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The Year of the Yellow Notepad | The Nation

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The Year of the Yellow Notepad

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Call it the year of the yellow notepad. Doris Kearns Goodwin, ejected from Parnassus, Pulitzer jury service and kindred honorable obligations, sinks under charges of plagiarism consequent, she claims, of sloppy note-taking on her yellow legal pads.

Michael Bellesiles, flayed for knavish scholarship in his Arming America, says that his notations from probate records, central to his assertions about gun ownership in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America, were on legal yellow pads that were irreparably damaged when his office at Emory University was flooded in May 2000, the year his book was published.

Stephen Ambrose, overtaken by charges of plagiarism, did not have recourse to the yellow-notepad defense, presumably because he had become rich enough not only to discard them in favor of teams of researchers, including his family, but to make an out-of-pocket, $1.25 million donation for environmental good works, including restoration on the Blackfoot River, no doubt hoping that water in Montana would be as efficacious as at Emory in purging the record.

The plagiarist lurks in all of us, and temptation or carelessness looms closer with the cut-and-paste function of the computer, though Shakespeare managed to steal a lot of Holinshed without electronic assistance.

With Bellesiles the stakes are high, because he addresses the issue of gun ownership in America and the Second Amendment. By the mid-1990s the battle was tilting decisively in favor of those arguing that the amendment asserts the right of individual citizens to own guns for self-defense and, if necessary, to counter government tyranny by means of armed popular resistance. (NB: The preceding sentence concludes with twenty-two words lifted from a piece by Chris Mooney in Lingua Franca.)

Like any good tactician, Bellesiles shifted the terms of discussion. He said he'd reviewed more than 11,000 probate records between 1765 and 1850 from New England and Pennsylvania, and discovered that roughly 14 percent of all adult white Protestant males owned firearms, meaning about 3 percent of the total population at the time of the Revolution, and that hence "all this talk about universal gun ownership is entirely a myth that I can find no evidence of." (More cribbing from Mooney.)

So if the people weren't armed, and if even official militias were mostly a disheveled rabble without arms, the Second Amendment was really an antic fantasy, like feudal armor in the mock-Tudor hall of a Bradford cotton millionaire.

The antigun crowd greeted Bellesiles with as much ecstasy as any relief column by early settlers in Indian Country. The Organization of American Historians gratefully pinned the Binkley-Stephenson Award to Bellesiles's bosom for his 1996 essay on the origins of American gun culture. Arming America elicited not only fervent applause by Garry Wills in The New York Times Book Review and Edmund Morgan in The New York Review of Books, but also the Bancroft Prize.

Bellesiles came under attack, but since his assailants included NRA types and even Charlton Heston (who cut to the heart of the matter by charging that Bellesiles simply had too much time on his hands), their often cogent demolitions were initially discounted as sore-loser barrages from the rednecks. Even so, the sappers pressed forward and began to penetrate Bellesiles's inner defenses.

A crucial chunk of battlement crashed to the ground when Bellesiles's most sedulous critic, James Lindgren, investigated his claim to have researched probate records at a National Archives center in East Point, Georgia. The center told Lindgren no such records existed. (Cockburn's source here is Danny Postel in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Since Cockburn once borrowed Postel's car in Chicago and saddled him with a couple of parking tickets, he definitely owes him a cite. These two tickets were probably the final straws in a load of fines that prompted Postel to flee Chicago for Washington, DC.) Then more chunks fell when other archival records cited by Bellesiles, in San Francisco and Vermont, turned out not to exist.

Bellesiles's Little Big Horn comes in the January edition of the William and Mary Quarterly. Primed in part by Lindgren, Gloria Main of the University of Colorado pounds Bellesiles with medium-range artillery, as in "[Bellesiles] found only 7 percent in Maryland with guns. My own work in the probate records of six Maryland counties from the years 1650 to 1720, ignored by Bellesiles, shows an average of 76 percent of young fathers owning arms of some sort." Ira Gruber of Rice slides the bayonet into Bellesiles with incredulous harrumphs about misrepresented evidence on casualty rates in American and European battles ("But Bellesiles has counted 18,000 prisoners among the killed and wounded at Blenheim"). In an interesting essay on guns, gun culture and murder in early America, Bellesiles is finally dispatched by Randolph Roth of Ohio State ("every tally of homicides Bellesiles reports is either misleading or wrong").

To give him credit, Bellesiles falls with some dignity ("Arming America is admittedly tentative in its statistics"), but fall he does. Now Emory is making nasty noises, and erstwhile allies are fleeing into the hills. Morgan, who whooped him up in the New York Review, says he's rethinking. Garry Wills says he's too busy now to address the matter, which is pretty lighthearted, considering that Bellesiles's phony scholarship is as devastating a blow as the antigun crowd has sustained in decades of fighting over the Second Amendment. (I speak contentedly as the owner of a 12-gauge and a .22, though I think too many discussions, pro and con, of the Second Amendment lack any sense of dynamism in the surge and ebb of class struggle in America.)

What about Knopf, which published Arming America? Editor Jane Garrett tells Postel that the house "stands behind" Bellesiles, that his were not intentional errors but the result of some "over-quick research." Knopf is renowned for its cookbooks. Suppose Bellesiles had suggested putting Amanita phalloides into the risotto. I don't think Garrett would be so forgiving.

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