Part 35 Michael A. Bellesiles: Mega Anti-Gun-Nut

Larry Pratt

In early February, the Chronicle of Higher Education ran an article more than 5,000 words long examining the controversy surrounding Arming America: The Origins Of A National Gun Culture (Knopf, 2000) by Emory History Professor Michael A. Bellesiles — a book that has been thoroughly discredited. This article quoted and reported on the views of a number of individuals.

Conspicuously missing from this lengthy piece, however, was anything said by Northwestern History Professor Gary Wills. Instead, we were told that Wills “declined to be interviewed for this article, explaining he would need more time than he currently has to properly reconsider this matter.”

But, Wills has not always been too busy to comment on Arming America. In fact, Wills wrote a glowing, love letter of a review of this book for the New York Times Book Review (9/10/2000) headlined “Spiking The Gun Myth.” And what a review it was. Wills swallowed everything Bellesiles wrote — hook, line, sinker and fishing pole! The Times liked this review so much it was featured on the Book Review cover along with a piece of art work showing a bony, skeletal hand holding a gun. The headline on the cover read: “Gun Culture? What Gun Culture?” A subhead noted that Bellesiles’s book tells us: “The freedom-loving, gun-toting yeomanry of 1776 never really existed.”

In his review, Wills began by sneering at and mocking those Americans for whom, supposedly, “the gun is a holy object, the emblem and guarantor of their identity,” those folks who — without a gun — “would not be the self-sufficient persons they consider themselves, the very models for all lovers of freedom.”

Wills mindlessly regurgitates virtually anything Bellesiles asserts as if something is true simply because Bellesiles says it. He reports, as truth, Bellesiles’s bogus data regarding gun ownership in the mid to late 1700s. Ditto, what Bellesiles says about: the expense and trouble of owning a gun; how most murders were committed; the militia; and much more. Wills even repeats what has now been exposed as fiction, that Bellesiles searched “over a thousand probate records.”

Right. And Bellesiles is still searching for these records!

Wills concludes his embarrassing review: “Bellesiles has dispersed the darkness that covered the gun’s early history in America. He provides overwhelming evidence that our view of the gun is as deep a superstition as any that affected Native Americans in the 17th century.”

Well, to make a long story short, we now know the truth about Arming America — but no thanks to gullible, intellectually dishonest reviewers like Gary Wills. The book is one long Big Lie about guns. Michael A. Bellesiles has “spiked” nothing. Instead, he has attempted to perpetuate a fraud. He’s been caught. And the only “darkness” related to this sordid affair is that which is rapidly covering Bellesiles’s academic career which lies in rubble. And this couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.

But, even though Gary Wills won’t comment on the record — he has ignored our phone calls and e-mails — we know that he knows he got badly burned. When Don Kates sought to organize a critics-and-defenders panel on Arming America for the annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology, he contacted, among others, Gary Wills. Wills’ reply, in an e-mail, regarding Bellesiles, was, in its entirety: “Nobody defends him.”

Ho, ho, ho. What Wills means, of course, is that nobody defends Bellesiles now. But, Gary Wills once defended him, vigorously and with great gusto. And the fact that Wills won’t now admit, on-the-record, that he was had, and apologize to readers of the New York Times Book Review, is a cowardly disgrace.