October 28, 2002, 10:00 a.m.
Bellesiles Is Out
A professor at the center of controversy is forced to resign.

Emory University announced on Friday afternoon that it had accepted the resignationof history professor Michael Bellesiles, the author of Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture. The award-winning book stirred up controversybecause it appeared to confirm what many scholars already believed: that the Second Amendment protects only a collective right to bear arms and that individual gun rights were unimportant to America's Founders. The facts, however, were not there to back up Bellesiles's contention.

Emory also released a 40-page indictment of the author's research composed by an investigative committee of three distinguished historians, as well as Bellesiles's seven-page response.

The basic thesis of Arming America is that there were very few guns in early America and that most of the guns that did exist were old and broken. Bellesiles first published an article on the subject in 1996, in the Journal of American History a piece that was named "Best Article of the Year" by the Organization of American Historians. The book, which was uncritically embraced by the likes of Edmund Morgan and Garry Wills, won the 2001 Bancroft Prize, the most-prestigious prize in American-history writing.

But over the past year, Arming America has been at the center of a scandal. Bellesiles miscounted, misinterpreted, and made up substantial portions of the information Arming America is based on, his critics have contended. The earliest revelations of Bellesiles's academic irresponsibility focused on nonexistent probate records that he claimed to have read in San Francisco and in Providence, R.I. It turns out that the San Francisco records were destroyed in a 1906 earthquake and fire, and many of the Providence wills that Bellesiles says he read never existed. Bellesiles has also claimed that all of his research notes were destroyed in a flood in his campus office, a story that people at Emory familiar with the flood have cast doubt on.

After questions were repeatedly raised in the press and in faculty workshops at Columbia, Yale, and other major universities, Emory's dean, Robert A. Paul, convened an expert panel of historians to investigate the charges against Bellesiles earlier this year. The committee was chaired by Stanley N. Katz of Princeton, and included Hanna H. Gray, a former president of the University of Chicago, and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich of Harvard.

The committee's investigation focused on Bellesiles's use of probate records, which the New York Times has called "Mr. Bellesiles's principal evidence." Of particular interest was a key table on which the author's thesis is grounded. "Evaluating Table One is an exercise in frustration because it is almost impossible to tell where Bellesiles got his information. His source note lists the names of 40 counties, but supplies no indication of the exact records used or their distribution over time. After reviewing his skimpy documentation, we had the same question as [one reviewer] Gloria Main: 'Did no editors or referees ever ask that he supply this basic information?' The best that can be said about his work with the probate and militia records is that he is guilty of unprofessional and misleading work."

The committee also agreed with Professor James Lindgren of Northwestern University that the entire scandal could have been avoided with "more conventional editing" by The Journal of American History and with Ohio State's Randolph Roth, who determined that Bellesiles's numbers were "mathematically improbable or impossible." Additionally, the committee found that "no one has been able to replicate Bellesiles's results [on low percentage of guns] for the places or dates he lists"; that he conflated wills and inventories which "greatly reduced the percentage of guns in estates"; took a "casual approach" to gathering data; "[raised] doubts about his veracity" in claiming to have worked with records in California; and raised questions about his use of microfilm at the National Archives Record Center in East Point, Ga. They also called implausible Bellesiles's claim that false data on his website was put there by a hacker, and his disavowal of e-mails that he wrote to researchers, giving the wrong location for almost all of his probate research.

In a statement, Bellesiles said, "All that remains in question are the few paragraphs and table on probate materials. On those paragraphs, Emory's committee of inquiry found no evidence of fabrication, though they do not charge evasion. I adamantly deny both charges. I have never fabricated evidence of any kind nor knowingly evaded my responsibilities as a scholar. I have never consciously misrepresented any data or evidence. I will continue to research and report on the probate materials while also working on my next book, but cannot continue to teach in what I feel is a hostile environment."

While some have faulted Emory for taking too long to begin its investigation, most scholars agree that the investigation was thorough. And now that the Emory report is out, scholars expect Columbia to investigate the possibility of revoking Bellesiles's Bancroft Prize.

Melissa Seckora is an NR editorial associate.


Jim Cobabe

When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean--neither more nor less.

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