Part 23 Michael A. Bellesiles: Mega Anti-Gun-Nut

Larry Pratt

Quantitatively, as a part of the big picture, it’s small. But, qualitatively, it is very important, very instructive. Because it shows just how petty and vindictive Emory Professor Michael A. Bellesiles is.

In what was supposed to be a reply to his critics in the newsletter of the Organization Of American Historians (November, 2001) — but which refuted no major criticism — Bellesiles, author of the scandal-bound book Arming America: The Origins Of A National Gun Culture (Knopf, 2000), admits what he calls “one significant mistake.” It was in his discussion of the Militia Act of 1792. He writes: “As soon as Ian Binnington of the University of Illinois made me aware of this error, for which I thank him, I contacted several historical listserves and posted the correction. Knopf corrected the passage in further printings of the book.”

But — guess what? — once again (surprise!) Bellesiles is wrong.

In an interview, Binnington tells us: “It was, slightly, not really fair to give me the credit.” In fact, Binnington, who is a Ph.D. student at the University of Illinois and Book Review Editor of the online H-South academic discussion list, says he was “surprised” when he read that Bellesiles was giving him credit for the “significant mistake” he now admits.

OK. So, why was Binnington surprised? Well, because he is an intellectually honest man who will not take credit for something he did not do. He tells us all he did was forward to Bellesiles an October, 2000, post by gun scholar Clayton Cramer who is really the person who discovered Bellesiles’ “significant mistake” re: the Militia Act of 1792. Binnington says Cramer is one of the most active members of the H-South discussion group. He adds that Cramer certainly has an opinion “but he seems to back it up with adequate evidence” — which, of course, is more than can be said about Bellesiles, to put it mildly.

So, if he was intellectually honest, Bellesiles should be thanking Clayton Cramer for pointing out not just this “significant mistake” but scores, indeed hundreds, of other mistakes in his wretched book.

Meanwhile,, obviously unware that Arming America has been exposed as a fraud — or simply not caring — has praised the book as (get this!) “overwhelmingly thorough… a singular historical work destined to have profound ramifications in the current debate over guns.” This absurd assertion caused numerous individuals to write blasting the Bellesiles book.

Jim Longley from Texas says: “As an amateur genealogist with many ancestors in the era, I was quite suspicious of Bellesiles’ work when I first heard of it. A quick perusal in the bookstore convinced me not to buy it, I didn’t want the publisher and author to profit from what appeared to be a bogus work. Now I have obtained a copy from a second hand store, and I find my suspicions confirmed, and more. I was initially only suspicious that the author had twisted data, not that he had ignored some while fabricating other.

“My family roots go back to the colonial era, when a portion of the family was massacred by Abnakis and others were carried off. The accounts of that massacre from the survivors indicate that there were at least five guns in the hands of the family, but those guns would have gone uncounted by Bellesiles because they do not show up in wills or probate inventories.

“What I read in the book, combined with what I have found in my own research, many of the resources he claimed are now available online, convinces me that the little I paid for this book even in a half price store was wasted but for the opportunity to see how wrong it is. I intend to burn the book on Halloween with all the ceremony due to such pieces of witchcraft.”

A reader from Malvern, Arkansas, says: “Finally this charlatan has been exposed. I left Emory University in great anger 10 years ago. The stifling atmosphere of political correctness at Emory had all but obliterated any semblance of the free discussion of ideas.

“In Prof. Bellesiles’ seminars he routinely denigrated his betters (Edmund Morgan and Perry Miller among them) on trivial points, while the students nobly and aptly defended these truly great historians. Anything dealing with Christianity, men, the South and Southerners (whom he always referred to as rednecks unless they were wimps in Volvos), Anglo-American culture — you know the usual liberal litany of suspects — was constantly belittled, berated, and trashed. I hate to see the history profession descend to granting this worm the Bancroft Prize.”

A reader from New York says: “Arming America is another familiar example of history being rewritten to make the past conform to the media’s prevailing opinion of the present. Go buy a gun.”

David J. Peddy of Frankston, Texas, says: “There’s not much to say about this book except that it is full of historical errors, and outright lies. The liberal left in this country have a favorite tactic when their twisted immature philosophy hits the wall of reality: they lie. Please be sure to check out the lies in this book. There’s not enough time here to enumerate them, just check his sources for accuracy! Half of them are wrong, and the other half are made up. Here’s just one example: on page 74 in his book, he cites pages 9-25 of a book entitled For the Colony of Virginia Britanna (a reprint of an old book) to say that guns were to be stored in central warehouses, instead of in peoples homes. But, when examined, those pages say absolutely NOTHING about guns! What psuedo-scholars like this are counting on when they are pushing their agendas, are that the readers will not bother to check the sources for accuracy…. WRONG! Emory College is not the first school to protect one of their own in the name of political correctness.”

James J. Klapper from Oldsmar, Florida, says, in part: “The only reasonably complete survey of firearms ownership in the American colonies is from the siege of Boston. The British General Gage ordered that anyone desiring to leave Boston turn in all weapons. More firearms were collected than there were houses in the whole town. Considering that this was the oldest city in the English colonies, not the frontier, that the patriot militia had left long before with their guns, and many loyalists elected to remain, the Americans were just as heavily armed in 1775 as today.

“As for there being few gunsmiths or firearm manufacturers, there are some 300 gunsmiths on the records in Bucks County, Pa., alone, before 1850. And Sharps produced about 24,000 rifles before the Model 1859, not “a few hundred of them prior to 1860″. It would take another book to detail all the errors in Bellesiles, so I’ll cut it short and state that virtually nothing in this book is true.”

Ellicott McConnell of Easton, Maryland, says, in part: “[Bellesiles] incorrectly explains something as simple as a flintlock mechanism, and refers to Custer’s confidence in the ability of his soldiers’ repeating arms to defeat the Indians. I suspect that half the literate high school students in the United States are well aware that any repeating rifles on the Montana battlefield were in the hands of the Indians. These are just examples; the man knows nothing of firearms.”

John Brewer of Los Angeles, California, says, in part: “This book is just didactic misinformation. I don’t know what caused Bellesiles to take sides (or switch sides) on the gun control debate, but in stark contrast to this book in which he presents carefully selected “evidence” that the 18th century militia was mostly unarmed and comprised of poor shots, in his previous book Revolutionary Outlaws: Ethan Allen and the Struggle for Independence, he wrote about the 1777 Battle of Bennington: “These frontier farmers destroyed two units of professional soldiers in the same day. The first victory is surprising for its coordinated encirclement of a disciplined and well-led enemy…. Several British officers expressed shock that ‘the peasants of the country’ had ‘fought with great courage and obstinacy.'” After this victory, “the New Hampshire and Vermont militias accelerated their campaign of harassment into full-scale attacks.” That of course resulted in Burgoyne’s surrender. None of this is mentioned in the 600 pages of this book! Remember, all this is from Bellesiles! This is but one example of a conspicuous omission in a tome that some are labeling “comprehensive.”