Michael Bellesiles is Back with a New Book





David Austin Walsh is the editor of the History News Network.

[David A. Walsh is the assistant editor of HNN.]

Michael A. Bellesiles, the former Emory University professor who drew intense criticism after the publication of his 2000 book Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture (see HNN's extensive coverage of the controversy here), has a new book soon to be published by The New Press, his first major work in a decade.  1877: America's Year of Living Violently promises, according to its Amazon page, to restore Bellesiles's tarnished reputation, which "many believe [was tarnished] unfairly."  One of Bellesiles's critics, who declined to comment officially, did note that "many believe unfairly" is a "curious statement."

1877, like most of Bellesiles's earlier work, is a broad meditation on the violence in American history – and 1877, argues Bellesiles, was the most violent year in peacetime the United States has ever seen.  It was a transformative year, the year when "[c]lass superseded race as the primary area of conflict; abolitionists became social [sic] Darwinists; onetime liberals came to see the wisdom of social control; those who fought for freedom demanded prohibition; elites battled to maintain their power in every corner of the country."  But the book also "reveals that the fires of 1877 also fueled a hothouse of cultural and intellectual innovation."  Reached for comment, James Lindgren, professor of law at Northwestern University and one of the most vehement critics of Arming America, said that he "[looks] forward to reading [1877]; given the level of violence in the South during and after Reconstruction, much of its reported thesis strikes me as plausible."  Lindgren also said that he wished Bellesiles well.

The publisher's galley letter does not shy away from the past controversy.  According to the release, written by an editor at The New Press:

1877 is also notable as the comeback book for a celebrated U.S. historian.  Michael Bellesiles is perhaps most famous as the target of an infamous "swiftboating" campaign by the National Rifle Association, following the publication of his Bancroft Prize-winning book Arming America (Knopf, 2000)—"the best kind of non-fiction," according to the Chicago Tribune—which made daring claims about gun ownership in early America.  In what became the history profession's most talked-about and notorious case of the past generation, Arming America was eventually discredited after an unprecedented and controversial review called into question its sources, charges which Bellesiles and his many prominent supporters have always rejected.

Gloria Main, professor emeritus at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and another noted critic of Arming America, responded that "I never realized I was a ‘swift-boater'!  And anyone who knows my politics would never associate me with the National Rifle Association."  Main declined to comment further until she has read the book.

Since resigning from Emory in 2002, Bellesiles has relocated to Connecticut, where he is now an adjunct lecturer at Central Connecticut State University.  In his acknowledgments, Bellesiles thanked Kathy Hermes, Professor of History at CCSU, for "getting me back to the classroom where I belong… [and] her courage in standing up to bullies [that] has been an inspiration and a valuable reminder of why teaching and writing are so important."  Hermes explained in an email that she is the state coordinator for the Connecticut campaign for the Healthy Workplace Bill, a proposed anti-workplace bullying law, which she became involved with after the suicide of her best friend.  In her view, Bellesiles was the victim of a "mobbing" campaign, which is "basically a situation in which more than one person engages [in] abusive conduct or bullying… Whatever the merits of the criticism about [Arming America], the way in which much of the criticism was done, with the deliberate effort to ruin a career and destroy him as a person, was a travesty."  Hermes, however, acknowledges that "not all of Michael's critics fit into this category…."

Randolph Roth, who teaches at The Ohio State University, had this to say:

I hope and expect that Michael Bellesiles' new book will be judged on its merits.  I am disappointed, however, in the promotional campaign for the book.  Mr. Bellesiles may indeed have been the target of the NRA's ire, but he was not "swift-boated" by anyone.  Many people found Arming America deeply flawed—among them scholars of unquestioned skill and integrity such as James Lindgren, Gloria Main, Laurel Ulrich, and Clayton Cramer.  Some of them are conservatives, some liberals, some contrarians, but they all followed the evidence where it led, regardless of their personal views about guns or gun control.  The evidence, quantitative and qualitative, undid Arming America.

HNN also contacted Harvard's Laurel Ulrich and Princeton's Stanley Katz, both members of the independent committee appointed by Emory to investigate Bellesiles.  Both declined to comment.  The third member of the committee, Hanna Gray of the University of Chicago, could not be reached as of press time.

The panel concluded that Bellesiles had conducted "superficial and thesis-driven research" and that "his scholarly integrity [was] seriously in question," but he was not guilty of fraud.  You can read HNN's summary of the report here.

1877: America's Year of Living Violently will be available in August.

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Lawrence A. Peskin - 5/14/2010

What surprises me is that the publicity letter (which I received in today's mail) cites Arming America as a "Bancroft Prize winning book." That seems a bit smarmy and I would think the people at Columbia (who sponsor the prize) would be sending the New Press a letter soon. For the record, I am not a member of the NRA and I liked much of _Arming America_ (even cited it once in my own work).


Joseph Fitzharris - 5/12/2010

Hmm. I don't think the review in the Yale Law Review was an NRA plant. Inventing manuscript collections and then inventing archives and the collections therein is besmirching and swiftboating? This seems to me to be something worse than data mining.

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