Remembering the Michael Bellesiles *Arming America* Controversy

BellesilesTwenty years ago an Emory University history professor named Michael Bellesiles published a book arguing that early Americans were not all that interested in guns until after the Civil War.  The book, Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culturewon the prestigious Bancroft Prize, but the prize was revoked when gun rights advocates and others challenged Bellesiles’s scholarship.  Bellesiles eventually resigned his post at Emory.  Today he works as a bartender and writes history.  His most recent work is A People’s History of the U.S. Military.

Over at The Week, Bill Black reflects on the Arming America controversy.  Here is a taste:

Arming America was published in 2000 to much acclaim. Historian Peter Onuf (later a founding co-host of the BackStorypodcast) called it a “myth-busting tour de force,” while a former president of the Organization of American Historians said it was “a classic work of significant scholarship with inescapable policy implications.”

The “policy implications” of Arming America were with respect to the Second Amendment. If, as Bellesiles claimed, individual gun ownership was not a significant part of American life when the Constitution was written, then it becomes harder to argue that the Constitution’s drafters were especially interested in protecting gun ownership as an individual civil right. The “right of the people to keep and bear Arms” looks more like a restatement of their right to “a well regulated Militia,” not a separate individualist claim.

This was a potent talking point in 2000. The Columbine High School massacre had occurred the year before and spurred a fierce national debate over gun rights; Arming America was quickly swallowed up in that debate. NRA president Charlton Heston lambasted the book’s argument as “ludicrous.” Bellesiles began receiving death threats and anonymous phone calls. Gun enthusiast message boards scrutinized every footnote in the book and began finding discrepancies.

More worryingly (from academia’s point of view), serious scholars began finding discrepancies too. Bellesiles claimed to have looked at more than 11,000 probate records; however, his footnotes did not specify how many records were from which county or from which time period. Bellesiles didsay he looked at 186 inventories in Providence, Rhode Island, where he claimed only 48 percent of the estates had guns and more than half of those guns were old or of poor quality; but the legal scholars James Lindgren and Justin Heather looked at the extant inventories (only 149, they said) from early Providence and found 63 percent of the estates listed guns, only one-tenth of them in poor condition. Bellesiles also claimed to have looked at hundreds of inventories from 1850s San Francisco, when San Francisco’s records had all been destroyed by the great earthquake and fire of 1906.

In the face of these criticisms, especially a William and Mary Quarterlyforum in which other historians called Bellesiles’s work “biased,” “careless,” and “misleading,” Emory University appointed a special committee in 2002 to investigate the charges against Bellesiles. They found it hard to check a lot of his research, because rather than building a proper database for the 11,000 probates, he had instead taken handwritten notes on legal pads — which were almost entirely destroyed when a pipe burst in Emory’s Bowden Hall, flooding his office. As for the mysterious San Francisco records, Bellesiles explained he had actually used records from nearby Contra Costa County; the committee, however, had reason to doubt he had visited the Contra Costa archive when he said he did.

The special committee ruled that Bellesiles had fallen short of the American Historical Association’s standards for professional scholarship. Bellesiles resigned his post at Emory. His Bancroft Prize, which he had won the year before, was rescinded — what he now says was, “after the death of my mother, the worst moment of my life.”

Read the rest here.

David Blight and Lisa Brooks Win the Bancroft Prize

BrooksBlights wins for Frederick Douglass, Prophet of Freedom.

Brooks wins for Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War.

Congratulations!

Here is a taste of an article on the winners at The New York Times:

A mammoth biography of Frederick Douglass and a new study of the 17th-century colonial American conflict known as King Philip’s War have won this year’s Bancroft Prize, which is considered one of the most prestigious honors in the field of American history.

David W. Blight’s “Frederick Douglass, Prophet of Freedom,”published by Simon and Schuster, was cited for offering “a definitive portrait” of the 19th-century former slave, abolitionist, writer and orator “in all his fullness and imperfection, his intellectual gifts and emotional needs.”

Lisa Brooks’s “Our Beloved Kin,” published by Yale University Press, was praised for how it “imaginatively illuminates submerged indigenous histories,” drawing readers into “a complex world of tensions, alliances and betrayals” that fueled the conflict between Native Americans in New England and European colonists and their Indian allies.

The Bancroft, which includes an award of $10,000, was established in 1948 by the trustees of Columbia University, with a bequest from the historian Frederic Bancroft.

Blight

 

Bancroft Prize-Winning Historian of Health Care Nancy Tomes is Coming to Messiah College

Nancy Tomes is Distinguished Professor of History at Stony Brook University.  Her 2016 book, Remaking the American Patient: How Madison Avenue and Modern Medicine Turned Patients into Consumers won the prestigious Bancroft Prize in American history.

“This is like a dream come true.”

On September 27, Tomes will deliver the 2018 Messiah College American Democracy Lecture at 7:00pm in Parmer Hall.  If you are in the area you will not want to miss this lecture!  See you there.  Stay tuned for more details.

Listen to Tomes discuss her book on The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

Tomes

 

Nancy Tomes Wins the Bancroft Prize

TomesI can now say that I am a student of a Bancroft Prize winner!

I am very excited to learn that Nancy Tomes, one of my graduate school mentors and one of my favorite people in the profession,  is one of three winners of this prestigious prize in American History.

Here a taste of New York Times reporter Jennifer Schuessler’s article on the winners:

Books on the 1971 Attica prison uprising, the enslavement of Native Americans, and the health care system have won this year’s Bancroft Prize, considered one of the most prestigious honors in the field of American history.

Andrés Reséndez, a professor at the University of California, Davis, won for “The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), which argues that it was mass slavery at the hands of Spanish conquistadors, rather than epidemics, that devastated the Native American population.

Heather Ann Thompson, a professor at the University of Michigan, won for “Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy” (Pantheon), which drew on extensive documentation, including some that had never been seen before by scholars, to reconstruct the violent retaking of the prison and its decades-long legal aftermath.

Nancy Tomes, a professor at Stony Brook University, won for “Remaking the American Patient: How Madison Avenue and Modern Medicine Turned Patients Into Consumers” (University of North Carolina Press), which examined the origins of the notion that patients should “shop” for health care.

I took two research seminars with Nancy while doing my doctoral work at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.  In the first seminar I wrote a paper that was eventually published as “Wheelock’s World: Letters and the Communication of Revival in Great Awakening New England,” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society (1999).  The second seminar paper I wrote for Nancy resulted in a chapter of my doctoral dissertation on religion in eighteenth-century New Jersey.  Later she served as a member of my dissertation committee (which was directed by Ned Landsman).  Her support and encouragement of my work was invaluable to me as a graduate student hoping to make it in the history profession.

Congratulations Nancy Tomes!

Bancroft Prize(s) Announced

LipmanHere is the press release:

A book on the 1787 Constitutional Convention and two books on the way encounters with Native Americans shaped the emerging American nation have won the Bancroft Prize, considered one of the most prestigious honors in the field of American history.

Mary Sarah Bilder, a professor at Boston College Law School, won for “Madison’s Hand: Revisiting the Constitutional Convention”(Harvard University Press), which uses both digital technology and traditional textual analysis to study how James Madison continuously revised his influential notes on the event, thus sharply challenging their claim to be an objective contemporaneous account.

Deborah A. Rosen, a professor at Lafayette College, was cited for “Border Law: The First Seminole War and American Nationhood”(Harvard University Press), which describes how that conflict, which lasted from 1816 to 1818, laid the legal groundwork for the Monroe Doctrine, westward expansion and the Dred Scott decision of 1857.

Andrew Lipman, an assistant professor at Barnard College, won for“The Saltwater Frontier: Indians and the Contest for the American Coast” (Yale University Press), which draws on English, Dutch and archaeological sources to examine how the waters between the Hudson River and Cape Cod were both a battleground and a place of exchange from the 16th through the mid-18th centuries.

The Bancroft Prize, established in 1948 by the trustees of Columbia University with a bequest from the historian Frederic Bancroft, includes an award of $10,000.

Congrats!

Check out our Author’s Corner interviews with Bilder and Lipman.  Once again, an appearance at the Author’s Corner serves as a springboard to prestige and fame in the world of American history.

2013 Bancroft Prize Winners

From AHA TODAY: “The Bancroft Prize is awarded annually by the trustees of Columbia University to the authors of books of exceptional merit in the fields of American history, biography, and diplomacy. There were 223 books nominated for the 2013 award, all published in 2012.”

The winners are:

John Fabian Witt, Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of war in American History  (Free Press).

W. Jeffrey Bolster, The Mortal Sea: Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail (Harvard University Press).

Congratulations!