Michael Bellesiles–The End of the Story?

I have stayed on the sidelines throughout one of the major controversies current in my field–that of Emory Professor Michael Bellesiles’ 2000 book Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture. Bellesiles contended, largely through the use of probate inventories, that guns were relatively few in colonial America, and that the federal government actually encouraged our national love affair with guns throughout the early nineteenth century.

If it sounds straightforward, let me enlighten you. Shortly after his work was published, it was immediately attacked by the gun nuts of the NRA. This is not surprising, but then historians began to try to replicate his data on gun ownership and couldn’t. Odd gaps appeared in the statistical material. Some inventories couldn’t even be found by researchers. In short, many inventories showing ownership of guns in colonial America appeared to have been excluded by Bellesiles. Suspicions of fraud grew.

A mammoth forum in our field’s most prominent journal, The William and Mary Quarterly, attempted to deal with the suspicions about Bellesiles’ work and to treat his scholarship honestly. (See the January 2002 issue.) Unfortunately for him, the universal opinion was negative: Bellesiles’ work was judged at best sloppy and at worst fraudulent.

Emory wisely convened an outside panel to review the book and the claims of fraud. While this panel, whose report was released yesterday, did not find intentional fraud, it did find more than enough evidence of scholarly carelessness. (Apparently key evidence he had accumulated was destroyed in an office flood and/or removed from his computer during a hacking incident–pretty convenient for Bellesiles.)

The panel concluded:

Did professor Bellesiles engage in “other serious deviations ‘from accepted practices in carrying out or reporting results from research'” with respect to probate

records or militia census records by:

(a) Failing to carefully document his findings;

(b) Failing to make available to others his sources, evidence, and data; or

(c) Misrepresenting evidence or the sources of evidence.”

We have reached the conclusion with reference to clauses “a” through “c,” that Professor Bellesiles contravened these professional norms, both as expressed in the Committee charge and in the American Historical Association’s definition of scholarly “integrity,” which includes “an awareness of one’s own bias and a readiness to follow sound method and analysis wherever they may lead,” “disclosure of all significant qualifications of one’s arguments,” careful documentation of findings and the responsibility to “thereafter be prepared to make available to others their sources, evidence, and data,” and the injunction that “historians must not misrepresent evidence or the sources of evidence.”

This is a serious charge, but also proof that the historical profession has the means and the will to deal with dishonest academicians. While I don’t possess the knowledge or the skills to examine all of Bellesiles’ work myself, I agree that his methods and documentation are highly suspect and completely invalidate his conclusions. So I give historians a collective pat on the back for dealing with this matter and for so strongly condemning misleading and sloppy scholarship.

Professor Bellesiles has, unsurprisingly, resigned from the faculty of Emory University.

You can see the Committee’s report here, and Bellesiles’ “response” here.

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