Part 36 Michael A. Bellesiles: Mega Anti-Gun-Nut

Larry Pratt

A few months ago, I reported the outrageously irresponsible decision by the Newberry Library in Chicago to give a $30,000 National Endowment For The Humanities (NEH) grant to Emory History Professor Michael A. Bellesiles to work on, of all things, another book about guns. This unbelievable waste of your Federal tax dollars and mine occurred despite the fact that Bellesiles’ book Arming America (Knopf, 20002) has repeatedly been exposed as a fraud.

When we learned about this appalling Federal grant, we interviewed Jim Grossman, Vice President For Research And Education at the Newberry Library. We asked him two obvious questions: (1) “Why give one of your grants to Bellesiles, whose scholarship and reputation are under a huge black cloud when, presumably, there were many applicants whose work is not in question?” And (2) “Before Bellesiles was given this $30,000 grant, was he, in any way, asked to respond to any of the devastating criticisms of Arming America?”

To the first question, Grossman replied, in part, that the Library’s Review Committee “felt comfortable” with the quality of Bellesiles’ existing work. To our second question, he replied, incredibly, no, adding: “That’s not part of our process…. There’s no interview in the fellowship process.”

OK. That was then, this is now.

Now, one very important party has made it crystal clear they are not “comfortable” with Bellesiles’ “existing work.” And that party is the National Endowment For The Humanities. In a statement (5/21/02), NEH Chairman Bruce Cole has called on the Newberry Library to completely disassociate the NEH from the grant given Bellesiles. Cole says, in part:

    The issue of trust and truth is at the heart of our decision to require the Newberry Library to remove the NEH name from Professor Michael Bellesiles fellowship. The authorities at the Newberry Library neglected to take seriously the many substantial questions that had been raised about the accuracy of Mr. Bellesiles’ scholarship. These questions were widespread before the award committee made its decision….

    It was the responsibility of the Newberry Library to have known about these charges and to have held Professor Bellesiles, or any other applicant, to the highest ethical standards. By not doing this they failed to weigh and consider all factors surrounding Professor Bellesiles’ previous research, his proposed research, and indeed the credibility of the researcher himself. By neglecting its crucial oversight responsibilities the Newberry Library failed to meet the high scholarly and ethical standards necessary for any award bearing the NEH name. Consequently we have asked the Newberry Library to remove the NEH name from Professor Bellesiles’ fellowship.

The NEH statement is excellent — as far as it goes. But, it does not go far enough.

First, what, exactly, does the NEH action accomplish? What, precisely, does it mean to demand that the NEH’s name be taken off Bellesiles’ grant? A spokesman for the NEH says: “We think there’s some value in the NEH name, that we stand for certain standards of excellence. And we wanted to make a statement about what we believe in and stand for.”

OK. Great. But, what about the money? What about getting our $30,000 in Federal tax dollars back? Too late, this NEH spokesman says. Bellesiles has already spent almost all of his grant. So, why not sue him and/or the Library to recover this money? Answer: NEH lawyers advised against doing this because legal costs could be as much as the grant.

Well, maybe legal costs to sue Bellesiles and/or the Newberry Library would exceed $30,000. Then again maybe not. Still — because there’s an important principle at stake here — the NEH should have taken legal action to recover the thirty grand. This would have sent a powerful message to all future recipients of NEH money to be on guard against academic charlatans like Bellesiles.

A footnote: Some folks at the Newberry Library are slow-learners regarding Bellesiles. According to Rebecca Holmes, a Project Assistant at the Newberry Library’s Scholl Center, this Center, on May 30, will hold a seminar featuring a speaker who will present a paper on the War of 1812. This speaker? Professor Michael A. Bellesiles! And, adding insult to injury, Holmes says Bellesiles’ book Arming America will, at this time, be on sale in the Library’s book store!