Part 17 Michael A. Bellesiles: Mega Anti-Gun-Nut

Larry Pratt

On January 14, 2001, Emory History Professor Michael A. Bellesiles, author of Arming America: The Origins Of A National Gun Culture (Knopf, 2000), was interviewed on radio station WBEZ in Chicago. Among the other guests on this program was a critic of Bellesiles’ book James Lindgren, Professor of Law and Director of the Demography of Diversity Project at Northwestern University.

At one point, when Lindgren was pressing Bellesiles regarding the accuracy of some of the information in his book, Bellesiles said, sneeringly, that he did not realize that Lindgren “was such a significant legal scholar.”

Well, Prof. Bellesiles is now realizing just how significant a scholar Mr. Lindgren is. In fact, Lindgren’s laborious, thorough and indefatigable research — with which he has had valuable help from his associate Justin Lee Heather — has blown huge holes in major portions of Bellesiles’ book and is shredding its credibility. And, better late than never, some in the national media are finally paying attention to the courageous efforts of Lindgren/Heather.

In an article in the Boston Globe (9/11/2001), staff reporter David Mehegan said his paper had reviewed substantial portions of what Lindgren says are examples of Bellesiles stretching or distorting the historical record to make his case. These examples include Bellesiles’ use of 18th century probate records in Vermont and Rhode Island. And the Globe itself checked into Bellesiles’ claim to have studied certain records in San Francisco, “records county officials say were destroyed by fire in 1906.”

Mehegan writes: “In each case, the records appear to support Lindgren’s accusation and suggest a disturbing pattern of misuse of data by Bellesiles in his book and in an article defending his thesis which he published on his Web site.”

In his book and on his Web site, Bellesiles claims to have reviewed probate records in San Francisco for the 1840s and 1850s. No way, says Lindgren, since all such records were destroyed in the San Francisco earthquake and fire. This Globe article quotes Ida Wong, deputy clerk of the San Francisco Superior Court, as saying: “All that we have here is 1907 and after. Everything before that was destroyed.” The Globe says that in an interview, “Bellesiles said he can’t remember exactly where he did his California research.”

The Globe reports that “serious questions” have also been raised about an article Bellsiles posted on his Web site called “Men With Guns” which seeks to support some of the findings in his book. In this posting, Bellesiles discusses what he says are some Vermont probate records which list gun ownership. But, Lindgren says Bellesiles misrepresents the content of the original records. And this Globe article says that its own examination of the original Vermont probate records shows that Lindgren is apparently correct.

Here are six of what the Globe says are “many similar examples” of what Bellesiles says the Vermont records from the 1770s and 1780s say and what they actually say:

    * Bellesiles version: He says one Cotton Fletcher had a “broken gun.” The original record says only that he had “a gun.”

    * Bellesiles: Isaac Cushman had an “old gun.” The original record says “one gun barrel and stock.”

    * Bellesiles: Samuel Crippin, “old gun.” The original record: “One gun.”

    * Bellesiles: Asher Culver, “2 old guns.” Original record: “Firearm.”

    * Bellesiles: Jonathan Mayo, “broken gun.” Original record: Specific amounts of “gunpowder” and “leads.”

    * Bellesiles: Abel Moulton, 5 muskets, “some old.” Original record: “Firearms.”

When asked about these discrepancies, Bellesiles is reportedly “mystified.” He tells the Globe: “I don’t know. I am very upset about that. It’s a mystery to me. I might have looked at a different record book. It’s an egregious error on my part.”

The Globe also reviewed some of the Providence, Rhode Island, estate records and they, too, appear to confirm Lindgren’s findings. Mehegan writes that, contrary to what Bellesiles has alleged, “there were many estates of women [who owned guns], and few indicated guns in poor condition.”

The Globe quotes Brandeis historian David Hackett Fischer, an authority on early America, as saying of Bellesiles’ book: “There are many questions raised about his use of probate records and other materials. They are very serious criticisms. It cuts to the very foundation of what he reports, and convincing answers are not coming from him.”

Finally, to its everlasting shame, Columbia University earlier this year awarded its prestigious, $4,000 Bancroft Prize in history to Bellesiles for his wretched book Arming America. And in this Globe article, another historian, Alan Brinkley, the chairman of Columbia’s history department, still refuses to criticize Bellesiles’ book. He says: “A book is a book and needs to be judged on its own…. Any book that people set out to examine as this one has been would be found to have errors in it. Whether in this case they go beyond inadvertence and carelessness, I have no idea.”

But, this is a disgraceful reply. Why does Brinkley still have “no idea” whether Bellesiles’ errors go beyond unintended mistakes and being careless? I mean, many serious scholars substantively criticized Arming America before Columbia gave this horrible book the Bancroft Prize! So, why didn’t Brinkley investigate this scholarly critique? Indeed, a book does need to be judged on its own. And Arming America has been judged on its own. It has been exposed as a dishonest fraud that deserves only contempt from truthful, intellectually honest scholars.