Are Michael Bellesiles’s Critics Afraid to Say What They Really Think?


Mr. Sternstein is Professor Emeritus of History, Brooklyn College, CUNY, and co-editor of The Encyclopedia of American Biography.

Click here to read Mr. Bellesiles's Response to Mr. Sternstein.

Click here to read Mr. Sternstein's Response to Mr. Bellesiles.

Has the time come to ask if Michael Bellesiles's Arming America is an example of scholarly deceit?

Some defenders of Bellesiles's work have insisted in various forums that Bellesiles's critics have yet to bring forth any evidence to suggest scholarly fraud. Recently, in making his case, one apologist pointed to the"searching examinations" of Bellesiles's book in the January 2002 issue of the William and Mary Quarterly (WMQ), which,"although severely critical, eschews charges of fraud or misrepresentation."

To be sure," charges of fraud" do not appear in the Quarterly's forum on Bellesiles. But what is truly remarkable about that forum is what does appear there: scathing appraisals of his book's misuse of sources and evidence which some might regard as consistent with academic fraud, such as repeatedly misquoting, distorting, falsifying, or perhaps even deliberately inventing evidence to support one's thesis.

Anyone reading Randolph Roth's study,"Guns, Gun Culture and Homicide" (WMQ ), which debunks Bellesiles's claims concerning homicides in Colonial America, cannot help but be disturbed by what Roth turned up. For example, Bellesiles asserted that levels of homicides were very low in Vermont's"frontier period," between 1760 and 1790. Roth points out that the source Bellesiles relied on to support his finding of only 5 reported murders, were the records of the Vermont Superior Court. The trouble is, as Roth gently notes,"that court did not open until December 1778, and its minutes from September 1782 to August 1791 have been missing since the early twentieth century" (WMQ, p. 236). Therefore, records that are cited in Arming America for a 31 year period in frontier Vermont to lend credence to an important contention in the book"that homicide rates were low everywhere among European Americans before the 1850s--a claim vital to its thesis that low homicide rates and an absence of guns and gun violence went hand in hand" (WMQ, p.234) -- simply do not exist or have never been located for almost 27 of those years. Furthermore, Roth writes,"These are not isolated problems: every tally of homicides Bellesiles reports is either misleading or wrong" (WMQ, p. 235). In an interview with the Chicago Tribune (Jan. 23, 2002) Roth reflected on what his research revealed about Bellesiles's scholarship."I came to the conclusion," he said,"that the number and scope of his errors were extraordinary."

Perhaps none of the errors Bellesiles made were more"extraordinary" than his assertion that"in forty-six years Plymouth Colony's courts heard five cases of assault, and not a single homicide" (Arming America, p.82). But as Roth has demonstrated,"The published, well-indexed records he cites . . . actually show that Plymouth's courts heard eleven cases of murder and investigated four additional deaths that may have been murders, not including three trials for multiple murders committed during King Philip's War" (WMQ, p. 234, using a slightly longer period than Bellesiles). Moreover, in the same cited records James Lindgren counted not just 5 cases of assault but over 60, a list of which he has compiled for his forthcoming review in the Yale Law Journal.

In response to Roth's findings, Bellesiles claimed he was only counting white- on-white homicides when he asserted the courts"heard" none (WMQ, p. 253-255). A reading of his specific passage on Plymouth Colony makes no such distinction. Yet even if one accepts his argument that he did, he still misread and misrepresented his sources. For the Plymouth courts"heard" (a word Bellesiles conveniently forgets he used in his book) several homicide cases involving both white accused and white victims, convicting Allice Bishop of murder for killing her own child and Robert Latham of manslaughter for"excessive correction" of his servant John Walker. Also, white-on-white homicide cases"heard" by the Plymouth courts in which the accused were acquitted included John Hawes, indicted for killing Joseph Rogers, and Samuel Howland, prosecuted for shooting to death William Howse (cited in Lindgren's article in the Yale Law Journal).

And if Bellesiles insists that he was only referring to white-on-white violence, how can he explain away the over 60 recorded assaults Lindgren discovered (not 5, as Bellsiles claimed), since virtually all of those 60 were white-on-white acts of violence"heard" by the courts? Whether it be murders or assaults in Plymouth Colony, it is evident that Bellesiles's calculations are, as Roth remarked,"misleading and wrong."

Roth also concluded that the myth-breaking thesis Bellesiles put forward, that in the 17th and 18th centuries"Most Americans did not own guns and had no interest in buying them" (Arming America, p.229),"is not supported by the sources Bellesiles cites, by others he does not cite, or by the data he presents" (WMQ, p. 224). In reaching this conclusion, Roth fully confirms and replicates what James Lindgren and Justin Heather, in their soon-to-appear article in the William & Mary Law Review,"Counting Guns in Early America," discovered. Lindgren and Heather found that Bellesiles misreported the probate records he cited for Providence, R.I., records that give the statistical backbone to his thesis of low gun ownership: he identified 17 women's estates (with only a single gun in them) as men's; he personally reappraised"more than half" of the guns in those estates into"old and broken" when only 9 percent of them were originally so identified; he translated one estate containing a state owned gun into"a great many" such estates; and he counted about 100 wills which never existed. Additionally, Bellesiles' main table of 1765-90 probate data were, according to Lindgren and Heather and affirmed by Roth,"mathematically impossible."

Gloria Main's analysis in the WMQ,"Many Things Forgotten: The Use of Probate Records in Arming America," doesn't use Lindgren and Heather's"impossible" to describe Bellesiles's data. Instead, she employs such words as"incredible""pretend""meaningless""nonsense""amiss""failure" in dismissing much of Bellesiles's evidence that gun ownership was low in antebellum America. Having worked extensively with, and written a good deal about probate materials in her publications on Colonial Maryland, she can barely contain herself in voicing her profound skepticism about Bellesiles's reported methodology and research into those sources. It is worth quoting at length some of her remarks:

Nowhere in this book does Bellesiles tell us how he actually carried out the herculean task of locating and reading the 'complete,' handwritten estate records of some forty counties for the time period indicated. . .nor does he even tell us how many he used from each sample county. . . He says that it took him ten years to do this book, but ten years seem far too short a time for one person to have read all the other sources cited in the voluminous notes in addition to the probate records stored in each of forty courthouses scattered across the United States from Boston to Los Angeles. Perhaps he trained a corps of helpers? Did he or they read the original dockets. . . ? Nor does he ever say whether he or possible helpers set aside or counted those inventories that could not be fully deciphered or that lumped goods together. . . . (WMQ, p. 212-213)
One doesn't have to be a medievalist trained to tease out hidden messages embedded in rare 9th century illuminated manuscripts to read in Main's remarks strong doubts about whether Bellesiles ever did the research he claimed to have conducted. As Lindgren pointed out and Bellesiles has confirmed, he never employed research assistants to aid him in examining 11,170 handwritten probate records, and that to fund his exhaustive and time-consuming forays into the archives to research his book he received only two, two month grants from the American Antiquarian Society and the Huntington Library.

Also, consistent with Main's concerns, Lindgren, whose knowledge of probate records is unparalleled -- according to Roth, Lindgren's work in this area is"the most subtle, [and] sophisticated" he has ever come across -- estimated that it would have taken Bellesiles well over a year to have sifted through and researched the probate records of Philadelphia alone, just one of the forty counties whose probate records he claimed to have mined for evidence of guns. Serious doubts about his reported research cannot but increase when one takes into consideration the fact that Bellesiles has offered several incorrect and varying locations for the probate records he contends he thoroughly examined -- ie., the Superior Courthouse in San Francisco, the archives of the Mormon Church, the Sutro Library, the Federal Archive Center in East Point, Georgia, and various county courthouses and local archives across the country -- and conflicting statements about whether he read them on microfilm or in their original form.

Suspicion is also cast over Bellesiles's research when critics discover, as Lindgren and Heather did, that his numbers do not match the probate records that they have checked out so far. For example, aside from his misstatements and misreadings of his Providence probate materials and his"mathematically impossible" calculations in his national table of probate data mentioned earlier, he asserted that no women possessed guns in his probate samples, when about 18 percent of them did in late colonial America. His claim, too, that he found only 3 rifles in probates in the frontier counties he sampled between 1765-90, runs directly counter to their finding that rifles were the most common type of gun in the 2 western Pennsylvania counties in his sample of western frontier counties whose probate records he purportedly looked into.

And the suspicions raised by Main are further heightened by questions some have asked about what happened to his research notes, especially that part on which he recorded the number of guns he counted in probate inventories. According to Bellesiles, in interviews he conducted with the press in September 2001, after his probate findings came under scrutiny, a flood in his office at Emory devastated his thousands of notes, jotted down in pencil on yellow legal pad paper,"leaving him with no documentation at all to back up his probate study" (Melissa Seckora,"Disarming America," National Review Online, NRO, Oct. 15, 2001)."'All of my notes were destroyed in boxes on the floor of my office,' he said, 'and they got drenched, pulped.'" Bellesiles repeated this information about losing all his"original notes" on an Internet posting to historians in Sept. 2001 (H-Net, H-OIEAHC, Sept. 14, 2001) and restated it again in his article in the November, 2001, Newsletter of the Organization of American Historians."As I mentioned to many historians after my book appeared in September 2000, my notes on these probate records had been destroyed when the pipes in Emory University's Bowden Hall burst and flooded the building. . ."

Emory confirms that on April 2, 2000, 5 months before Arming America was published, a broken connector on a sprinkler-system pipe did about $500,000-$1 million of damage to the History Department's building. Many offices, including Bellesiles's, suffered damage from about 2 inches of water in some areas that was released for 25 minutes by the ruptured pipe. Insurance covered all the water damage, and some -- it's not known how many -- professors submitted claims for property that could not be saved. Bellesiles submitted an insurance claim for a few books and other lost materials but not for his"pulped" notes, feeling that it was impossible to place a monetary value on them."I suppose I should have made a scene and threatened to sue," he writes,"but I did not. I resolved simply to work to reconstruct my evidence" (e-mail, Bellesiles to HNN, March 29, 2002).

It is uncertain how many thousands of pages of notes were in Bellesiles's office. After talking with him, one historian friendly to his thesis, told fellow academics online in January 2001, that it was his understanding that Bellesiles had 100,000 pages of research notes in boxes on the floor of his office when the sprinkler-pipe burst. That historian, in a personal communication with the author, states he is no longer sure how many notes were in those boxes getting"pulped," as Bellesiles put it, guessing that the number could have been 10,000, not the 100,000 he originally reported in his posting. Bellesiles himself wrote recently he"had accumulated a mountain of paper" (e-mail, Bellesiles to HNN, March 29, 2002).

But whatever the number of water damaged notes lay in boxes on Bellesiles's office floor, it is clear that practically all of them could have been saved by Emory's Library Preservation Office. According to Janice Molhenrich, who coordinated the efforts of the preservationists who freeze dried and air dried water soaked items brought to them,"We were able to look at things that professors thought were irretrievably lost, but we looked at them and said, 'Sure, we can fix this.'" And with a staff of 10 operating around the clock, their efforts"all worked. . . as 90 percent of the materials brought in" were"dried out and. . . ready for pickup" within a month of the flood (quoted in Emory Report, May 8, 2000).

What is most intriguing about Bellesiles's story of"destroyed" notes that made it impossible for him to offer his probate data for replication once his data was under the scholarly microscope and found wanting, is that he seriously contradicts himself. He has recently posted on his website probate data from Vermont, which he had earlier said was"pulped," but which now, Phoenix like, has reemerged. This data, he says, taken from probate research he conducted for his dissertation in the early 1980s, somehow survived the flood. They were on recycled paper and index note cards, not on the yellow legal pads he used for his later probate research, which he kept in blue binders on the bottom shelves of his bookcase. And though somewhat affected by water, he says, they remained readable (e-mail, Bellesiles to HNN, March 29, 2002).

But on close inspection of what Bellesiles wrote earlier about his"pulped" notes, it is difficult to understand how any of his Vermont probate data could have survived. In his OAH article,"Disarming the Critics," for example, he referred clearly to the fact that all his notes that furnished the data for his book's probate discussion ("these five paragraphs", he called them, in downplaying their importance) and its supporting graphs, some reflecting the frontier records, 1765-90, for which Vermont supplied 4 of the 6 frontier counties he sampled,"were ruined." (Lindgren, it should be emphasized, reports that there are at least 13 paragraphs, not just 5, discussing probate data records in Arming America, plus a page of data and footnotes).

Bellesiles, however, is now claiming that some of those very same"ruined" notes containing the data that went into those graphs and"five paragraphs" discussing probates, in particular of Vermont, that he insisted repeatedly to reporters, historians on H-Net, and members of the OAH, were turned into"unreadable pulp," have been miraculously resurrected because they came from previous research on precisely the same Vermont probates as those later probate notes, some from Vermont, which didn't outlast the flood. Even if one grants that Emory's expert preservationists had the ability to save those 1980s probate notes, the question remains why did Bellesiles repeatedly claim that all his probate notes, including those from Vermont, were"ruined"? Why is he only now revealing that the probate research he supposedly undertook in Vermont for his dissertation in the 1980s, which apparently supplied the same Vermont data that went into Arming America, has survived, when, as late as November 2001 in the OAH Newsletter, he asserted otherwise?

One possible answer is that Bellesiles's widely reported story about his probate notes, one he has recounted many times, that all of them became"unreadable pulp" that was tossed out, is a gross exaggeration that he concocted for reasons only he can explain. Otherwise, how else can one fathom a much earlier version of the story that he presented privately shortly after his book appeared but well before serious questions regarding the reliability of his probate data began to emerge? In this earlier version, instead of the flood in his office"destroying" his probate research notes and turning them into"unreadable pulp," he transported all of his notes from his damaged office to his home -- and, in so doing, bypassed Emory's preservationists -- where, he explained, he put those damp research notes into boxes and carried them into his attic for storage (e-mail, Bellesiles to Lindgren, Sept. 19, 2000).

Unwilling, as he put it, to spare time from his busy schedule to sort through those boxed notes and dry them out, he allowed them to fester in that condition in his attic for 5 months after the flood. Finally, in November, almost 8 months after the flood, he carried his notes down from his attic to his garage, where he spread them all over the floor in an attempt to separate the damaged research notes from the undamaged ones (e-mail, Bellesiles to Lindgren, Nov. 30, 2000). Why Bellesiles moved thousands upon thousands of notes -- his"mountain of paper" -- all admittedly water-logged, from his office to his home's attic without first enlisting the services of Emory's Preservations Office to dry them out, when it succeeded, according to its coordinator, in saving all but 7 items out of about 500 books"and other materials" professors turned over to it, is another one of those mysteries only he can clear up.

Just recently, in an attempt to clarify some of these discrepancies, Bellesiles explained that water from the ruptured pipe came down from the ceiling of his office right on top of the box containing his probate note pads and several other note pads ("some twelve total") destroying everything in that box. Since he was not present at the time, he says, the clean-up crew, apparently on its own volition, took that box of note pads and the chair it was sitting on and disposed of them. Also, he now insists, it was only"Those papers that had suffered lesser damage [that] I dried out myself at my house in Atlanta" (e-mail, Bellesiles to HNN, March 29, 2002).

The problem with this current story, however, is that it is completely at odds with what he told James Lindgren about his probate materials in the Fall of 2000. Nowhere in his extended e-mail discussions about probates and how he conducted his research, is there the slightest hint that his notes on the subject were missing or that it was only those notes"that had suffered lesser damage" which were being"dried out" in his home. On the contrary, he said he carried all his notes, water damaged and otherwise, into his attic and stored them in boxes for months. One would think that if his probate notes had been thrown in the trash by Emory's custodians, Bellesiles would have mentioned this to someone inquiring about his probate research data, instead of reporting that his notes on the subject were sitting undisturbed in his attic because he didn't have the time to go through them. Nor, would one think, that had those probate notes been discarded, he would have described how, in November 2000, he took all his notes down from his attic and littered his garage floor with them, so he could sort out the seriously damaged ones from those less seriously damaged, without ever saying a word to his correspondent that his probate data was tossed out only hours or days after the flood, in early April of that year.

Until Bellesiles provides a better explanation for these and other inconsistencies, it will be extremely difficult to comprehend what version, if any, of his probate notes story -- whether the flood turned them into"unreadable pulp" that were gotten rid of or merely into water dampened pages amenable to restoration and possible replication -- one is supposed to accept. Similarly, until such an explanation materializes, it will be equally difficult for many to accept his contention that the Vermont probates he is currently posting were the product of salvaged research he undertook in the 1980s and not more recently, possibly after the accuracy of his book's probate statistics were challenged.

For reasons such as these and more, Main's serious doubts about Bellesiles's research, evidence, and claims are also shared by historian Robert Churchill in his appraisal of Arming America in Reviews in American History and in postings on H-Net. He gives three examples of how Bellesiles"altered the language in the original [sources and documents] to advance his thesis of gun scarcity." In one Bellesiles said that a 1744 document about militias in Worcester County, Massachusetts, reported 8 out of 21 companies to be"entirely deficient" in firearms, while the original says that only 4 were short of arms, while the other 4 were"deficient as to ammunition" (Arming America, p. 150). In another, according to Churchill, Bellesiles seriously misrepresents his source, whereby he"artificially inflates his sample in order to report low rates of gun ownership" in Massachusetts from 1789 to 1839 (Arming America, table 3, appendix).

The third example of Bellesiles's"tendency" to falsify the evidence he employs, says Churchill, is an anecdote he tells about Benedict Arnold. The original anecdote is drawn from a secondary work, which relies upon a primary source. In the story as it is told in both accounts, Arnold, who had just heard the news of Lexington and Concord, demanded that the town fathers in New Haven, CT, give him the keys to the powderhouse so that the militia under his command could have adequate ammunition for their guns. According to Bellesiles's version, Arnold inspected his troops and discovered they were"largely unarmed." As a result, Arnold"threatened to break into the town arsenal in order to arm his men, but the town's selectmen relented and opened the doors to his militia, with Arnold supervising the distribution of Brown Besses" (Arming America, p. 181).

As Churchill explains, Bellesiles's embellishment of the anecdote with its" compelling details of gunlessness and the distribution of public arms appear to be an invention designed to advance the thesis" in Arming America that the few guns the colonists possessed were stored in state armories and not carried on their person. The importance that Bellesiles attaches to this anecdote and the point it underscores for his thesis, is made apparent when he asserts that"Arnold's experience demonstrated" that even the best prepared militias in the colonies on the eve of the Revolution, such as Connecticut's,"faced a shortage of firearms from the very first day of the conflict" (Arming America, p.181). But, as any reader can judge,"Arnold's experience demonstrated" nothing of the sort; it is only Bellesiles's imaginative construction of that"experience" which demonstrates anything.

When all of this is considered, Churchill concluded in his H-Net posting (H-OIEAHC) on Sept. 28, 2001,"There is a point where the discrepancies between original evidence and its presentation are sufficiently systemic that they necessarily suggest, though they do not conclusively prove, conscious intent rather than error. . . in other words. . . falsification." He then goes on to"distinguish falsification from fabrication, in which the original evidence does not exist or has never been consulted," but stops short of charging Bellesiles with entering that forbidding zone.

What Churchill regarded, in September 2001, as adequate evidence to suggest"falsification" on the part of Bellesiles, was presented before the WMQ forum appeared and about the time that Bellesiles asserted in his extended interview with the press (see Seckora,"Disarming America," Oct. 15, 2001, NRO) that he researched"hundreds" of probate records in Los Angeles and San Francisco. ("'There were only a few hundred cases,' he said, 'but that's a lot of cases.'") Where those supposed"hundreds" of probates can be found is almost impossible to determine. Archivists in Los Angeles estimate that only about 70 inventories survive from Bellesiles's sample years. Considering the fact that no inventories from his sample years appear to have survived the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, this raised the question of what inventories from that city Bellesiles actually read?

After pondering this query when the destruction wrought by the 1906 earthquake was brought to his attention, Bellesiles agreed that he could not"have used county probate records from the Superior Court, [where] I had to go [to] the courthouse. . .," as he earlier claimed he did. Dependent on what he termed a"dim memory," he then recalled he might have done so at the Family Research Library of the Mormon Church. Informed that the Family Research Library only lists where researchers could have found the probate records before the earthquake but doesn't hold the actual materials, Bellesiles offered the Sutro Library as the depository he might have utilized. Again, inquiries determined the Sutro Library had no probate materials.

Finally, after sending Ms. Seckora hither and yon to check on his"dim" recollections, Bellesiles belatedly remembered that he must have read San Francisco's probates in the Contra Costa County History Center in Martinez, California, a small coastal town. A quick trip to Martinez in January 2002, enabled Bellesiles to post documents on his web site excerpted from 5 probated estates (and a guardianship for a minor) out of 20 estates, some of which probably lack surviving inventories -- and all from Contra Costa County not the City on the Bay -- to support his contention that he had read"hundreds," from both San Francisco and Los Angeles.

What depositories actually hold those"hundreds" of inventories he supposedly researched, other than the tiny handful he was able to track down in Martinez, still remains a mystery. That mystery is deepened, too, by the fact that the archivists in the Contra Costa County History Center -- which opened in 1984 in Pleasant Hill, and only moved to its permanent home 4 miles away in Martinez on May 1, 2000 -- have thoroughly gone over their logs of people who used the facility in 1993, the year Bellesiles said he visited, and found no evidence he was ever there before his recent flying appearance. They also searched their logs and other records for the years 1994 through 1996, and again failed to turn up anything to indicate he was there. Nor do any long-time members of the History Center's staff, all of whom are volunteers, remember him using their cramped, 20 x 20 foot research space at Pleasant Hill. If he ever read probates there in 1993 as he now claims , said Kathleen J. Mero, a former president of the Contra Costa County Historical Society, who was a volunteer bringing materials to researchers during the period,"we would have been constantly falling over one another in the room and I would surely have remembered him" (see History Center in the News; telephone interview with Kathleen J. Mero, April 4, 2002).

Even more mysterious, if possible, is Bellesiles's confusion over whether or not he read the thousands of probates he drew his statistical conclusions from on microfilms housed in the National Archives or consulted the dusty originals in local archives and courthouses scattered across the country. He says nothing about this in his book but in correspondence on the eve of the book's publication disclosed that the inventories he researched were primarily on microfilm on deposit in the National Archives, though he had explored a few county records in their undigested state for wills and other documents. (e-mail, Bellesiles to Lindgren, Aug. 30, 2000). Some weeks later, in mid-September 2000, he confirmed once again that the probate records were entirely (not primarily, as he previously said) on microfilm in the National Archives, and he was even more explicit about the specific archive in which he searched through those microfilmed probates."I went to the East Point, Georgia federal center to read these microfilms" where, he was careful to mention, they were arranged according to individual counties. Such materials, he added, were easily accessible in any National Archive for any researcher who wanted to spend the great amount of time he did going through the thousands of pages of documents available there on microfilm (quoted in Seckora,"Disarming America, NRO, Oct. 15, 2001; e-mail, Bellesiles to Lindgren, Sept. 19, 2000).

Once again, Bellesiles's memory of where he did his probate research and what probates he read seems to have deserted him. For after Lindgren checked with the archivists at East Point, and then alerted Bellesiles privately to the fact that the depository did not hold any of the microfilmed probates he said he viewed there, Bellesiles's story changed dramatically. At that point, Bellesiles recollected that he had actually crisscrossed the country, presumably for many months if not years, stopping at 31 county and state archives to examine and record almost all of the 11,170 hard-to-read original probates that provided the statistical backbone for his argument that there were low levels of gun ownership in antebellum America.

And what about his previous assertions, contained in his e-mails to Lindgren, that he did practically all his probate research from microfilms on deposit in the National Archives, specifically the East Point, GA archive, where the microfilmed county probate records were readily available for anybody willing to use them? It is Bellesiles's current position that"That is just plain false." In a statement to HNN (March 29, 2002) he says"Neither my book nor my web site give that location for the probate materials, most of which are in local archives." He contends he only used"the National Archive's microfilm readers to read some probate records that I brought with me. I do not believe that use violates any federal regulation or known standard of scholarship. I used these microfilm readers for the simple reason they were easier on my eyes than those in my own library, and also to break up the tedious task of going through hundreds of pages of microfilm material in the National Archives' collection."

By flatly denying what he wrote in his own e-mails Bellsesiles is demonstrating, as nothing else can, his remarkable capacity to ignore evidence that contradicts what he wants to believe or wants others to believe. Also, by denying the obvious content of his own correspondence, Bellesiles is offering a concrete example of what he means by"alternative readings of documents," a laudable method of historical inquiry he and others advocate to wring new questions and answers out of old materials. But, as his critics allege, in his hands that methodology amounts to little more than twisting, embellishing, and falsifying those materials. Even before his most recent display of how he imposes fictitious"alternative readings" on documents of his own making, his bewildering and starkly opposing accounts of where he did his probate research, and whether he read the great majority of them on microfilm or in the original, considered in conjunction with the findings presented by Churchill, by Lindgren and Heather, and in the WMQ, has led some other historians in academia to reach the conclusion Churchill was hesitant about earlier -- that Bellesiles's falsification of evidence, compounded with fabrication, constituted academic fraud.

One scholar who has gone public in just the last few months airing his opinion that Bellesiles committed fraud is Don Hickey, of Wayne State College (Nebraska), an historian who peer-reviewed and recommended for publication Bellesiles's early work on the subject which appeared in the Journal of American History. Recently, he let it be known to the Chicago Tribune (Jan. 23, 2002) that he has now come to believe Arming America was a"genuine" example of that rare scholarly genre. When asked by the author if he still held that position, Hickey replied"I don't see how you can view Bellesiles's work as anything other than a case of pure, unadulterated academic fraud" (e-mail, Hickey to Sternstein, April 2, 2002).

In reaching this judgment Hickey relied not only on academic criticisms of the work but also upon what the popular press had uncovered, especially the"fine piece in the Boston Globe" by reporter David Mehegan, which demonstrated how Bellesiles misused Vermont probate reports. But Hickey also gives credit to the independent historian Clayton Cramer, who investigated in detail Bellesiles's misrepresentation of travel accounts, legislative enactments, and similar contemporary documents."I found Cramer's critique of B's work persuasive, and when I checked some of the sources that he claimed B had misused, I concluded Cramer was right" (H-SHEAR, Oct. 1, 2001).

And as for those in academia who might be dubious about Cramer's scholarly credentials, Hickey writes,"I notice that no one has challenged any of the hundreds of errors he has identified in B's work." Hickey carefully read Cramer's many writings on Arming America and visited his web site (http://www.claytoncramer.com/primary.html) which is a veritable library in cyberspace devoted to Bellesiles's questionable scholarship, a site anybody can log-on and call up original documents and excerpts from contemporary materials to evaluate for themselves Cramer's contention that"there are hundreds of. . .examples of quotes altered, dates changed, and sources misrepresented throughout Bellesiles' book."

Whether Emory University's investigation of Bellesiles will find the serious questions raised about his work as persuasive as Don Hickey does remains to be seen. And while none of the contributors to the WMQ, or Lindgren and Heather, or Churchill, have chosen to join Hickey in claiming Arming America is the product of conscious fraud, it could be that they are just being as careful and judicious as the American Historical Association was in describing S. Walter Poulshock's now discredited book, The Two Parties and the Tariff in the 1880s. In July 1966 the American Historical Review (AHR) published a cryptic three-line note asserting that the Poulshock book,"based confessedly in part upon evidence which does not exist, has been withdrawn as far as possible from circulation, and anyone attempting to use it should be advised of this." Such was the enigmatic way the American Historical Association (AHA) saw fit to warn historians and the public that the book in question was a clear case of historical fraud.

While we should not suppose that Bellesiles's critics -- though Cramer, his most caustic one, apparently has used the forbidden word -- are charging him with intentional deceit, neither should we assume, as some of Bellesiles's defenders seem to, that their"severely critical" remarks, absent the word fraud, mean that the exhaustive catalog of errors they have exposed may not be the result of fraud. Why, we may ask, should Bellesiles's critics be any less circumspect than the AHA in substituting euphemisms for the word fraud, when that organization deliberately avoided the term in its statement even though Poulshock had confessed to it?

Some might prefer the" call 'em like I see 'em" candor exemplified by Don Hickey, but it is understandable why other critics, perhaps no less certain about what they see in Arming America, may not want to follow his lead. They may simply wish to let the facts speak for themselves, and don't believe it necessary to spell out what those facts, as facts, may signify. Or, perhaps, fraud is just a word Bellesiles's critics do not dare to speak in 2002, for the same unstated, but legally safe, reason the AHA did not dare to speak its name in 1966. And in this highly litigious society who can blame them for simply allowing their compelling evidence to do their talking. In short, the historical profession and the public are now, finally, taking note of what the evidence presented by Bellesiles's critics suggests, even though it might be a word most historians do not dare to speak.

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D.F.Beck - 4/19/2002

I wish first to express my thanks to History News Network for providing this forum. I also wish to thank people such as James Lundgren, Clayton Cramer, David Mehegan, Melissa Seckora, as well as so many other members of academia and the press that have continued to pursue the issue of the validity of facts contained in Michael Bellesilles’s book, ‘Arming America’.

As so often happens when a particular work is presented, whether it be in printed or video form, that has raised not only the interest, but also the curiosity of the general public, questions will almost invariably remain unanswered in regard to individual details or the overall thesis. This is particularly true if the person that is in doubt is a member of that general public.

As a member of that general public, the consumer of the information, if you will, to say that the existence of unanswered questions of accuracy is frustrating is an understatement.

Stories are presented on the evening news and articles are written for the paper and magazines are published and books are written and presented to us as ultimate fact, no questions allowed. This attitude appears to come from the elitist attitude that is acquired by those who believe they are more knowledgeable than everyone else by virtue of education and occupation in the ‘knowledge disseminating’ business. Consumers exist to sop up these revelations like a sponge. The people involved in this business garner the same attitude as doctors and lawyers and politicians as well as others but this group seems to be some of the main offenders. Now we can add authors to the list.

What results is that when a book like, ‘Arming American’ is published, we consumers are expected to unquestioningly ‘sop’ up what it has to say, realizing that everything we thought we knew is wrong depending on which side of the issue we are on. This is where frustration is generated in those of us who still have the ability to question the accuracy of such a work. The problem is, normally we have no recourse or avenue for further investigation and usually, the people in academia who do have the where-with-all appear either to have lost interest, state that it is old news, or worse, drop the subject lest they be the focus of some other academia’s attack at a later time.

The result: The controversy is dropped and what remains is a book or an article or the memory of a news story that though untrue, becomes the truth.

As an example, from the point of view of the firearms owners, the study done by gun control advocate Arthur Kellerman is a perfect representation of this. Briefly, Kellerman, of Emory University School of Public Health, has used funding from the CDC to prove that a gun in the home is 43 times more likely to kill a family member than an intruder. It was later discovered that Kellerman’s research contained major flaws in many different aspects of the study. Even today, Kellerman admits errors in the result of his studies. But, ask any gun control advocate about the benefit versus the risk of a gun in the home and you will hear, “43 time more likely”, almost without fail.

This brings us back to the case of ‘Arming America’, and the dreadful fear pro-Second Amendment, pro-gun forces have that because academia tends to remain a rather tight clique, the issue of the errors (term used loosely) in ‘Arming America’, will fade into the authors ability to compartmentalize and the critics disinterest while what is left is just the memory that antebellum America did not have an interest in firearms .The next generation of gun control advocates will have additional propaganda to repeat, as fact, to the fence sitters on the gun issue.

Obviously, the author here is pro-gun, pro-Second Amendment, but guns in America is not the point of this article. It would make no difference at all if Mr. Bellesiles had written a book, purporting to be non-fiction, about the social impact that teddy bears and ice cream had on the development of the United States. The point is that we lay people are at the mercy of academia and lawyers and politicians and doctors. It would be nice that when an author, or any professional for that matter, is discovered falsifying his data, would simply say, “Yes! I did it. I made a mistake. Can you people forgive me for being human”? But that is not going to happen. If it did, who knows, criminals might take to doing it and then a whole profession of lawyers would be out of work.

We are dependent first on the authors who write the books and the lawyers who try the cases and the politicians who make the laws and the doctors who treat us to be truthful but since when we can’t blindly count on them for honesty, we are dependent on people like Mr. Cramer and Mr. Lundgren and Ms. Seckora and Mr. Mehegan and the few others that have the principle and tenacity to attempt to bring the truth forward so that we laymen will now have the opportunity to do with it what we will.

We may use the information incorrectly, but hey, please forgive us, we’re only human.


Scott Saftler - 4/10/2002

Thanks for the reference to the Contra Costa County Historical Society's web site. However, the link you provided was incorrect. Here's the proper url:



Scott Saftler
Web Master, Contra Costa County Historical Society

Norman Heath - 4/10/2002

The link provided above to Clayton Cramer's collection of primary documents contains the correct characters for the cited webpage, but actually links to his collection of links to recent articles on the controversy.

Readers interested in perusing scans of the actual primary documents will have to go to file/open and key in the url: http://www.claytoncramer.com/primary.html

Norman Heath