Part 32 Michael A. Bellesiles: Mega Anti-Gun-Nut

Larry Pratt

In an exclusive interview, Dr. Roger Lane, a winner of Columbia University’s prestigious Bancroft Prize who has also served on the jury that awards this honor, says that those individuals who awarded this Prize for 2001 to Emory Professor Michael A. Bellesiles “are thinking about revoking it. And I suspect they will.”

Bellesiles won the award for his book Arming America: The Origins Of A National Gun Culture published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2000.

Dr. Lane, who won the Bancroft Prize in 1987 for his book Roots of Violence In Black Philadelphia, 1860-1900 published by Harvard University Press, is semi-retired from his position as the Benjamin R. Collins Research Professor of Social Sciences at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. He has a B. A. from Yale University (1955) and a Ph. D. from Harvard (1963).

Dr. Lane wrote a favorable review of Arming America which appeared in the September 2001 issue of the Journal Of American History. In this review, he said that Bellesiles’s “evidence is such that if the subject were open to rational argument it would be over.” The book, he said, was “earning widespread applause from well beyond the academy.”

Dr. Lane said Arming America was so good it left a reviewer “with little to do but pick bones, to suggest small caveats of interest at best only to us professional historians.” Noting that many of Bellesiles’ individual points are familiar to specialists, “some may be chagrined that Bellesiles is the first to put them all together and boldly to show that the emperor is wearing no clothes at all.”

Dr. Lane concluded: “But if there are these small bones to pick, the skull, spine and ribs of this powerful book will all stand up… above all the book deserves the adjective ‘important’…. And Michael Bellesiles’s hope to help shape history by writing it is far more realistic than most.”

OK. As the saying goes, that was then and this is now. As things stand today, the only small bones left to pick are Bellesiles’s small bones — and even these are shrinking hourly. The skull, spine and ribs of Arming America have collapsed. It does not stand up. The only emperor with no clothes is Michael A. Bellesiles.

And, to his credit, Dr. Lane completely, and angrily, takes back his previous review. As a self-identified “card-carrying Liberal,” who has spoken to Bellesiles by phone and in email, he says:

“I’m mad at the guy. He suckered me. It is entirely clear to me that he’s made up a lot of these records. He’s betrayed us [Liberals]. He’s betrayed the cause.” Dr. Lane adds: “It’s 100 percent clear that the guy is a liar and a disgrace to my profession. He’s breached that trust.”

Dr. Lane says it is his understanding that those who awarded Bellesiles the Bancroft Prize for 2001 “are thinking about revoking it. And I suspect they will.” He also says he has been told that Arming America is being investigated by the American Historical Association.

The Organization of American Historians and the National Council on Public History (mentioned in a previous column) better do the same as the AHA or they may end up permanently harming their credibility.