Garry Wills was on the three-hour In Depth program on Sunday, Jan. 2 on CSPAN2. Jerome Sternstein, an historian and VC reader who saw the noon (ET) broadcast, tipped me off and I watched the midnight (ET) rebroadcast. Wills was in good form–thoughtful, interesting, impressive.
What might be of interest to some Volokh Conspiracy readers, given Eugene’s many posts on the topic, is a couple of questions that Wills was asked about the Michael Bellesiles controversy over Arming America (2000). Wills had written a rave review in the New York Times when the book came out. In April 2002, I asked Wills after a lecture at Northwestern what he thought of the book then. He replied, “I was took. The book is a fraud.”
During the CSPAN2 interview, the first part of Wills’s statement to me was mentioned to him and he was asked for a comment. Wills responded that “a lot us were” taken, including the Bancroft Prize judges. Wills said that Bellesiles was “very convincing,” but “he went a step too far”; Bellesiles “claimed to have consulted archives he didn’t and he misrepresented those archives.” Wills said that there was “a lot of good, solid evidence” in the book, and Bellesiles didn’t have to do that. Then Wills said: “People get taken by very good con men.” Of course, this is stronger language than the sort I try to use about Bellesiles myself.
Wills was asked in effect if he should have responded sooner to criticisms of Arming America (the discussion wrongly attributed Wills’s review to the New York Review of Books rather than the New York Times). Wills said that he had wanted to wait until the challenges were verified, which they were in the Emory investigation, saying about the investigative report, “Clearly, I agreed with it.” He said there wasn’t a general problem in book reviewing, just “a massive breakdown in this one case.”
The only thing that I thought might have been significantly mistaken was when Wills said that the probate records in the archives were checked by “people who defend guns.” I assume he means pro-gun advocates. It is perhaps not surprising that Bellesiles’s false claim on this point is still believed. But it is false.
It was Justin Heather and I who went to the probate archives, and I have long been known as a pro-gun control scholar, having co-authored with one of my mentors, Frank Zimring. Others who looked at probate records in this case include Randy Roth, who favors gun control, and Gloria Main, who I believe probably does as well. Thus, I think it is fair to say that at least a majority of those scholars who looked at probate records to check Arming America favor substantial gun control.
UPDATE: I deleted the last paragraph from my original post on my note-taking of the show, now that the interview is online. You may listen to the In Depth program here. The three Arming America questions start at 2 hours and 5 minutes into the interview. I updated quotes and descriptions in the original post without indicating so (just as I said I would in my original post).
2D UPDATE: At the History News Network, Ralph Luker has a thoughtful review of 3 new books on historians’ scandals.