Part 29 Michael A. Bellesiles: Mega Anti-Gun-Nut

Larry Pratt

Well, the issue of the William and Mary Quarterly (January 2002) is out in which Emory History Professor Michael A. Bellesiles’ book Arming America (Knopf, 2000) is closely examined. And what is said is not good news for Bellesiles.

Those chosen to review Arming America in this Forum titled “Historians And Guns”were: Jack N. Rakove, Coe Professor of History and American Studies and Professor of Political Science at Stanford University; Gloria L. Main, who teaches at the University of Colorado; Ira Gruber, Harris Masterson, Jr., Professor of History at Rice University; and Randolph Roth, a member of the History Department at Ohio State University and a member of the Editorial Board of Historical Methods.

In his remarks, Rakove says that “some significant chunk” of the reaction to Bellesiles’ book must reflect some perceived implications regarding Arming America’s interpretation of the Second Amendment and the ongoing debate over firearms regulation. Whether this is true or not, however, is irrelevant. The most effective demolitions of Bellesiles’ books have dealt with his shoddy, dishonest and erroneous scholarship.

But, of course, this is the kind of comment one would expect from Rakove who is a vehement opponent of the original intent of the Second Amendment. The Stanford Daily newspaper (4/4/2000) has reported that Rakove was among those who signed a letter in the New York Times, which ran as an ad, “advocating gun control in the interest of public health and safety.” This letter/ad claimed that the public is misled by those who say that the Second Amendment upholds the right of individuals to own guns.

In her article, which examines Bellesiles’ use of probate records, Main says it is “nonsense” to say, as Bellesiles has, that probate inventories “scrupulously recorded every item in an estate… including those that had already been passed on as bequests before death.” Documenting in detail her assertions, she says: “Anyone at all familiar with inventories from the colonial period knows that they are maddeningly inconsistent in organization and detail.” Thus, “for Bellesiles to pretend that these lists ever formed an internally consistent body of ‘scrupulously’ recorded data is, to use one of his favorite words, ‘incredible.'”

Main also takes Bellesiles to task for “excusing himself from doing anything like a balanced geographical sampling of earlier probate records on the grounds that he could not find sufficient numbers of ‘complete runs’ before the 1760s…. Nowhere in this book does Bellesiles tell us how he actually carried out the herculean task of locating and reading the ‘complete,’ handwritten estate records of some forty counties for the time periods indicated in Table 1 (of his book), nor does he tells us how many he used from each sample county. Did no one — editors or referees — ever ask that he supply this basic information?”

Bellesiles says his sample of probate inventories showed that only seven percent in Maryland had guns. But, Main’s examination of probate records in six Maryland counties from 1650 to 1720 — records ignored by Bellesiles — showed an average of 76 percent of young fathers owned arms of some sort!

Ira Gruber, noting that a large part of Bellesiles’ argument rests on his reading of Anglo-American military, says that his is “a reading that minimizes the importance of guns, militia, and warfare during the colonial and early national periods of the United States…. He has… exaggerated the weaknesses of the musket and the reluctance of militia and regulars to use it.”

Gruber says Bellesiles is “very selective” in his use of current scholarship. He adds:

    [His] treatment of the militia is much like that of guns: he regularly uses evidence in a partial or imprecise way…. his figures on the size of the militia and the number of firearms that it possessed do not inspire confidence…. he [has] created too pacific a description of life in Britain’s American colonies and the new United States…. Bellesiles’ scholarship does not do justice to his subject — at least, not from a military perspective. His efforts to minimize the importance of guns, militia, and war in early America and to portray the Civil War as the catalyst for a national gun culture founder on a consistently biased reading of sources and on careless uses of evidence and context.

Randolph Roth, noting that the thesis of Arming America is “wrong,” says the claim that gun ownership was not widespread in early America “is not supported by the sources Bellesiles cites, by others he does not cite, or the data he presents…. Bellesiles is the only researcher who has produced such low estimates of gun ownership…. It is impossible to know what went wrong in Bellesiles’ study, because he does not discuss his sample size or his sampling technique.”

Roth says that Bellesiles’ claim that homicide rates were low everywhere among European Americans before the 1850s is “false.” This claim is important because it is vital to Bellesiles’ thesis that low homicide rates and an absence of guns and gun violence went hand in hand. Roth says that “every tally of homicides Bellesiles reports is either misleading or wrong.”

Finally, in his reply, Bellesiles convincingly refutes none of these critics. But, a couple of things he says are worth noting. At one point, he says that if you read the entire run of a newspaper published anywhere in the U.S. before 1840 you will do this “without ever getting the sense that guns matter that much.” Thirteen pages later, however, seeking to refute one critic who noted many accounts of hunting with guns in early American newspapers, Bellesiles says: “I am very suspicious of newspaper accounts”! Right. He’s suspicious of newspaper accounts which tend to disprove what he has written. But, he cites newspaper accounts when he thinks they prove what he has written.

Bellesiles also repeats his often repeated Tall Tale that “it is well known my notes were destroyed in the May 2000 flood of Bowden Hall at Emory University.” The footnote for this assertion reads: “See, for instance, the Emory Report, 52:32 (May 8, 2000).”

But, when one looks at this issue of the Emory Report, it says nothing at all about any of Bellesiles’ notes being destroyed! Bellesiles is not mentioned at all. In fact, in this edition of the Report, Janice Mohlhenrich, identified as “preservation coordinator,” says: “We were able to look at things that professors thought were irretrievably lost, but we looked at them and said, ‘Sure, we can fix this.'” This article concludes by noting that “90 percent of all materials brought in have been dried out and are ready for pickup.”

At the beginning of his reply, Bellesiles, as usual, tries to change the subject by attempting to portray himself as some kind of victim. He says, alluding to his critics, that he feels like the World War I French mutineer who, when placed before a firing squad, said: “I am honored by all the attention.” But, once again, Michael A. Bellesiles is wrong. His demise is not due to any “firing squad.” His academic death is a suicide. His wounds, which will prove to be academically fatal to his career, are self-inflicted.