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The results were swift and severe: Bellesiles' publisher dropped the book and Columbia rescinded the prize, the first time that it had ever retracted a prize in the Bancroft's 50-year history.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?