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The cases of Ellis, Ambrose, and Kearns Goodwin are instances in which our most honored historians failed to live up to professional standards. Ellis' infraction seems to me the least serious. His scholarly work remains unquestioned, although personal integrity is expected in teaching no less than in scholarship. Kearns Goodwin plagiarized and is paying the penalty. Ambrose, by contrast, was guilty of wholesale plagiarism and was unrepentant. He made a fortune from the hard work of other scholars. Either his books should be removed from sale, or the actual writers should be compensated from the proceeds. But Michael Bellesiles' unprofessional conduct is of a much deeper dye than these. At least the plagiarized works presumably were accurate representations of the past.
Arming America, by contrast, repeatedly twists the truth to fit Bellesiles' thesis. Bellesiles begins with the European legacy of gun use, especially in England, where, he informs readers, the government "outlawed the use of guns by commoners." Such a policy might seem improbable once muskets were adopted for use by the English militia, which meant that large numbers of commoners must have had and used guns. But Bellesiles writes that the use of guns outside military practice was discouraged "and even forbidden," and that "all guns used by the militia were stored in government magazines."
Throughout the book, Bellesiles equates the presence of guns with violent crime, and he contends that what little violence did occur in England tended to take place "at public festivals, often between competing teams of Morris dancers." Bellesiles' assertion that these charming, white-costumed folk dancers, sporting bells at their knees, were responsible for most of the era's violence struck one British historian as Monty Pythonesque. The article in the English Bill of Rights of 1689 guaranteeing to English Protestants -- then 90 percent of the population -- "arms for their defence, suitable to their condition and as allowed by law," is spun by Bellesiles into proof the government "preferred to maintain tight control of guns."
From start to finish the records tell a different story: of widespread gun use by all classes, from nobles to laborers; laws exhorting men to practice with muskets; militia guns kept in the owners' homes; highways filled with robbers brandishing pistols; and, after 1689, a right to be armed for personal defense that English courts in the 18th century saw as belonging to all Protestants, and in the 19th century to all Englishmen.
On to America, where Bellesiles finds guns rare, expensive, highly regulated, inefficient, unwanted by civilians, and nearly useless for military purposes or hunting. He reports that colonists "often perceived the ax as the equal of a gun" and that there was a "complete failure" on their part to care for guns "or to learn their proper use." As a result of popular indifference and neglect, he says, all guns were made into "the property of the state, subject to storage in central storehouses," so thoroughly regulated that "no gun ever belonged unqualifiedly to an individual." As for hunting with guns, Bellesiles writes, "From the start hunting was an inessential luxury, associated either with the elite gentleman with too much time on his hands, or with the poorest fringes of civilization, if not outright savagery." Bellesiles dismisses the militia, which most historians acknowledge was not up to the standards of professional troops, as "little more than a political gesture," most members having no usable guns.
What is his evidence for these startling conclusions? To document the scarcity of guns, Bellesiles relies on his tabulation of 11,170 estate inventories from 40 counties over the years 1765 to 1859. From these he calculates that in colonial America 14.7 percent of adult white men owned firearms, 53 percent of which were either old or broken. On the frontier, he finds, only 14.2 percent of men owned guns. Not until 1849 to 1859, Bellesiles reports, did the percentages of households with guns increase, largely due to the successful advertising of Samuel Colt. For proof that guns were not used in hunting, he relies on a survey of some 80 travel accounts written between 1750 and 1860. His portrayal of the militia draws on an investigation of government records, letters, and other documents.
The Story Unravels
Here are some snapshots from the unraveling of Arming America:
Fall 2000. Even before the book is in print, having read both Bellesiles' 1996 article that formed the core of the book and advance press coverage, Northwestern University law professor James Lindgren asks to see Bellesiles' probate database. Bellesiles tells him there is no database, only yellow legal pads on which he made pencil ticks representing guns listed in the probate records. Unfortunately, Bellesiles reports, the pads were irreparably damaged in a May 2000 flood at Emory University.
As the book becomes available, scholars find serious mistakes in their own areas of expertise. I find English and colonial facts wrong. Clayton Cramer, the author of two books on gun history, finds extensive evidence of hunting with guns even in the accounts Bellesiles says he read. Discrepancies emerge in the book's claims about low homicide rates, the militia's preparedness, the range and reloading time of muskets, the supposed preference of Americans for the ax over the gun, laws requiring militia guns to be housed in government arsenals, and comments of the Founders.
Readers point out that Arming America lacks any specific information about the 11,170 probates examined, how many there were from any one county or any one time period, where Bellesiles examined them, and how he computed the national averages. Lindgren (a specialist in early American probates), Justin Heather, and other scholars eventually discover that Bellesiles' computations are mathematically impossible. To obtain his national gun ownership average of 14.7 percent, for example, the number of probates from frontier counties would have had to be improbably large.
The archivists at the federal archives in East Point, Georgia, where Bellesiles told Lindgren he did most of the probate work, insist they never had the probate records. Bellesiles changes his story, saying he crisscrossed the country for 10 years visiting individual county archives. He can't remember precisely which ones.
October and November 2000. Scholars examining the only set of probate records Bellesiles specifically cited, those for Providence, Rhode Island, find that nearly everything he says about them is mistaken. Bellesiles claimed the 186 inventories from early Providence were "all for property-owning adult males" and that, while guns appeared in 48 percent, more than half of them were "evaluated as old and of poor quality" and many were "state-owned." But three independent scholars find 17 of the estates were owned by women, 62 percent had guns, only 9 percent of the guns were described as old and of poor quality, and only one was state-owned.
December 2000. As debates about Arming America rage on discussion boards, Bellesiles claims he is getting threatening e-mails. He retreats from online debates and gets a secret e-mail address.