Michael Bellesiles Takes Another Shot

He was drummed out of academe after a controversy over his book about guns in America. Now the historian aims for a second chance.

Don Hamerman for The Chronicle

Michael Bellesiles has written a new book and wants to move on.
August 03, 2010

Let's say you spend a dozen years researching a book. It's the first in a planned trilogy, the historical opus you consider your life's work. The book is published to gushing reviews ("stunning," "brilliant," a "tour de force") and becomes a national best seller. You win a big prize. You are living every scholar's dream.

Then it starts to crumble. Troubling flaws are found in your acclaimed work. At first you dismiss your critics as cranks, but as the evidence piles up, you struggle to defend yourself. Your admirers desert you. Your publisher drops you. Your big prize is withdrawn, and you're pressured to leave the faculty job you love. For a moment, you had everything, and then—just like that—it all goes away, plus some.

It's a sad story, yet the man who lived it, Michael A. Bellesiles, doesn't get a lot of sympathy. The book he wrote, Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture (Knopf, 2000), claimed to show that until the Civil War, guns were relatively rare in the United States, an argument that incensed gun-rights advocates. They were giddy over his downfall. Once it became impossible to deny that the work contained serious errors, former supporters felt betrayed and rapidly disassociated themselves from the book and its disgraced author. It was hard to tell who hated him more.

Now, nearly eight years later, Mr. Bellesiles is back. His new book, 1877: America's Year of Living Violently (New Press), isn't a contrarian showstopper; instead, it's an anecdotal history of a famously eventful and profoundly bloody year in American history. It's one of several books Mr. Bellesiles has been working on. After years spent figuring out how to recover and move on, the history professor has returned to writing and is feeling more productive than ever.

But will anyone give Mr. Bellesiles a second chance? And, more to the point, does he even deserve one?

Numbers That Didn't Add Up

The unabridged chronicle of the controversy over Arming America could fill several volumes and is readily available on the Internet. The CliffsNotes version is that key data were challenged, first by gun-rights activists and scholars in other fields, and then by other historians when Mr. Bellesiles was unable to back up his claims, particularly regarding numbers from county probate records that he had used to show how few Americans actually owned firearms. The case was an embarrassment to the discipline, which in 2002 was also reeling from plagiarism accusations leveled at high-profile historians like Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin.

There are errors in Arming America. Exactly how severe those errors are depends on whom you ask. In his book Historians in Trouble: Plagiarism, Fraud, and Politics in the Ivory Tower (New Press, 2005), Jon Wiener argues that the focus of the controversy was on "errors in a tiny portion of the documentation." Emory University, where Mr. Bellesiles was a professor, organized an independent committee to investigate the allegations. It found multiple instances of figures that didn't add up and a "casual method of recording data" that made it impossible to tell where the historian had gotten his information. The committee members concluded that he was "guilty of unprofessional and misleading work," but said that "we do not see evidence of outright deception." Columbia University's trustees soon rescinded the prestigious Bancroft Prize for American history, saying Mr. Bellesiles had "violated basic norms of scholarship."

One of his most dogged critics, Clayton E. Cramer, who spent six months poring over Mr. Bellesiles's book, checking its findings against primary sources, says he can turn to almost any page of Arming America and discover a problem. And these aren't just careless mistakes, Mr. Cramer contends. He, like many others, believes that Mr. Bellesiles is guilty of falsification, that he made up sources and fudged results to strengthen his thesis. "There's no question in my mind that what was involved was more than error," Mr. Cramer says.

The case for falsification isn't a slam dunk. But the defense that Mr. Wiener offers isn't persuasive, either. Yes, as Mr. Bellesiles himself has often stated, there's more to the book than probate records. But those records were an important component of his argument, cited prominently in positive reviews. That they didn't hold up is far from trivial.

Certainly it's true that Michael Bellesiles got caught up in the highly charged politics over gun control in the United States. If his book had been about a less inflammatory topic, it would never have undergone such microscopic scrutiny, and he would still be a respected, tenured professor at Emory, living a comfortable, anonymous life.

But what motivated his critics is mostly beside the point. What matters is what they found.

In the end, those critics won a satisfying victory, and the author of Arming America was toppled. In the wake of the independent committee's report, Mr. Bellesiles resigned from Emory and disappeared from sight.

A New History

I met Michael Bellesiles in a tea shop in Madison, Conn., not far from where he lives with his wife. In person, he is polite and understandably wary. His dark hair is much shorter than it was in the author photo for Arming America, and the past decade has left some lines on his forehead. After a chicken-salad sandwich and some herbal tea, he relaxes somewhat. He is inquisitive, laughs easily, and has no shortage of facts and anecdotes at his fingertips. He could be your favorite college prof.

I had read an advance copy of his new book and found it enjoyable, or as enjoyable as the history of a shockingly violent period can be. Mr. Bellesiles weaves events into stories and finds characters that make the historical feel personal. It's a good read. As far as I know, no one has accused Mr. Bellesiles of being a lousy writer.

That said, it's not a book that will turn convention on its head or send shock waves through the scholarly community. Nor will pointing out that 1877 was a pivotal year come as a surprise to other American historians; in fact, a book on 1877 by the Pulitzer Prize winner Robert V. Bruce was published 50 years ago. The two works inevitably cover some of the same ground, but they focus on different characters and see some different forces at play.

Like most authors, Mr. Bellesiles is eager to chat about his new book. His previous book, however, is trickier territory. "When I talk about the past," he says, "I sound like someone who is standing there being hit over and over again like a piñata. And I don't like that."

He does have regrets. He wishes he'd put his research into a computer database. Back then he was a proud neo-Luddite who preferred pencils and yellow legal pads. A flood in Emory's Bowden Hall, he reported afterward, had destroyed the notebooks containing his probate research. (For the record, his office was indeed flooded, though his critics scoffed at the idea that the notebooks could have been ruined.)

He also wishes, he tells me, that he'd studied statistics. That is the closest he comes to admitting that what happened with Arming America was, at least in part, his fault.

And he wishes he'd handled the scandal with more skill. He was overwhelmed, he says, and responded too hastily. His e-mail inbox was flooded with thousands of hateful messages. Angry callers left threatening messages at his office and home; some detractors showed up at his classes. One creative critic made up a song and serenaded him over the phone. It included rhymes for the word "asshole."

As for what he's been doing since 2002, Mr. Bellesiles isn't entirely forthcoming. He says he did some teaching in England, although he doesn't want to divulge the details. He did a lot of freelance work for a textbook company. He volunteered with veterans. Before graduate school, he had worked for a number of years as a bartender. When I ask whether he returned to that profession following his departure from Emory, Mr. Bellesiles demurs. "I'm still a good bartender," he says. "I will tell you that."

The reason for his reluctance is that he knows whatever he says will be molded into a narrative he can't control. I will write this article. His multitudinous critics will seize on portions of it, some of them no doubt questioning why The Chronicle would spill so much ink on a man they consider a fraud. There is always risk for the interviewee: He is placing himself in the hands of a reporter he doesn't know and hoping for the best. Mr. Bellesiles understands this risk better than most. He's been burned before.

He is frank, however, about his inner turmoil. After Emory he thought about going to law school, something his parents had encouraged him to do when he graduated from the University of California at Santa Cruz. He thought about abandoning history entirely. Then, a couple of years ago, a former student of his who is now a professor at Central Connecticut State University suggested that he return to the classroom as an adjunct. Friends and family thought it would be good for him.

And it has been. Being back in the classroom, he says, has helped restore his shaken self-confidence. He was sufficiently bolstered that he was able to turn out the new book in 18 months. He's mostly finished with another book, about a friend who was on death row. And he's started a third, tentatively titled "A People's Military History of the United States."

I remark that he's been awfully productive.

"Thank you," he says. "I like to think so."

More Missteps

But there have been bumps on the road to rehabilitation. The first was a letter sent by his publisher to promote 1877. It described Mr. Bellesiles as "the target of an infamous 'swiftboating' campaign by the National Rifle Association" and called Arming America a "Bancroft Prize-winning book."

Comparing the controversy over Arming America to the attempt to malign John Kerry's military service in the 2004 presidential elections doesn't make sense. And it wasn't just the NRA that had issues with the book. Plus, while it's accurate to say that Arming America won the Bancroft Prize, not mentioning that it was later rescinded for the first time in that award's lengthy and august history is a pretty significant omission.

Mr. Bellesiles says he didn't approve or even read the promotional letter. The publicity director at the New Press, Anne Sullivan, says the letter was nothing unusual: "It was strong language, but that's publicity, right?" Sure, but intentionally misleading publicity probably doesn't do much for Mr. Bellesiles's reputation, and bloggers were quick to pounce on the letter. Jonah Goldberg, of The National Review, deemed Mr. Bellesiles the "Lord High Commissioner of Chutzpah."

Then, after I interviewed him, Mr. Bellesiles published an essay in The Chronicle Review. In the piece, which seemed innocuous enough, he writes about a student in his military-history class at Central Connecticut State whose brother was killed in Iraq. The essay is about how real life intrudes on the classroom, how teachers must be sensitive to what's going on in the lives of their students.

One of his old critics, James Lindgren, then wrote a post on the group blog The Volokh Conspiracy. Mr. Lindgren, a professor of law at Northwestern University, had searched through the records of military deaths and couldn't find one that matched the description in Mr. Bellesiles's essay. Other bloggers piled on, including Glenn Reynolds, of Instapundit, and Megan McArdle, of The Atlantic. The title of one post, "Is Bellesiles At It Again?," conveys the tenor of the response.

Like Mr. Lindgren, I couldn't find any military records that matched the details in the essay. I contacted the teaching assistant for the class, who confirmed Mr. Bellesiles's version of events, saying that the student had seemed distressed and had told him that his brother was killed in either Iraq or Afghanistan. I had a brief conversation with the student, who told me the brother's name and said he was in the Army. I then spoke with an Army official, who searched a database containing the names of all service members killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. The name didn't come up.

In an e-mail exchange I then had with the student, he admitted that he had lied about some of the details he told Mr. Bellesiles, the teaching assistant, and, later, me. It wasn't his brother but rather a friend who had died in Afghanistan. He explained the situation in more detail, but I'm going to keep those details private. Exposing him doesn't seem right, even if his credibility is questionable.

So even though it appears clear that Mr. Bellesiles wasn't lying, as some alleged online, what happened can only further damage his standing as a scholar. Why didn't he verify the student's story? Shouldn't a historian, particularly one teaching a military-history course, be more careful? Is this additional evidence of Mr. Bellesiles's casual relationship with facts?

Maybe. Then again, it never occurred to Mr. Bellesiles or the teaching assistant that the student might be lying. He was a good student who seemed genuinely distressed. Why grill a grief-stricken undergraduate? Who makes up a story like that anyway?

Regardless, the details of this minor uproar will eventually fade, leaving the impression that, once again, Mr. Bellesiles got it wrong.

Even before this unlikely episode, commenters on The Volokh Conspiracy were questioning whether Mr. Bellesiles should be permitted to publish again. "Why in heaven's name would it be good he is getting a second chance?" wrote one. "This guy shouldn't even be teaching American History 101 to hung-over community college students," wrote another. And this gentle suggestion: "Let the sonofabitch paint houses or something."

Years have passed, but the emotion still seems fresh. I spoke with Clayton Cramer, who, perhaps more than anyone else, did the fact-checking legwork that brought down Arming America. Mr. Cramer, who now teaches history at the College of Western Idaho and government at an ITT Technical Institute, has even written a book in response, Armed America. I asked him if he thought Mr. Bellesiles should get a second chance. "I think you get a second chance if you can come up with a plausible explanation for how you got so many things wrong," he says.

A member of the committee that reviewed Arming America and sealed Mr. Bellesiles's fate at Emory is more forgiving. "I certainly believe any member of the profession is entitled to try again," says Stanley N. Katz, director of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School, who blogs for The Chronicle Review. "If the judgment of the profession is that it's a successful attempt, I'd say bravo."

Patrick N. Allitt, a history professor at Emory, agrees that his former colleague has every right to publish again. But that doesn't mean historians are eager to welcome Mr. Bellesiles back into the fold: "There are people that feel sympathetic toward him, but they're mainly in other departments." Mr. Allitt predicts that Mr. Bellesiles's new book will be "scrutinized with incredible care."

That goes without saying, and Mr. Bellesiles knows it. He had a graduate student recheck every footnote in 1877, just to be certain. "I've done everything I can to make sure there's no mistakes of any kind, and I will continue to do so always."

In the introduction of 1877, he thanks St. Raymond, patron saint of the falsely accused. Because that's how Mr. Bellesiles continues to see himself—as someone who was falsely accused of fabricating material. When critics started attacking his Chronicle essay, he said in exasperation, "They've already destroyed my life once. Isn't that enough?"

But whenever he starts talking about the past or complaining about his treatment in the blogosphere, he stops himself. That battle is over, and he lost it. I ask him how long it took him to get over what happened. "Ask me again tomorrow," he says. "Or next year."

In a sense, Michael Bellesiles will never get a second chance. The odds of his once more securing a tenure-track position are vanishingly small. He will never completely outrun the controversy over Arming America. He is aware of that, and his goals are more modest: "I would like to think that the scholarship I am producing will demonstrate that I am a competent, capable historian and I always have been."

He doesn't want to talk about Arming America. He doesn't want to talk about guns. He doesn't want to talk about Emory. Instead the historian wants to look forward. "Let's talk about the new book," he says. "And the book after that. And the book after that."