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John Wilson

Stranger in a Strange Land: The Scandal of Arming America.

A prizewinning work of history doesn't stand up to examination.

Readers who go back with us as far as September/October 2000 may remember the cover story of that issue, in which I reviewed Michael Bellesiles's book, Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture. I was badly wrong in my judgment, though it took me a while to grasp just how wrong. And I had plenty of company. My piece turned out to be one of many that praised the book, often in extravagant terms. And many of the reviewers were themselves distinguished historians: Garry Wills, in The New York Times Book Review; Edmund Morgan, in The New York Review of Books; Fred Anderson, in the Los Angeles Times (Anderson's massive history of the Seven Years' War as well as an earlier volume on the Massachusetts militia covered some of the same historical terrain surveyed by Bellesiles); and more.

Bellesiles's principal claim was strongly counterintuitive: guns were much less common in early America than is routinely supposed. Not until the 1830s, he argued, did the beginnings of a substantial gun culture develop in the United States, and that was largely in the context of a new American "sporting culture" on the English model. And even then, it required the industrialization of the arms industry, beginning in the 1840s, and, most crucially, the Civil War to transform Americans into the famously gun-toting people we are today.

But in the course of advancing that central argument, Bellesiles wove many other subjects into his narrative. He made me realize how anachronistic our conceptions of early gun battles tend to be. He sketched the brutal conflict between European settlers and the Indians they dispossessed with unsentimental candor. He persuasively chronicled the general ineffectiveness of the militia in the colonial period and during the Revolution. All this and a good deal more he managed with considerable verve. I found the book to be of unfailing interest, despite its length.

Reaction to Arming America was strong and swift. While Bellesiles declined to spell out any present-day policy implications, the way he framed the story made it clear that he saw it as an argument against the notion that Americans always have been and hence always will be heavily armed. Things were once different; they could be so again. Thus the first volleys came from opponents of gun control, who regarded the entire book as nothing but a Trojan horse.

I heard from some of those people myself after my review appeared. The first batch of responses came from readers of Books & Culture, but subsequent waves came from others who'd been alerted to the review by one of the countless websites maintained by gun-rights absolutists. It was easy to discount most of this criticism, much of it boiling with rage—especially because the letter-writers took it for granted that I was eager to eviscerate the Second Amendment, that I regarded guns as the root of all evil, and so on. On the contrary: I strongly affirm the individual right to bear arms. But I also believe that this right, like other important rights, is subject to regulation for the common good, and I am disgusted by gun-rights absolutists who reject even the most modest of prudent restrictions as diabolical stratagems on the way to a totalitarian state. Undaunted, I proceeded to include Arming America on a list of the ten best books I had read in the year 2000. Bellesiles's book, I said, deserved to win a Pulitzer Prize. It didn't win a Pulitzer, but it did win the prestigious Bancroft Prize, much to be desired among American historians. Meanwhile, criticism of Arming America, mostly posted by amateur historians on the web, continued to mount. And some of it was not so easily dismissed.

One indefatigable researcher, Clayton Cramer, checked a number of Bellesiles' sources and found that Bellesiles's use of them was frequently inaccurate, or slanted, or both. Indeed, the further Cramer dug, the more errors he found. Unlike most readers, for example, he was familiar with some of the 80 or so travel accounts Bellesiles cited, and he reported a disturbing pattern of selectivity and misleading paraphrase. Some of Cramer's criticisms misfired; he treated differences in interpretation as evidence of fraud. And sometimes he seemed to be guilty of distortion himself, as when he described as fraudulent Bellesiles's use of a passage in which George Washington criticized the militia. Cramer's point was that, in the source, Washington was referring to certain militia units only, not the militia in general, as Bellesiles implied. That is true—and Bellesiles's summary was to that degree inaccurate—but Cramer failed to add that there are other widely known examples in which Washington unequivocally criticizes the militia in general in the harshest terms.

Still, in many more cases Cramer presented compelling evidence that Bellesiles repeatedly had distorted what he found in his sources. This was especially the case whenever quantitative evidence was involved. On that front, the most devastating criticism came from James Lindgren, a professor of law at Northwestern University, who with Justin Heather reviewed Bellesiles's use of probate records. Bellesiles used these records to substantiate his claim that gun ownership in early America was much less common than generally believed, and many reviewers had singled out this evidence as particularly persuasive. In their article, "Counting Guns in Early America," Lindgren and Heather not only exposed inexplicable discrepancies between the data they reviewed and Bellesiles's presentation of it but also showed that some glaring errors should have been evident to any reviewers who simply took a closer look at Bellesiles's numbers. I hung my head in shame. In my review I had deliberately not referred to the probate records because I wasn't certain how compelling was the alleged evidence of guns' absence. But that was no excuse for an abject failure to think through the evidence as Bellesiles presented it.

Lindgren and Heather's article prompted a shift in the debate over Arming America. Until then, many historians had believed that while Bellesiles might have been guilty of some errors, still the attack on his book was fundamentally ideologically driven. Such was the tenor of a generous review by Roger Lane in the Journal of American History. But after "Counting Guns in Early America," it became increasingly hard to find historians who were willing to support Bellesiles, as was made clear in September 2001, a year after the book's publication, when two journalists—the Boston Globe's David Mehegan and National Review's Melissa Seckora—turned up the heat. Their investigative reporting brought the controversy to the attention of a much larger audience.

Given these widely aired charges of misuse of evidence and possible fabrication of data, Emory University, Bellesiles's institution, asked him to prepare a formal response. He had been posting piecemeal responses on his website, in some cases conceding that he may have been in error yet without clearly indicating the extent of such "error." Bellesiles's response, "Disarming the Critics," published in the newsletter of the Organization of American Historians, was posted on the OAH website early in November. It was a great disappointment to those who held out hope that he might still mount a credible defense.

What to make of all this? I admit that I am still sorting it out. Some observers have mocked the innumeracy of historians (and reviewers) who gave Bellesiles a free ride, while others have seen sheer laziness. Many commentators have cast the affair in familiar culture-war terms: left-leaning academics obsessed with the evil of guns latch onto a book that panders to their prejudices and acclaim it a path-breaking scholarly achievement, all the while ignoring flagrant errors. Yet, many of the scholars who praised Arming America can't be readily pigeon-holed, nor can the appeal of the book be limited to its ideological payoff. I didn't come to it with an axe to grind. Rather, I allowed myself to be seduced by the thrill of a thesis that overturned common wisdom. Yes, it's important to follow the truth wherever it leads—but for intellectuals there's always a temptation to take pride in being above the fray.

Clayton Cramer and the others who took the trouble to check Bellesiles's sources certainly weren't above the fray. They were convinced that Arming America was wrong, and they set out to prove it, but in doing so they assembled objective evidence. Flattering myself on my objectivity, I didn't practice reasonable skepticism in the face of Bellesiles's provocative claims.

For reasons both good and bad, much is taken on trust in the world of scholarship, despite the ideal of rigorous evaluation. The October 26 issue of Science magazine reported on a forthcoming article in the journal Society revisiting psychologist Stanley Milgram's famous 1967 paper on what has come to be known as the "small world" phenomenon. This study involved sending letters from Kansas or Nebraska to "target" recipients in Massachusetts by a chain of contacts (each person in the chain was to send the letter to someone they knew on a first-name basis); it gave rise to the notion of "six degrees of separation," as popularized in John Guare's play of that title. Judith Kleinfield, a psychologist at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, contends that Milgram "skewed the results" of the study by omitting uncompleted chains. While Milgram's paper has been frequently cited, it is far less likely to arouse passions than is a history of guns in early America, which may explain—if Kleinfield is right—why the results haven't been more carefully scrutinized in the decades since it was published.

Some have said that whatever the flaws of Arming America, the book has opened up a productive debate. Perhaps, though that remains to be seen. As for Bellesiles himself, the future is unclear, but it seems likely that ultimately his career will be ruined. That is the saddest aspect of this whole episode.

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