Part 24 Michael A. Bellesiles: Mega Anti-Gun-Nut

Larry Pratt

Things happened a little differently when Emory History Professor Michael A. (Omama Ibin Lyin’) Bellesiles flew his plane load of lies, half-truths and fabrications into the Tower Of Truth about guns in American history. His plane (his awful book Arming America: The Origins Of A National Gun Culture, Knopf, 2000) went down in flames. But the truth about guns still stands.

Now, Bellesiles is on the run. Conservative attacks on his book were the equivalent of being strafed by one of those C-130 gun ships. This drove him deep into his cave where he continues to stonewall his critics. But, then the B-52s (the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal) unloaded their 15,000 pound bunker-busters — in this case, their professor pulverizers — on Bellesiles. And now the New York Times (12-8-2001) has unloaded another 15,000 pound “daisy-cutter” on Bellesiles.

In the Times’ five-column-wide, 36.5 inch story, by reporter Robert F. Worth, the headline refers to what Bellesiles is involved in as “a Scandal.” Noting that many of Bellesiles’ defenders “have gone silent,” Worth says that “a number of scholars” say that when all the evidence is in, the outcome “could be one of the worst academic scandals in years.”

Bellesiles — once again attempting, pathetically, to portray himself as a victim — is quoted as saying: “I feel like I’m a historian who accidentally stepped into a minefield.” Accidentally? Excuse me, but I believe the professor wrote his book on purpose, did he not? Of course. And what we have here is not some victim accidentally blown up in a minefield. No, what we have here is a liar who has committed academic suicide.

Despite what Bellesiles has implied in the past to the contrary, the Times says scholars who have documented serious errors in Arming America “do not appear to have any sort of political agenda” and many of them are “gun control advocates.”

The Times reports that Ohio State University History Professor Randolph Roth sees, in some cases, Bellesiles’ numbers “being off by a factor of two, three or more.” Roth says: “The number and scope of the errors in Bellesiles’ work are extraordinary.”

The Times says that earlier this year, when the criticism of his book became more intense, Bellesiles asked Prof. Roth to help him defend himself (Bellesiles). Roth wrote back saying that if Bellesiles would tell him what records he looked at in Vermont, he (Roth) would go to the archive on his own time, and that if the records matched, he would defend Bellesiles. But, says Roth, Bellesiles never responded to this offer.

Jack Rakove, a Stanford University historian who has been supportive of Arming America, says that it is important that Bellesiles “respond to his critics more fully than he has so far.” More fully than he has?! He hasn’t responded “fully” at all! But then how would Rakove know? The Times notes that Rakove “conceded that he had not looked fully at [Bellesiles’] research that has been questioned.”

One apparent lie Bellesiles has been caught telling involves some probate records from the 1850s he has said he looked at in a number of places, including the San Francisco Superior Court. But — ooops! — the folks at this Court say all the records for the decade in question were destroyed in the 1906 earthquake! The Times reports Bellesiles now says “he must have done the research somewhere else and cannot remember where.”

But, Kathy Beals, former director of the California Geneaological Society, who has worked extensively with probate records from the 1850 era, tells the Times: “Nobody knows of those records being in existence, and if they are, there are hundreds of people who would like to look at them.” And Bellesiles himself is quoted in this Times story as saying of the probate data in his book: “I wish I had taken them out entirely.”

Right. And before it’s all over, Bellesiles will wish he had never written his book.

And Bellesiles continues to stonewall and ignore his serious scholarly critics and their substantive criticisms. Next January, the William and Mary Quarterly will publish a lengthy piece by Bellesiles. The Times says he concedes some mistakes and challenges others. But, he “leaves many serious errors unaddressed.”

So, what will happen if, as the Times puts it, the scholarly community reaches a consensus that Arming America is “a seriously flawed or even a fraudulent book?” Well, the Emory College dean, Robert A. Paul, says: “If there were scholarly fraud (if?!), we would take that very seriously.” And Jonathan R. Cole, the provost and dean of faculties at Columbia University — which awarded Bellesiles the prestigious Bancroft Prize — says he has distributed copies of the documents detailing Bellesiles’ mistakes to this year’s three Bancroft jurors and asked them to examine it.

Well, better late than never, I guess. But one wonders why the Bancroft jurors didn’t closely investigate Bellesiles’ book before they gave him this prize.

After all, it is not as if serious criticisms had not been made before the prize was awarded. If they had exercised due diligence, and cared anything about the truth, Bellesiles would never have gotten this award. And if Arming America is officially determined to be a fraud — and it is! — this is more than something “very serious,” Dean Paul. Such a finding should cause Bellesiles to be fired, immediately.