Bellesiles is Back

Some of our readers may remember Michael Bellesiles. He is the former history professor at Emory University whose 2000 Bancroft Prize winning book Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture was attacked by the National Rifle Association and other leading historians for its shoddy scholarship. Bellesiles was accused of fabricating evidence by using probate records that either did not exist or that had been destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. He was eventually forced to give back his Bancroft and resign from his post at Emory.

Now Bellesiles is an adjunct instructor at Central Connecticut State University and has just come out with a new book, 1877: America’s Year of Living Violently. Here is a snippet of David Walsh’s report at the History News Network:

The publisher’s galley letter does not shy away from the past controversy. According to the release, written by an editor at The New Press:

1877 is also notable as the comeback book for a celebrated U.S. historian. Michael Bellesiles is perhaps most famous as the target of an infamous “swiftboating” campaign by the National Rifle Association, following the publication of his Bancroft Prize-winning book Arming America (Knopf, 2000)—”the best kind of non-fiction,” according to the Chicago Tribune—which made daring claims about gun ownership in early America. In what became the history profession’s most talked-about and notorious case of the past generation, Arming America was eventually discredited after an unprecedented and controversial review called into question its sources, charges which Bellesiles and his many prominent supporters have always rejected.”

Gloria Main, professor emeritus at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and another noted critic of Arming America, responded that “I never realized I was a ‘swift-boater’! And anyone who knows my politics would never associate me with the National Rifle Association.” Main declined to comment further until she has read the book.

I hope Bellesiles’s book does well and he manages to rehabilitate his career. America, after all, is a place of redemption and second chances–even for historians. While Arming America certainly had its problems, I was always a bit troubled by the way the entire controversy surrounding the book was so politicized.

3 thoughts on “Bellesiles is Back

  1. While I would agree that “America, after all, is a place of redemption and second chances,” I would question whether Bellesiles should be redeemed. Redemption, after all, is originally the Christian term for the unmerited favor that God grants to repentant sinners.

    Bellesiles falls within each part of that definition except one: “repentant.” From the tidbit you posted, Bellesiles seems exactly the opposite. His defiance and lack of contrition shows that he has failed to learn his lesson.

    So while I agree that the process used to punish him was deeply flawed, it does not mitigate the fact that he did something wrong and he has failed to own up to that fact.

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  2. Paul: Absolutely. Arming America was shoddy scholarship. I have read Hoffer's book and agree with his assessment. But there were some parts of the entire controversy that, in my estimation, seemed like a witch-hunt.

    Thanks for the post.

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  3. Arming America may have ben encircled by a political debate, but it doesn't change the fact that there were significant weaknesses (to understate it) with the scholarship. Peter Hoffer's Past Imperfect has a fine chapter on the emergence of the Arming America controversy and with a fair, but fatal analysis of Bellesiles' scholarship.

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