Part 37 Michael A. Bellesiles: Mega Anti-Gun-Nut

Larry Pratt

It’s not that we needed more evidence that Emory History Professor Michael A. Bellesiles — author of Arming America (Knopf, 2000) — is a liar. But, still, we have found more evidence.

In our interview with Bellesiles on April 19, 2001, we asked him: Do you think the Second Amendment protects the right of private persons to keep and bear arms or is this a right only for the State? He replied: “I still haven’t made up my mind yet…. I’m trying to work this out.”

OK. Note, please, the date of this interview, April 19, 2001.

Well, on February 16, 2000 — 14 months before we put the Second Amendment question to Bellesiles — he spoke at a symposium sponsored by the Legal Action Project of the [Brady] Center to Prevent Handgun Violence. The topic? The Second Amendment. And did Bellesiles, in his presentation, say he hadn’t made up his mind on this issue? Did he say he was trying to work this out? Not at all. In fact, Bellesiles’ spent all his time trashing the so-called Standard Model, individual rights view of the Second Amendment and many who hold this view.

For openers, Bellesiles, using the actual words “Standard Model,” said that, traditionally, there have been, a number of arguments for this view: The British heritage of an individual right to gun ownership and the American tradition of “universal gun ownership” among other things.

Concerning argument (1), Bellesiles, in a very nasty and personal way, attacks an advocate of this view, Bentley College Professor Joyce Malcolm. He says her writing on this subject “borders on the bizarre.” He says certain British historians (unnamed, of course) have “laughed outright” at what Malcolm has written, that what she says “just makes no sense.” And that anyone who reads the English Bill of Rights as Malcolm does “needs a remedial reading course.”

Concerning argument (2), Bellesiles seeks to refute this point by, on one occasion, mocking the statue of the Minute Man in Lexington which, he says, holds in his right hand a giant musket; in his left hand is a plow. He adds: “I come from an agricultural family. I don’t imagine any of you have experienced plowing, but try plowing while holding a musket in one hand and plowing with the other.”

This, however, even for Bellesiles, is an unbelievably idiotic and puerile point. The statue is symbolic. It is not to be taken literally. The point is that many, perhaps most, of the Minute Men came from farms. They were farmers. And they had rifles. Hence the rifle and the plow. Get it? Obviously, Bellesiles does not.

Oh, and still on argument (2), Bellesiles mentions his probate record data which has now been thoroughly discredited, to put it mildly. And he says that, in the mid-1770s, when Americans reached above the mantle, the “vast majority” found “there was usually nothing there” and, if there was anything there, “it was very old and very rusted because these firearms, after all, were made of iron.”

In other remarks, Bellesiles criticizes University Of Texas Law Professor Sanford Levinson for using three quotations “to back up the right to insurrection imbedded in the Second Amendment” — a right which Levinson has never said exists. And he takes Levinson to task for having, supposedly, taken out of context some quotes by Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story who wrote:

    The right of citizens to keep and bear arms is justly considered as the palladium of the liberties of a republic since it offers a strong moral check against the usurpation and arbitrary power of rulers.

But, the additional Story comments which Bellesiles quotes — and Levinson did not — do not show that what Levinson did quote was out of context. Not at all.

And, again, Bellesiles makes another unbelievably idiotic point. Seeking to discredit what Story said, Bellesiles notes that Story was just 12 years old when the Second Amendment was passed. But, so what? This proves nothing. In fact, from Bellesiles’ warped perspective, it proves too much. If one’s age when the Second Amendment was passed is relevant, then Bellesiles should shut up about the Second Amendment because, when it passed, he wasn’t even born! He was zero years old!

Bellesiles concludes his presentation by praising one professor for having, supposedly, “convincingly established” that “the original meaning of the framers was that future generations should not be guided by events and ideas in the late 18th century.” But, Bellesiles adds, “that is not to negate the value of historical knowledge.”

Now, this is pure gibberish.

If the framers of our Constitution did, indeed, in effect, say “Hey!, future generations, pay no attention to what we’ve done here” — which they most assuredly did not say — this would, by definition, “negate” the value of the “historical knowledge” they were leaving us, including the U.S. Constitution!

Bellesiles ends his remarks by saying something that is, now, exceptionally ironic and absurd coming from him. He says (are you seated?), with presumably a straight face: “With no single issue is it more important to get the history right than on the question of guns in American life.”

Right. And it is precisely because Bellesiles has failed miserably to do this that his academic career and reputation as a scholar deservedly lie in ruins. He has reaped what he has sown.

A footnote: In our interview with Bellesiles (4/19/2001), he was asked specifically: Have any gun control groups asked you to speak? He replied: “They have. And [I’ve said] I will speak about historical issues. I will not speak about modern policy mostly because I’m not into that.”

But, as usual, Bellesiles speaks with a forked-tongue. His remarks at the seminar sponsored by the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence most definitely relate directly to “modern policy.” His trashing of the true meaning of the Second Amendment lines up perfectly with the gun-grabber crowd — and he knows it.