alan Brinkley, chairman of the History Department at Columbia University.

In April, Bellesiles was at Columbia University to receive, with two other authors, the prestigious Bancroft Prize in history. In his remarks at this ceremony, Brinkley noted that there were “very high standards” for this Prize which Bellesiles, and the other two authors, “maintained and perhaps in some ways exceeded.”

Referring to Bellesiles and Arming America, Brinkley said it was always “difficult and courageous” to presume to recreate part of the past we can never retrieve. “But, so much more courageous to attempt to retrieve and reinterpret a part of our past that is layered over with so many powerful myths and images that are deeply entrenched in the American mind.” Noting that Bellesiles has this kind of courage, Brinkley said that his book “challenges one of our most powerful — both culturally and politically — images of our past.”

But, does Professor Brinkley really know what he’s talking about here? Did he read Bellesiles’ book? More importantly, has he read any of the scholarly criticisms of the book?

In an interview, Brinkley says he read “part of the book” but not “the whole book.” And, “oh, yes,” he says, “I certainly am aware of the many criticisms of the book. Most of them are not scholarly criticisms, though some are.”

When asked if he has read any of the serious scholarly criticisms?, Brinkley says: “I’ve read accounts of them.” He has not, however, read the actual criticisms. Has he read any of the scholarly criticisms by James Lindgren, Clayton Cramer or Joyce Lee Malcolm? Brinkley says no, he has never heard of these people! When Malcolm’s name is mentioned, he asks: “Who is she?” — a strange question for a history professor since Malcolm, too, is a history professor (at Bentley College) and one of the leading Second Amendment scholars in America who has been quoted many times in, among other places, the New York Times which one would think Brinkley reads.

When we note that his remarks praising Bellesiles’ courage seem to presuppose that what Bellesiles has written is correct, Brinkley says: “No, I don’t assume that. I’m not in a position to judge that. It’s not a subject in my field of expertise.” Still, he says, he stands by what he said about Bellesiles “even though I’m not prepared to say that everything in the book is correct. I just don’t know.”

Brinkley readily agrees that if Bellesiles’ scholarship is shoddy, then, of course, he would not have praised his courage. But, he adds, he’s not prepared to say that Bellesiles’ scholarship is shoddy.

    Q: Wouldn’t it have been wise for you to have, in some way, prior to praising Bellesiles, checked his facts to see if what he has written is true?

    A: “I’m not going to comment on that. I said what I said and I’m not going to comment on it.”

    Q: But is Bellesiles’ so-called “challenge” to our myths, etc. true? All kinds of people “challenge” all kinds of things.

    A: “Look, I’ve told you my view. I have nothing more to say. I can’t answer these questions. You can make whatever you like out of what I said at that event. That’s your right.”

Brinkley says the suggestion that he should have, in some way, tried to determine the truthfulness of what Bellesiles has written, before praising him, is “unrealistic.” Why? Because “we assume that members of the historical profession are, when they present a work of scholarship, have exercised professional integrity in doing their work. If someone were to prove that Michael Bellesiles did not do this then I would certainly change my view of the book.”

    Q: But, at the time you spoke, praising Prof. Bellesiles, there was already a lot of serious scholarly criticism of his book. Why did you not read any of this criticism?

    A: “If I had been convinced that his scholarship had been discredited, certainly I would have spoken differently.”

    Q: So, are you making any effort now to see if Bellesiles’ scholarship has been discredited?

    A: “Am I now?”

    Q: “Yes.”

Brinkley says, incredibly, “no,” that he has “no connection” with this book other than introducing Bellesiles, reading part of his book and hearing that there are criticisms of it. “So,” he adds, “I am not investigating it

    Q: But, if you knew there were serious scholarly criticisms of the book, before your remarks, why did you not get and read any of these criticisms? They might have changed your mind. This suggestion is not unrealistic, is it?

    A: “Well, maybe it’s not. But I did not do it.”

End of interview.

Pathetic, huh? And outrageous, too, no? I mean, it’s one thing to have made a mistake and not checked any of the facts of an author you are praising. But, to say that even now you have no intention of doing this reveals a shocking indifference to truth. As for the bit about assuming that historians exercise “professional integrity,” I predict that Professor Brinkley will live to regret such an assumption in the case of Michael A. Bellesiles and his wretched book trashing guns.