Fire at Will

Fire at Will

The author may be contacted regarding this piece at [email protected].


When historian Michael Bellesiles came to the University of California, Irvine, to give a talk on the controversy surrounding his book Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture–this was early in 2001, before he was charged with inventing evidence, and before he was awarded the prestigious Bancroft Prize for the book–people coming to the talk were greeted at the door of the Humanities Lecture Hall by four unusually large men passing out a brochure titled “The Lies of Michael Bellesiles.” One wore a flak jacket, one had a shaved head; they did not look like faculty members or even history grad students. People coming to the talk were startled, and some were a little frightened, but Bellesiles said calmly, “Ah, so they did come.”

The large men were activists in the pro-gun, anti-Bellesiles movement, which had been campaigning to discredit his work since before the publication of Arming America by Knopf in September 2000. The book argues that our picture of guns in early America is all wrong: the picture where America is settled by men with guns, hunting game and fighting Indians; where, in 1776, militiamen grabbed their guns to go fight for independence; where the Founding Fathers protected individuals’ right to own guns. Bellesiles argues that instead, gun culture is a fairly recent development in American history–that for two centuries before the Civil War, few Americans owned guns; that the guns they had were unreliable and didn’t shoot straight; that few people hunted with guns, instead relying on trapping and animal husbandry; that even in battle, even in the Revolutionary War, swords, axes and fire were more deadly than guns. Not until the Civil War put guns in the hands of millions of men did gun culture flourish.

The political implications are significant for the National Rifle Association and others: The Second Amendment, this suggests, was not adopted to protect the widespread ownership or popularity of guns–it was instead intended to address the inadequacy of the weapons in the hands of local militias, on which the early nation relied in the absence of a standing army. So gun-rights groups targeted Bellesiles and his book, and large men in flak jackets came to his talk at Irvine and other places. (Caveat lector: In the 1980s, Bellesiles was a student in a couple of courses I taught at Irvine; but I had talked to him only once or twice in the nearly twenty years before his return to UCI that day in 2001.)

In his talk, Bellesiles described how in 1831 John James Audubon was accused by his enemies of fraud in his painting of a rattlesnake climbing a tree to a bird’s nest–because, they said, rattlesnakes can’t climb trees; and even though Audubon proved rattlesnakes could climb trees, nothing he said or wrote persuaded his critics–because their goal was to discredit and destroy his work. Bellesiles said his own experience was similar: Even when he answered one of his critic’s charges, the same charge was still repeated over and over.

When the question period came, he started with the first of the four large men. “You say the probate records show very few guns, and argue that this proves people in early America didn’t have guns. But when my father died, there was nothing in his will about his guns–even though he owned four of them. But he had told me he wanted me to have them, and now I do. Are probate records really a good source of evidence on gun ownership?”

Bellesiles answered, “I’m sure you’re right about your father’s will, but wills in the eighteenth century were different. People didn’t own very many things compared to today, and their wills contained a detailed list of everything they had, down to the knives and forks. There are other problems with probate records–they are biased in many ways. But I’m confident that if an eighteenth-century man owned a gun, it would be in his will. Remember that we’re talking here about wills in the 1700s.”

He called on the second large man. “I want to ask about your use of probate records,” he said. “You say probate records showed few guns, but my father owned several guns that did not appear in his will when he died. My brother and I divided them up.”

Bellesiles paused and looked around the room, where students glanced at each other with stunned disbelief: So this is what it’s like when you’re the target of a campaign to destroy your work.

The attack against Arming America actually started well before its publication two years ago. Bellesiles’s research on the subject stretches back for years; he won an award from the Organization of American Historians in 1996 for an essay on the origins of American gun culture. It’s natural that his work would attract both attention and vitriol from the gun lobby. After reading a summary of Bellesiles’s research in The Economist, NRA chief Charlton Heston wrote in the December 1999 issue of Guns & Ammo that “Bellesiles clearly has too much time on his hands.” By the time Arming America came out, complete with a fiery introduction that mentioned the gun lobby, Heston was telling the New York Times that Bellesiles’s work was “ludicrous.”

From such beginnings, the effort to discredit Bellesiles has spread beyond the NRA and gun websites ( concludes, “Everything Bellesiles wrote is false, bogus, a big lie”; has a page headlined “Michael A. Bellesiles: Mega Anti-Gun-Nut–Part XVI”; and Clayton Cramer, a gun activist and amateur historian who savaged Bellesiles on the National Review website and who writes about him regularly for Shotgun News, pleads on his own website for readers to support his campaign against Bellesiles by sending him money). It has moved, too, beyond the Wall Street Journal, The New Criterion, The Weekly Standard and the National Review challenging the book’s evidence and conclusions, into a high-stakes academic struggle that could conceivably cost the author his job. (At this prospect, the NRA gleefully suggested in one of its grassroots alerts that “perhaps some of his biggest fans have noticed vultures circling over his career and credibility.”) Along the way, historians who wrote positive reviews of the book have been bombarded with belligerent e-mail urging them to reverse their opinions and publicly retract their reviews; Columbia University, the institution that gave Bellesiles the Bancroft Prize, has been urged to retract it; in May the National Endowment for the Humanities had its name removed from a $30,000 fellowship Bellesiles was completing in Chicago under the aegis of the Newberry Library; Bellesiles himself has been the target of hate mail and death threats; and finally, the campaign has focused on pressuring Emory University in Atlanta, where he teaches, to fire him.

The charge made by the critics is an extremely serious one: not that the book contains errors and mistakes but rather that Bellesiles has faked evidence to support an otherwise untenable argument. The charge, in other words, is fraud. (The NRA uses quotation marks when it refers to his “research,” and suggests that the book has been “moved to the fiction aisle in most bookstores.”) Ironically, this controversy is over a book that has also been highly praised by some of the top historians in America: Garry Wills wrote in The New York Times Book Review, “Bellesiles has dispersed the darkness that covered the gun’s early history in America.” Edmund Morgan, the award-winning Yale historian, wrote in The New York Review of Books, “No one else has put [the facts] together in so compelling a refutation of the mythology of the gun or in so revealing a reconstruction of the role the gun has actually played in American history.” And then there’s the Bancroft Prize, awarded annually to top books in history.

The Paper Trail

What started as a politically motivated effort by the gun lobby and its supporters has expanded to include several scholars and historians who have devoted weeks and months to checking Bellesiles’s footnotes in the archives where he did his research–a practice that is extremely unusual in historical scholarship. They have found that there are indeed some problems, especially with Bellesiles’s use of probate records.

This Bellesiles has admitted, and he’s offered an explanation: that a flood in April 2000 at the history office building at Emory destroyed his notes on the probate records (and also seriously damaged most of the rest of the offices–the university says the damage totaled almost a million dollars). Bellesiles’s book manuscript was safe, but his probate notes were on yellow legal pads on a chair–admittedly an archaic mode of record storage–rather than on computer, and were turned to “unreadable pulp.” After the flood he went to work trying to re-create the notes, and when his book was published a few months later, he posted notices on several history websites warning that his original notes on the probate records had been destroyed. (The lengths that critics will go to discredit Bellesiles are at least creative: Professor Jerome Sternstein of Brooklyn College put a dozen legal pads in his own shower for thirty minutes and reported to the world that they survived “intact and virtually unscathed”!)

Leading the pack of critics questioning Bellesiles’s probate record data has been James Lindgren, a law professor at Northwestern University who (with Justin Lee Heather) published a critique of the probate data in the William & Mary Law Review. Their article on Bellesiles’s one-page table on probate records ran to sixty-six pages, with 173 footnotes. They turn up some interesting numbers: More people listed guns in early wills than swords or Bibles. They report finding more guns, and more in good condition, than Bellesiles did. They conclude that Bellesiles “substantially misrecorded the 17th and 18th century data” on the number of gun owners. The energetic Lindgren published a second attack on Bellesiles in The Yale Law Journal–this one running fifty-four pages, with 247 footnotes. He concurs there with a point made by another critic, Randolph Roth, in a special issue of The William and Mary Quarterly, that Bellesiles has “a 100% error rate in finding homicide cases in the Plymouth (Colony)records.” (The William and Mary Quarterly asked prominent historians to criticize Bellesiles, and then invited him to respond; one of Bellesiles’s contentions has been that murders by gun were relatively rare in early America.)

Lindgren has not limited his contributions to law review publications, either. As The Chronicle of Higher Education pointed out, he’s been “virtually ubiquitous” in the media write-ups of the controversy. He distributed his attack brief to journalists and “talks to them–a lot.” He provides reporters–including this one–with lists of anti-Bellesiles academics, along with their contact information, and suggestions about how the story should be written.

Lindgren has also contacted historians who wrote positive reviews of Arming America and, according to the Chronicle, “urged them to reconsider their positions–in print.” This is pretty much unheard of in academia. Matthew Warshauer reviewed the book favorably in the journal Connecticut History. He told me that Lindgren asked him to publish a retraction. “He added something like he would hate to have this affect my career. I viewed that as a veiled threat.” Warshauer is an untenured associate professor at Central Connecticut State University. “I have twelve e-mails Lindgren sent me,” he said, “including little ones, like ‘where are you at with this?’ He definitely kept up the pressure.” The anti-Bellesiles campaign didn’t stop there with Warshauer, either: One pro-gun website posted a link to Warshauer’s graduate history seminar, where Bellesiles’s book was assigned reading, and encouraged gun supporters to e-mail Warshauer. The director of the website, Angel Shamaya, even e-mailed Warshauer himself, saying, “If you’re planning on exposing Bellesiles as the lying sack of anti-gun excrement he is, good for you…. but if, on the other hand, you’re planning to pretend that…he is anything less than a deceitful snake–you’re unfit to teach.”

Who is James Lindgren? He told me he has no connection to the NRA and has never been a member or accepted funding from the group; furthermore, he contends that he is pro-gun control, dislikes guns and has never owned one. He accuses Bellesiles of bias, but apparently has some of his own: Before he weighed in on the Bellesiles debate, he published an article using data gathered by the right-wing Federalist Society that purports to prove the American Bar Association has been biased against George W. Bush’s judicial nominees. Lindgren’s methodology was exposed as deeply flawed in an article last December in the Journal of Law & Politics co-written by Michael Saks, a law professor who is also co-editor of the book Modern Scientific Evidence.

The Charges and Responses

The charges raised by Lindgren and dozens of others (including Alexander Cockburn in the April 8 Nation) have largely focused on one footnote to a table in the appendix to Arming America, which lists forty counties around the United States as sources of probate records–including San Francisco. That seemed unlikely to many historians, who know the San Francisco archives were destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and fire. Bellesiles had re-created from memory the list of the counties where he researched probate records, after the flood destroyed his notes. He went back to San Francisco and found the documents in question across the bay, in the Contra Costa County archives. He photocopied and distributed the documents in question and posted examples on his website ( They are indeed headed “City and County of San Francisco.” The Contra Costa archivists confirm that the documents are real–and that they come from the Contra Costa County archives, not San Francisco. That’s error, not fraud.

You might think that would end the discussion. But the attacks over the “San Francisco” probate records took on a life of their own. The director of the Contra Costa County Historical Center told inquiring reporters that Bellesiles had never been to that archive, because his name didn’t appear on the sign-in sheet. New charges of fraud ricocheted around the gun websites, the history listservs and the media, including in the Chicago Tribune. Bellesiles explained simply that he hadn’t signed in. Amid new demands that Columbia University take back his Bancroft Prize and that Emory fire him, few noticed the conclusion Bellesiles drew from the “San Francisco” documents: “probate records from the late 1850s reinforce the portrait of increased gun use in America.” Those fifteen words are the only reference to “San Francisco” probate records in his 600-page book–and none of the critics appear to disagree with those fifteen words.

Another prominent area of concern was data used to compare murder rates, as evidenced in The William and Mary Quarterly issue that asked prominent historians to criticize Bellesiles, and him to respond. Although Randolph Roth found Bellesiles’s data lacking, specifically in the Plymouth Colony case, Mary Beth Norton, a Pulitzer-nominated historian of early America who has worked in those records, went back and checked them herself for the sake of the debate. She concluded that Bellesiles’s interpretation of the documents was “just as plausible” as that of his critics, “if not more so.” She did find Bellesiles’s use of probate records “slapdash and sloppy,” but contends that the rest of the criticisms of Arming America “strike me as the usual sorts of disagreements historians always have about how to interpret documentary evidence, although those criticisms have been expressed more vehemently than is usual in the scholarly literature.”

Bellesiles, in the draft of his response for the Quarterly, pointed out that everybody makes mistakes, and cited an error in Roth’s article: Roth referred to what he said was information from the Plymouth Colony records of a murder, when in fact, Bellesiles said, that page was a record of births. But before publication the editors corrected Roth’s error and deleted Bellesiles’s argument from his response. (The Quarterly‘s editor, Christopher Grasso, acknowledged to me that the editors had made those changes, but added that they also made corrections in Bellesiles’s piece where he had “mischaracterized or misquoted sources.”)

Ultimately–and surprisingly, given all the cultural heat that’s been generated–the probate records play an extremely small part in the argument made by Arming America. The index of the book refers to only twelve paragraphs where probate records are even mentioned, scattered throughout the book. One of these is a discussion of biases in probate records. That’s a dozen paragraphs, in a book that’s 600 pages long. The book relies on many different kinds of sources, all of them familiar to historians–newspapers, private letters and official correspondence, memoirs and diaries, travel accounts, Army records, and police and criminal court files.

On top of that, the gun-counters are avoiding the most significant issue Bellesiles raises. As Jack Rakove, a distinguished historian at Stanford University, has argued, “Even if a substantial portion or even majority of households possessed guns, genuine questions about their use would still remain.” The key question here, he maintains, is “whether ordinary citizens had the skill to use firearms effectively.” Bellesiles has good evidence that gun-owners had trouble maintaining their weapons and little experience in using guns, which were inaccurate and unreliable in most cases. One of my favorite examples: Of the famous Minutemen at Lexington Green in 1775, only seven actually fired their muskets, and only one Redcoat was actually hit. This kind of evidence is crucial to the debate over the origins of the Second Amendment because it undermines the NRA’s picture of a citizen militia (rather than a national army) as the bulwark of American freedom.

Moving On

The New Criterion and National Review portray Bellesiles as a typical New Left radical historian–but he’s not. He told me he had been a registered Republican and John McCain supporter until he recently switched to register as a Democrat. He describes himself as a “Burkean conservative” who believes in “tradition and authority”–and he’s also a longtime gun owner who only recently gave up skeet shooting. He told the Chronicle of Higher Education he was rethinking “what it means to be a Christian and own guns.”

He has won support from leading scholarly organizations, including the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians, which passed resolutions deploring the harassment and abuse directed at him. But last spring Emory responded to the campaign to fire Bellesiles by appointing a secret outside committee to review the case. The committee’s findings were supposed to be announced in late summer, but instead the university released a statement on August 22 that “Professor Michael Bellesiles will be on paid leave from his teaching duties at Emory University during the fall semester. The University’s inquiry regarding Arming America…is continuing.” Bellesiles is using the time to re-create the probate records that were lost in the flood, travelling to archives. The student newspaper, The Emory Wheel, claimed in a September 24 story that a report by the independent committee had indeed been issued, but the paper provided no details beyond saying that Bellesiles is appealing it. Emory spokesperson Jan Gleason would confirm only the statement of interim provost Woody Hunter–that “the appeals process would finish soon.” Apparently the penalty Emory is considering is demotion. Bellesiles said he could not comment.

Bellesiles is preparing a second edition of Arming America for Vintage Books, though its fate is uncertain. The book’s editor, Jane Garrett at Knopf, told me, “We have the new introduction and some other corrections in hand,” including a lot of new material from probate records–but she said that a revised edition could not appear until fall 2003 for marketing reasons, and that a final decision has not yet been made. The original introduction opened with the contemporary debate on guns and criticized Charlton Heston and the NRA. That has been cut from the new introduction, a copy of which Bellesiles provided me, and which is strictly historical–it opens with Ben Franklin worrying in 1776 that the colonies lacked guns, and proposing instead that they fight the British with “bows and arrows,” which “are more easily provided everywhere than muskets and ammunition.” The new introduction also replies to critics from the gun rights movement, declaring that “this book is a work of history” that does not seek to “undermine or endorse current efforts at gun control.” The new introduction reprises some of the debates on his work and acknowledges as well problems in relying on probate records. He concludes by restating the thesis of the book, that gun culture in America is “an invented tradition,” a product of the Civil War era rather than the colonial period. This is the book’s real contribution, and it remains a significant one.

Michael Zuckerman, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania and a prominent Americanist, sums it up this way: “The critics’ stuff on the probate inventories is bad news for Michael, but the book in no way depends on that. He’s got myriad arguments. If people are so crazy about guns, why are there so few gun sellers? So few gun manufacturers? Why do they need a government subsidy? The critics are casting about for a way to discredit him, and they have fixated on the probate inventories, which is crackpot. They have refused to confront the cumulative force and extent of the argument. In fact, the argument is splendid.”

Michael Kammen, past president of the Organization of American Historians, has not withdrawn his statement that Arming America is “a classic work of significant scholarship with inescapable policy implications.” The Bancroft Prize committee decided not to rescind the award. Garry Wills and Edmund Morgan have refused demands that they withdraw or alter their published praise for the book. And the debate over the meaning of the Second Amendment is not going to be resolved by counting guns in early America, anyway.

Perhaps the secret Emory review board has come up with new evidence, though that seems to me unlikely. Barring that, in the end, despite dozens of researchers devoting weeks and months to checking every line in the 125 pages of notes at the end of Arming America, the critics have come up with errors but have produced no proof of intentional deception, no proof of invented documents, no proof of fraud.

But the campaign against Bellesiles has demonstrated one indisputable fact: Historians whose work challenges powerful political interests like the NRA better make sure all their footnotes are correct before they go to press.

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