A New Book Coming Soon from Michael Bellesiles

History News Network reports about it (the title is 1877: America’s Year of Living Violently) and the rather pugnacious promotional campaign for it, which argues that Bellesiles’ Arming America was wrongly criticized. Arming America was indeed quite rightly condemned, including by our own Jim Lindgren, and Bellesiles rightly lost his Bancroft Prize, and his tenured Emory University position, as a result of the scandal. That the publicity campaign is so inaccurate is unfortunate; but it is certainly possible that the new book itself might prove to be sound, and I look forward to hearing more when the book is actually out. In the meantime, here’s the publisher’s galley letter, as quoted by the HNN post:

1877 is also notable as the comeback book for a celebrated U.S. historian. Michael Bellesiles is perhaps most famous as the target of an infamous “swiftboating” campaign by the National Rifle Association, following the publication of his Bancroft Prize-winning book Arming America (Knopf, 2000) — “the best kind of non-fiction,” according to the Chicago Tribune — which made daring claims about gun ownership in early America. In what became the history profession’s most talked-about and notorious case of the past generation, Arming America was eventually discredited after an unprecedented and controversial review called into question its sources, charges which Bellesiles and his many prominent supporters have always rejected.”

And here’s an excerpt from the conclusion to the Report of the Investigative Committee in the matter of Professor Michael Bellesiles (appointed by Emory):

We have interviewed Professor Bellesiles and found him both cooperative and respectful of this process. Yet the best that can be said of his work with the probate and militia records is that he is guilty of unprofessional and misleading work. Every aspect of his work in the probate records is deeply flawed. Even allowing for the loss of some of his research materials, he appears not to have been systematic in selecting repositories or collections of probate records for examination and his recording methods were at best primitive and altogether unsystematic. Bellesiles seems to have been utterly unaware of the importance of the possibility of the replication of his research. Subsequent to the allegations of research misconduct, his responses have been prolix, confusing, evasive and occasionally contradictory. We are surprised and troubled that Bellesiles has not availed himself of the opportunities he has had since the notice of this investigation to examine, identify and share his remaining research materials. Even at this point, it is not clear that he fully understands the magnitude of his own probate research shortcomings.

The Committee’s investigation has been seriously hampered by the absence or unavailability of Professor Bellesiles’ critical and apparently lost research records and by the failures of memory and careful record keeping which Professor Bellesiles himself describes. Given his conflicting statements and accounts, it has been difficult to establish where and how Professor Bellesiles conducted his research into the probate records he cites: for example, what was read in microfilm and where and in what volume, what archives, in some cases, were actually visited and what they contained In addition to this, we note his subsequent failure to be fully forthcoming, and the implausibility of some of his defenses — a prime example is that of the “hacking” of his website; another is his disavowal of the e-mails of Aug. 30 and Sept. 19, 2000 to Professor Lindgren which present a version of the location and reading of records substantially in conflict with Professor Bellesiles’ current account. Taking all this into account, we are led to conclude that, under Question 5, Professor Bellesiles did engage in “serious deviations from accepted practices in carrying out [and] reporting results from research.” As to these matters, comprehending points (a) – (c) under Question 5, his scholarly integrity is seriously in question.

In summary, we find on Questions 1 and 2, that despite serious failures of and carelessness in the gathering and presentation of archival records and the use of quantitative analysis, we cannot speak of intentional fabrication or falsification. On Question 3, we find that the strained character of Professor Bellesiles’ explanation raises questions about his veracity with respect to his account of having consulted probate records in San Francisco County. On Question 4, dealing with the construction of the vital Table One, we find evidence of falsification. And on Question 5, which raises the standard of professional historical scholarship, we find that Professor Bellesiles falls short on all three counts.

I would not have quoted this material again, and let the new book stand on its own: Bellesiles suffered amply (though rightly) for his misconduct, and it’s good that he’s getting a second chance. But the publicity letter that HNN quoted calls for a reminder about the facts.

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