Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

The Bellesiles Case

One of the biggest controversies in the discipline of history in the past year has been the case of Michael Bellesiles’ Arming America. For those who might be unfamiliar with this book, its main thesis argued that guns were rare in the early Republic, and that the modern "gun culture" was invented by the National Rifle Association soon after the Civil War.

The initial reaction of the historical community, as well as the pro-gun control folks, was eager enthusiasm. Finally, it seemed, a major part of the anti-gun control argument--that guns played a key role in early America, and hence to take them away now would be an offense to tradition--had been swept away. But there was one problem: Bellesiles pretty much made the whole thing up. Several dedicated crusaders--particularly part-time amateur historian Clayton Cramer--revealed the awful truth; that the author had misrepresented many of his sources, and completely fabricated others. In any case, the whole, sad story is recounted here.

But the saddest part about l’affaire Bellesiles is that the initial whistle-blowers all came from outside the historical profession. True, some professional historians later joined the chorus, but for the most part historians slobbered all over Bellesiles’ thesis, and met the initial onslaught of Clayton and his allies by circling the wagons. How dare this...this SOFTWARE ENGINEER invade our sanctuary! How dare he challenge someone with a PhD and tenure at a major university! And, of course, there was the inevitable ad hominem--Bellesiles’ critics are part of the [gasp!] GUN LOBBY!

The upshot of all this is that it is clearer than ever that the historical profession is dominated by partisans who are quick to swallow any piece of "scholarship" that seems to back up their political agenda. Furthermore, if there is to be reform, it has to come at least in part from courageous outsiders like Clayton Cramer, who deserves our thanks for turning over this particular rock and exposing the nauseating stuff that lay beneath it.

Now, here’s the good news: a committee appointed by Emory University, Bellesiles’ employer, investigated the situation and has released a report which concludes that the author did, indeed, falsify his evidence. He has since resigned from the university.

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