“I bet I know which book your prof read” accurately claims Michael Hutchison, regarding the genesis of a notion that gun ownership was rare in early America

If this happened in the last few years, I’ll bet your prof had read Michael Bellesiles’ “Arming America.” He contended that, in almost the exact same words you used above, gun ownership was much rarer than previously thought and thus the second amendment did not guarantee personal ownership of guns as hardly anyone had them. He claimed to have uncovered this through the use of probate, since firearms would (he assumed) be valuable items left to others in wills.

After all his book sales, hype, kudos, awards and honors, it came to light that Bellesiles’ had committed a good deal of fraud in making these claims. People trying to validate his research were unable to find the records. He claimed to use records from 19th Century San Francisco, when they had all been destroyed in the Great San Francisco Earthquake. When challenged to provide his proof, he said that all of his notes had been lost in a flood.

As one fact-checker said, the matter that every error is an error in favor of his thesis tends to remove the possibility that this is accidental.

I did read a good response to his book, BEFORE the research data was proven to be falsified, which simply contended that his thesis was wrong. Guns may not have been cheap, but if they weren’t mentioned in wills it didn’t mean that they didn’t exist…simply that guns were an everyday tool to a frontiersman, not a cherished heirloom. I can’t find that article, but it’s late. *

A summary of the work is here. A more tentative view:

I haven’t looked too closely at the colonial firearms controversy, but based on what I know I’m not sure the historian was guilty of deliberate fraud. Few trained historians really cheat. But using obscure primary sources to make estimates that prove this or that is a tricky business. Your sample or methodology can lead you astray, especially if you’re determined to find a certain thing from the start. That’s why it takes a lot of historians looking at the same kinds of questions to come up with a good overall picture. It’s also why people trying to invoke history to make a point should be very careful about citing a single historian’s work as proof, and why people should not just read books by historians they personally agree with. **

The truth does matter, according to Mr. Hutchison.

I’m sure there is a big difference between a biased observer and a fraud, and whether Bellesiles is the latter or not may not yet be proven. I haven’t been following the controversy that closely.

Citing records that don’t actually exist, such as San Francisco city records from an era where the records are gone, or the 100 wills he cited from people who died without wills… well, if you want to argue those are just mistakes, you are free to. ***

from Not From Around Here:

Fraud can be harder to prove or disprove than you might think. Subject almost anybody’s work to a powerful enough microscope and you’re likely to find things that don’t add up. Whether it constitutes fraud or simple mistakes isn’t always obvious.

When I was in grad school there was a big controversy regarding an up-and-coming historian who published a book with a somewhat controversial thesis. A historian on the other side of the question had a team of research assistants go over the guy’s work with a fine-toothed comb and found quite a few errors. He accused the man of deliberate fraud. The other guy defended himself. Historians argued for years over whether he was a cheat or just mistaken. It ruined his career and he had to leave the profession entirely. Some people still think he was an honestly mistaken scholar who was ruined by a vendetta.

From what I’ve seen, Bellesiles looks like a typical historical revisionist. Revisionists almost always go too far when they question traditional accounts and interpretations. But they do often raise useful questions and start useful debates. Bellesiles may have been wrong when he tried to say that firearms were rare in colonial America. But the debate he started has caused people to look at the subject more closely and possibly come to a more detailed understanding of it. Even if he cooked the books he might have done a useful service, although that wouldn’t excuse it. *

From Chuck Dixon:

Bellesiles wasn’t the least bit interested in spawning a healthy debate. He was about pushing his own political beliefs and knew that a book with his “findings” would have a ready audience and lots of support. What he didn’t count on was the integrity of historians on both ends of the political spectrum.

There is no silver lining to him putting forth lies in the place of truth. **

If history is what we use to clarify our knowledge of life and know how to improve our future it only harms us, not helps us, to present and/or justify an outlook that runs contrary to actual fact. Lies can shape the future and are not a healthy extension of the past.

source *IP: 66.188.210.248

Posted on July 12, 2004 at 03:42:14 AM

**IP: 129.59.151.117

Posted on July 12, 2004 at 11:47:48 AM by Not From Around Here

***IP: 66.188.210.248

Posted on July 12, 2004 at 06:47:19 PM

*IP: 129.59.151.117

Posted on July 13, 2004 at 10:30:21 AM

**IP: 4.239.90.73

Posted on July 13, 2004 at 04:22:28 PM