How the Bellesiles Story Developed
- Summary of the Emory Report
- Bellesiles's Response to the Report
- Other Responses to the Report
- Remaining Questions
Chronology of EventsOn April 19, 2002, two months after Emory announced it had launched a formal investigation of Mr. Bellesiles's book, Arming America, the school newspaper, the Emory Wheel, called on the university to complete its work quickly, noting that"by remaining silent on the issue in the face of national controversy, Emory appears to be implicitly supporting Bellesiles.""If Emory has already completed its investigation," the paper's editorial continued,"it has an unquestionable duty to its students to release its findings. And if it has not yet, the University should reach a verdict before he sets foot in the classroom. Whatever the final outcome, Emory must eventually participate in the national dialogue surrounding Bellesiles' research, either to support or denounce him." The editorial included this stinging accusation:"an overwhelming amount of evidence has surfaced to suggest that Bellesiles was indeed guilty to some degree of fraud."
(Note: Mr. Bellesiles is currently a fellow at the Newberry Library in Chicago. He is scheduled to return to Emory in the fall.)
On April 24 National Review, which published several highly critical articles about Mr. Bellesiles in the fall, reported that Columbia University's Bancroft committee was considering taking away the Bancroft Prize, which was awarded to Arming Americain 2001. The magazine cited Roger Lane as a source; Lane himself was a winner of the Bancroft Prize. Doubt was cast on the story the next day when Eric Foner told the magazine,"I've heard nothing about Columbia rescinding the prize. The University's trustees would have to do it, not the Bancroft Committee."
Another report by National Review was more portentous; the magazine reported that Bellesiles's Newberry fellowship may be in question:
The National Endowment for the Humanities has sent a letter to the Newberry Library in Chicago which raises serious questions about the Library's $30,000 grant to Michael Bellesiles for the second book he is writing on guns. In a letter to Dr. James Grossman, director of the Newberry Library, the NEH asks the Newberry to provide a written notice of the institution's"procedures for handling alleged cases of academic misconduct and fraud." If the Newberry's response fails to satisfy the NEH's concerns, officials there are prepared to take any"necessary and appropriate actions including but not limited to removing the NEH name from the Newberry Fellowship to Michael Bellesiles."On April 25 Andrew Ackerman, the Wheel's assistant news editor, reported that Mr. Bellesiles"suggested this week that one of his main critics fabricated e-mails in his name." The charge referred to a controversy first reported by History News Network on April 15, when Mr. Bellesiles denied writing certain emails to critic James Lindgren. According to the Wheel, Mr. Bellesiles this week went further, charging Lindgren with manufacturing the emails:"I don't know how to break this to you, but anyone can print up anything and say I received this e-mail." Bellesiles added:"Shouldn't you go by what I say I said rather than what someone else asserts?"
In a separate article, the paper charged that"Bellesiles may have lied to the Wheel" about the emails, including an email Lindgren wrote Bellesiles. The paper reported obtaining"an e-mail confirming Lindgren wrote Bellesiles on Nov. 11, 2000, offering to assist the Emory professor. The e-mail was forwarded to the Wheel by Randy Barnett, a visiting professor of law at Harvard University (Mass.) who was copied the message when Lindgren originally sent it." The paper also reported that Bellesiles had told the paper that"he was driven off e-mail in September 2000." The Wheel reported that"this statement appears to be a falsehood."
Six days after the Wheel encouraged Emory to reach a decision about Mr. Bellesiles quickly, the university issued the following statement:
On February 7, Emory University announced that its History Department and Michael Bellesiles had jointly initiated a formal process to address allegations of misconduct in research concerning Professor Bellesiles' book, Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture. That internal inquiry is now complete, and based on it, Robert Paul, Dean of Emory College, concluded that further investigation would be warranted by an independent committee of distinguished scholars from outside Emory University. That investigative committee's work is now underway and should be concluded no later than summer's end. During the course of the investigation the committee's work will remain confidential. Professor Bellesiles has concurred that the outcome of the investigation may be made public.
This statement was reported by National Review online. It was not posted on the university website.
On May 2, 2002 Atlanta Journal-Constitution, reported that the Newberry Library had provided answers to the NEH's detailed questions about the $30,000 fellowship awarded to Bellesiles to study the history of American gun laws."The NEH request is unprecedented," said the Newberry's James Grossman, vice president for research and education:"They're asking questions that they're entitled to ask, and we're answering them as best we can." The library refused to disclose the answers provided to the NEH. Grossman told the newspaper that the grant was awarded before the controversy arose and that it was up to Emory to investigate Bellesiles, not the library.
George Will weighed in on the Bellesiles story with an essay in Newsweek (dated May 20) titled,"Gunning for a Bad Book." The article--posted prominently on the last page of the magazine--recounted many of the allegations Jerome Sternstein leveled in HNN in March and April (though without citing Sternstein by name). According to Will this"academic scandal" has produced evidence of"Bellesiles's malfeasance" that is"startling in its sweep, brazenness and apparently political purpose."
Shortly after the Newsweek story appeared, the Weekly Standard published an article about"the continuing misadventures of award-winning author Michael Bellesiles." Author David Skinner, the magazine's assistant managing editor, reviewed in detail the Vermont court records Bellesiles cited in Arming America and a previous book, Revolutionary Outlaws, and concluded:
even if Bellesiles did find pre-1790 Superior Court Records for years other than 1778 to 1782--records that do not exist in Rutland county where he said they reside; records that are not listed in the Windham county inventory held by [state archivist] Gregory Sanford; records he did not refer to in 'Arming America' or list in the long and detailed appendix of 'Revolutionary Outlaws'--such records would still fail to cover the years mentioned in his original claim." (Disclosure: Mr. Skinner based his article in part, he acknowledged, on work published on HNN by Mr. Sternstein.)The week of May 20 HNN published two articles about Mr. Bellesiles. Jerome Sternstein cast doubt on Bellesiles's story about the"great Bowden Hall flood" that allegedly destroyed the yellow legal pads on which he says he recorded probate data related to gun ownership in early America. Don Williams noted that because Arming America was cited frequently in legal briefs filed by gun-control advocates, the serious questions about the book may very well undermine the position anti-gun groups took in court.
On May 21 the National Endowment for the Humanities asked the Newberry to remove the NEH name from Mr. Bellesiles's fellowship. The Newberry said it would comply. This is the statement the NEH released to the media:
May 21, 2002On May 22 National Review online drew attention to the Newberry's contention that the library had not been aware of questions about Bellesiles's scholarship when his fellowship was awarded."How the Newberry thought they could get away with this assertion is remarkable," observed NRO's Melissa Seckora.
Statement by Chairman Bruce Cole on Newberry Library Fellowship Award
The issue of trust and truth is at the heart of our decision to require the Newberry Library to remove the NEH name from Professor Michael Bellesiles' fellowship. The authorities at the Newberry Library neglected to take seriously the many substantial questions that had been raised about the accuracy of Mr. Bellesiles' scholarship. These questions were widespread before the award committee made its decision; indeed some of them were discussed in the national press, in the letters of support for Professor Bellesiles, and on a web discussion group on which the Newberry was regularly posting notices before the award was made. It was the responsibility of the Newberry Library to have known about these charges and to have held Professor Bellesiles, or any other applicant, to the highest ethical standards. By not doing this they failed to weigh and consider all the factors surrounding Professor Bellesiles's previous research, his proposed research, and indeed the credibility of the researcher himself. By neglecting its crucial oversight responsibilities the Newberry Library failed to meet the high scholarly and ethical standards necessary for any award bearing the NEH name. Consequently we have asked the Newberry Library to remove the NEH name from Professor Bellesiles' fellowship.
National Endowment for the Humanities
As the NEH notes, questions regarding Arming America were raised in the press as early as October 29, 2000--about five months before the Newberry gave Bellesiles $30,000 to write a second book on guns. What is most fascinating about the NEH's follow-up letter to the Newberry is that two of Bellesiles's letters of recommendation for the grant" clearly called attention" to"extensive criticism" of Arming America. States NEH:"One opined that Arming America had 'created a sensation,' arguing that awarding Professor Bellesiles a fellowship 'would be a public service' in light of the 'financial resources available to gun rights groups.' Another forecast that 'his next book, which focuses on the history of gun laws, promises to upset even more people."
NRO also reported that NEH deputy chairman Lynne Munson chided the library for flawed procedures."[I]t is the Endowment's opinion that the Newberry procedure...is flawed, in part because it does not extend to claims made in applications to the library. Please know that the federal government defines research misconduct as 'fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism in proposing, performing, or reviewing, or in reporting research results.'" Munson added:"because the serious questions concerning academic integrity, which the Newberry gives no evidence of having considered, Professor Bellesiles' application must be deemed insufficiently competitive to warrant an NEH-sponsored fellowship."
Mr. Bellesiles responded to the NEH action in an email sent to the Chronicle of Higher Education (May 23, 2002):"They simply made a political decision that should send chills through academics everywhere. The spirit of Joe McCarthy stalks the halls of the NEH." He said the NEH's action was" completely gratuitous." He added:"I regret that my name has been associated with an agency that values so little the principles of the First Amendment, due process, and academic freedom." The NEH awarded the Newberry $270,000 in 2000 for fellowships. Mr. Bellesiles received $30,000.
On May 23 the Newberry released a statement defending its fellowship practices. Library President Charles T. Cullen wrote that questions about Arming America in scholarly journals (as distinguished from the mass media) were not raised until after February 2001, when Mr. Bellesiles was awarded his fellowship:"We disagree that our review process was 'flawed' and that our actions afterwards reflect inattention to issues of academic misconduct." As evidence of the high esteem in which the book was still held at the time, Mr. Cullen noted that"in April 2001, two months after the Newberry's review committee's meeting, Columbia University awarded Professor Bellesiles its Bancroft prize."
Mr. Cullen did not defend Mr. Bellesiles or his book. He insisted that questions about the book should rightly be referred to Emory University. On May 30 Mr. Bellesiles is scheduled to talk at a seminar at the Newberry regarding a paper he recently completed,"The War of 1812 in experience and memory."
On June 3 HNN published the letter the NEH sent to the Newberry.
The Bellesiles story attracted international attention in June when the Guardian published an article about his book. In the article, for the first time, Mr. Bellesiles was quoted as claiming that the flood at his Emory University office lasted six hours. Emory's official report on the flood (May 8, 2000) says:
On the evening of Sunday, April 2, a connector on a sprinkler main broke on the building's third floor. Contractors had been working on the plumbing. When the water was finally cut off about 25 minutes later, standing water was two inches deep in some places, and practically no part of Bowden Hall escaped completely dry.
Mr. Bellesiles says that his probate notes were destroyed in the flood.
In the June 10 edition of the Weekly Standard David Skinner reported that the Bancroft Committee apparently had no plans to consider withdrawing the award from Mr. Bellesiles. Arthur Goren, professor at Columbia, told Skinner,"I have nothing to say." Jan Ellen Lewis, professor at Rutgers University, told Skinner she was too busy to comment. Berkeley professor of history Mary P. Ryan, also too busy to comment, told Skinner when he pressed for details, that he was being rude.
The Wall Street Journal, in a stinging editorial by Kimberle A. Strassel on June 6, 2002, charged that Emory University, Columbia University and publisher Alfred A. Knopf have abdicated their responsibilities by refusing"to take a professional or moral stance." Strassel added:"The silence of these bodies--groups charged with maintaining the standards and ideals of the academic profession--has been so deafening, that even the traditionally closed-mouth world of scholars is calling for some public disclosure." Strassel, an editorial writer for the Journal, concluded that only the NEH had acted properly by ordering the Newberry Library to remove the agency's name from Bellesiles's fellowship.
On July 23 HNN noted that the panel appointed by Emory to investigate Mr. Bellesiles had reportedly completed its work. The school declined to confirm this report, telling HNN that an announcement would be made at the end of the summer, as had previously been indicated.
Mr. Bellesiles spent much of the summer in England in the Emory at Oxford program. His course: History 341,"The American Revolution from the British Perspective. 4 hours."
At the end of July HNN published an article by Donald Kates,"Do Guns Cause Crime?" The article prompted a spirited debate between Mr. Kates and critic Tim Lambert. The article did not specifically address Mr. Bellesiles's books, but subsequently was cited by his critics in response to the publication in August of an article by John G. Fought, which was also published by HNN. Mr. Fought questioned Mr. Bellesiles's claims that he and his family had received physical threats after the piublicaton of Arming America. Mr. Fought reported that Mr. Bellesiles had apparently never filed any reports with local police agencies, suggesting that the threats either were never made or were not taken seriously by Mr. Bellesiles. Reader response to the article was extensive. One reader claimed that the members of the Emory History Department did not believe Bellesiles's story that his office door had been set on fire. Another reader noted that Mr. Bellesiles had moved his family out of his Atlanta house prior to the controversy over Arming America and not as a result of it, as some media accounts had falsely indicated.
On August 15 Glenn Reynolds published a link on his blog to historian Jim Lindgren's Yale Law Review article,"Fall from Grace: Arming America and the Bellesiles Scandal." Unlike the earlier Lindgren/Heather article published this year in William & Mary Law Review ("Counting Guns in Early America"), the new Yale review focuses mostly on issues other than the probate data. In an Appendix to the Yale review, Lindgren lists apparent discrepancies between Arming America and the sources it cites.
Reynolds reported on August 22 that the Lindgren article was downloaded 74,000 times the first week it was posted.
On the morning of Thursday August 22 HNN learned that Emory College's interim dean, Robert Paul, scheduled a meeting with the Emory University History Department for Friday morning to announce the outcome of the Bellesiles investigation.
Late in the afternoon on August 22, the scheduled meeting between Dean Paul and the History Department was called off, Emory releasing a surprise announcement:
Professor Michael Bellesiles will be on paid leave from his teaching duties at Emory University during the fall semester. The University's inquiry regarding Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture is continuing. Professor Bellesiles and the University have agreed that the results of the University's inquiry will be made public when the inquiry is completed.
Just last month the university told HNN that at the end of the summer there would be an announcement concerning the outcome of the investigation.
Jerome Sternstein, commenting on the latest turn of events, told the Chronicle of Higher Education:"What they're doing now is hard to understand. It appears that Emory is so fearful that it is unwilling to make a judgment that will meet the concerns of those who believe that Bellesiles has committed academic misconduct."
On August 27 HNN published a digital version of Mr. Lindgren's devastating review of Arming America. The long, convoluted and seemingly unending story finally took a decisive turn on September 24, 2002, when Emory's interim provost Woody Hunter announced that Mr. Bellesiles was filing an appeal of the decision of the independent panel appointed earlier this year to investigate charges that he had invented and manipulated evidence.
The university declined to reveal the panel's finding. But it was obvious from the announcement that the scholars had ruled against Bellesiles. (Would he appeal a decision that was favorable?)
The panel's report is being withheld from the public while the appeals process goes forward.
The story was broken by the Emory Wheel, the university student newspaper. (This was a needed scoop for the paper. This summer the university snubbed the Wheel, releasing infomation about the Bellesiles investigation to the Boston Globe before bothering to call the reporters on the university's own paper.)
HNN asked the school on Tuesday September 24 to confirm the provost's statement as quoted by the Wheel. A spokesperson with the school's communications office, Jan Gleason, told us she could not corroborate the provost's statement. We asked her to get back to us when she had details. She agreed. As of Thursday September 26 she had not called back.
On October 17, 2002 the Nation, which had earlier published an article by Alexander Cockburn critical of Bellesiles, broke with the growing media consensus that Bellesiles was guilty of fraud. The article, by contributing editor Jon Wiener, a history professor at the University of California, opened with a nightmarish scene in early 2001 at which Bellesiles was harassed at a college lecture by"four unusually large men passing out a brochure titled 'The Lies of Michael Bellesiles.' One wore a flak jacket, one had a shaved head; they did not look like faculty members or even history grad students." Two of the men asked precisely the same question about Bellesiles's use of probate records:"I want to ask about your use of probate records. You say probate records showed few guns, but my father owned several guns that did not appear in his will when he died." Wiener concluded:"So this is what it's like when you're the target of a campaign to destroy your work."
Later in the article Wiener recounted charges that Bellesiles critic James Lindgren had pressured historians to retract positive reviews they had given of Bellesiles's book. Then Wiener went further.
Who is James Lindgren? He told me he has no connection to the NRA and has never been a member or accepted funding from the group; furthermore, he contends that he is pro-gun control, dislikes guns and has never owned one. He accuses Bellesiles of bias, but apparently has some of his own: Before he weighed in on the Bellesiles debate, he published an article using data gathered by the right-wing Federalist Society that purports to prove the American Bar Association has been biased against George W. Bush's judicial nominees. Lindgren's methodology was exposed as deeply flawed in an article last December in the Journal of Law & Politics co-written by Michael Saks, a law professor who is also co-editor of the book Modern Scientific Evidence.
One of the chief allegations against Bellesiles is that he claimed to have done research on probate records in San Francisco.
That seemed unlikely to many historians, who know the San Francisco archives were destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and fire. Bellesiles had re-created from memory the list of the counties where he researched probate records, after the flood destroyed his notes. He went back to San Francisco and found the documents in question across the bay, in the Contra Costa County archives. He photocopied and distributed the documents in question and posted examples on his website (www.emory.edu/HISTORY/BELLESILES/index.html). They are indeed headed"City and County of San Francisco." The Contra Costa archivists confirm that the documents are real--and that they come from the Contra Costa County archives, not San Francisco. That's error, not fraud.
Many historians who originally praised the Bellesiles book have declined to publicly rescind their favorable reviews; Wiener drew the conclusion that they remain Bellesiles supporters. In addition, he noted, Mary Beth Norton is now publicly endorsing the book:
Mary Beth Norton, a Pulitzer-nominated historian of early America who has worked in [the records Bellesiles covered], went back and checked them herself for the sake of the debate [following a symposium held by the William and Mary Quarterly]. She concluded that Bellesiles's interpretation of the documents was"just as plausible" as that of his critics,"if not more so." She did find Bellesiles's use of probate records"slapdash and sloppy," but contends that the rest of the criticisms of Arming America"strike me as the usual sorts of disagreements historians always have about how to interpret documentary evidence, although those criticisms have been expressed more vehemently than is usual in the scholarly literature."
Wiener reported that Bellesiles has written a new introduction for the paperback edition of the book, though Vintage, the publisher, has not decided whether to publish one."The original introduction opened with the contemporary debate on guns and criticized Charlton Heston and the NRA. That has been cut from the new introduction."
The Bellesiles case remains under review, according to Emory. Weiner suggests that the secret panel investigating Bellesiles may have recommended that he be demoted.
Perhaps the secret Emory review board has come up with new evidence, though that seems to me unlikely. Barring that, in the end, despite dozens of researchers devoting weeks and months to checking every line in the 125 pages of notes at the end of Arming America, the critics have come up with errors but have produced no proof of intentional deception, no proof of invented documents, no proof of fraud.
But the campaign against Bellesiles has demonstrated one indisputable fact: Historians whose work challenges powerful political interests like the NRA better make sure all their footnotes are correct before they go to press.
RESPONSE OF JAMES LINDGREN TO STATEMENTS MADE IN THE NATION
After HNN posted the above summary of the Nation article, James Lindgren complained that Wiener had made several inaccurate statements:
As anyone familiar with the Bellesiles matter can plainly see, the Nation article by Professor Jon Wiener has a large number of errors and exceedingly misleading statements. Since the Nation was unable to find any factual errors in my scholarship, it instead attempted some rather crude ad hominems, most of which HNN decided to excerpt on this site. Here I will confine myself to pointing out the ones that HNN repeats about me here.
Referring to me, the first paragraph that HNN quotes from the Nation falsely states: "He accuses Bellesiles of bias . . . ." I have never accused Professor Bellesiles of bias (nor of prejudice). To the contrary, I have repeatedly argued that such claims of bias are incoherent in this matter.
Also, HNN repeats and inadvertently embellishes the Nation's false charge that I have urged people to retract their reviews of Arming America. If I had done so, that would indeed have been unusual, though not improper. What I did was urge two authors to correct or retract one statement in each of their separate reviews (on an issue not central to their reviews), merely by an online post to H-Net lists. Eventually they each retracted the false statement I asked them to, because the particular statements were indeed factually wrong, something the Nation fails to mention. Also, I never said the words that one of those authors, Matthew Warshauer, attributes to me in the Nation article.
[Editor's note: Mr. Warshauer published a favorable review of the Bellesiles book. According to the Nation, Warshauer said that Mr. Lindgren pressured him to publish a retraction:"He added something like he would hate to have this affect my career. I viewed that as a veiled threat." Warshauer originally reported ( on H-Net January 23, 2002) that Lindgren had pressured him to publish a correction. At the time Warshauer did not mention that he had received a"veiled threat."]
As for my studies of ABA ratings of federal appellate judges in the Journal of Law & Politics, I used data from many sources, including the ABA, the Federal Judicial Center, and Michigan State University, in addition to the Federalist Society (which got its data almost entirely from the first two sources). Further, I spent three very happy years as a Project Director at the ABA's think tank, the American Bar Foundation. Indeed, it was my affinity for the ABA that led me to wonder what the judicial ratings data might suggest. I strongly urge those interested to read the exchange in the Journal of Law & Politics to determine whose work is actually "deeply flawed"--mine or the people the ABA Litigation Section hired to oppose me.
In response to the Wiener article, Bellesiles critic Clayton Cramer posted a rebuttal on his website. He indicated that the fellow with the shaved head was not white:"Did you picture a bunch of neo-Nazi skinheads? Did you notice that he didn't describe the race of the 'shaved head' guy? If he had, it would have damaged this image of neo-Nazis a bit."
Cramer also reminded readers of the abundant charges that have been made about Bellesiles's use of evidence:
Bellesiles has a history of putting up false materials on his website. Too many independent researchers have now examined the 'San Francisco' probate records that Bellesiles FAXed to reporters--and they are all Contra Costa County probate records. Weiner [sic] also makes the claim that the probate records are only a small part of Arming America. Very true. But Weiner, for some odd reason, neglects the much larger set of problems with Bellesiles's pack of lies: the altered quotes, the altered dates, and the misrepresentation of sources.
A main theme in Arming America was that the absence of gun smiths in the United States prior to the Civil War is a strong indication that the country lacked a"gun culture" until then. Wiener emphasized this point. Cramer argued that Wiener failed to understand that Bellesiles's claim had been contested:
So few gun manufacturers? So few gun sellers? Let's see, how about visiting this site? It is a data base that I am only part-way through to completing that lists 2,273 gunsmiths and gun makers in America before 1840. For every gunsmith and gun maker that I included in that data base, there was at least one for whom we know that there was a gunsmith or gun maker, but for whom we don't have any exact dates. In a number of cases, we have guns of this early era with a maker's name, but we don't know where he lived, or when.
On Friday afternoon, October 25, 2002, Emory University made the following announcement:
"Dr. Michael Bellesiles has resigned from his position as Professor of History at Emory University, effective December 31, 2002."
Three documents accompanied this announcement:
- The report of the independent committee appointed by Emory in May 2002 to investigate Bellesiles.
- Bellesiles's response to the report.
- Emory's announcement that Bellesiles had resigned, his resignation to take effect at the end of 2002.
On October 28, 2002 Jerome Sternstein, in an article published by HNN, reported that both Garry Wills and Edmund Morgan have distanced themselves from Bellesiles, whom they once had praised. Sternstein's disclosure, heretofore unreported, came in the course of an article critical of historian Jon Wiener's recent defense of Bellesiles in the Nation:
And what about Garry Wills and Edmund Morgan, considered by Wiener to be two of America's"top historians." Wiener makes much of the fact that neither of them has publicly retracted their glowing reviews of Arming America, though, he says, they have been under pressure to do so. He doesn't say whether he interviewed them for his article. But it is safe to say he didn't -- and it's probably a good thing too. One can only imagine how Wiener would have responded to Garry Wills, who, when asked last spring to appear on a panel to speak in favor of Bellesiles, emailed his refusal back with the blunt message,"nobody defends him." And last April, when asked by a colleague at Northwestern what he presently thought of Arming America, Wills replied:"I was took. The book is a fraud." As for Morgan, he, too, might have upset Wiener. Recently, on his own volition, Morgan sent a highly complimentary letter to one of Bellesiles's leading critics, praising both the substance and the tone of his work, concluding that the critic was right and Bellesiles was wrong.
The Federal Lawyer has become the first periodical to repudiate the Arming America after publishing a favorable review. The review was written by Michael Coblenz in January 2001. In the October edition of the periodical Coblenz writes that the common sense premises of the book misled him.
While the rest of the country was busy wondering about the outcome of the mid-term elections, many Bellesiles observers were wondering about the Bancroft Committee. Rumors floated around the Internet that the committee planned to issue an announcement about the prize it had awarded to Arming America. Meanwhile, Eugene Volokh, a UCLA law professor, criticized a summary of the Emory Report posted by the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History (NCCPH), which was written by Bruce Craig. Volokh asserted that Craig's summary left the false impression that the Emory" committee found that Bellesiles had made errors, but not intentional ones." Glenn Reynolds on Instapundit.com immediately picked up the story, giving Craig's summary the"airbrush award.""If we can't trust historians to be honest about the past week, how can we trust them to be honest about things that happened years ago?" Reynolds asked.
On November 7, 2002 the Nation addressed the Emory Report for the first time in an editorial which summarized the case against him without reaching a conclusion that he had done anything wrong. The editorial ended with a quotation from Jon Wiener, the contributing editor who rallied to Bellesiles's defense just days before the Emory Report became public. The report does not seem to have changed Wiener's conclusions about Bellesiles scholarship. In a passionate coda, Wiener defended Bellesiles while attacking the committee that wrote the report:
Since the issue here is Bellesiles's integrity as a historian, the Emory inquiry should have been as sweeping as the stakes, instead of being tied to a few pages in a great big book. And if Bellesiles is right in his reply, then those distinguished historians are guilty of some of the same sins they accuse him of committing: suppressing inconvenient evidence, spinning the data their way, refusing to follow leads that didn't serve their thesis. The point is not to condemn them for their inability to achieve the scrupulousness they demanded of Bellesiles. The point is that historians have to deal with the messy confusion of things, and they offer interpretations of it. Historical knowledge advances by the testing of interpretations, not by stifling interpreters, and not by indicting the interpreter's character for flaws in a table.In mid-November the Internet percolated with speculation regarding the fate of Bellesiles's multiple prizes. Would they be taken away? The Emory Wheel reported on November 19 that"Columbia's board of trustees will meet during the second week of December ... to discuss the possibility of revoking the Bancroft Prize and have asked a group of historians to review the 40-page report released by Emory's external panel at the end of October," according to an unnamed source.
The Wheel also reported that the OAH is considering withdrawing the"Binkley-Stephenson Award, given to Bellesiles in 1996 for an essay published in the group's journal."
Why did Bellesiles resign? On November 20 the Chicago Tribune reported that Bellesiles resigned because he had heard that Emory was going to demote him and"that would have been an affront to my honor." About the Emory Report, Bellesiles told the paper:"I was absolutely shocked! Obviously, they were very angry at me." The paper conducted the interview with Bellesiles at a coffee shop across the street from Emory:"Since resigning his professorship last month, Bellesiles has avoided the university's Atlanta campus. He doesn't want to present former colleagues with the embarrassing choice of either lowering their eyes or saying hello to a pariah, he explained. He has also avoided the media."
Bellesiles indicated to the paper that he believes he was the victim of an"intellectual lynching" (Trib's phrase). He continues to insist that he made few mistakes, noting that the Emory Committee found errors in just five of 1,347 footnotes."Look, I've never been good at math," he explained when asked about the errors in counting guns.
There have been rumors that Emory paid off Bellesiles in order to avoid a lawsuit. He told the paper he did not receive any cash payout:"I only wish that were true." His plans now that he will no longer be teaching at Emory?"He intends to keep up the fight to vindicate his theory. He has lined up visiting professorships in England for the next academic year. After that, he would like to remain in teaching, possibly at the high school level."
Jack Rakove, one of Bellesiles's original supporters, told the Trib that he still includes Arming America on class reading lists, but indicated that he no longer believes the book is trustworthy."It's clear now that his scholarship is less than acceptable," Rakove told the paper."There are cautionary lessons for historians here." On November 22, 2002 the OAH issued the following statement:
At its meeting on 8 November 2002 in Baltimore, Maryland, the executive board of the Organization of American Historians (OAH) discussed the report on Michael Bellesiles recently issued by Emory University. Board members agreed that this matter raises larger questions about trust and integrity in the scholarly process and the ways in which historical argument and interpretation are conducted. The board agreed that these issues should become the subject of wider discussion across the profession. The Organization will use the OAH Newsletter as a vehicle for further consideration of the matter. In addition, sessions on the subject will be planned at upcoming annual meetings in Memphis and Boston in 2003 and 2004. The editorial board of the Journal of American History will consider a commissioned essay or a roundtable to address the ethical issues of this and other recent cases and how much historians rely on trust in practicing their craft. Finally, the board agreed that it would continue this discussion at its meeting next April in Memphis.On November 23, 2002 the Orange County Register published a long essay by senior writer Alan C. Bock outlining the history of the Bellesiles controversy. The essay included this provocative statement:
Don Kates, a Washington state lawyer and professor affiliated with Academics for the Second Amendment (who furnished me with extensive info on the Bellisles affair about a year ago), told me he thinks it is possible that Bellisles is a sociopathic liar of the kind who responds to being found out with more fabrications. I can't claim to know. If so, he has managed to ruin himself and damage the cause.
On Friday December 13, 2002, the trustees of the board of Columbia University announced that they had rescinded the award of the Bancroft to Michael Bellesiles and asked him to return the $4,000 prize money. The Associated Press reported that this"was the first time in the 54-year history of the Bancroft award that Columbia has taken such actions." Eric Foner told the AP:"The Bancroft judges operate on a basis of trust. We assume a book published by a reputable press has gone through a process where people have checked the facts. Members of prize committees cannot be responsible for that." (Note: Mr. Foner was not on the Bancroft committee when Bellesiles was awarded a prize.) According to the wire report, Knopf, the publisher of Bellesiles's book, indicated that it does not intend to withdraw the book.
The AP report noted that the paperback edition published by Vintage"includes corrections." Critics have charged that the paperback contains numerous errors. A new edition of the paperback with a fresh introduction by Bellesiles was scheduled for publication in 2003. It remains unclear if the publisher will issue the new edition. Bellesiles has stated that the new edition would contain many corrections.
Reached by telephone shortly after the announcement was made, Bellesiles told the New York Times:"I have nothing to say."
The statement by the board of trustees included the following statements:
Columbia University's Trustees have voted to rescind the Bancroft Prize awarded last year to Michael Bellesiles for his book Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture. The Trustees made the decision. Based on a review of an investigation of charges of scholarly misconduct against Professor Bellesiles by Emory University and other assessments by professional historians. They concluded that he had violated basic norms of scholarship and the high standards expected of Bancroft Prize winners. The Trustees voted to rescind the Prize during their regularly scheduled meeting on December 7, 2002 and have notified Professor Bellesiles of their decision....
Columbia's Trustees considered the report of the Emory investigating committee and Professor Bellesiles' response to it. They also considered assessments by professional historians of the subject matter of that report.
After considering all of these materials, the Trustees concurred with the three distinguished scholars who reviewed the case for Emory University that Professor Bellesiles had violated basic norms of acceptable scholarly conduct. They consequently concluded that his book had not and does not meet the standards they had established for the Bancroft Prize.
In making their decision, the Trustees emphasized that the judgment to rescind the Bancroft Prize was based solely on the evaluation of the questionable scholarship of the work and had nothing to do with the book's content or the author's point of view.
Eric Foner came under attack on December 16, in an article published by National Review . Melissa Secora, citing a student's account, reported that Foner allegedly attempted"to suppress knowledge of possible problems with the book" after the Bancroft Prize was announced but before it was awarded:
"On April 4, I e-mailed members of the history department and the Bancroft committee with a summary of the case against Bellesiles including some clear cases of fraud. I received no responses," explains Ron Lewenberg, then president of the CCCC [Columbia College Conservative Club]. He tried again and was shunned again."I was not allowed to put the packets in the mailboxes of professors and staff, so with the approval of the secretary, I placed them on the desk. According to a friendly TA, whose anonymity I have kept secret for the protection of his career, Professor Eric Foner, saw the handouts and threw a fit. All of the packets were thrown out."On the day the Bancroft was awarded to Bellesiles two weeks later, Secora reported, the CCCC held a rountable symposium devoted to his book:"Not a single Bancroft committee member or member of the school's history department attended."
By the fall of 2002 enough questions had been raised about the book that Columbia began a careful slow review that culminated in the withdrawal of the prize last week, according to Columbia Provost Jonathan Cole. Columbia even asked outside historians to begin an independent review of the book's merits.
But National Review noted that critics believe the school easily could have determined earlier that the book was seriously flawed. The article cited a comment by Joyce Malcolm:"The sad part is that if the prize committee had taken the trouble to read the serious criticism of the book before bestowing this award they would never have been put in this embarrassing situation. The award was meant to be for a work of impeccable scholarship, and it was clear before April 2001 that Arming America was not such a book."
HNN contacted Mr. Foner for a response to the National Review article. This was his reply:
There is something entirely implausible about Mr. Lewenberg's account. The mailboxes of history professors in Fayerweather Hall are in a public hallway. Anyone can leave material in the mailboxes at any time. We receive not only mail, but term papers, announcements of campus events, etc. in these boxes. They have large slots in the front and his materials could easily have been placed in each mailbox without the permission of anybody. In addition, I absolutely deny throwing out materials relating to this controversy or anything else -- I would never do such a thing.
My quote about the Bancroft committee was simply an attempt to explain to the reporter how such prize committees generally operate. I was not on the committee that awarded the prize to Bellesiles and obviously know nothing specific about their deliberations.
Editor's Note: Mr. Lewenberg responded to Mr. Foner in a posted comment on HNN.
On December 19, 2002 the Wall Street Journal congratulated Columbia University for withdrawing the Bancroft Prize and denounced Knopf for keeping the book in circulation:
Released in 2000, the book caused a sensation among the left, who used it to bolster their anti-gun readings of the Second Amendment. The plaudits piled around the Emory historian -- that is, until serious scholars began to examine his work.
Their dogged investigations found that Mr. Bellesiles's truth wasn't just stranger than fiction -- it was fiction. By October, an academic panel declared his scholarship"unprofessional and misleading," and Emory announced his resignation. Finally, Columbia's trustees announced the book didn't meet their standards and revoked the Bancroft.
Unfortunately, Mr. Bellesiles's shoddy work lives on. A federal appeals court referred to it in a footnote in a decision this month upholding a California gun ban. And even as the controversy kicked in, a Knopf imprint released a paperback version, which again extolled his Bancroft Prize. Might we suggest that Knopf send out stickers -- of the sort stores affix to books after authors win prizes. Only these would read: First Ever Loser of the Bancroft Prize.
The week following the withdrawl of the Bancroft Prize, Jerome Sternstein, writing in HNN, assailed Knopf for keeping the Bellesiles book in circulation. Mr. Sternstein concluded:
It is clear that the impact of this scandal on Knopf's reputation as the premier publisher of history trade books is likely to be considerable. If Knopf continues to stand"behind" Arming America and fails to confront the fact that it is not simply a slightly flawed book that can be tinkered with and fixed with a few" corrections" here and there but it is rather a deeply dishonest book, one that is racked by invented, falsified, and grossly distorted renderings of the historical record, then Knopf will be doing itself and its great publishing tradition a monumental disservice. More importantly, however, by keeping Arming America in print and not recalling it Knopf will be doing an even greater disservice to the reading public. It will be saying to those who care about history that even America's leading publisher is more concerned with profits than integrity, and is more interested in selling deceitful, though politically correct books than works of enduring merit. The editors at Knopf need to rethink their position, just as Emory University and Columbia University reconsidered their positions. And they need to do so quickly. They should cease printing the Vintage paperback of Arming America and recall all remaining copies from the bookstores. They can do no less and live up to the example of the firm's founder who, though he valued loyalty to his authors, valued scholarly integrity and intellectual honesty even more.
History News Network Poll: The week of December 16, 2002 HNN asked readers if they think Knopf should withdraw the Bellesiles book from circulation. As of Friday December 20, 487 readers had responded; 61 percent indicated that Knopf SHOULD NOT withdraw the book.
On the afternoon of Friday December 20, the software used to measure the number of readers responding to our poll jumped in the course of a few hours from fewer than 500 to over 1,800. The overwhelming number of votes cast during this brief period were"no." Between Friday afternoon and Saturday afternoon, in yet another sudden shift, thousands of"yes" votes were cast. The sharp increase in"no" votes on Friday afternoon and"yes" votes afterwards cast doubt on the poll's reliability as a measure of reader response.
Apologistsfor Bellesiles have argued on several occasions that anybody can make mistakes. As evidence they have pointed to a passage in the Emory Report taking James Lindgren to task for mistakenly claiming in his Yale Law Journal article that 57 percent of the troops in one unit of a 600-man Connecticut militia assembled to invade Canada in 1746 were armed. In fact, 57 percent of the men belonging to this one unit--the least-armed unit in the militia--were unarmed. As soon as the mistake was brought to his attention, Lindgren corrected his article and owned up to the mistake on HNN and other websites.
That was the end of the matter until a pro-Bellesiles writer self-identified on HNN's discussion board as "Benny Smith" again assailed Lindgren for making an error. That prompted Lindgren to post an extended explanation on December 20, 2002. In the course of his comment, posted on HNN, Lindgren noted that the Emory Report itself included several mistakes and misleading statements. This was the first time he had publicly drawn attention to them. For one, he wrote,"referring to fact that 57% were unarmed in the worst armed unit, the report stated, 'In this case, Bellesiles' number was right.'"
As the Emory Report makes clear [elsewhere], however, this number is not the right number for the state of arms of the Connecticut militia, which is what Bellesiles said the 57% applied to. It is the right number for the state of the worst armed unit, which is something Arming America offered no numbers for. So Bellesiles's number is not right as applied to what he applied it to.
In the conclusion to his post Lindgren took note of several other flaws in the Report:
The Emory Report makes several small errors in describing the 1746 CT militia. It considers a “hanger” a person, when a hanger was a “sword,” an error that slightly affects their count of the state of arms. They assume that a unit has its full complement of 100 men, when [historian Robert] Churchill reports that the background records show that the unit had only 98 men, another apparent mistake that slightly affects their count.
Most significantly for me, the Report claims that I misread documents that I never read, mentioned, cited, or claimed to have read, even attributing to me the research assistant’s own ignorance about the meaning of the word “hanger.” If I had counted the original 1746 CT records, I would have cited them, rather than citing just Churchill.
At the annual meeting of the American Historical Association (AHA) in 2003 one session was likely to draw more attention than all the others: Session No. 161, which was scheduled to be held in the Hilton Waldorf Room on Sunday January 5 at 11 AM:"Comparative Legal Perspectives on Gun Control." Two historians were to present papers: Peter Squires of the University of Brighton and Michael Bellesiles, who was supposed to talk about"The Interaction of Law and Culture: Guns and the Common Law in Early America," a subject he studied during his controversial year-long fellowship at the Newberry Library.
According to the AHA's Arnita Jones, Bellesiles was still scheduled to appear at the session, which was selected months ago, as of the end of November; that is, after the release of the Emory Report. At that time she told HNN:"We expect a vigorous debate among the many scholars who are intensely interested in Mr. Bellesiles' and others work on this subject."
At the end of December, however, the panel was abruptly cancelled. Jones told HNN:"The participants decided to cancel and notified us."
The OAH, it was disclosed in early January 2003, arranged for Jon Wiener, the long-time defender of Michael Bellesiles, to host a" chat room" concerning the Bellesiles scandal at the annual meeting of the organization in Memphis. Chat rooms are informal venues designed to give scholars an opportunity to consider topics of interest to the profession. OAH executive director Lee W. Formwalt told HNN:
"Since the Bellesiles controversy is an important one for our profession, and since there was not enough time after the release of the Emory report to create a special session for the Memphis meeting (we do plan to have such a session at the 2004 meeting in Boston), we decided to use the chat room as a vehicle for discussion by individuals registered for the annual meeting."
Upon learning about Wiener's selection, Ralph Luker objected on the grounds that Wiener was not an expert on the history of guns. Formwalt then asked Luker if he would like to serve as co-host of the chat room."I think you would provide a good balance in leading this informal discussion," Formwalt told Luker in an email. Luker declined:"I think it would be inappropriate for me to co-host the chatroom session because one of my objections to Jon's solo hosting was [that he was] inappropriate because he had no particular expertise in the field. If I cohosted the session, it would only mean that both cohosts lacked any expertise in the field."
On the afternoon of January 8, 2003 the OAH asked Paul Finkelman, Chapman Distinguished Professor of Law, University of Tulsa College of Law, to join Jon Wiener as co-host of the Bellesiles chat room. Finkelman promptly agreed. (Mr. Finkelman is known to HNN readers for a lively debate with Clayton Cramer in July 2001 concerning Timothy McVeigh.)
On January 8, 2003 the Associated Press reported that Knopf had decided to stop selling the Bellesiles book and to end its contractual relationship. Bellesiles reportedly had offered to revise the book; the revisions were considered inadequate. The decision to cancel the book contract was made weeks ago but not disclosed.
Jane Garrett, Bellesiles's editor, told the AP:"I still do not believe in any shape or form he fabricated anything. He's just a sloppy researcher."
Knopf told the wire service that Arming America had sold 8,000 in hardback and 16,000 in paperback.
In the February newsletter of the OAH historian Jon Wiener, the Nation columnist, disputed the significance of the findings of the Emory Report, noting that it"found 'evidence of falsification' ... only on one page: Table 1, 'Percentage of probate inventories listing firearms.'"
In fact, the probate records criticized by the committee are referred to only in a handful of paragraphs in a four-hundred page book, and Table 1 is cited in the text only a couple of times. If Bellesiles had omitted all of the probate data that the committee and others have criticized, the book's argument would remain a strong one, supported by a wide variety of other evidence that the committee did not challenge.Wiener noted that Bellesilles had offered an explanation--reasonable to Wiener--that the table omitted two years of data (1774-1775)"not to deceive readers, but because those years were not relevant to his thesis: 'the colonial governments were passing out firearms to the members of their militia . . . in preparation for the expected confrontation with Great Britain' therefore these two years give 'an inaccurate portrait of peacetime gun ownership' by individuals."
Wiener went on to contrast what happened to Bellesiles's career with that of the historian whose book about Denmark Vesey had to be withdrawn and then reissued because of transcription errors. Both historians had been subjected to criticism at the same time and coincidentally in the same issue of the William and Mary Quarterly:
In the Bellesiles case, the parallel would be the publication of a revised edition with errors corrected. Indeed, Bellesiles had conceded serious problems in his probate data, and was working on correcting those errors when he and his publisher parted ways in early January. His plans included a corrected version of Table 1. Do Gray, Katz, and Ulrich consider that an appropriate resolution of the problems they found? They refuse to say.Wiener closed with a vigorous condemnation of the authors of the Emory Report, arguing that they had"abdicated their intellectual responsibility" by letting the pro-gun crowd--which has tried to discredit the book by"focusing attention on errors in a tiny portion of the documentation"--set the terms of the debate.
As a result, their report has ominous implications for other historians dealing with controversial issues. Of course every historian has an obligation to provide full and accurate citations of evidence in a form that makes it possible for others to replicate their work. But I know of one historian coming up for tenure who, after reading the Emory report on Bellesiles, decided to remove all the tables from his book manuscript, to treat the evidence anecdotally instead, in order to avoid facing the same kind of critique.
In the February 2003 newsletter of the OAH executive director Lee Formwalt argued that the Bellesiles controversy cannot be put to bed as quickly as some would like:
Although the case appears to be closed for many observers, the Bellesiles matter, like many historical problems, is not a simple matter of determining unprofessional conduct, condemning it, and moving on. As professional historians, we offer our readers, students, and clients a complex understanding of the past, often with inherent tensions. Why should this case be any different? Yet, there has been a growing drumbeat, fed by the media, to condemn Bellesiles and move quickly beyond this unpleasant affair. The questions that historian Jon Wiener ... and others raise, however, indicate this is not the simple open and shut case that some believe it to be. We have an obligation to deal with ambiguity and tension in this matter and not simply wash our hands of it. Wiener's essay and his article in The Nation touch on these matters. Other concerns have been raised and others, no doubt, will be raised. OAH provides members with the logical forum in which to discuss various perspectives on matters ranging from the use/abuse of probate data to the bigger issues of trust in the world of research and publication.In mid-February 2003
Soft Skull Press announced that it would be issuing a revised edition of Arming America. From the press release:
"This is not the first time it has fallen to Soft Skull to ensure the American public can read books the Right doesn't like," says Publisher Richard Nash."It is imperative that we stand up to the NRA smear machine. We believe in allowing readers to evaluate for themselves how Bellesiles has responded to the legitimate criticisms and whether the core thesis of the book-the undermining of the creation myth of the Second Amendment-stands up."
The book will feature a new introduction by the author, as well as several clarifications concerning research and a new Table One (the original being the source of much of the controversy) in which the author recreates the contested data.
"I challenge anyone to show how the revised paragraphs addressing probate materials undermine in any way the thesis or logical structure of this book," said Bellesiles, who is currently teaching in the U.K.
In March the NYT published a provocative cartoon by Alan Stamaty ridiculing Bellesiles. In one panel Bellesiles can be seen shooting a hole through his own foot.
On December 16, 2003 Soft Skull Press issued a news release indicating that a revised and corrected edition of Arming America would be published on December 18. Along with the press release the publisher distributed a pamphlet to the media which outlines Mr. Bellesiles's response to his critics:
Please find enclosed a gratis copy of the pamphlet Weighed in an Even Balance by Michael Bellesiles. Bellesiles, for those of you unfamiliar with the name, is the former Emory professor who wrote Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture. Published to critical acclaim in 2001—“Bellesiles has dispersed the darkness that covered the gun's early history in America. He provides overwhelming evidence that our view of the gun is as deep a superstition as any that affected Native Americans in the 17th century,” wrote Garry Wills in the New York Times Book Review—the book and its author were subjected to vicious attack by the pro-gun Right. In an orchestrated series of web and print articles, organs such as the History News Network and the National Review furiously denounced the book.
However, serious historians also raised a number of questions concerning what appeared to be sloppy research. In the January 2002 issue of the William and Mary Quarterly, some of Bellesiles’s research in probate records was criticized for misattribution and lack of verifiability. Facing a political firestorm, Emory University in Atlanta appointed a committee to investigate the allegations. Following the committee’s report (available on Emory University’s website), Bellesiles resigned from Emory, and Columbia University rescinded the prestigious Bancroft Prize it had awarded the author. In early 2003 Random House decided to end their contractual relationship with the author. Shortly thereafter, I announced that Soft Skull Press would issue a revised version of the book.
The enclosed outlines exactly what changes the author has, and has not, made to Arming America. It demonstrates, I believe, that the totality of any errors Bellesiles (wittingly or unwittingly, I hold the latter) introduced into the book’s text do not undermine the central thesis of the book.
This will no doubt come as a surprise to many. The conventional wisdom is that this book is “discredited.” The idea that a few changes could be made that address the totality of the legitimate criticism is at odds with the widely-held perception that the book irredeemably flawed, lock, stock and two crooked barrels. We knew that if this book were allowed to disappear, the publishing records would reflect this perception only. The world would believe Bellesiles was completely wrong. This, to me, was a completely unacceptable outcome. Financially it perhaps made little sense for Knopf/Vintage to keep it in print, or to issue a revised edition, but if there’s a larger cultural raison d’etre for independent publishers, it’s to keep important books like this one available to the American public, especially when it is necessary in order to counteract a campaign that was 1/10 truth, 9/10 smear.
Click here to read excerpts from the pamphlet, Weighed in an Even Balance.
How the Bellesiles Story Developed