Historians eager to bite anti-gun line
Jay Ambrose November 06, 2002
|A book on guns and early Americans
has been proven a fraud, and here's what I find most fascinating: The professional
loved and praised the bogus
offering — largely, it
seems, because they thought it helped the
cause of gun control — while initially scorning
a software engineer who exposed its fallacies.
The author is Michael Bellesiles, a professor of history at Emory University. His thesis — counterintuitive, surprising, radical, absurd on the face, and, as it turns out, verifiably wrong — was that Americans in the 18th and early 19th centuries did not have much truck with guns.
The problem, said Bellesiles in "Arming America: The Origins of a
National Gun Culture," was that guns did not work well (true) and were
overly expensive (false). Not many Americans owned guns until after
the Civil War, according to Bellesiles. Guns, he also maintains,
were often kept in central armories during the Colonial period. Bellesiles
cited probate records and all sorts of other historical documents.
Many historians, falling all over themselves to embrace an idea they found injurious to the right to bear arms, did not bother to check the documents. They simply told us that Bellesiles had finally put the lie to the notion that America was a gun-dependent society in the early days, the implication being that that the Second Amendment had nothing to do with individual gun ownership.
"Bellesiles has dispersed the darkness that covered the gun's early history in America," wrote Gary Wills in a New York Times book review. "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."
I found the Wills quote in a Yale Law Journal article by James Lindgren, a law professor at Northwestern University. In the article, Lindgren observes that Columbia University awarded the coveted Bancroft Prize for history to the book in the spring of 2001, even though by then it had been discovered the book was riddled with mistakes.
The person doing much of the discovering was Clayton Cramer. Now a software engineer in Boise, Idaho, he has had five books published. He was working on a master's thesis in history when he ran across a Bellesiles article he found intriguing. He began looking into the cited sources and found they addressed atypical situations. Bellesiles was guilty of excessive generalizing, he thought.
When the book came out, Cramer told me by phone, he was astonished. Some of the claims were "bizarre."
Again, Cramer began checking
out sources, and while he would find "bits and pieces" of
Bellesiles' contentions true, he found
most were false. He made this point in e-mail discussions
with historians, but they were not having any. It was not until Cramer
began posting photocopies of historical documents on his Web site that
some of the doubters began to take him seriously.
There were other skeptics, a few of them historians, and eventually, more and more scholars began to see something must be amiss. They started digging and discovered the probate records showed very nearly the opposite of what Bellesiles asserted. Some of the records Bellesiles had cited did not even exist, and when he was asked about his notes, he said they had been destroyed by a flood in his office.
Emory University asked a committee of scholars from Princeton, Harvard
and the University of Chicago to render a verdict on the book, and they
did. It was not kind, news accounts tell us. The
scholars questioned the author's integrity and said the "evidence" pointed
to "falsification," "egregious
misrepresentation" and "exaggeration."
As Cramer said to me, a lesson here is that the professorial fraternity is so lacking in political diversity that it may let us down in its critical judgments when questionable assertions are ideologically appealing, at least until pushed to the wall.
But there are all kinds of alert citizens out there, and in this age of the Internet, they have a means of spreading truth to thousands of people. For the Lindgren article, documents and other discussion of this case, plus still more, visit www.claytoncramer.com, Cramer's home page.
Bellesiles has resigned from Emory, but not without a shot at his critics.
"I believe that if we begin investigating every scholar who challenges received truth, it will not be long before no challenging scholarly books are published," he is quoted as saying in the Washington Times.
Could he have meant that lying to make political points becomes difficult when people check up on you? Let's hope it does become difficult.
Jay Ambrose is director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard Newspapers, 1090 Vermont Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20005. E-mail him at AmbroseJ@shns.com .
©New Haven Register 2002