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.