Summary of the Emory Report on Michael Bellesiles

Historians/History


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.

FINDINGS

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."

CONCLUSIONS

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."