Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture by Michael Bellesiles

This is the first time I’ve read a book that’s been Officially Discredited. It’s a strange and unsettling experience for somebody who, like me, trusts books as a matter of principle, and books by university historians as a matter of training. My copy of Arming America seemed to disintegrate a bit every time somebody glanced at the cover and said “Oh! Wasn’t that guy a fraud?”

Michael Bellesiles (the “Fraud”) was a highly regarded historian at Emory University in 2000, when he published the book in its first edition with Vintage. The work’s basic thesis was that early Americans were far less dependent upon, skillful with, and inclined to use firearms than the NRA would have you believe. The book’s evidence was thrown into question, the author shamed, and publication discontinued in 2003.

Soft Skull Press, ever-ready defenders of the downtrodden radical (they’re most famous for publishing James Hatfield’s George W. Bush expose, Fortunate Son), picked Bellesiles’ book out of the gutter and reissued it. The press also gave us a 59-page pamphlet, Weighed in an Even Balance, in which Bellesiles responds to his critics.

The book, read without any kind of critical eye or awareness of the controversy around it, is quite convincing, if not all that fun to read (pages and pages about gun manufacturing processes read about as well as you’d expect). Bellesiles deconstructs the myth of the violent colonial world, firelock by blunderbuss.

He uses correspondence and records to disprove the myth of the valorous early militia. He describes the battle of Lexington as a disaster in which, out of 130 militia members, “Jonas Parker was the sole member of the militia to stand his ground and shoot …only six other Americans pulled their triggers while falling back.” (I consider myself to be a well-educated person, but until I read Arming America, the words “Lexington and Concord” still conjured an image of the brave militiaman crouching behind a rock, picking off redcoats one by one with an expert eye. Invariably, my hero sported an outfit made entirely out of buckskin.)

Bellesiles discusses the young government’s endless struggle to arm its armed forces. He cites probate records — the lists kept by some counties of the possessions of deceased residents — to show that few Americans owned their own guns.

The book was extremely well received, and won the Columbia University Bancroft History Prize. A few fellow academics wanted to see corroborating evidence for certain parts of the book that seemed counterintuitive to them — especially the parts that were backed up by the aforementioned probate records. Bellesiles didn’t seem to make matters any better for himself, changing his story about where and when he accessed the probate records. He still doesn’t seem to have all of the data straight. In 2000, he told a fellow professor that he had seen some records at the National Archives center in Georgia — which doesn’t hold any probate records at all. In the pamphlet published by Soft Skull in conjunction with the reissuing of Arming America, he says “Nor did I tell anyone …at any time that the probate records are located at the National Archives.” (You can still see his original e-mail, proving the contrary, on the Web. D’oh!)

In 2002 and 2003, two scholarly committees found serious problems with a table in the back of the book from which Bellesiles omitted several years’ worth of probate records. Vintage discontinued publication of the book, Bellesiles resigned from the faculty of Emory, and Columbia took the Bancroft Prize back. (Adding insult to injury, the university also asked for the return of the attached $4,000 prize — surely, at that point, the least of Bellesiles’ problems.)

The scholarly controversy surrounding the book gave rise to much conservative ranting, as publications such as the National Review and the Weekly Standard leapt on the anti-Bellesiles bandwagon. The result is that it has become harder and harder for a person like myself, who is violently allergic to this kind of rhetoric, to avoid leaping to Bellesiles’ defense with automatic fury. The demise of Bellesiles was viewed as a personal triumph for many conservatives. As one self-styled reviewer on, after gloating about the rescinding of the Bancroft Prize, wrote with typical anger and partisanship: “Fortunately, there are many Second Amendment scholars and gun enthusiasts in America, whose depth of knowledge, integrity and scholarship overwhelm even the dishonesty of the frauds, idiots and liars who comprise America’s anti-gun lobby.”

Gerard De Groot, a historian at the University of St. Andrews, in Scotland, gave the book a rave review pre-discrediting, and started receiving “angry emails from NRA activists, demanding a public apology for my slander of America’s gun owners. One individual even wrote to my departmental colleagues questioning whether my review was ‘the standard of scholarship to be expected from a professor of history and chairman on the Modern History Department at the University of St. Andrews.'”

De Groot, speaking in the bewildered tones of a foreigner who just can’t understand how excited these Americans have gotten about the subject, points out in an article in The Scotsman that historical research is a very expensive proposition. “Who funded the historians who checked up on Bellesiles? I don’t know. But I do know that the NRA is a wealthy organization.” (The NRA, on the other hand, contends, “Of course, the NRA merely reported on the scathing criticism Bellesiles received from his peers, and had nothing to do with him losing his job, his prize, or his publisher.”)

Bellesiles remains indignant and defensive about his mistakes, telling the Chronicle of Higher Education in January 2004, “I did not realize it earlier, but apparently to question the American myth is to step outside of the mainstream. I should have paid closer attention to Alexis de Toqueville, who made this point 160 years ago.”

Like most pro-gun-control readers, I would like nothing more than to believe that De Groot and Bellesiles are right, and that the criticism of the book stems from politics and not from any failing on Bellesiles’ part. But the evidence against him is fairly damning, and the numbers just don’t stack up. His defensiveness — typical of his wounded stance, the title of the rebutting pamphlet comes from the Book of Job — seems to have made the situation worse.

And that’s too bad, because even if you were to tear the discredited sections out of your book before reading it, Arming would still a fascinating portrayal of seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth century life. I found it reassuring, rather than threatening, to find that the early American pioneer class was more into literacy than guns-Bellesiles tells us that Lexington, Kentucky “proclaimed itself the Athens of the West in 1810, when it had four thousand people, two bookstores, three academies, and Transylvania University.”

A people focused on cultural achievement instead of violence? It’s a glint of hope, amidst a lot of muck and controversy. Let’s focus on that, instead of letting the book dissolve away altogether.