Part 3 Michael A. Bellesiles: Mega Anti-Gun-Nut

Larry Pratt

Alfred A. Knopf, the publisher of Emory History Professor Michael A. Bellesiles’ book Arming America: The Origins Of A National Gun Culture, says that his work has received a “vast outpouring of… acclaim.” But, this book is also receiving a growing number of compelling criticisms by gun scholars, Second Amendment scholars and others knowledgeable in this field. These critics include the following individuals:

— Joyce Lee Malcolm, Professor of History at Bentley College and author of To Keep And Bear Arms: The Origins Of An Anglo-American Right (Harvard University Press, 1996). In an article in Reason magazine (January, 2001), Prof. Malcolm says that what Bellesiles is about is something other than writing a mere history. She points out that his book has been “enthusiastically embraced by gun control advocates as an aid in their effort to persuade Americans (and their courts) that they do not have, and never have had, a Constitutional right to be armed.”

But, this is not true. Prof. Malcolm says scholars from various fields have delved into this question “and found overwhelming contemporary evidence that the Founders inherited and meant to guarantee an individual right, and none to support the notion that a collective right was intended. This body of work has persuaded such eminent Constitutional scholars as Lawrence Tribe and Leonard Levy that the Second Amendment protects an individual right.”

Prof. Malcolm says Bellesiles’ so-called “myth busting” findings “are not supported by his sources. Moreover, he presents a skewed selection of records, dismisses contradictory information, and even alters the language of quotations and statutes.” She provides numerous specific examples to back up her charges.

Prof. Malcolm concludes: “Point after point meant to illustrate a nearly gun-free early America is, upon examination, unsupported by the copious sources Bellesiles cites. He sidesteps counter-evidence. He ignores or dismisses statements by John Adams, Patrick Henry, Noah Webster, Richard Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and others to the effect that their countrymen were well-armed.”

— Clayton E. Cramer, author of, among other books, For The Defense Of Themselves And The State: The Original Intent & Judicial Interpretation Of The Right To Keep And Bear Arms (Praeger, 1994), and Concealed Weapon Laws Of The Early Republic (Greenwood, 1999). In a paper titled “Gun Scarcity In Antebellum America,” Cramer, who has an MA in History from Sonoma State University, says that because the claims of Bellesiles “are so contrary to traditional historical understanding… they deserve a careful evaluation.” And this Cramer does in documented detail.

For example, regarding the alleged scarcity of firearms in early America, Cramer says he read more than two dozen published travel accounts and memoirs of the early Republic. What he discovered was that “twenty-four mentioned firearms and hunting as unsurprising and common parts of American life… none claimed or even implied that either privately owned firearms or hunting were rare, unusual, or stigmatized. Marksmanship, according to many of the accounts, was highly prized, and high competence with firearms was widespread. Furthermore, these accounts make it appear that this was true for all regions of the United States.”

Cramer also provides evidence that Bellesiles is mistaken concerning the production rate of guns in early America. And, he adds, Bellesiles’ gunpowder production data “suggests that [his] claims about gun scarcity require considerably more evidence.”

Cramer concludes: “To believe that firearms in America were rare, and hunting confined largely to market hunters requires more than a rewriting of American history textbooks; it requires a rewrite of dozens of contemporary accounts as well” — many of which Cramer quotes from in detail.

— Stephen P. Halbrook, a Second Amendment lawyer and author of That Every Man Be Armed: The Evolution Of A Constitutional Right published by The Independent Institute. In a column in the Washington Times newspaper (11/5/2000), he disputes Bellesiles’ statement that before the War Between the States, “the majority of American men did not care about guns. They were indifferent to owning guns, and they had no apparent interest in learning how to use them.” Says Halbrook: “Just as Josef Stalin doctored photographs to change history, artists of the early Republic must have inserted muskets over the Colonial mantels that never held a firearm.”

He adds, regarding the premise of the Bellesile book: “[It] seems to be that not many people kept or bore arms and thus recognition of a right to do so in the Constitution is not important today. One could just as well argue that not many people had books back then either and thus the right to a free press should not be taken too seriously.”

Halbrook concludes by addressing Bellesiles’ claim that our Founders had no concept of a personal right to have arms. He says: “Jefferson refutes this attempt at de-construction. Jefferson proposed for the Virginia Constitution of 1776, ‘No freeman shall ever be de-barred the use of arms.’ This thinking would find its way into the federal Bill of Rights, which to this day guarantees the right to keep and bear arms.”

— R.L. Wilson, a distinguished author of more than 30 books on American firearms history. In an article in Brill’s Content magazine (2/2001) titled “Loaded Words,” Michael Korda, Editor-In-Chief of Random House, says that Wilson wrote him a letter in which he said that Bellesiles’ book is “an example of gross bias against gun culture” and “a shocking deceit.” Wilson has also said that Arming America will likely prove to be “the most outrageous example of dishonesty perpetrated to date by the zealots who have the ‘gun culture’ in their sights.” He says that sometimes the Introduction to this book “reads like a fund-raising letter from an advocacy group against gun ownership.”

Korda deplores the fact that Bellesiles’ book has “attracted positive attention from those who tend to see firearms as the devil’s right hand and perhaps the deepest flaw in American political reality since slavery…. That most reviews accepted [Bellesiles’] claims may merely point to the media’s inherent bias against guns and its willingness to accept scholarship, however debatable, regarding anything that deflates the conventional wisdom surrounding firearms.”

Korda says that Bellesiles’ claims that there were few capable gunsmiths or gun makers in colonial America, that guns were rare, hard to come by, and ineffective, are, and have been for years, contradicted by far more observers of American culture than he quotes in his book. For example, he cites a compilation by the previously mentioned Clayton Cramer which shows 118 gunsmiths and gun makers in New York and New England alone during the early colonial period.

Noting that our 17th, 18th And 19th century militias were not “just a bunch of clowns” — as caricatured by Bellesiles — Korda says: “It was the militia’s troops that did so much damage to the British regulars on their way back to Boston from Lexington and Concord, whence the British had gone to seize militia military supplies. This would suggest that a substantial number of the militia not only were armed but knew how to shoot. At Bunker Hill, the militia stood up to the British bravely, inflicted heavy losses on them, and gave way only when they ran out of ammunition and the British infantry advanced with fixed bayonets.”

Other key battles in the War for Independence were also won by militia were the defeat of Gen. Burgoyne in New York and the battle of Kings Mountain in Tennessee.

As to the meaning of the Second Amendment, Korda says: “The founding fathers, if they knew nothing else, knew how to write clear English, and if they had wanted to ban the private ownership of firearms, or to limit ownership of firearms to those who served in the militia, no doubt they would have found a clear way of saying so. That they did not is, self-evidently, because the idea did not occur to them. They drew up the Bill of Rights to safeguard, protect, and defend the liberties of Americans, not to limit and circumscribe them, and nothing in 18th century American experience (or the Revolutionary War) would have led them to believe that it was a bad idea for a citizen to keep a gun at home, or a good idea to let government decide on whether or not he could do so.”

Korda notes that nearly all the newspapers that reviewed “Arming America” relied on reviewers “with little or no expertise in the specialized field of the history of American firearm manufacturing and, for the most part, with a bias against the private ownership of guns.” An editor’s note at the end of Korda’s article says that Bellesiles did not reply to an invitation to respond to his piece.

When Bellesiles’ book has been reviewed by someone who has some expertise regarding his topic, the comments have been very critical. For example, writing in the Washington Post (10/29/2000), John Whiteclay Chambers II — a history professor at Rutgers University and editor-in-chief of The Oxford Companion To Military History — says that despite Bellesiles’ determination to overthrow the traditional image of the gun in early America, his “provocative thesis remains unproven. His conclusions frequently overreach the evidence.”

Detailing the problems of relying on probate records as heavily as Bellesiles has, Chambers adds: “The author also overstates both the originality and the conclusions he draws from militia records…. Extensive research is undermined by errors of fact, omission and judgment. His argument that before the 1830s few Americans hunted game with guns defies belief…. Bellesiles fails to prove the emergence of the modern gun culture in the [post-Civil War] era…. [His book] is also digressive and repetitive. Unfortunately, Bellesiles takes a rather narrow view of the subject… and he has not proven his thesis of limited ownership of guns and general unfamiliarity with them even among white adult males in the colonial and early national periods.”

In my next column, I’ll examine what, exactly, Prof. Bellesiles has written, and said in interviews, about the Second Amendment.