Summary of the Emory Report on Michael Bellesiles


Michael Bellesiles Chronology: Latest Developments
Bellesiles's Response to the Report
Other Responses to the Report
Remaining Questions

"Dr. Michael Bellesiles has resigned from his position as Professor of History at Emory University, effective December 31, 2002."
Emory University, October 25, 2002

Following is a summary of the findings of the independent committee appointed by Emory University to investigate Michael Bellesiles. Click here to read his response to the report. Click here to read Emory's announcment that Bellesiles was resigning.

In May 2002 Emory University appointed an outside committee to investigate charges that Michael Bellesiles had engaged in unprofessional practices in connection with the writing of his Bancroft Prize winner, Arming of America (Knopf).

Until now the names of the committee were secret:

Stanley N. Katz, Princeton University
Hanna H. Gray, University of Chicago
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Harvard University

Critics had wondered if the committee had been given a mandate to probe all of the main charges lodged against Bellesiles. The report indicates they were not. Emory limited the investigation to five questions about probate records and militias. The committee met six times and on three occasions contacted Bellesiles with a list of questions. He supplied lists of answers.


The committee:

  • agreed with James Lindgren, who found that Bellesiles's table one lumped data in such a way that "it is almost impossible to tell" where he got his information.
  • agreed with Randolph Roth that that Bellesiles's numbers were "mathematically improbable or impossible."
  • agreed with Gloria Main, who had asked, "Did no editor or referees ever ask that he supply" the basic information needed to understand his tables?
  • criticized the Journal of American History for failing to edit Bellesiles's original report on guns, which was published in 1996.
  • found that "no one has been able to replicate Professor Bellesiles' results [of low percentage of guns] for the places or dates he lists."
  • found that he conflated wills and inventories, thereby leading to confusion.
  • found that he had a "casual method of recording data."
  • found that his story about the infamous San Francisco probate records he allegedly found in Contra Costa County "raise doubts about his veracity." The committee noted that some of the records he claimed to have read at the Contra Costa History Center in 1993 were not transferred there until 1998.
  • raised questions about his story about reading probate records supplied by an unnamed friend who supposedly worked at a Mormon branch library.
  • found that there is "a serious discrepancy" between the numbers used in his probate table number one and the sources he listed.
  • an assistant to the committee found it was impossible to corroborate the claim that gun ownership increased in the nineteenth century; some critical Massachusetts records Bellesiles claimed to have relied upon did not exist.
  • found that he apparently "skimmed the surface" of sources related to militias and guns.
  • found that "we do not see evidence of outright deception" in his use of materials related to militias, "but we do see abundant evidence of superficial and thesis-driven research."


Concerning the records related to Rutland, Vt., and Providence, RI, the committee concluded that though he had made extensive errors he was not guilty of fraud and misrepresentation. But the committee concluded that while "we cannot prove that Professor Bellesiles simply invented his California research" "neither do we have confidence that the Contra Costa inventories resolve the problem."

Concerning table one, which listed his probate records, the committee concluded that his failure to identify his sources "does move into the realm of 'falsification,' " in violation of Emory's policies and procedures. "The construction of this Table implies a consistent, comprehensive and intelligent method of gathering data. The reality seems quite the opposite. In fact, Professor Bellesiles told the Committee that because of criticism from other scholars, he himself had begun to doubt the quality of his probate research well before he published it in the Journal of American History."

The committee concluded that he was guilty of "egregious misrepresentation" in his handling of relevant data reported by historian Alice Hanson Jones. Bellesiles told the committee that he had not included her data in his table because it included a "disproportionately high number of guns." "Here is a clear admission of misrepresentation," the committee concluded, "since the label on column one in Table One clearly says '1765-1790.'"

Finally, the committee concluded that Bellesiles is "guilty of unprofessional and misleading work," though at all times he was "both cooperative and respectful." His responses, the committee declared, "have been prolix, confusing, evasive and occasionally contradictory." The committee specifically noted that Bellesiles's disavowal of emails he had sent to James Lindgren was implausible.

In sum, the committee found that "his scholarly integrity is seriously in question."






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John Chandler - 1/14/2003

Apparently, to the commentators currently on the list (whose postings date from late October through early November of 2002), whatever the Emory committee says to damage the reputation of Michael Belleisles is obvious truth, and whatever degree of tarring and feathering the committee declines to engage in is evidence of corruption, or stupidity, or cronyism in academia.

What's funny in a way is that this is exactly the kind of thinking that one would expect from the *stereotypical* pro-gun opinionator (excluding the toothless redneck crowd, of course). How many actually read Belleisles rebuttal? Oh, why bother, it's all lies, because the committee proved he's a liar.

Perhaps another example of Better Living Through Tautology?


Thomas L. Spencer - 11/1/2002

You may be right about the Anti foundation work. That wouldn't surprise me. They need another martyr-in-residence, no doubt. He promises yet another book. I am speculating that Knopf, based on their current track record, may do this. Of course it could be some anti foundation that ultimately is the source for this. No doubt he could do something on the anti's lecture circuit talking about jack-booted-thugs and such, and how he was "McCarthyized". Maybe a year or so overseas in some place like Britain, where he apparently has friends and supporters, till things blow over. If B was a country music star caught in an embarrassing divorce case/marital infidelity scandal he would be going about a religious conversion, after which he releases an album of gospel favorites. Once the furor dies down he queitly is returned to the fold of fandom. He could actually make an attempt to do something NON-GUN related to redeem his reputation. That remains to be seen, though.

Thomas Smith - 11/1/2002

Here is a shining example of the denial and dishonesty rampant in the medieval confines of the university system. A commitee of peers dances daintily around the words "dishonesty" and "lie" but cannot touch them, say them, or punish the guilty person. As a former university student I have seen too much idealogically driven "research" and "teaching". Better terms are "lying" and "politicizing". This dishonesty has totally undermined the value of a college education, and it's time to do away with the crooks at the top.

John G. Fought - 10/30/2002

I'm afraid you're probably right. I'm not too concerned with what he says right now. It's not his style to admit that his life has just been turned inside out. But I do think others will try to scavenge something useful (to them) from the carcass of his career. He has name recognition, for sure. The nature of that, I think, might work against him now in academic life: he's 'too controverial' for the hiring panels to put on a short list, much as they might want to. And full professors usually move only by prearrangement, because another school wants a particular one. (I know I may be indulging in wishful thinking here.) These faculty hiring committees are not famous for their courage, and there is a big surplus of qualified historians without his iffy track record. After all, he was nobody before this delicious research program and the book; now he's the wrong kind of somebody. The anti-gun foundations seem to be his likeliest destination to me. He can be their OJ: "He wasn't fired: he resigned, in protest. He's an innocent victim of the Very Large Men. INNOCENT!" There's perhaps a couple of years of work there -- public appearances, interviews, etc. And they need juice right now, after US v. Emerson, and perhaps more to come. Soon, though, he'll be in real trouble because he'll be old news. There's a long hard stretch between that old-news moment and "Whatever happened to ...." Maybe he could write romance novels: Michael is occasionally found as a woman's name, and he already has the writing style for it. That's said to be hard work, though.

Jim Williams - 10/28/2002

Emory University deserves credit for the committee members it induced to participate - all heavy hitters! They deserve credit for the care and discretion of their evaluation.

Thomas L. Spencer - 10/26/2002

There has been a strange silence following the announcement. Maybe others are just waking up after having atteneded their pig roast. B has promised yet another book on what seems to be his favorite topic, in his resignation. What is your take on this?
I've posted my thoughts on the other thread site. Like the "Terminator", he'll be back.

Yeechang Lee - 10/25/2002

. . . Is that, besides being an authority on pre-Revolutionary American history, she is a Latter-day Saint (Mormon). I presume she's the source of the section in the report that describes the accessability of records through local LDS genealogical libraries.