Part 21 Michael A. Bellesiles: Mega Anti-Gun-Nut

Larry Pratt

If the Guinness Book Of World Records had a category called “World’s Most Dishonest And Incompetent Historian,” Michael A. Bellesiles would retire this title. Just one of many conspicuous examples of his dishonesty and incompetence is in his woefully inadequate response to his critics in the November 2001 newsletter of the Organization Of American Historians, a piece titled, ludicrously, Disarming The Critics.

In this embarrassingly inadequate reply, Bellesiles says: “One significant mistake in the original edition of Arming America appears on page 230. In discussing the Militia Act of 1792, I quote the 1803 amendment to this act that ‘every citizen so enrolled, shall be constantly provided with arms, accoutrements, and ammunition.’ The quotation and its citation are both correct. The error is in the context. In editing my 1,200-page manuscript to a more manageable length, I compressed two paragraphs into one, failing to keep the transition between Congress’ initial wording and its amendment of that wording eleven years later. As soon as [I was made] aware of this error…I contacted several historical listserves and posted the correction. Knopf corrected the passage in further printings of the book.”

OK. So, finally, Bellesiles admits an error and says he corrected it, yes? Well, no. Because, once again, he has got things all wrong. In fact, he has now misquoted himself!

Replying to Bellesiles’ OAH piece, Norman Heath, an undergraduate student at the University of Massachusetts, says, in part: “His defense is not only inadequate, but he compounds his predicament by falsely representing a quote which he says appears in the original edition of his book; the passage he quotes in his online defense does NOT appear in the original edition of his book. Compare the quote as it appears in his online column, attributed to the Militia Act of 1830, to the quote which actually appears in his book, and which has been misrepresented in his explanatory column. Bellesiles’ book offered a false quote, and a false citation to an authoritative source.

“Now, by way of defending himself, he falsely claims to have published an accurate quote and citation, but of a statute other than what he intended. In fact, the quote that appeared in his book was a conflation of two separate statutes, and not faithful to either.

“Nor was the citation accurate, as he now claims. Previously, he has admitted the inauthenticity of the quote, and blamed it on his mistaken reliance on a secondary source. Now he claims there is no discrepancy at all.

“In fact, there are three discrepancies: (1) his original false quotation and citation; (2) his subsequent false attribution to a secondary source not cited in his book; (3) his current false claim to have correctly quoted and cited the 1803 act.

“Every time Prof. Bellesiles opens his mouth to explain another discrepancy, he digs himself in deeper. These kinds of repeated self-contradictions are usually an indicator of somebody who cannot remember which story he told to whom on a given occasion. At the very least, however, one would expect that a historian could accurately report what he himself had written in his own book. Prof. Bellesiles fails at even this.”

Also commenting on Bellesiles’ OAH reply, gun scholar Clayton Cramer says: “The biggest problem isn’t the records that can’t be found. It is the records that can be found, and that Bellesiles has altered and misrepresented, including Bellesiles’ misquotation of his own book in order to hide his citation of sources that directly contradict his claims.”

Cramer says Bellesiles’ misrepresentation of his use of the 1803 Militia Act is not an isolated example: “There are hundreds of such examples of quotes altered, dates changed, and sources misrepresented throughout Bellesiles’ book.”

In a comment on Arming America on, one reviewer, Charles Chandler of Rock Hill, South Carolina, says the book “is worse than shoddy scholarship. He is a sham scholar and his work is a fraud. To paraphrase a famous book review: This is not a book to be cast aside lightly — it should be hurled with great force.” Amen!