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What Clayton Cramer Saw and (Nearly) Everyone Else Missed

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Michael A. Bellesiles’s Bancroft Prize for Arming America has been revoked—the first time that a Bancroft Prize has ever been taken away from an author.[1] He has also resigned from Emory University after a blistering criticism by a blue-ribbon panel.[2] Is this embarrassing moment for the history profession a fluke, or indicative of deeper problems?

I fear that it isn’t a fluke. Arming America reveals that there are some very serious problems in the history professorate, and they are not confined to just one history professor’s demonstration of hubris. Before I launch into a discussion of these problems, let me tell you why I am writing this article.

My Involvement With the Bellesiles Scandal

I have been described in some articles covering this scandal as Michael Bellesiles’s most persistent critic, and I suppose that this is a fair statement. Bellesiles first presented his rather astonishing claims about gun scarcity in early America in a 1996 Journal of American History paper. At the time, I was a history graduate student, working on my MA thesis at Sonoma State University in California. My thesis examined the development of concealed weapon laws in the early Republic, and what I found completely contradicted Bellesiles’s claim that the early Republic had few guns, and few hunters.

I was so taken aback by Bellesiles’s claims—and in a prestigious journal like the JAH—that I spent a month or two trying to figure out if his claims might be the reason why and where America’s first concealed weapon laws appeared. Fortunately, I knew that in a direct conflict between a professor’s scholarly interpretation of the past, and primary sources, primary sources always win. I chalked up Bellesiles’s claims to zeal and bad luck: picking an atypical set of sources, and attempting to find a useable past—useable for the political purposes that were only thinly veiled in that JAH article. I thought he was wrong, but it did not occur to me that he would actually make anything up, or alter quotes to prove his point.

There’s nothing wrong with an historian having a political goal. It would be a curious matter indeed for any historian to devote years of life to the study of a historical problem, and hold no opinions about its relevance to today’s questions. Ideally, however, the research should direct the opinions, not the other way around.

When the book length version of Bellesiles’s claims, Arming America, appeared in 2000, I received a review copy. My first reaction after reading the first few chapters was a mixture of “There’s a logical flaw here” and “What? Could this possibly be true?” When I reached chapters that covered periods that I knew well—the early Republic—my incredulity increased. Then I started to find Bellesiles using quotations from travel accounts that I had read—and the quotations didn’t match either my memory of them, or the texts, when I re-read them.

I sat down with a list of bizarre, amazing claims that Bellesiles had made, and started chasing down the citations at Sonoma State University’s library. I found quotations of out of context that completely reversed the author’s original intent. I found dates changed. I found the text of statutes changed—and the changes completely reversed the meaning of the law. It took me twelve hours of hunting before I found a citation that was completely correct. In the intervening two years, I have spent thousands of hours chasing down Bellesiles’s citations, and I have found many hundreds of shockingly gross falsifications.

Critical Thinking & History

If Arming America had been a book written by some crank, or even a “popular” historian, I suppose that I would have been disappointed by it, but that was all. But this was not a book by some tinfoil-hat revisionist. Michael Bellesiles was a respected historian at a highly regarded research university. His book won wildly enthusiastic reviews from prominent historians. The dust jacket of Arming America has laudatory remarks by a Who’s Who of American historians. Arming America won the Bancroft Prize—an indicator for the enduring value of a book about American history.

What made this especially disturbing was the reaction of historians, when I first brought to the attention of the scholarly community, through various email lists, that Arming America was not just wrong, but deceptive. My first shot across the bow of Arming America was to point out that Bellesiles had altered the text of the Militia Act of 1792. The text included the words: “every citizen so enrolled and notified, shall within six months thereafter, provide himself with a good musket or firelock.”[3] Bellesiles changed the passage to read: “every citizen so enrolled, shall...be constantly provided with a good musket or firelock….”[4] This was not a trivial change; it was evidence that Bellesiles used to demonstrate that guns were rare in America, because, “Congress took upon itself the responsibility of providing those guns….”[5]

This was not a question of a historian being blindsided by a bad source. Bellesiles cited a number of works for his version of the statute: “Militia Laws; 8-10, 13; U.S. Statutes 1:271-74 (reenacted 2 February 1813, 2:797); Debates and Proceedings in the Congress 3:1392-95; Kohn, Eagle and Sword, 128-35.” Had Bellesiles cited only secondary works, such as Militia Laws, or Eagle and Sword, he might have been able to claim that he had been misled. But Bellesiles cited the federal statute in U.S. Statutes (Statutes at Large is the title usually used by legal historians) and Debates and Proceedings in the Congress. Both of these primary sources are in agreement about the text of the statute; they just aren’t in agreement with Bellesiles’s “quote.”

What astounded me was the reaction of historians. In October of 2000, I sent my complaint (which I will admit was more strongly worded than was politic) to several professional historian email lists. At least two of these list moderators allowed Bellesiles to say that he had made no mistake at all, that I didn’t know what I was talking about, and then shut off any further discussion of the question. I told those moderators, in about two minutes, how they could visit the Library of Congress’s web site, and see the pages in question themselves. It appears that they either couldn’t spend two minutes finding out if a major scandal was brewing, or didn’t consider academic fraud an important matter.

I finally concluded that the only way to establish my credibility was to begin scanning in pages that Bellesiles cited, so that historians could click on a web page address, and see the falsification. (See http://www.claytoncramer.com/columbia.18apr01.htm and http://www.claytoncramer.com/primary.html#MilitiaLaws for a number of examples.) This, plus Professor James Lindgren’s involvement in the question of probate record falsification, finally caused historians to regard this matter as a serious question of scholarly integrity. In the mean time, the credibility of the historical profession fell dramatically among those laypersons who followed the Bellesiles scandal.

How did Bellesiles get away with this? Why did historians take so long to pick up the ball, and run with it? Remember, it was largely because of the efforts of James Lindgren, a law professor, not an historian, and myself, a software engineer who writes history books, that Emory and Columbia University decided to clean up this embarrassment. (In case you are wondering, I write software because I have a family to support, and can’t take the vow of poverty that goes with teaching.)

First and foremost, what Eric Foner said about Columbia and the Bancroft Prize applies to academic historians generally:"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."[6]

I hope that this won’t be a surprise to the reader, but a whole generation has grown up in which lying, deception, and manipulation are just part of the game; a generation where too many people think that responding to a question with, “That depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is” under oath is a sign of cleverness.

Maybe it is just because I am a hopeless cynic, but I have learned over the years that if something sounds too good to be true, it is usually is too good to be true. I have also learned from my research that it is a relatively rare event for all of the evidence to stack up neatly on one side of an argument. Even if historians hadn’t bothered to check Bellesiles’s citations, they should have been a little skeptical that the evidence he used was so overwhelmingly in support of his thesis, and contrary to conventional wisdom. The only initial review of Arming America that was not positively glowing was that written by Rutgers History Professor John Chambers II. While Chambers apparently did not check Bellesiles’s citations, his review made it clear that he was suspicious of how overwhelmingly Bellesiles’s evidence was in support of his thesis.[7] This ability to use critical thinking skills, unfortunately, seems to have been lacking in many other historians who were taken in..

It would also have helped if historians knew enough about math, and showed enough common sense, to wonder about the internal contradictions of Arming America. As an example, on p. 181, Bellesiles claims that just before the Revolution, “Massachusetts conducted a very thorough census of arms, finding that there were 21,549 guns in the province of some 250,000 people.”[8] He is clearly saying that this was a count of all guns, both publicly and privately owned or held. Two pages later, Bellesiles claims at the start of the Revolution, “The American colonies began the Revolution with more weapons than they had possessed at any time in their history. Most of the guns in private and public hands came from the twenty thousand Brown Besses supplied by the British government during the Seven Years’ War.”[9]

“Most of the guns” means that the 20,000 Brown Besses were a majority of the guns in the colonies. This means that Bellesiles claimed that there could not be more than 39,999 guns in the American colonies. Yet, somehow, Massachusetts had 21,549 guns—or more than half of all the guns in all the American colonies. At a minimum, this sort of amazing math should have caused an historian to say, “Wait a minute! What are the chances that more than half of the guns—perhaps way more than half of the guns—were in one colony?” It’s possible, but unlikely, that this could have been the case. A little skepticism, however, would have led historians to check the citations for these claims—and that would have shown that the cited documents don’t make the claims that Bellesiles says they do.[10]

Fact Checking vs. Peer Review

Unfortunately, one of the problems with history journals like JAH and Law & History Review, which published a 1998 article by Bellesiles that made false claims about colonial gun regulation (i.e., Bellesiles claimed that colonial governments required nearly all guns to be kept centrally stored, except during militia musters or war),[11] is that they rely on peer review. By comparison, law reviews rely on fact checking. What’s the difference?

At least the law reviews with which I have experience rely on small armies of law students to verify that quotes and citations are accurate. If the fact checkers can’t find the document in their library, they will expect you, as author, to copy the pages cited and the title page. (I spent a frustrating few weeks once waiting for an obscure book to be returned to my university’s library, so that I could supply the pages in question for a law review article.)

Why do law reviews fact check articles? To quote Don Kates, a civil rights attorney who did much of the early work in the legal history of gun control, “Law reviews check facts because lawyers lie.” History journals, it would appear, have relied on the integrity of historians. Not just because of the Bellesiles scandal, but other examples that are coming to light as I write these words, make me suspect that the days of trusting historians to tell the truth, are, or should be, over.

Fact checking only gets you so far. All the facts can be correct, and yet the article can still be grossly inaccurate because of logical errors, or because it is selective as to the facts that it uses. This is an area where peer review can be quite valuable—but increasingly, history journals need to start fact checking as part of their process for deciding whether to publish a paper. (Unfortunately, peer review also provides politically motivated reviewers with the opportunity to score points, as my recent experiences attempting to correct some of Bellesiles’s falsehoods demonstrated.)

Obviously, some citations are not amenable to such a process—there is no practical way to check unpublished materials in remote archives. Nonetheless, randomly checking five percent or ten percent of the citations in a paper, or checking the most eyebrow-raising claims, once a paper has been accepted for publication, would catch not only some gross nonsense, such as Bellesiles’s 1998 Law & History Review paper,[12] but would also catch a few historians who suffer from ideological blinders—and we’ll examine the nature of those blinders next.

The Need for Diversity

Over the last thirty years, the academic community in general, and historians in particular, have become quite concerned about the need for diversity: sexual diversity; racial diversity; and ethnic diversity. It does not surprise me that a professorate consisting largely of white males tended to give less importance to the history of women, blacks, and Hispanics in America. This wasn’t because white males were consciously ignoring other groups; it was because it takes a considerable effort to break outside the assumptions with which you have been raised. I think most historians agree that there is merit to having a diversity of voices within the profession.

Unfortunately, it seems to me that the Bellesiles scandal exposed the lack of political diversity within the profession. You see, at least part of why historians swallowed Arming America’s preposterous claims so readily is that it fit into their political worldview so well. I don’t mean that historians consciously decided not to look at Bellesiles’s claims because they were afraid of what they would find; I mean that Arming America said things, and created a system of thought so comfortable for the vast majority of historians, that they didn’t even pause to consider the possibility that something wasn’t right.

At this point, some of readers (perhaps many) may be saying to themselves, “That’s ridiculous! Our department is very diverse politically!” I am a little skeptical. To paraphrase the barkeep in the movie The Blues Brothers, “We’ve got both kinds of politics here! Liberal and progressive!” My experience in college—and that of most history majors that I have ever talked to—was that the range of political opinions in history departments is astonishingly narrow. Even liberal history majors usually recognized that this was the case.

I would challenge the reader to go around his or her department, and ask how many colleagues voted for—or would admit voting for—George W. Bush. Those of you who are now saying, “That’s ridiculous! We’re intelligent people! Why would any of us vote for Bush?” need to think for a second about what that says about the political diversity of university history departments—that you think that half of the American electorate are, or should be, unrepresentative in the teaching of history.

Back to the Bellesiles scandal and political diversity. I do not pretend that my interest in Arming America is entirely passionless. I have been, for a number of years, a political activist concerning restrictive gun control laws. Bellesiles pretends otherwise, though he signed at least one amicus brief in USA v. Emerson (5th Cir. 2001), and helped to create the Violence Studies Program at Emory University—a program that the Henry Frank Guggenheim Foundation criticized because its readings were,"too subjective, full of unexamined assumptions and strikingly unrepresentative of most of these crimes. These choices seem calculated to heighten the emotionalism with which students approach these issues, which can get in the way of rational understanding."[13]

So what did my interest in the question of gun control bring to my analysis of Bellesiles’s work? Pretty obviously, I had an interest in disproving some of his claims, because his work was intended to promote gun control. If this sounds paranoid, consider the remarks on the dust jacket of Arming America:

“Thinking people who deplore Americans’ addiction to gun violence have been waiting a long time for this information. Michael A. Bellesiles has uncovered dramatic historical truths that shatter the ‘ten commandments’ promulgated by the National Rifle Association.” – Stewart Udall, author of The Myths of August and The Quiet Crisis

“Bellesiles contributes significantly to one of our most contentious contemporary debates. Good history, he demonstrates, can expose myth and open new avenues for discussion by scholars and policymakers alike.” – Mary Beth Norton, author of Founding Mothers and Fathers

“This book changes everything. The way we think about guns and violence in America will never be the same. Neither will our notions of manhood, race, the rise of big business, or our national character. Neither will our understanding of the Second Amendment. Michael A. Belleisles is the NRA’s worst nightmare.” – Michael Zuckerman, author of Peaceable Kingdoms

I could quote a few more embarrassing examples of how the reviewers—and the publisher—clearly understood this book to be a knock-out blow—“the NRA’s worst nightmare.” To pretend, as Bellesiles has done over the last year, that Arming America was not intended to promote a particular set of gun control policies is disingenuous.

I was trying to disprove Bellesiles’s claims, and it wasn’t difficult, both because so many of his false claims were in easy-to-find documents, and because Bellesiles kept changing his story. For example, he has given three different explanations for why his text of the Militia Act of 1792 was wrong—all three explanations failing to explain the error, and all three contradicting his other claims. Part of why I was prepared to invest this much time and effort into exposing Arming America’s gross falsification of the history of guns in America is because there are two subjects here that I care about: gun control, and integrity in history. If even ten percent of historians shared my political views (broadly conservative, with a libertarian tinge), Bellesiles would never have gotten away with this for so long. At some point, some professor who cared strongly about the right to keep and bear arms would have said to himself, “Wait a minute! I am both politically irritated with where this is going, and I am going to go check his citations for accuracy.”

Political diversity in your faculty: it’s a good thing. Embrace it, so that the next time a Politically Correct work like Bellesiles’s JAH article gets submitted to a history journal, that there is some possibility that one of the peer reviewers will be sufficiently irritated to check it for accuracy.

[1] Melissa Seckora, “Prize rescinded for 'Arming America' book,” UPI, December 17, 2002, available at http://www.upi.com/view.cfm?StoryID=20021217-114343-7257r

[2] Emory University Press Release, October 25, 2002, “Michael Bellesiles Resigns from Emory Faculty,” available at http://www.emory.edu/central/NEWS/Releases/bellesiles1035563546.html

[3] Statutes at Large, 2nd Cong., sess. 1, Ch. 33 (1792), 1:271-74.

[4] Bellesiles, Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000), 230.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Hillel Italie, Associated Press, “Columbia Strips Historian of Bancroft Prize,” Washington Post, December 14, 2002, p. C04.

[7] John Whiteclay Chambers II, “Lock and Load,” Washington Post, October 29, 2000, X2.

[8] Bellesiles, Arming America, 181.

[9] Ibid., 183.

[10] Massachusetts Provincial Congress, The Journals of Each Provincial Congress of Massachusetts in 1774 and 1775 (Boston: Dutton and Wentworth, 1838) (hereinafter cited as J.Mass.Prov.Cong.), 756. Bellesiles’s source for this claim is an inventory of “Warlike Stores in Massachusetts, 1774.” But that inventory, dated April 14, 1775, does not tell us what categories of privately owned firearms were counted. The sources that Bellesiles lists for this “arms census” (a term never used in the sources, and that creates a misleading notion of something as thorough and invasive as a population census) are largely silent as to what categories of firearms were counted, but contain nothing that would indicate that all privately owned firearms were included in that inventory. The only information that described this arms census were directives to a committee gathering the information. One (at J.Mass.Prov.Cong., 98, dated February 13, 1775) directed a committee to inquire “into the state of the militia, their numbers and equipments, and recommending to the selectmen of the several towns and districts in this province, to make return of their town and district stocks of ammunition and warlike stores to this Congress.” The following day, J.Mass.Prov.Cong., 99, the resolve was made more explicit: the inquiry was concerning “the state of the militia” and directed that “an exact state of the their numbers and equipments” be taken—not a comprehensive census of arms of the entire Massachusetts population. Another order on March 22, 1775, J.Mass.Prov.Cong., 109, directed a committee “to receive the returns of the several officers of militia, of their numbers and equipage, and the returns from the several towns of their town stock of ammunition.” This seems to confirm that only military weapons possessed by enrolled militia members and publicly owned weapons were counted.

[11] Michael Bellesiles,"Gun Laws in Early America: The Regulation of Firearms Ownership, 1607-1794," Law & History Review. 16:575 (1998).

[12] Michael Bellesiles,"Gun Laws in Early America: The Regulation of Firearms Ownership, 1607-1794," Law & History Review. 16:575 (1998) makes a very startling claim about colonial governments requiring all guns, including privately owned ones, in central storehouses. None of the cited sources even came close to justifying such a position. Even a quick check would have shown this. Attempts to get Law & History Review to correct this falsehood have been a waste of time.

[13] Annie Murphy Paul, “Smashing Violence,” www.salon.com, January 31, 2000, http://archive.salon.com/books/it/2000/01/31/violent/print.html