Bellesiles, Michael A.
BELLESILES, Michael A.
ADDRESSES: Agent—c/o Author Mail, Soft Skull Press, 71 Bond St., Brooklyn, NY 11217.
CAREER: Educator and historian. Emory University, Atlanta, GA, associate professor until December, 2002; teacher in Scotland beginning c. 2003.
AWARDS, HONORS: Binkley-Stephenson Award, 1996; Stanford Humanities Center fellowship, 1998-99; National Endowment for the Humanitites fellowship, 2000; Bancroft Prize, Columbia University, for Arming America, 2001 (rescinded, 2002).
Revolutionary Outlaws: Ethan Allan and the Struggle for Independence in the Early American Frontier, University Press of Virginia (Charlottesville, VA), 1993.
Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture, Knopf (New York, NY), 2000, revised edition, Soft Skull Press (Brooklyn, NY), 2003.
Contributor, with others, to The Second Amendment in Law and History: Historians and Constitutional Scholars on the Right to Bear Arms, edited by Carl T. Bogus, New Press (New York, NY), 2000.
SIDELIGHTS: Historian Michael A. Bellesiles has researched, taught, and published in the area of early American history, focusing on the Revolutionary War, early Republic, constitutional law, and the origins of American gun culture. While on the faculty of Emory University, he also served as founding director of the school's violence studies program. Among his published works are Revolutionary Outlaws: Ethan Allan and the Struggle for Independence in the Early American Frontier and Lethal Imagination: Violence and Brutality in History. He resigned from his position at Emory after his book Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture became embroiled in a scandal over research that could not be corroborated. With its central assertion that gun ownership was not common among Americans until the U.S. Civil War, the award-winning book prompted much political and ethical debate, including considerable coverage in the non-academic press.
Bellesiles's previous work made him a prominent historian in the area of early American history. One of his most important publications, Revolutionary Outlaws: Ethan Allan and the Struggle for Independence in the Early American Frontier was heralded for providing new insight on an American hero. The book shows how the charismatic Allen became a key figure in Vermont's struggle to be independent from New Hampshire and New York, and how his efforts are linked to the American Revolution. Bellesiles considers Allen's interest in these events as an entrepreneur and as a political and intellectual leader.
Revolutionary Outlaws was welcomed as a rich work that would appeal to historians and non-academics. Jere Daniell remarked in Journal of InterdisciplinaryHistory that there is "something for everyone in this superb retelling of Ethan Allen's life." In American Studies International, John Sherwood noted that the book "should stand as the definitive published study of Ethan Allen and the rise of agrarian democracy in frontier Vermont." Randolph A. Roth commented in the William and Mary Quarterly that Bellesiles is "a gifted writer. He tells his story well and backs it with substantial research." Roth gave special praise to the author's insight into Allen's personality and reinterpretation of the 1779 work The Narrative of Colonel Ethan Allen's Captivity. Writing for Reviews in American History, John L. Brooke described the book as "a 'reintegration' both of the interpretive traditions of the story of early Vermont and of the themes of politics and society which have so divided the profession in the past quarter-century."
As editor of Lethal Imagination: Violence and Brutality in History, Bellesiles collected twenty essays on violence in American history. Themes including racism, gender, state-led violence, and violence in war time are treated. Reviews of the book included Eric H. Monkkonen's assessment in the American Historical Review that while the editor is "widely respected for his pioneering and eye-opening work on guns," the range of essays is too much of a stretch. In History Today Jeremy Black remarked, "Bar an overly brief introduction, this book is much to be commended" and called it a "fascinating volume." Critic Donna J. Spindel praised the work in Historian, where she noted that Bellesiles "makes available the scholarship of a number of young historians whose interests reflect some very contemporary issues."
Bellesiles' further work resulted in the highly controversial Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture. His thesis—that gun ownership was not common among Americans until the Civil War era—was of great interest to historians and to those on both sides of the gun-control debate. The book contradicts the idea that the Second Amendment was written with individual gun ownership in mind, rather than the maintenance of a militia. A key assertion is that, according to analysis of probate records from 1763 to 1790, only fourteen percent of men in the frontier lands of New England and Pennsylvania owned guns. Bellesiles also concludes that many guns were not kept in working order. He describes how the invention of the Minie ball, other design improvements, and large-scale manufacture of guns in America did not occur until the mid-nineteenth century.
The release of Arming America was widely covered in the press. Among those who commended the book were Garry Wills in the New York Times Book Review and Edmund Morgan in the New York Review of Books. Bellesiles was also awarded the prestigious Bancroft Prize for historical writing by Columbia University. Some of the negative responses to Arming America came from the gun lobby, including comments by Charlton Heston as head of the National Rifle Association. Another detractor, James Lindgren, faulted Bellesiles's probate record data in the William and Mary Law Review and Yale Law Journal. Others focused on the issue of academic dishonesty, connecting the controversy to recent discoveries that other well-known writers plagiarized or misrepresented source material. The fevered pitch of some responses led the American Historical Association and Organization of American Historians to make resolutions condemning abusive treatment of the author.
Praise for the book was ultimately overshadowed by accusations that some of Bellesiles' research could not be replicated. Amidst heavy scholarly and political debate, a panel convened by Emory University did not find that Bellesiles had falsified information, but rather concluded that some of his research using probate records was "unprofessional and misleading." Subsequently, the Bancroft prize was revoked, Knopf stopped selling the book, and the author resigned from his position at Emory. Bellesiles explained that his notes were lost in a flood at the university and that references to non-existent probate records from San Francisco were simply a mistake. He has stated that the elements that were criticized constitute only a small part of his research, and that the book's main arguments do not depend on these probate records.
When Bellesiles' job at Emory became jeopardized articles in the Economist and Nation warned against throwing out the central thesis of Arming America based on criticism of only a portion of the work. Jon Wiener discussed the Emory review board's actions in Nation, saying "since the issue here is Bellesiles's integrity as a historian, the Emory inquiry should have been as sweeping as the stakes, instead of being tied to a few pages in a big book." Bellesiles subsequently prepared a revised edition of Arming America for Soft Skull Press, and he also took a job teaching abroad.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
American Historical Review, February, 2001, Eric H. Monkkonen, review of Lethal Imagination: Violence and Brutality in History, p. 157.
American Studies International, October, 1996, John Sherwood, "Book Notes: History," p. 100.
Economist, March 9, 2002, "Just Another Piece of Furniture; Guns in American History."
Historian, winter, 2001, Donna J. Spindel, review of Lethal Imagination, p. 401.
History Today, March 2000, Jeremy Black, review of Lethal Imagination, p. 57.
Journal of Interdisciplinary History, autumn, 1995, Jere Daniell, review of Revolutionary Outlaws: Ethan Allan and the Struggle for Independence in the Early American Frontier, p. 330.
Nation, November 4, 2002, Jon Wiener, "Fire at Will: How the Critics Shot up Michael Bellesiles's Book Arming America," p. 28; November 25, 2002, "Update on Arming America," p.35.
National Review, October 15, 2001, Melissa Seckora, "Disarming America—A Prize-winning Historian and His Gun Myths."
New York Review of Books, October 19, 2000, Edmund S. Morgan, "In Love with Guns," pp. 30-32.
New York Times Book Review, September 10, 2000, Garry Wills, "Spiking the Gun Myth," p. 5.
Reviews in American History, September, 1994, John L. Brooke, review of Revolutionary Outlaws, p. 406.
William and Mary Quarterly, July, 1994, Randolph A. Roth, review of Revolutionary Outlaws, p. 582.
Emory Wheel Online,http://emorywheel.com/ (October 25, 2002), Michael de la Merced, "Bellesiles Resigns as Fraud Investigation Ends."*