Bellesiles, OAH, and the Profession
Lee W. Formwalt
As OAH President Ira Berlin has noted, this has not been a good year for the history profession and the case of Michael Bellesiles is an important one for historians to consider as they think about their practice of history. The Bellesiles controversy is a complicated one that has been discussed and debated in the news media and online by historians and other interested parties. In the last several months Emory University (Bellesiles's former employer), Columbia University (which awarded Bellesiles the Bancroft Prize for Arming America), and Alfred A. Knopf (publisher of Arming America) have taken actions to sever their support of and relationship with Bellesiles (see links on the left).
Although the case appears to be closed for many observers, the Bellesiles matter, like many historical problems, is not a simple matter of determining unprofessional conduct, condemning it, and moving on. As professional historians, we offer our readers, students, and clients a complex understanding of the past, often with inherent tensions. Why should this case be any different? Yet, there has been a growing drumbeat, fed by the media, to condemn Bellesiles and move quickly beyond this unpleasant affair. The questions that historian Jon Wiener (see below) and others raise, however, indicate this is not the simple open and shut case that some believe it to be. We have an obligation to deal with ambiguity and tension in this matter and not simply wash our hands of it. Wiener's essay and his article in The Nation touch on these matters. Other concerns have been raised and others, no doubt, will be raised. OAH provides members with the logical forum in which to discuss various perspectives on matters ranging from the use/abuse of probate data to the bigger issues of trust in the world of research and publication.
In its last semiannual meeting in November, the OAH Executive Board examined the Bellesiles controversy, especially in light of the fact that Bellesiles received the Binkley-Stephenson Award for his 1996 Journal of American History article on "The Origins of Gun Culture in in the United States, 1760-1865." After lengthy discussion, the board decided not to rescind the prize noting that the decisions of the organization to award a prize or publish an article are based on the best information available at that time. The post-publication vetting, through the process of scholarly give and take, ultimately determines the viability of any historical interpretation. OAH appreciates the work of both the JAH editorial staff and the prize committees as well as the efforts of other historians who continue to do research that may reveal problems in the original prize-winning work. Both groups of colleagues perform the very important work that is the basis for our discipline.
More important, however, are the larger questions that this controversy raises about trust and integrity in the scholarly process and the ways in which historical argument and interpretation are conducted. The Executive Board agreed that these issues should become the subject of wider discussion across the profession. The organization will use the OAH Newsletter, beginning with this issue, as a vehicle for further consideration of the matter. In addition, the board decided that sessions on the subject would be planned at upcoming annual meetings in Memphis and Boston in 2003 and 2004.
Since the Emory report was not released until 25 October 2002, the executive office and 2003 Program Committee had no time to assemble a panel to address the Bellesiles matter in Memphis. Fortunately, we have the vehicle of the chat room (that debuted at the 2001 annual meeting in Los Angeles), an informal gathering of meeting attendees to discuss topics of scholarly or professional concern. We have secured Paul Finkelman, Chapman Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of Tulsa, and Jon Wiener, University of California, Irvine, to cohost this session. In the meantime, we are working with the 2004 Program Committee to develop a session at the Boston meeting that can address in a more formal way, the various issues that have emerged in the Bellesiles case.
The executive board has asked the Journal of American History editorial board to consider a commissioned essay or a roundtable to address the ethical issues of this and other recent cases and how much historians rely on trust in practicing their craft. Finally, the board agreed that it would continue its discussion at its meeting in April in Memphis.
Members are encouraged to share their ideas and concerns with the Executive Board prior to their April meeting in Memphis. Comments should be mailed to OAH, 112 North Bryan Avenue, Bloomington, IN 47408 or to
There are a number of tragic elements in the Michael Bellesiles case and the controversies surrounding other well-known popular historians. A greater tragedy would be for American historians to quickly bury these unfortunate developments and refuse the opportunity they provide to explore the larger questions that will help us in our pursuit of truth about this nation's past.
Lee W. Formwalt is executive director of the Organization of American Historians.