Bellesiles's Response to the Emory Report


Michael Bellesiles Chronology: Latest Developments
Summary of the Emory Report
Other Responses to the Report
Remaining Questions

Bellesiles begins his 6-page response to the committee's report by thanking "those who participated in this difficult and often confusing endeavor." He then goes on to dispute the process that resulted in his condemnation:

I remain convinced that the standard workings of academic discourse remain the best way of correcting errors and increasing our knowledge. With time, the development of probate record databases would clarify the extent of firearm ownership reflected in this source. It is not evident that launching a sharply focused investigation of one small part of a scholar's work brings us closer to the truth on the subject of that research.

He says that he welcomes scholarly criticism, but implies that he is being held to a harsher standard than others have in the past: "Many scholars have admitted and corrected errors in their own research, enriching our knowledge in the process. I believe that if we begin investigating every scholar who challenges received truth, it will not be long before no challenging scholarly books are published."

He pleads that he has been unfairly tried and convicted: "The report casts aspersion on my integrity as a scholar based on three paragraphs and a table in a six hundred-page book. It seems to me that raising uncertainties that question the credibility of an entire book without considering the book as a whole is just plain unfair."

He says that in the new edition of his book he has corrected mistakes and added new material. Arming America, he says, "has been subjected to the most thorough scrutiny of any work of history." Yet, apart from the probate records, "only a single misquote has been found, and only the most minor errors discovered."

He added that he "deeply regrets" the loss of his yellow legal pads in the flood at Bowden Hall.


The Charge: That Bellesiles misled readers by excluding two years of records on gun ownership in a table marked 1765-1790.
The Response: Bellesiles says that he deliberately excluded data on gun ownership for the years 1775 and 1776 because these were the years that guns were "being widely dispersed by governments." He admits that he should have provided an explanation in a long footnote.

The Charge: That Bellesiles did not adequately document his sources in the use of probate records.
The Response: Bellesiles says that much more documentation should have been provided. He should have "taken down the name of every probate file" he examined.

The Charge: That there are serious questions about Bellesiles's claim to have used microfilm records provided by the Mormon Church.
The Response: Bellesiles admits "I may not correctly recall how I acquired the microfilm." He insists he did do microfilm research and five graduate students saw him reading microfilm.

The Charge: That he may never have done the California research he claimed to have done.
The Response: Bellesiles insists he did the research, even though he was confused about where the records were located. He says no one has disputed that the documents he subsequently found in the Contra Costa archives proved his main point: that gun ownership increased in the nineteenth century.

The committee questions where I read a dozen probate files that I mistook to be from San Francisco County. In 1993 and 1994 I conducted research in California. I visited many archives and courthouses during those two trips, including some in the East Bay area in 1994. Unfortunately, I misunderstood the provenance of a dozen probate records that I read in a single day as being from San Francisco rather than Contra Costa County. I hope that this error is understandable, since many documents are labeled as being from the San Francisco Probate district.

The Charge: That he showed little proof that he did the research he claimed to have done in connection with Massachusetts probate records in Essex, Suffolk, and Plymouth Counties.
The Response: "The committee ... sought to learn precisely where I read the various probate records in Massachusetts, but again the loss of my notes made that difficult to precisely reconstruct."

The Charge: That he conflated wills and inventories in Tennessee records mined by scholar Lucy Gump and cited in his revised edition of Arming America. The committee also found that he conflated wills and inventories in the original edition of his book.
The Response: Bellesiles ignores the committee's finding with regard to Tennessee. He implies that the committee drew the conclusion that he had conflated data in the original edition of the book on the assumption that his table must have included statistics compiled by Lucy Gump. He insists he did not come across her work until after the book was finished.

The Charge: That he lumped together arms and ammunition in his narrative about Benedict Arnold's march on a powderhouse.
The Response: He says the committee cited the wrong year of the march (1776 instead of 1775). He does not offer a defense to the charge, instead addressing another widely circulated concern that he had misconstrued the facts about the march.

The Charge: That he himself developed doubts about the "quality of his probate research" yet published it anyway.
The Response: Bellesiles says that the committee is mistaken. He says that while he expressed doubts about the usefulness of probate records, he was satisfied with the way he used the records. (He employed a technique using "sample sets." He says this is a well-known and approved technique. The committee found his use of sample sets was flawed. It did not question the use of sample sets.)

The Charge: That his research results in probate records cannot be replicated.
The Response: He says that it is "not surprising" that people over the past two years have not been able to replicate the results it took him twelve years to accumulate.


This is Mr. Bellesiles's conclusion in its entirety:

Arming America aimed to prompt scholars to rethink one of the prized givens of American history: that American culture has always been permeated with firearms. For several decades writers have stated without any effort at validation that gun ownership was nearly universal in early America. At the very least, I hoped that historians would seek out the evidence for this assertion, since I felt that the sources indicated that gun ownership was not widespread, that there was little popular interest in firearms, and that most American men were largely unfamiliar with the use of guns until the Civil War. Arming America has succeeded in shifting the attention of scholars, as well as many members of the general public, to this issue. The overwhelming bulk of the evidence in support of this book's thesis remains unchallenged, despite the most rigorous examination (my web page will soon have a consideration of every supposed error of which I am currently aware as well as a list of corrections). All that remains in question are the few paragraphs and table on probate materials. On those paragraphs, Emory's committee of inquiry found no evidence of fabrication, though they do charge evasion.

With all due respect to the committee, I adamantly deny both charges. I have never fabricated evidence of any kind nor knowingly evaded my responsibilities as a scholar. I have been open to evidence that contradicts my hypothesis. I have never consciously misrepresented any data or evidence. I have spent twenty years conducting research in archives scattered throughout this country and in Europe. I have corrected every error possible and continue to work to replace the lost probate data.

The controversy surrounding Arming America has made it impossible for me to continue both my scholarly research and my teaching. My students, who are after all the reason for the University's existence, deserve a teacher who can devote the time and energy necessary to a challenging academic experience. I treasure my fourteen years at Emory University. Being able to work with so many fine colleagues and to teach such energetic and engaged efforts of many people seeking to enhance the quality of that education. Former Provost Billy Frye's-support for the interdisciplinary Violence Studies Program, of which I was the founding director, stands forth as a model of creative leadership. Former Dean Steve Sanderson and former Provost Rebecca Chopp boldly defended academic freedom when Professor Deborah Lipstadt and I were attacked by extremists. I will miss my many friends--staff members, professors, and students. But the persistence of this controversy does not serve the best interest of Emory's students, or of my family, or of scholarship. I will continue to research and report on the probate materials while also working on my next book, but cannot continue to teach in what I feel is a hostile environment. I am therefore resigning from the Emory faculty effective at the end of the year.