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Scholarly lies

Culture | Emory University upholds objective truth and ousts an anti-gun history professor for his phony research

Issue: "The Bush mandate," Nov. 16, 2002

American history was made by men with guns. Minutemen fighting the British; frontier families with their long rifles; Westerners with their Winchesters and Colt revolvers. At least that has been the popular assumption. But Emory history professor Michael Bellesiles, in his book Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture, makes the case that this is all a myth.

Very few Americans in the 17th, 18th, and early 19th century, he argues, owned guns: Early settlers trapped, but they did not hunt; the few guns individuals did own tended to be rusty and often inoperable; only after the Civil War and the industrial revolution, with the advent of big gun manufacturers like Samuel Colt who advertised his wares in a hyped-up sales campaign, did a "national gun culture" arise.

Mr. Bellesiles's book won the 2001 Bancroft Prize, the most prestigious award in the field of American history. Anti-gun activists seized upon his work, since it supports their view that the Second Amendment right "to keep and bear arms" does not refer to individual gun ownership but to a collective establishment of "a well-regulated militia."

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Trouble is, he seems to have made up his data. Other historians found that his sources either did not exist or contained completely different evidence.

And now Emory University has taken the unusual step of investigating his research to see whether it violated a university policy against academic dishonesty. Emory commissioned a blue-ribbon panel of historians-Stanley Katz of Princeton, Hanna Gray of the University of Chicago, and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich of Harvard-to examine Mr. Bellesiles's research, and the panel's report found him guilty. Mr. Bellesiles, while still maintaining his innocence, resigned.

Mr. Bellesiles developed his claim that early Americans seldom owned guns by studying wills, probate records, and other inventories of property, then counting the numbers of guns that turned up. Thus he claims that from 1765 to 1790 on the frontiers of northern New England and western Pennsylvania the gun ownership rate was only 14 percent.

To arrive at these figures, though, the panel found that Mr. Bellesiles lumped all kinds of different information together, then manipulated it statistically. Wills seldom mention specific property, other than keepsakes, and some inventories were intended to be just of farm implements. Probate information from the estates of women, who were less likely to own guns, was added into probate information from the estates of men. Conflating all of this together and then taking percentages of the number of times guns were mentioned allowed him to understate the number of firearms.

Mr. Bellesiles also uses certain records from local militias, in which citizens came together into ad hoc military units to repel Indian attacks, fight the British in 1812, or fight each other in the Civil War. He claims militiamen came to the fight basically unarmed. He cites one muster in 1746 in which only 57 percent of the men brought a gun. The review panel found this to be a blatant misrepresentation. The original records list only one company-composed of particularly poor citizens-as being 43 percent disarmed. Of the other five companies, every man brought a rifle in two of them. The total rate of gun ownership in the militia was 80 percent.

But the problems in Mr. Bellesiles's research went beyond mushy statistics-mongering and biased and selective interpretations. Mr. Bellesiles claimed to have used probate records in San Francisco. But those records turned out to have been destroyed in the great earthquake and fire of 1906. When asked to produce his original notes, Mr. Bellesiles said that he lost them when his office was flooded, an event that his colleagues at Emory dispute. When asked about fallacious data posted on his website, he insisted that some hacker had put it there.

Emory and the history profession are to be commended for upholding the principle that scholarship has to do with objective truth. For many postmodernists, though, truth is nothing more than a construction whose purpose is to advance a political agenda. Scholars who think that way deserve special scrutiny. Universities would do well to take a look at the work of gender feminists, queer theorists, Marxists, and post-Marxists. A check of their evidence, sources, and conclusions would make Mr. Bellesiles's transgressions seem mild by comparison.

But if the academy is taking truth seriously again and holding politically correct scholars accountable for objective accuracy, maybe postmodernism really is over.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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