In the fall of 2000, professor Michael Bellesiles of Emory University published his book Arming America, which purported to establish that the core historical argument behind the Second Amendment was a fraud.
The brave minuteman armed with his trusty rifle, Bellesiles told us, was mostly a myth — Americans at the time of the Revolution, and for many decades afterward, seldom owned guns, but instead relied on the government for protection.
Bellesiles received glowing reviews in the New York Times Book Review, the New York Review of Books, the Atlantic Monthly, and many other publications, from reviewers who were often visibly pleased that he was sticking it to the National Rifle Association.
As it turns out, the fraud was on Bellesiles’ end. At least, that’s the conclusion of those who have examined his work — from journalists, to historians, to law professors — and found it wanting.
Bellesiles turns out to have quoted sources out of context, to have falsely reported data, and to have claimed to have used documents that have not existed since the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. One historian familiar with Bellesiles’ work called it a case of "bona fide academic fraud." Emory University is investigating.
It is, I suppose, conceivable that Bellesiles will manage to convince people that he was merely guilty of extraordinary sloppiness and not outright fraud, but regardless of his state of mind, his book is now well-established as untrustworthy.
Book review editor Karen Sandstrom of the Cleveland Plain Dealer has written that the positive reviews that Arming America received are evidence of a serious problem in the way American book review editors do their job, especially with regard to books that fit the editors’ preconceptions.
Yet despite all these problems with Bellesiles’ work, many of the publications that afforded his book so much laudatory attention when it came out have remained silent.
The New York Times belatedly ran news reports on the Bellesiles scandal, after it was broken by the Wall Street Journal, the National Review, and the Boston Globe. But the New York Times Book Review — for whom Garry Wills wrote on Sept. 10, 2000, "Bellesiles deflates the myth of the self-reliant and self-armed virtuous yeoman of the Revolutionary militias" — has published nothing on the subject (nor has Wills).
The Times even reran a portion of Wills’ laudatory review upon the publication of the paperback edition of Arming America, well after it should have been obvious that Bellesiles’ work was seriously flawed.
Similarly, the New York Review of Books ran a review on Oct. 19, 2000, by Edmund Morgan stating that "Bellesiles may have overstated his case a little, but only a little...He has the facts. [N]o one else has put them together in so compelling a refutation of the mythology of the gun."
The New York Review of Books has not published a retraction.
The Christian Science Monitor's review of Arming America that ran on Sept. 7, 2000, cheerily predicted that "the NRA will continue peddling its myths, oblivious of Bellesiles and his annoying truths." The Christian Science Monitor has not withdrawn this statement.
The Atlantic Monthly published a review in its November 2000, issue that did point out some minor errors in Bellesiles’ book. But it also wrote: "Bellesiles has made a detailed study of the records of gun ownership and militia service...Blending quantitative analysis with a careful reading of public documents, he paints a new picture of the role of privately owned firearms in American history: [before] the Civil War, relatively few Americans owned guns."
A search of their site shows no mention of Bellesiles since.
Publishers Weekly wrote on July 24, 2000, "[H]is agenda, however, does not taint Bellesiles’ scholarship...he painstakingly documents the relative absence of guns before the Civil War." Publisher’s Weekly has not withdrawn or amended this review.
Book Magazine, in its November/December 2000 issue wrote: "Thoroughly researched, when all of Bellesiles’ findings are assembled and put in their proper perspective, there is little left standing to maintain the romantic notion of the gun as a symbol of American greatness or freedom."
Book Magazine appears not to have acknowledged the problems with Bellesiles’ book.
The Los Angeles Times Book Review wrote on Sept. 17, 2000, "Bellesiles argues a brief against the myths that align freedom with the gun." The Times Book Review has not retracted this review.
The book review editors involved should not feel terribly guilty for being taken in at the outset: Bellesiles’ book, after all, fooled the Columbia University history department, which awarded him the Bancroft Prize in April of 2001.
There is, perhaps, some blameworthiness in assigning virulently anti-gun writers like Garry Wills — who were unlikely to exert themselves by examining the evidence behind a thesis they clearly cherished – to review Bellesiles’ book. But now that the book’s credibility has been exploded, there is considerable blameworthiness in failing to acknowledge that fact in the same pages where the book was praised so fulsomely, less than two years ago.
To its credit, the Chronicle of Higher Education, an academic newspaper that featured Bellesiles on its front page when Arming America first appeared, gave similar front-page treatment to the books problems. But not many have followed its lead. Why?
Some editors might say that, by now, their reviews of Bellesiles’ book are old news — but of course, as the research for this piece demonstrates, they are readily available on the Internet or via other electronic research services. And one would think that book review editors and publishers would feel an obligation to tell the public that it has been led astray, with their unwitting assistance.
In the meantime, let the reader beware.
(Thanks to professor Eugene Volokh and the UCLA Law Library, who provided some valuable research assistance.)
Glenn Harlan Reynolds is a law professor at the University of Tennessee and publishes InstaPundit.Com. He is co-author, with Peter W. Morgan, of The Appearance of Impropriety: How the Ethics Wars Have Undermined American Government, Business, and Society (The Free Press, 1997).