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Response to My Critics

On December 18, 2003 Soft Skull Press is publishing a revised and corrected edition of Michael Bellesiles's Arming America. In advance of publication the publisher released to the media a pamphlet by Bellesiles which summarizes his response to his critics. The title of the pamphlet, Weighed in an Even Balance, is drawn from a biblical passage from Job: "Let me be weighed in an even balance, that God may know mine integrity."

The pamphlet includes six sections. Each section is prefaced by a quotation, as indicated in the excerpts below.

(Click here for an evaluation of Mr. Bellesiles's defense by critics Jerome Sternstein, James Lindgren and Clayton Cramer.)


In the sixteenth century, Oxford University had a statute that any of its students or professors “who did not follow Aristotle faithfully were liable to a fine of five shillings for every point of divergence.”—Graham Midgley

In September 2000, a book appeared challenging the popular perception that Americans have always been a heavily armed people. Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture questioned a series of assumptions about Americans’ relationship with guns by examining a wide array of evidence across three centuries. The book came under sustained assault nearly a year before its appearance. Along the way a number of accusations were made against the book’s scholarship and its author. Most of these accusations focus on the three paragraphs and one table dealing with probate records, though other charges emerged, primarily on the web. As the author of Arming America, I would rather not engage in the highly political and personal tone of these attacks which often say more about the critic than about the content of the book. As the goal of this tract is the furtherance of scholarship, I prefer to simply answer each of the charges of falsification in turn. For that reason, each accusation is quoted without attribution, so as to avoid further personalizing this debate.

Not all critiques are equal. I hope that it is evident that many accusations made against Arming America have no relation to the text but are rather based on what some people assume or imagine the book says. A great many attacks appear to have been motivated by political agendas. Unfortunately, the polemical static obscured a number of legitimate criticisms, and I did not respond adequately to each and every allegation. This document is an effort to respond to every specific criticism of the book. Many criticisms of this book have either correctly identified errors or offered an alternative reading of the source. I welcome the former, which has led to the publication of an improved second edition. While there were errors in the first edition, none of them was made intentionally or with any design to mislead the reader. The latter form of critique, alternative interpretations, are important and helpful, forming the essence of scholarly debate. Hopefully these critiques will inspire further research, for, as Arming America attempted to make clear, America’s gun heritage is a surprisingly underexplored aspect of our history. As stated in the introduction to the book, I have only scratched the surface of the documentary record, and the vast amounts of material, such as military records, demand further exploration. There is certainly room for disagreement about the significance of the evidence provided by Arming America, but my goal in writing it was to present a rigorous and accurate historical account and a reasonable, though controversial, interpretation of the historical record.

Not for a moment do I mean to suggest that Arming America is free of error; it is likely that no work of scholarship is free from error. The individual scholar thus has a responsibility to correct any mistakes in his or her work, as I have consistently endeavored to do. In his biography, Truman, David McCullough quotes a memo from General Thomas Handy of George Marshall’s staff as stating that the military expected 500,000 to one million casualties in the invasion of Japan.2 As it turned out, the memo was actually written by former President Herbert Hoover and General Handy’s covering memo dismisses the prediction as ridiculous. The Army’s highest casualty figure for the invasion was 67,000. Though McCullough acknowledged the error, it has never been corrected in Truman, which is still available in bookstores. The failure to correct that mistake in print has had major consequences, as it is often quoted to justify America’s decision to drop two atomic bombs on Japan and was repeatedly cited in the debate over the cancelled Enola Gay exhibit at the Smithsonian.3 Even the finest scholars, and I place McCullough in that camp, make mistakes. However, acknowledging an error is not enough, it must be corrected. From the first appearance of Arming America, I have done my best to correct any errors, as I do here and in the revised edition of the book.

Probate Records

But the whole point of this exercise [attacking the probate records] is to discredit Bellesiles’ book without expressly dealing with the arguments.—Robert Spitzer

The most significant and oft-repeated criticism of Arming America concerns the probate materials. Many critics maintain that “the entire argument of the book is based on one thousand probate records.” This statement is incorrect. It is true that I had initially been fascinated with probate records as a source, and for years I would stop at every county courthouse I was near and ask if they had any probate inventories from the antebellum period. These materials open a window on the dynamic nature of the early American economy and the structure of the household economy. However, as I presented my findings at historical conferences over the 1990s, I was persuaded that probate records are deeply flawed as a source....

The problems with my probate notes began on April 2, 2000. On that day the pipes in Emory University’s Bowden Hall (where the history department is located) burst and flooded the building, doing serious damage to nearly every office and an estimated million dollars in damage to the building.4 The ceiling of my office (222 Bowden Hall) collapsed and the resulting flood turned a dozen of the legal pads on which I had taken notes into unreadable pulp (these were not all my notes, but those with statistics which I planned to enter onto my computer in the fall when I returned from Europe). Professor James V. Melton, who was the only person in the building at the time, characterized the ensuing rush of waters, which lasted several hours, as “like being on the Titanic.” Professor Mark Ravina described the wreckage of papers on his desk as “a sodden mix of waterlogged pulp and ceiling tiles,” and stated that these documents had been rendered “undecipherable and unreadable.” Despite the fact that these events were well known and well described, many critics charged that no flood had occurred.5 More commonly, I was criticized for persisting in the use of pencil and legal pads in the last decade of the twentieth century. Many people charged that no serious scholar uses anything but computer programs for note taking, while others found it difficult to believe that I kept my notes in my office. It is true that I stuck to the anachronism of pencil and paper until I purchased a laptop computer in 2001. As the History Department’s undergraduate director for seven years, I was in my office five days a week in order to be available for students and did nearly all my work there. It is further correct that I had just assumed that my notes were safe in Bowden Hall. I had no way of knowing that when the flood came that the ceiling would collapse right on to that chair, the ceiling tiles turning into a white mud on top of my notes.

So ruined were these notes that it was not initially clear which materials had been lost, especially as I was in Europe teaching and conducting research over the summer. But upon my return I determined that my notes on these probate records had been destroyed and posted a message to that effect on several historical e-mail lists in September 2000. I do not know that there is any connection between my posting that information and the sudden attacks on me for not having my notes for the probate records, but it was almost eerie the way that several hostile web sites shifted their ground from denying the validity of probate records as a source to insisting on their centrality to Arming America and my obvious (and admitted) failings as a scholar for not having put my data on a computer.

Specific Challenges: Accurate

When you work in the archives, you’re far from home, you’re bored, you’re in a hurry, you’re scribbling like crazy. You’re bound to make mistakes. I don’t believe any scholar in the western world has impeccable footnotes. Archival research is a special case of the general messiness of life.—Lawrence Stone

Is error fraud? So much of this debate over Arming America comes down to the notion that if an error can be found in my calculations or quotations then there is solid evidence of fraud. Is that the case? Every statistician knows that there is a “margin of error” built into all calculations. Even the Census Bureau has operated with such an admission of probable error. If the 1990 census reports that there were 7,322,564 people in New York City, does that mean that this is the exact population of New York at some point in the year 1990? If it is found that the correct figure is 7,322,546, does that indicate fraud? Personally, I think not.

Many scholars argue that all evidence, including statistical evidence, should be subject to suspicion and scrutiny. It is often very difficult to determine what constitutes accuracy in any subject dependent on human action. For example, several of the critics of Arming America have referred to the “meticulous” index of the Early Records of the Town of Providence and my failure to use it properly (though it’s unclear what constitutes proper use in the critic’s eyes). I doubt that any historian would judge any index as meticulous, but this one contains a number of spelling errors, omissions of names and documents, and often unusual and inconsistent subject headings. If a document with so many errors is adjudged “meticulous,” then is not a work of history with even fewer errors even more meticulous? At the very least, if we are to persist in this kind of a conversation about scholarship, we should agree upon what is an allowable margin of error and what is the line between meticulous and fraudulent. There are errors in Arming America. These mistakes have been corrected in the revised edition. It is my firm belief that authors should be given the opportunity to correct their errors.

Specific Challenges: Perceived Errors

This method [of distorting the work of others] has been used in all times and places. Men have always tried, and still try, to ridicule the doctrine and the person of their adversaries: to achieve this they invent thousands of stories.—Pierre Bayle, 1697


“[Bellesiles] is a paid agent of ZOG.”

It is instructive to discover that one is a paid agent of something one has never heard of. ZOG is the “Zionist Occupational [sic] Government.” I am not now, nor have I ever been, to my knowledge, an agent of ZOG.


“Bellesiles is funded by anti-gun groups.”

I am not now, nor have I ever been funded by an “anti-gun” group. The research for Arming America was supported by the American Antiquarian Society, the Huntington Library, the American Philosophical Association, the Stanford Humanities Center, and Emory University. I do not believe that any of these constitutes an “anti-gun group.”


“A Gun-Hating Historian.”

The headline above has appeared in several journals and on several web sites. This is an odd description that I do not understand and is made without the slightest hint of evidence. If anything, I would think that anyone who reads Arming America could not help but notice that I am fascinated with firearms.

Specific Challenges: Matters of Interpretation

Historians’ practices of citation and quotation have rarely lived up to their precepts; footnotes have never supported, and can never support, every statement of fact in a given work.—Anthony Grafton

It is of course fair to disagree with any scholar’s interpretation of a cited source or with the entire thesis of any book. For instance what I see as a limited and insufficient supply of firearms can be interpreted as a great many by another reader. Whenever we deal with numbers there is a core question of presentation. Do we say “only 20 percent,” or “as much as 20 percent”? Likewise, raising contrary evidence, as I attempt to do in my book, is a legitimate aspect of all scholarship. All good scholars hope that their research will inspire an informed discussion and learned disagreement. I trust that the following issues can be treated as part of a fair and honest exchange of opinion.


Yet I admit that here, as is so often the case, there is always reason to still be in doubt.—Leopold von Ranke

Most historians insist that evidence may be compelling without being certain. It seems that I failed to make apparent the complexity and tentativeness of my historical inquiry. Arming America came across to some people as making claims for a definitiveness that would be alien to any work of history, especially one that acknowledges that it is a preliminary exploration of a new field. Albert Camus saw the essence of human frustration in the contradiction between the desire for certainty and the irrational nature of the world. There are those who rest their very identity on the notion of a certain, unchanging past. The vision that society is unalterable is not just incorrect, it is dangerously undemocratic, and as such should be of concern to every modern historian.

Leon Goldstein sees history consisting of a superstructure, “that part of the historical enterprise which is visible to non-historian consumers of what historians produce,” and an infrastructure, “that range of intellectual activities whereby the historical past is constituted in historical research.”3 History is often perceived as little more than a chronicle, the plain recording of a sequence of facts, each total and complete unto itself. Such a perspective fosters the notion that historians devote themselves solely to acquiring facts and reporting them. In the case of Arming America, the manuscript came in at over one thousand pages, requiring the elimination of great amounts of material, entire careful accounts and considerations of the details of firearm technology and numerous other issues. As a result, many criticisms focus on exactly what has been cut, as though a failure to devote thirty pages to the distinctive styles of musketry in the eighteenth century negates the entire work. Obviously there is much more to be said on this subject and no book can hope to say it all—every writer on every subject must make hard decisions on what to include and what to cut. But that fact does not mean that every book written is an artifice for failing to cover every detail of a subject.

Most of the criticisms of Arming America seem to focus on the American Revolutionary period. Very little has been said about the seventeenth or nineteenth centuries, roughly threefourths of the book. For instance, I know of only one criticism of my handling of the War of 1812, none of the Mexican War and Civil War. There are whole areas of inquiry that have not been subject to criticism, though I know from the various e-mail lists that nearly every footnote in Arming America has been checked for accuracy. Almost nothing has been said about my portrayal of the attitudes of the political leadership, or the technological development of firearms, or government efforts to promote gun production and use, or the collapse of the militia in the nineteenth century, or the growth and nature of the hunting subculture and the revival of the militia in the mid-nineteenth century. Nor do I know of any criticisms of my examination of law and politics in the colonial period or the nineteenth century, or of the nature of crowd actions at any time. It is intriguing that most of the accusations against this book are concerned with probate records and the period immediately preceding the articulation of the Second Amendment.

Arming America rests on many pillars. It was my intention to offer as many different approaches to the subject as possible, to provide the reader with several different ways of approaching the book’s argument. Perhaps I erred in making it too complex in this regard, and some critics have suggested that it would have been far better had I abbreviated much of the first half of the book and focused just on the last fifty years of the story.5 My reasoning was that this book approached what I felt to be a previously undeveloped area of history and that it was therefore my responsibility to open up the subject for further research as much as possible. There are errors in Arming America, as in every book. Every effort has been made to correct flaws in this book, and a great deal of time has been devoted to discovering that many charges of error are incorrect. The honest scholar realizes the probability of mistake and remains open to further correction and suggestion. Ultimately history is not a science, but the product of fallible humans (and even some physicists hold that science is not a science, but also the product of subjective human actions and understandings). If we insist that all mistakes and errors of judgment are indicators of fraud, we would very soon cease publishing.


In Isaiah Berlin’s recently published notebooks the following passage occurs and seems a fitting conclusion to this discussion:

Few things have done more harm than the belief on the part of individuals or groups. . . . that he or she or they are in sole possession of the truth: Especially about how to live, what to be & do—& that those who differ from them are not merely mistaken, but wicked or mad: & need restraining or suppressing. It is a terrible and dangerous arrogance to believe that you alone are right: have a magical eye which sees the truth: & that others cannot be right if they disagree.