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Responses to the Emory Report on Michael Bellesiles

Michael Bellesiles Chronology: Latest Developments
Summary of the Emory Report
Bellesiles's Response to the Report
Remaining Questions

This page will be updated as responses accumulate.


On November 22, 2002 the OAH released 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.


When Michael Bellesiles reported that gun activists were harassing him, the AHA passed a resolution defending scholars who come under attack for holding controversial views. Some critics of Bellesiles have expressed skepticism about his claims, particularly his allegation that his office door had been set on fire. Arnita Jones, executive director of the AHA, told HNN that the organization stands by its resolution. She also noted that Bellesiles is scheduled to participate in an AHA session at the upcoming annual meeting in Chicago:
Michael Bellesiles will be a participant in a session on"Comparative Legal Perspectives on Gun Control" at the Chicago annual meeting of the AHA this coming January. It is a session that was chosen many months ago by the AHA Program Committee from among those proposed by members of the association. We expect a vigorous debate among the many scholars who are intensely interested in Mr. Bellesiles' and others work on this subject.

In such discussions, of course, it is always important to strike an appropriate balance between the needs of criticism and civil discourse. The AHA stands by its position that all scholarly work should be subject to criticism but that ad hominem attacks upon or harassment of an author are inappropriate.

We continue to believe that a full public airing of controversies relating to historical research and writing is best and we commend Emory University for making its report public. One of the goals of public debate and criticism among historians is precisely to make sure that our arguments are based on appropriate evidence and methodologies. We are pleased that the committee commissioned by Emory University found the AHA's Statement of Standards of Professional Conduct--which deals with these matters--helpful in its deliberations.


On November 7 Jon Wiener, contributing editor to the Nation, defended Bellesiles while attacking the committee that wrote the Emory 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 1996 the OAH's Journal of American History published an article by Bellesiles in which he laid out his main argument that guns did not play a significant role in American life until the Civil War. The article won Bellesiles the highly coveted Binkley-Stephenson award, which is given to the author of the best article published by the Journal that year. Bellesiles received $500.

Critics have suggested that the OAH should withdraw the article and rescind the prize. Lee Formwalt, executive director of the OAH, told HNN that the Bellesiles matter is on the agenda of the November 8 meeting of the executive board of the history association. In the meantime, he indicated, OAH staffers will round up the records relating to the publication of Bellesiles's article in anticipation of the meeting.


Clayton Cramer was one of the first people to detect errors in Bellesiles's research. Though not a professional historian, he gradually persuaded academics that he was right and Bellesiles was wrong. Shortly after the Emory report was issued, he commented on HNN: "It's like watching a killer executed: justice requires it, but it would have been best if the original crime hadn't happened."


Jerome Sternstein, who demonstrated that Bellesiles's yellow legal pads almost certainly could not have been"pulped" as a result of the flood at Bowden Hall, told the Chronicle of Higher Education:

"It was a resignation made under duress. Had [Bellesiles] not resigned, I think they would have fired him."


Michael Zuckerman, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania, told the Emory Wheel:"Emory's losing an immensely talented historian. He's got a million other pieces of his argument that don't remotely touch on inventories."


Hanna Gray, former president of the University of Chicago and member of the panel that wrote the Emory Report:"It's very difficult to talk about intentionality. Who knows what goes on in the mind of someone? But I think you will see that there are some assertions that go a little bit beyond carelessness."


Boston University Law Professor Randy Barnett:"Even if the book were true, it would have made no more difference to the Second Amendment debate than the number of printing presses that were available back then would make to the First Amendment. To me, the real story is that in the beginning the professional historians closed ranks behind Bellesiles and savaged the professional and amateur researchers who questioned him, and unless those historians are now willing to step forward and admit they were wrong and the critics were right, they run the risk of turning Bellesiles into the Alger Hiss of the history profession."


Ken Jackson, professor of history, Columbia University:

I have not read the book and do not know the author. But my general position is that history is history. He won the Bancroft Prize. Perhaps that was a bad decision. But the decision was made by a respected jury in a particular year, and that is that. I wish I could change many things about history, but I cannot. I view this as a fact. He won the prize. The Twin Towers fell.

The larger point is that most prizes probably do not go to the books that will have the most influence over the decades. The juries do the best that they can. Human judgments are inherently problematic. Mistakes are made. This is perhaps an example of one.