Disarming the Critics
Michael A. Bellesiles
Earlier this year the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture (OIEAHC) and the American Historical Association (AHA) councils passed an unusual resolution:
Although it is appropriate to subject all scholarly work to criticism and to evaluate that work's arguments and its sources, the Council of the American Historical Association considers personal attacks upon or harassment of an author, as we have seen directed at Michael A. Bellesiles following publication of Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture, to be inappropriate and damaging to a tradition of free exchange of ideas and the advancement of our knowledge of the past.
As the author whose work occasioned this resolution, I would like to take this opportunity to explain its origins.
Several months before its publication by Knopf in September 2000, Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture had already come under blistering attack. In November 1999, Charleton Heston, president of the National Rifle Association, charged that "Bellesiles had too much time on his hands," spending so much of it in the archives. Over the ensuing months, in e-mails, faxes, and on the web, I was castigated as "a paid agent of ZOG" (the Zionist Occupational [sic] Government, not King Zog of Albania), a "tool of the liberals (or state socialists, as they really are) seeking to steal my guns," and a "faggot feminazi." For fourteen months I have received hateful, threatening, and expletive-laced telephone calls, mail, e-mail, and faxes. Dedicated individuals flooded my e-mail with hundreds of copies of the same message. Others sent repeated viruses from anonymous web addresses that drove me from public e-mail and "hacked" my web site, altering and deleting material.
My employer, Emory University, has received repeated calls for my termination based on accusations that I had crafted a dangerously "anti-gun" vision of the past and falsified the historical record. Demands for my firing have been sent to the university's administrators, the board of trustees, my colleagues and those in other departments, and even to technical support staff. Interestingly, these letters tend to repeat the same language, as the senders appear to just download a model letter from an advocacy website. As a result, I have received dozens of messages beginning, "Emory should be ashamed to have a supposed historian like Bellesiles who commits massive fraud on its staff." However unpleasant and inaccurate many of these missives have been, I have, over the past two years, endeavored to respond to these accusations in a wide range of venues, despite the constraints of personal and professional responsibilities, and have set up a web site with further documentation <http://www.emory.edu/HISTORY/BELLESILES/>.
Arming America does not, to my knowledge, support any contemporary political position. Nor am I, as is often charged on the web, paid by any major gun-control group, political party, or secret conspiratorial organization. Briefly stated, Arming America examines the development of America's gun culture from the first European settlements until 1877. I argue that the gun culture--now so ubiquitous in the United States--has not always been a fixture of the nation's life but grew in response to increased production of firearms under federal supervision in the mid-nineteenth century and a dramatic rise in demand generated by the Civil War. A significant component of this research is the contention that the widely held view that all American men owned firearms and were crack shots needs revision. Starting with the first settlements in North America, every government had to confront the fact that a decided minority of American men owned firearms. In crisis after crisis, upon calling out local militia, governments found it necessary to supply guns to poorly armed and untrained units. As a consequence, from 1776 until 1865 Congress made the promotion of gun production and distribution a national priority.
Arming America aims to establish the broader historical context for our understanding of the role of guns in early America. It touches on contemporary debates in this effort to get beyond the immediate circumstances of the Second Amendment, devoting six chapters to presenting the historical background of the Constitution. Hopefully it contributes to our understanding of original intention by looking at a large company of people, well known and obscure, involved in this debate. I devoted ten years to researching and writing about the origins of America's national gun culture, examining a wide variety of sources--legal and legislative, military and business, literary and journalistic, artistic and musical, private and public, anything I could find--that touched on this fascinating story of the role of the gun in American history.
Arming America has been fortunate in receiving a number of insightful reviews from a long list of outstanding scholars. Edmund Morgan, Garry Wills, Fred Anderson, Roger Lane, Richard Slotkin, and many more offered gracious praise and informed criticisms of the book, always according to the highest standards of scholarly civility. I am also deeply honored that the book received Columbia University's 2001 Bancroft Prize. Obviously, however, the book has also been subject to many harsh and intemperate attacks. For the past year every conceivable accusation, and many inconceivable ones, have been made against the book and its author, many of these on the web, where normal standards of fair and civil have less application. I have devoted a great deal of time to demonstrating that I do not say some really outrageous things, and do address issues supposedly overlooked. Told that I do not discuss Daniel Morgan and his riflemen, I can only point to the six pages where I do so; charged with calling for the confiscation of all firearms, I can only ask for the page reference.
I hasten to add that not all of these criticisms have emerged from an ideological bias. No book is above criticism and correction. It is, I believe, the duty of any scholar to take responsibility for errors and to endeavor to correct them. I therefore thank the OAH Newsletter for giving me this unusual opportunity to address several specific issues. I must note immediately that I will not address the inaccurate accusations of error, those that put words into the book that are not there, or state that I do not discuss what is in fact covered. Nor will I address the cartoonish categorization of this book as "anti-gun."
One significant mistake in the original edition of Arming America occurs on page 230. In discussing the Militia Act of 1792, I quote the 1803 amendment to this act that "every citizen so enrolled, shall be constantly provided with arms, accoutrements, and ammunition." The quotation and its citation are both correct. The error is in the context. In editing my 1,200-page manuscript to a more manageable length, I compressed two paragraphs into one, failing to keep the transition between Congress's initial wording and its amendment of that wording eleven years later. As soon as Ian Binnington of the University of Illinois made me aware of this error, for which I thank him, I contacted several historical listserves and posted the correction. Knopf corrected the passage in the further printings of the book. Ordinarily the story would end there. However, several ideologically-charged journals and web sites picked up on this error as proof that I deliberately sought to falsify the historical record. None of these accusations observes that on the next page I quote Secretary of War Henry Knox as stating that under the 1792 Militia Act the "militia are requested to arm and equip themselves." Nor do they mention that on page 262 I write, "In theory every member of the militia supplied his own gun, as the Militia Act of 1792 required."
Much of the effort to discredit Arming America has focused on the five paragraphs of the book addressing probate records (pp. 74, 109-110, 266-67, and 386). As I state in the book, probate records are limited in a number of ways--biased by class, race, gender, local standards, and the personalities of the executors. Although probate records offer a useful window on material culture, they constitute a small element within a larger analytical structure in a 444-page book (plus 125 pages of notes).
As I mentioned to many historians after my book appeared in September 2000, my notes on these probate records had been destroyed when the pipes in Emory University's Bowden Hall burst and flooded the building, doing serious damage to nearly every office (see, for instance, the Emory Report, vol. 52, 8 May 2000). The ceiling of my office collapsed and the ensuing flood turned most of the legal pads on which I had taken notes into unreadable pulp. At this point I suppose that I could have withdrawn Arming America from publication, since the notes for these five paragraphs were ruined. Perhaps I should have then removed those paragraphs from the text or devoted the ensuing summers to recreating the material before allowing the book to appear several years from now. I must admit that this thought never crossed my mind. I deeply regret losing this material in the flooding of my building, a contingency for which I was unprepared.
More recently critics have turned their attention from the book to information posted on my web site. On that site, I have tried to open a scholarly conversation about probate records. Going over this material in a new way, I have undertaken an extended project to not simply replicate my probate findings but to expand the evidential base. I have been persuaded by a number of scholars including Professors Randy Roth and Saul Cornell of Ohio State University, that the sample set method I employed in Arming America is insufficient. For my book I counted the presence of guns in the probate records for two-year periods from forty different counties. I am now researching and posting on the web ten-to thirty-year periods from specific counties, reproducing every firearm and book listed in every probate file in those years. I have included books not only because I am interested in the subject of literacy and reading habits in early America, but also because these lists give a powerful sense of how different probate collections work. Probate records are very complicated and difficult to read in their original condition. Sometimes the executors are marvelously meticulous, recording every title in impressive libraries; sometimes they just write "books" and ascribe a value. I have invited other scholars interested in the subject to contribute materials and will post their findings on this site (three scholars have already sent material, for which I thank them). I am not trying to prove any argument with this site, but to provide information.
Of special interest recently have been the findings of the Boston Globe reporter David Mehegan, who found "several" errors on one of these web listings. There are currently 1,449 probate files recorded on the site; Mr. Mehegan discovered discrepancies in three of these files from Vermont. (The year refers to the date of the first inventory.)
Bellesiles: Asher Culver, 1776, Castleton,
Bellesiles: Abel Moulton, 1776, Castleton,
Mehegan: "Fire Arms, 2 [pounds] 8 s."
Bellesiles: Jonathan Mayo, 1781, of Tinmouth,
Mehegan: no gun, but "1 lb. gunpowder 6 s.,
I assume that with Mayo's inventory I read "gunpowder" as a "gun." There are instances of initial inventories in the Probate District Records that are corrected in the County Probate Records, which may explain the other two disagreements. These may be errors; if so I stand corrected. But I certainly did not seek to mislead anyone with these mistakes, and am uncertain just what form this misleading takes since I noted more guns than Mr. Mehegan found. There are those who insist that there are "many more" errors on this site, but I cannot answer innuendo. These inventories have a wonderful phrase before the appraisers' signatures, which might serve as a useful guide when using probate materials: "Errors excepted."
Mr. Mehegan also found an error in my web site bibliography for the probate records. Because of the flood, I had to reconstruct where I read the probate files from memory. Many of these records are on microfilm from the Genealogical Society of Utah (GSU), which is affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Whenever possible, I went to the original documents, visiting numerous archives around the country. It appears that I correctly recalled thirty-nine of these forty locations. However, I completely forget in which of several California archives I read what I recall to be twelve probate records from 1859 and 1860 with San Francisco as the stated location.
Certainly those who have misrepresented Arming America, accused me of omissions later discovered to be in the book, and of commissions that were not, and charged me with opinions and actions alien to my nature, will now do as I have and admit their errors. It is possible, as the AHA and OIEAHC resolution states with forceful clarity, "to subject all scholarly work to criticism" without launching personal attacks on the author. I hope that is the case by the time my next book appears. That book explores the long history of gun regulation in America, with particular attention to the interaction of law and culture.
I am gratified by much of the conversation about the origins of America's gun culture that has developed in the past year. In that regard, I particularly look forward to the forthcoming issue of the William & Mary Quarterly, which will explore many interesting criticisms of Arming America and alternative readings of the evidence. It is vital to acknowledge that fair-minded people can disagree on the meaning and interpretation of all historical documents, and that it is possible to respect the basic human dignity of a person with whom we disagree. The real test before our profession, it seems to me, is our ability to address an issue of contemporary concern in a scholarly fashion without evoking relentless denunciation and severe passions. As many historians have argued, we owe it to ourselves and our community to remain engaged with issues that carry political resonance.
Michael Bellesiles is professor of history at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. At its fall meeting, the OAH Executive Board passed the OIEAHC and AHA resolution.