Does Disgraced "Historian" Michael Bellesiles Deserve A Second Chance?


In his 2000 book Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture, then-Emory University historian Michael Bellesiles asserted that guns were actually rare in early America, and that the idea of widespread gun ownership before the Civil War was an "invented tradition." This provocative thesis charmed the academic world and netted Bellesiles the prestigious Bancroft Prize from Columbia University. But as it turned out, Bellesiles was the one doing the inventing. As Bentley College historian Joyce Lee Malcolm wrote in her definitive account of the Bellesiles affair for Reason:

The evidence he had presented for his groundbreaking theory was investigated first by experts from a range of disciplines and political viewpoints; then by a special symposium in a learned journal; and finally, as a result of the disturbing findings, by the professor's university and an outside panel of scholars that it appointed. The results are now in: Bellesiles' arguments are based on wholesale misuse of evidence and, in some cases, no evidence at all. The "invented tradition" is fact, the professor's version a folk tale.

The results were swift and severe: Bellesiles' publisher dropped the book and Columbia rescinded the prize, the first time that it had ever retracted a prize in the Bancroft's 50-year history. Bellesiles also lost his tenured job at Emory and basically disappeared from public life. But now he's back with a new book (from a new publisher) called 1877: America's Year of Living Violently. Does this discredited and disgraced author deserve a second chance?

The Chronicle of Higher Education seems to think so. Bellesiles is the subject of a new and mostly sympathetic portrait by Chronicle writer Tom Barlett, who concludes his piece like this:

In a sense, Michael Bellesiles will never get a second chance. The odds of his once more securing a tenure-track position are vanishingly small. He will never completely outrun the controversy over Arming America. He is aware of that, and his goals are more modest: "I would like to think that the scholarship I am producing will demonstrate that I am a competent, capable historian and I always have been."

He doesn't want to talk about Arming America. He doesn't want to talk about guns. He doesn't want to talk about Emory. Instead the historian wants to look forward. "Let's talk about the new book," he says. "And the book after that. And the book after that."

Of course Bellesiles doesn't want to talk about the fraudulent book that cost him his job and his reputation, but why should we pretend like it doesn't exist? Bellesiles' so-called scholarship has already demonstrated that he is an incompetent, incapable historian. What more is there to say?

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  1. “I would like to think that the scholarship I am producing will demonstrate that I am a competent, capable historian and I always have been.”

    always have been?

    What an asshole.

    1. +1.

      I almost was building a little sympathy for him, til he spewed that turd of a sentence.

      It’s funny. By stating that he always has been a good historian, when plainly he hasn’t, he is obfuscating the past, and therby demonstrating that he is still a shitty historian, even when he had first hand knowledge of the history in question.

      1. +10. Actually, maybe that’s a clue that the whole thing is some sort of deep cover Andy Kaufman style prank on the field.

    2. Those who refuse to learn from the mistakes of the past are condemned to repeat them…

      He may well be, and have always been, a competent, capable historian.

      If so, however, then he was an unethical, lying – but still competent and capable – historian who chose to deceive. Rather than an honest, but incompetent, incapable historian that made mistakes.

    3. Maybe he and David Irving can start a university together or something.


    4. and I always have been.

      Right. In his own mind.

      First thing that grabbed me. I do not think he has learned the lesson he should have.

  2. If he had moved on to a different career, he would have a right to say “I don’t want to talk about that”. But as long as he insists on calling himself a historian, he very much will have to talk about it.

    Yeah, like everyone he deserves a second chance, in another field.

    1. Right. As a human being, he definitely deserves that second chance. As a historian, he’s got to make a much stronger case for himself.

  3. He got nailed only a couple months ago for bullshitting an article yet again. I’d have to Google it to find the specifics, but it was only a few months back – as I recall, Volokh tore him apart, brick by brick and he was once again shown up for the fraud and liar that he is.

    1. It had to do with a student BSing him about his brother being killed in Iraq. The Volok Conspiracy took the story apart and the student eventually admitted that he had made the story up. Bellesiles expects the rest of us to be as credulous as he is.

      1. The problem wasn’t that Bellesiles was taken in by his student (so was the T.A.), but that he wrote an article for a major publication based chiefly on the fable, without checking it out first. Even though, in the same article, he went on about the importance of verifying and double-checking oral accounts. So if nothing else, he showed a complete lack of real historian instinct.

        The other problem was that the Chronicle of Higher Education thought it was a good idea to not only publish a piece by Bellesiles, but to do so without checking out his factual assertions.

        1. And the Chronicle follows on the heels of that with a puff piece that downplays the controversy about Arming America and implies the findings of fraud were a hit job.

        2. Not only that, but he was teaching [and apparently claiming to be an expert in] military history and showed an almost complete lack of understanding of how the military works and would have worked in a real case like that.

          He’s not only incompetent and incapable, he’s a complete fraud. Of course, it’s no longer obvious that that’s not the case in a large swathe of academia.

  4. Instapundit has linked to at least one other attempt to rehabilitate the guy.

    And, there’s a new controversy over whether he faked an account of a student’s brother who died in Afghanistan. A transparently bogus account, I should point out, since the alleged brother had serious wounds but was never transferred out of the country for medical care.

    So, he’s a proven liar, who has apparently not had a change of heart, but who is nonetheless by rehabilitated by a sympathetic media.

    1. It is disgraceful. Imagine if some right historian had done fraudulent work goring some leftist sacred cow like abortion. He would never receive any sympathetic treatment.

      1. What happened to the Mary Rosh guy? Admittedly, his sins were far less than Bellesiles.

        1. Never mind, I see it was addressed downthread.

  5. “Does Disgraced “Historian” Michael Bellesiles Deserve A Second Chance?”

    No. An historian’s product is dependent upon honesty. If we can not trust his honesty we cannot trust his product.

    1. Actually, historians, like other researchers, should never be trusted. Their sources should be checked and their experiments repeated…exactly what happened with Arming America.

      Bellesiles’ firing and other actions taken against him were punishment for his misdeeds, and they were just. And you can bet that any article or book he produces from now on is going to be immediately scoured for the slightest inaccuracy by other historians desperate to make a name for themselves. Trust me, that’s punishment enough.

    1. On reading that story, I see that Bellesiles was fed a line of bull by a student, so technically he didn’t lie.

      But one is moved to ask what kind of historian publishes a story as fact without verifying the bsic ones. Just the fact that he relied on a single individuals reporting of the story indicate a level of incompetence which is staggering in someone who holds a tenured post.

      So, Bellesiles stands indicted of mendacity on Arming America and stupidity on this latest article.

      So Tom Barlett, whoever you are, why does this bozo deserve any kind of consideration at all. This guy’s not fit to ride shotgun in a garbage truck.

      1. No he is not. But he told the lefties a fairy tail they wanted to hear. So I bet he ends up in a tenured position before all is said and done.

        1. William Ayres and Bernadine Dohrn got tenured positions too. It is academia which is the problem, not just these individual miscreants. The university system is a lying, wasteful, overpriced, nest of Marxists. They are most busy pricing themselves out of existance, just like the auto companies, steel industry, and the airlines. Another nest of leftist union insanity. Another bubble. They cannot be reformed, but they will collapse under their own corrupt weight.

      2. Bellesiles loved the kid’s story and jumped on it happily because it served his purpose. He had such a hard-on for it, he couldn’t be bothered to verify any of it. Why should he? He wanted to get his article out there and make his point.

  6. Every good con man deserves a second chance. Its mediocre ones like Mr. Bellesiles who deserve eternal ridicule.

    1. Good one.

    2. I like this.

  7. We need to promote this correct thinking individual to Dean of all US History.

    1. He can be Obama’s new History Czar!

  8. This should also disgrace the Chronicle of Higher Education, if that’s even possible.

    1. Bellesiles is scarcely necessary to do that: The Chronicle has been fully self-disgracing for a very long time now.

  9. But Paul Ehrlich got a second chance after The Population Bomb turned out to be a dud… So what’s the big deal?

    1. Don’t get me started on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s demonstration that blatant plagiarism is just a stepping stone to a roving gig on the Sunday morning political shows.

      1. Or Lawrence Tribe. Plagiarism can get you a tenured position at Harvard. And can get the Dean who helped cover the whole thing up a position on the Supreme Court.

        1. Rules are for thee, not for we.

        2. From Wikipedia:
          Laurence Henry Tribe (born in Shanghai, October 10, 1941) is a professor of constitutional law at Harvard Law School and the Carl M. Loeb University Professor at Harvard University.

          When I grow up, I want to be the Elena Kagan Chair of Androgynous Legalistic Mind-Fucking at the Harvard University and School of Cranial Phallus Generation.

          1. The endowment cash is on its way!

    2. Ehrlich didn’t need a second chance. No error was every admitted in the first place, by him or any observing body.

      1. No error? You mean, aside from every single prediction the guy made falling apart? The Simon-Erlich Bet should have clued people in the guy was completely 180 degrees out.

  10. Bellesiles’ so-called scholarship has already demonstrated that he is

    willing to lie massively, self-destructively, and apparently endlessly in service of The Man.

    He’s a model scholar.

  11. Bellesiles is learning a basic lesson surprisingly late in life: Once you have established that you are capable of looking people right in the eyes and lying your face off, you can never recover credibility.

    If by second chance, you are asking should he be rehired as a classroom instructor? That is preposterous. Even the worst students do not deserve mythomaniacs in lieu of competent instructors.

    If by second chance, you are asking whether he should be allowed to go quietly into that good night, then yes.

    Go away already, Michael.


    1. Yeah, classroom instructor is going to be a stretch, since there’s not much of a check on the information he puts out there. But he’s probably better than your average community college history instructor, who are known to spout a lot of inaccuracies in their own right.

      The thing I would be concerned about is his dishonesty in research translating to dishonesty in dealing with students. There is a lot of trust placed in college instructors, even over questions as simple as whether a student turned in their homework. If that question is disputed, the instructor wins every time.

  12. …the idea of widespread gun ownership before the Civil War was an “invented tradition.”

    Who would be stupid enough to think an assertion such as this would not be scrutinized? He will never be cited as a credible, scholarly source, so there’s no second chance to be had, no matter how many works they let him publish.

    He should just give up and go into climate science.

    1. He should just give up and go into climate science.


  13. I thought Bellisiles was Obama’s second amendment czar? How is that a disgrace, you haters?

    1. I would find that credible if Obama made someone like, say, David Hardy or Stephen Halbrook his 2A advisor.

      I haven’t heard that Eric Holder has done anything about the legal memo regarding the 2A that the DOJ issued when Ashcroft was A.G., concluding that it protected an individual right. Although I suppose, in light of Heller, and now McDonald, there’s not a whole lot he can say about it now.

      1. I know a devotee of the Obamessiah who is always talking about how gun-owner friendly the President is. I remind him that this Administration is 0 for 1 on gun cases, the losing side in Heller and sitting out McDonald.

  14. The funniest part of this whole episode is the fact the new publishers of Arming America are claiming that Bellesiles was the victim of a “swift boat” campaign perpetrated by “rabid rightwingers”. Because as we all know Emory and the Bancroft Prize committee are bastions of fringe conservatism in this country.

    1. They were innocent bystanders who were forced into rash action by conservative rabblerousing, just like the Obama administration with Sherrod Brown.

      1. Tried Googling “Obama administration with Sherrod Brown”, but couldn’t determine to what situation you are referring. Linky please? Should I be hating Brown more or less? Thanx!

        1. I think he must mean Shirley Sherrod.

    2. New Publishers? Exactly who was shameless enough to pick up this turd?

      1. Oh, too good to be true.

        Soft Skull Press

    3. Even better, they’re blaming the “Swiftboating” (an accidentally correct term, in this case) on the NRA.

      Which had nothing at all to do with the proof of dishonesty of Bellesiles.

  15. Oooooh, Reason has a conflict of interest here, since CHE beat them out for the 2007 Utne Independent Press Award for Political Coverage.

    For my academic purposes, I consider the CHE to be little more than bird cage liner, and seeing as how I don’t have a bird, useless. Though I may start paying attention to it this coming year as the job postings section is pretty good and my contract is up this year…

  16. What is it about gun research that makes people into frauds? Who can forget John Lott? Not Mary Rosh, for one…

    1. Because sock puppetry is just like making up records wholesale. And I assume whoever you are, you never have anything to do with Glenn Greenwald.

      1. What does Greenwald have to do with anything? I’ve read him before, that’s about it.

        It isn’t just Lott’s sock puppetry. He’s had issues with mysteriously disappearing research and more than his share of dodgy data analysis.

        Nowhere nearly as bad, it seems, as Bellesiles, to be sure.

        1. Glen Greenwald got caught sock puppeting people on blogs. He would pretend to be someone else and then right (surprise) how great Glen Greenwald was. He did it multiple times before being caught.

          And I have never seen any evidence of Lott’s disappearing research. I would like to see a link for that.

          And further, Lott isn’t advancing a position as facially ridiculous as Bellesiles. And there is nothing “as it seems’ about comparing the two. Bellesailes is an outright fraud.

          1. Right, I remember the Greenwald thing now. I guess I see the Greenwald sock-puppetry as being douche baggy, in a yeah-whatever sort of way, because he’s a political activist, and they tend to be douches. Part of the discount, as it were.

            Academics defending their own work via sock-puppetry is a hell of a lot worse. Not quite as bad as a doctor doing it, much worse than an activist, and about on-par for a penis-enlargement pill peddler.

            And I have never seen any evidence of Lott’s disappearing research.

            Yeah, that’s the problem.

            More seriously, here’s one place to start on the missing data. It is, of course, missing – nobody disputes that. The question is whether or not it ever existed. If Lott had an otherwise-sterling rep, I’d be much more willing to take it on faith.

          2. Meant to add:

            And further, Lott isn’t advancing a position as facially ridiculous as Bellesiles. And there is nothing “as it seems’ about comparing the two. Bellesailes is an outright fraud.

            Lott is at least a demonstrated liar, attempting to hype his academic work through deception.

            You’re welcome to rank them however you want, but at the very least, anything more controversial than “the sky is blue” out of Lott needs to be looked at very, very carefully.

            1. Re: Grog,

              Lott is at least a demonstrated liar, attempting to hype his academic work through deception.

              Fluffery for one’s work is not the same as having created a fraudulent piece of work, like the one created by Mr. “Guns are icky so I lied” Bellesiles.

              1. I wasn’t calling them equivalent. Bellesiles is clearly the bigger of the two frauds.

                But calling Lott’s attempts to defend his own work via deception “fluffery” is really minimizing the fraud. He invented Mary to defend his own work in academic circles. That’s serious stuff. Like I said, you expect that from a quack hyping penis pills. You don’t trust an academic’s output after they’ve been caught doing it. Especially when they can’t keep their story straight on the missing data (Took a while to find that – haven’t looked at this story in a while).

                But it is funny that Greenwald was brought up – mention his name and everyone immediately discounts everything he says because of his sock puppetry. Mention Rosh, and everyone minimizes it and wants it to go away.

                My original point was just that it is strange that academic research on guns brings out the frauds, no matter which side they support.

                1. Your “point” fell apart in your obvious hypocrisy with respect to Greenwald.

      2. BLAM!

        Wait, what was that noise? Glenn Greenwald defending his privacy?

  17. The Dog ate his notes.

    1. No, they were lost in the San Francisco Fire.

  18. The odds of his once more securing a tenure-track position are vanishingly small.


    Good grief.

  19. You guys are all missing the fucking point by a country mile. You talk as if a historian is some sort of credentialed public servant.

    He is a writer. Does he deserve a second chance? If he can find some one to publish his book and he can find people that want to read his book, what the fuck do you care? There are many writers and journalists who have been discredited, you are free not to read them, but they have a right to publish their books. And it’s not due to second chances that they get to publish it, it’s due to someone willing to publish it.

    Free minds and free markets indeed.

    1. they have a right to publish their books.

      By all means, if he wants to self-publish, no one should stop him.

      If I’m a publisher, and he comes to me with a manuscript for ME to publish? Hell no, unless it’s already been thoroughly vetted by an independent historian first, at which point I might as well just hire that other historian to write a book instead.

    2. You guys are all missing the fucking point by a country mile.

      I don’t think anyone here is suggesting state action barring him from publicaton. I think the second chance we’re talking about is a second chance at credibility. Asking individual consumers to judge the level of trust they would give his work is libertarian.

  20. In the Macro, everyone deserves a second chance. And, a “second chance” to do what? To publish? To write? To teach? To research?

    However, in his case, he has had his second, third and fourth chances.

    Not only what he sloppy, he was deceitful. He lied about his work and the conclusions and when challenged, he lied again. Then, as the the official inquiries continued, he mislead them again.

    Now, if he were to take an adult stand about what he did in the past, I would be more sympathetic to him

    Sucks to be him, I guess.

  21. Prof. Malcolm actually teaches at George Mason University School of Law. I had her for Founder’s Constitution last semester.

  22. The fact that his new books also seem to be about the subject of “GUNS! EVIL!” shows that he’s not a competent capable historian, he’s an ideological crank with an agenda covered by a veneer of scholarship.

    If he had any sense of shame, he would swear off ever writing anything about the history of gun use in America ever again.

    1. he would swear off ever writing anything about the history of gun use in America ever again.

      He’s not going to, but any academic organization peddling his propaganda should lose their accreditation.

  23. “Bernie Madoff and Ken Lay don’t want to talk about the past. They want to look forward, to their next business, and the one after that.”

    1. You’re obviously lost. This is not the Madoff/Lay appreciation site.

    2. If you do hear Ken Lay talking about the past, I’ll nominate you for the first Nobel Prize in Necromancy

  24. Please! This is supposed to be a happy occasion. Let’s not bicker and argue over who killed who.

    1. Colonel Mustard in the library with the candlestick?

  25. I thought he was on his third chance now…….

    If this was a conservative he would be all over the msm as an example of not only his own dishonesty but as an ‘example’ used to taint any conservative scholar.

    The double standard continues.

  26. Can’t he just continue on as a historical novelist? He has already been published in that genre.

  27. He didn’t mistakenly make up his evidence. He did it on purpose.

  28. It’s lucky for him that being a professor is an unlicensed and unregulated “profession”.

  29. He should be tutoring undergrads in creative writing. If he needs a side gig, he can write alternative histories- such as the one about the American Revolution being fought with axes and pole-arms.

  30. It’s not surprising that the Chronicle of Higher Education would attempt to rehabilitate this individual. The academy does not care about truth (see Constructivism and Postmodernism).

  31. He cherry picked the data, twisted the presentation to suit a pre-ordained result, and just plain made stuff up to suit his argument?

    Well? Where’s his Nobel Prize?

  32. Bellesisles’ “second chance” would be someone else’s “first chance”.

    Someone perhaps more deserving.

    He’s done. Move along, and good-bye.

  33. Bellesiles isn’t incompetent, he’s a fraud and a dirtbag. He’s a guy who tried to steal the civil rights of every American, and he very nearly got away with it. Seriously, would anyone on the left be writing a quasi sympathetic rehab of this low-rent con-artist if his “scholarship” “proved” that the First Amendment really meant that the Federal Government could set up a Federal Church and compel every citizen to be Catholic in order to vote? Hell no. Especially if his lies were blatant and he was still unrepentant about them? The only reason this guy is in anyone’s media radar is because he’s a reliable left-wing toady. Period.

  34. “On reading that story, I see that Bellesiles was fed a line of bull by a student, so technically he didn’t lie.


    Didn’t W.C. Fields once opine that: “You can’t cheat an honest man.”

  35. “the historian he has always been” is a political hack, unable to produce scholarly work and driven to invent and fabricate fraudulent evidence to support a political agenda.
    Some historian ! Some scholar. Some gall.

  36. Does this discredited and disgraced author deserve a second chance?

    Well, that’s fundamentally the language of sin and redemption. Nothing wrong with that, as far as it goes. Bellesiles fraud was an academic sin. So, how has the notion of sin been handled, historically? If I understand correctly, it is only right and proper to forgive others their sins. However, that forgiveness isn’t given out unconditionally. Forgiveness is conditioned on repentance. In this regard, what do we know about Michael Bellesiles?

    * We know that he refuses to acknowledge his past offenses (“Let’s talk about the new book,” he says. “And the book after that. And the book after that.”).
    * We know he expects to set the terms of his redemption (“I would like to think that the scholarship I am producing will demonstrate that I am a competent, capable historian and I always have been.”)
    * We know his publisher, at least, in blaming “swiftboating by the NRA”, is attempting to legitimize the offense.
    * With his recent lesser flap regarding the student’s brother “killed in Iraq”, we know he’s still inclined to play fast and loose with very historical standards we’re expected to forgive him for violating.

    So, does this discredited and disgraced author deserve a second chance? I’m inclined, under the circumstances, to say probably not.

  37. The opprobrium fallen upon this disgraced charletan pales in signicance beside that of those who showered honors upon his chicanery. The BAncroft Prize, all these superlaticve reviews–don’t say they dodn’t know: they were all of them, absolutely certain tha tthe work was unverified, and they praised it to the skies anyway, out of their blind prejudice and hatred of American traditions. We cannot think of Bellesiles withour rfecallng this image. More than the principal swindler deserve to be drummed out of camp with their swords broken.

  38. He can have a second chance…once he earns it.

  39. No, Bellesiles does not deserve a “second chance”, he got those many times. He never came clean on the “Arming America” fraud.

    Now with his second book, the PR flack materials lie about the whole “Arming America” fraud and attempt to paint him as targeted by the big bad bully NRA – who had nothing to do with the exposure of his fraud at all.

    He’s had all the second chances in the world and still doubles down on the lies.

  40. Hey, I know: He could write an expose of the LIE of knife ownership in revolutionary America…

  41. You can supply the answers yourself

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