[The Montana Professor 14.2, Spring 2004 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

The Bellesiles Case and the Ethics of Scholarship

George M. Dennison
President, The University of Montana

Bellesiles has dispersed the darkness that covered the gun's early history in America. He provides overwhelming evidence that our view of the gun is as deep a superstition as any that affected Native Americans in the 17th century./1/


Forty years ago, while enrolled in a graduate history seminar at The University of Montana, then known as Montana State University, I learned valuable lessons I have never forgotten. During the first quarter each of us in the seminar had to prepare an introductory chapter for an extended paper due at year-end. Our neophyte efforts at doing history focused on reading and analyzing "The Adams Papers," available on microfilm in the University Library (not yet named the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Library). We had our choice of specific topics, and each of us selected something of interest during the period from the late 18th through the early 20th centuries. I elected to study and write about the twenty years that Henry Adams omitted from his famous autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, first published privately in 1906./2/ To fulfill the initial assignment, I read all I could manage of the secondary literature dealing with the late 19th century and attempted to synthesize the arguments into a context for the work to follow. The professor in charge required each of us in the class to critique the papers presented by our peers. Every reader received a copy of the paper prior to the session, and then prepared and read a critique in class. The presenter--who neither read nor summarized the paper during the class session--had the responsibility to offer rebuttal to the critiques. Then the professor commented. When I presented the introduction, the real learning began.

As the initial presenter, I worked very hard to prepare myself. My peers had little to say about my introduction, as it happened, aside from minor suggestions about style and glowing compliments about the scope, clarity, and usefulness of the analysis. However, with his comments, the professor demonstrated in excruciating detail how to raise questions about the arguments, use of evidence, and bases for conclusions or generalizations. In the course of a devastating exegesis, I occasionally lost my bearings--not to mention my composure--even as I struggled to defend my essential thesis, growing less confident with each exchange. At the close of the session, to my relieved but utter astonishment, the professor praised my effort to construct a valid and useful context and explained that he had used the occasion as a teaching moment for all of us. As he said, despite my lack of breadth and depth in the field, I had faithfully considered and sought to integrate the range of interpretations of the major developments during the period. First lessons learned: Consider the conflicting views in the published scholarship and seek to reconcile or explain them. Do not proceed as if in totally new terrain never before explored. Build on the known, or demonstrate conclusively with evidence the unreliability of the presumed known. Expect your readers to challenge your arguments and conclusions, and stand ready to defend them.

Some weeks later, a colleague delivered his introduction. We all prepared and read our critiques, but none of us had much of value to say. I tried very hard, determined to show I had learned something from my earlier experience. But, in truth, I found even the style beyond reproach. Then the professor struck. Within a matter of moments, the poor student confessed that he had borrowed verbatim every sentence in the paper. He wrote nothing himself, but rather assembled the sentences in a marvelously edited piece that drew on the best scholarship available. Even more telling for those of us watching and listening, he lifted two sentences directly from the introduction I had presented earlier in the quarter. I had failed to recognize even my own work! My colleagues and I had simply assumed the legitimacy of the research and writing. Additional lessons: Always suspend judgment pending independent verification. Never assume the validity of the work under review, whatever its origins, apparent bonafides, or inherent allure. Check the citations and the proffered evidence to ascertain authenticity, originality, and reliability. Insist upon replicability of method and result./*/

Fast forward to the late 1980s when, in my role as Provost at a mid-western university, I found it necessary to take action against a young faculty member who published the work of his graduate students as his own, with no attribution or credit. Charged with plagiarism, he denied even the possibility of the offense. As he said, in today's world of instant access to information, plagiarism cannot occur. Moreover, since the students had simply developed the ideas and insights he provided to them, he claimed the resultant works as essentially his own. Despite a hearing's finding of guilty as charged, he persisted in his protestations, even after submitting to the sanctions that included sending letters to the editors of the journals in which he had published the articles, admitting what he had done. Although he conceded the facts, this faculty member had no sense of the nature or gravity of his offense, or even that an offense had occurred.

The lessons learned illustrate the critical importance of an adequate socialization process for those seeking admission to the professorate, and an accepted and well-understood code of ethical conduct to guide those ultimately admitted. In my view, the weakening of these crucial foundations for any profession has contributed to the increasing incidence of serious problems in academe.

A series of recent incidents coalesce to present a warning to the scholarly community, or at least to the historical profession, that the traditions and ethical principles hitherto taken for granted no longer have the directive power they once exerted in the profession./3/ Making them even more significant, these incidents do not involve neophytes such as graduate students or relatively young faculty members. Two of the incidents involved major figures in the academic community, and the other arguably occurred because leading figures failed to fulfill their scholarly obligations. I refer to the allegations of plagiarism against Professors Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin and the charges of unprofessional conduct against Professor Michael Bellesiles./4/ Professor Ambrose dismissed the charges brusquely, while Professor Goodwin conceded their validity and paid her accuser in a futile effort to keep the facts from surfacing. Bellesiles continues to assert his innocence./5/ These incidents, combined with similar ones, some in other disciplines as well, strike me as cause for alarm. I will discuss the first two briefly, and devote more attention to the third in what follows.


Most people know or know of the work of Steve Ambrose, if not that on the "Citizen Soldier" and World War II in general, then surely that on the Lewis and Clark Expedition and the transcontinental railroads. Doris Kearns Goodwin won recognition as a presidential scholar through her work on Lyndon Baines Johnson and other presidents, serving often as a commentator for PBS, and also has written extensively on related topics, including the relationships between the Fitzgeralds and Kennedys. Ambrose admitted that he had neglected to use quotation marks to identify sentences and extensive word structures that appear in his works but were actually written by other authors, although he never failed to cite the works he consulted. As he explained, he simply committed understandable errors in bringing together his extensive notes--many prepared by research assistants--and doing multiple revisions of the narratives prior to publication. Moreover, he corrected the oversights when the works went into new or reprinted editions. Goodwin explained her errors similarly and agreed to correct them, while also making a payment in partial compensation to the author from whose work she copied, as she said, inadvertently. The author subsequently revealed the incident, and Goodwin lost her PBS position and suffered enormously in loss of scholarly reputation.

These two incidents, involving major figures in academic history circles as well as the general public, raised eyebrows throughout the country. Professor Eric Foner, Columbia University, commented publicly about both controversies./6/ While he praised the work of both historians, he found the Ambrose offense more egregious. In his view, the pursuit of the dollar led Ambrose to attempt too much in such a short period. Foner speculated that Ambrose simply pushed himself beyond the limits of human capacity, with the result that errors occurred. He viewed the Goodwin lapses as unfortunate oversights. Foner to the contrary notwithstanding, I disagree. Goodwin's errors occurred in her early work, and although she admitted them confidentially when informed, she offered payment to settle the matter out of the public view. Obviously, the matter did not remain settled to the benefit of the reading public. Ambrose made no effort to suppress the public discussion of his errors.

Michael Bellesiles presents a more puzzling and challenging case, clearly of a different nature and much more difficult to interpret than the other two. A relatively unknown but promising young historian at Emory University--he had published an earlier book and several articles--Bellesiles had worked closely with colleagues to develop an interdisciplinary center for the study of violence in American history. Aside from a biographical study of Ethan Allen, the Revolutionary War hero from Vermont, his first major piece of scholarship appeared in the Journal of American History--the scholarly organ of the Organization of American Historians--in the January 1996 issue./7/ The article went through the standard but usually quite demanding peer review process for a journal that accepts only a very small percentage of articles submitted for publication. In addition, the Organization subsequently bestowed on the Bellesiles piece the annual Binkley-Stephenson Award as the best article published in the Journal during 1996.

In the article, Bellesiles developed the thesis that, contrary to accepted views, Americans did not have a "gun culture" until after the Civil War. In fact, he claimed, few Americans owned or cared about guns, preferring the knife or axe as weapon or tool. To support the argument, he cited evidence he said he found in probate records and inventories, gun censuses, militia musters, travel accounts, letters and memoirs, early histories, literature of the times, and other contemporary accounts. Although he subsequently denied it, he clearly placed great reliance on the quantitative evidence drawn from the probate records and gun censuses. In the article, he explained that his "contrary thesis began with the dog that did not bark"--a reference to a Sherlock Holmes remark./8/ He also developed two sub-theses: (1) as the incidence of gun ownership increased, so did the homicide rate; and (2) the federal government contributed to the emergence of a "gun culture" by fostering and promoting the development and manufacture of more efficient, effective, and less costly guns. In a sweeping presentation, Bellesiles offered an analysis that appeared to stand the accepted interpretation of the topic on its head. In the time-honored practice, he presented to the profession an alternative view for consideration.

The article had such a profound impact that Bellesiles almost immediately secured a contract from Alfred A. Knopf--a leading commercial publisher of historical works--for a book that purported to provide the evidence sustaining his argument./9/ In structure and argument, the book followed the article while offering up evidence drawn from a wide array of sources. Generally writing in a pedestrian style, Bellesiles occasionally interspersed derogatory or witty remarks contributing nothing to the argument but revealing a good deal about the author. Nonetheless, the book elicited rave reviews from leading academic historians, including Garry Wills, Edmund Morgan, and Fred Anderson, among others./10/ In 2001, Columbia University awarded Bellesiles the Bancroft Prize for the best book on American history published in 2000. Finally, the Newberry Library in Chicago subsequently granted him a fellowship with funds provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities to enable him to conduct research on a new book he proposed concerning gun policy in the United States. Then the trouble began.

Actually, some critics raised issues almost immediately after the publication of the article. Even before the book appeared, Charlton Heston, an effective spokesperson for the National Rifle Association, sounded the alarm for those concerned about their "right" to acquire and own guns. The source and thrust of the criticism had the effect of rallying academic historians to defend Bellesiles./11/ As many, including the Councils of the American Historical Association and the Omohundro Institute of Early American History, noted, scholarship depends upon evidence, careful analysis, and responsible statement of findings, not political posturing to protect sacred cows such as the individual right to own and carry firearms./12/ Since they viewed these attacks as emanating from individuals and groups seeking to protect a political agenda rather than from scholars with divergent interpretations, the academic historians gave them short shrift.

Early on, Bellesiles defended himself by proclaiming his scholarly integrity, standing aloof from the detailed critiques and arguing that he had no control over the use others sought to make of his work. As he explained, "Arming America does not, to my knowledge, support any contemporary political position."/13/ Nonetheless, he went on to assert that "A significant component of...[my] research is the contention that the widely held view that all American men owned firearms and were crack shots needs revision." He claimed that only "a decided minority of American men owned firearms." These comments revealed a tendency to exaggerate or, at the very least, to use imprecise terms. In scholarly exchanges and interviews in the popular press, he explained that he had not expected to find what analysis of the evidence clearly revealed. From the colonial period until well into the 19th century, guns were expensive, scarce, unreliable, difficult to manipulate, not very effective in the warfare of the times (at least until outfitted with a bayonet), and largely controlled by governments in any event, he claimed. In several venues, he cited evidence from his extensive research in the probate records and inventories, gun censuses, and militia musters to prove the points./14/ Directly to the point, Bellesiles constructed a table for the article that he included virtually unchanged in the book purporting to show that only about 15 percent of the population had guns until well into the 19th century, and a large number of these were defective or broken./15/ As he said on one occasion, he had expected to find guns everywhere, but did not. He also cast aspersions on the scholarly credentials of Charlton Heston, an actor and a shill at most, and other critics, urging research and counter arguments supported by evidence rather than political objections.

However, within a short time, serious scholars began to raise challenging questions. They went to the same sources Bellesiles claimed to have used, and

The findings of these serious scholars, sharply focused on the probate records and inventories and other specific citations, required a response from the author. Nonetheless, Bellesiles continued to stand aloof, pleading that water damage at Emory had destroyed his notes in May 2000. Therefore, he had to rely on his memory to explain the records he had reviewed. In any event, he admitted he had not specifically identified each probate record he consulted, but merely put marks on a legal pad when he found evidence of a gun in an inventory. After further criticism, he subsequently conceded the weakness of his methodology and mode of analysis, but offered the caveat that probate research was fraught with problems. Whereas he had stated in the article and book, and in several interviews, that probate records contained complete inventories of owned items, he conceded in response to criticism the hit-or-miss nature of these records. He explained that he had used time series analyses as a more reliable approach. But he failed to mention that he omitted certain years--notably 1775-1776--because of what he deemed a clear trend toward war with colonial governments distributing arms to the citizenry./17/ Even more telling, at one point he commented that math had always been very hard for him. But, as he said in his final defense of his book, the discussion of probate evidence had required only about five paragraphs and one table in a book of more than 300 pages with over 1300 footnotes. In response to the critics, he denied that his central thesis depended upon the validity of the probate evidence--however cursory--since he had analyzed hundreds of other sources that supported the argument. Actually, he had referred frequently in the article, book, and interviews to the quantitative analyses he had done, although his description of the analytical process was all too brief. Nonetheless, he went so far as to agree to remove these offending parts of the book in any reprinted editions, asserting that the argument remained unchanged and as strong as ever. Such disclaimers failed to persuade the critics.

More to the point, Bellesiles clearly changed his ground as the criticisms hit the target. For example, in the book's introductory section entitled "In Search of Guns," he commented:

While studying county probate records (inventories of property after death) for a project on the legal and economic evolution of the early American frontier, I was puzzled by the absence of something that I assumed would be found in every record: guns. Probate records list every piece of personal property, from acreage to broken cups. An examination of more than a thousand probate records from the frontiers of northern New England and western Pennsylvania for the years 1765 to 1790 revealed that only 14 percent of the inventories included firearms; over half (53 percent) of these guns were listed as broken or otherwise defective. [...] Obviously guns could have been passed on to heirs before the death of the original owner. Yet wills generally mention previous bequests, even of minor items, and only four mentioned firearms. That was the beginning of this project, a ten-year search for "the word that isn't there."/18/

He characterized his argument in a way that made clear his reliance upon quantitative evidence: "This book is concerned with the normative, with what most people did, owned, and thought in reference to guns, most of the time. The question is one of cultural primacy: What lies at the core of national identity?"/19/ His conclusion fairly well directed the argument in the book: "For the modern United States, guns are determinative; for early America, they served an often limited function. It is possible, of course, to extract a few ripe quotations here and there that argue otherwise, and reference will be made to several. But the perspective of this work is that the aggregate matters." He clearly intended to provide the aggregate, and he pursued it quantitatively.


As a result of the critical onslaught, by early 2003, Emory University had accepted the report of a special committee of three distinguished historians finding Bellesiles guilty at least of unprofessional conduct, Columbia University had revoked the Bancroft Prize, the National Endowment for the Humanities had directed the Newberry Library to take its name off the fellowship awarded to him, Alfred A. Knopf had declined to publish a new edition of the book, and he had resigned his position at Emory, effective 31 December 2002, claiming he could not work in the hostile environment and blaming others./20/ Within a period of two years, a relatively unknown but promising historian had claimed the limelight for a brief period, only to "fall from grace" quickly, all the while defending his intentions and his honor. To this day, even as he has initiated a more methodologically sound means of replicating his research--which he explained he undertook because of the value of probate records to the historian generally and not to prove his gun thesis, since "I do not believe that the probate records are central to the argument in Arming America"/21/--he claims that he became the victim of political forces within the society injured by the results of his scholarship. While this belated statement by Bellesiles stands as his best (but still inadequate) attempt to respond to the critics, what of the principal claims of his book?

In fact, little of substance remains of his thesis and sub-theses. In sum, no one doubts

It requires little reflection to recognize the commonsensical and consensual bases of these points. The salient aspects of the Bellesiles thesis fell before evidence showing that

Finally, the arguments concerning the intent and basis of the Second Amendment continue unabated./22/ The scholarly critiques have substantiated these conclusions beyond question.

Upon further reflection, one wonders about the initial acclaim for an article and a book that in many respects detailed the obvious, or, at best, raised political questions by implication. As every American historian knows (and knew), no guns were made in the colonies, and relatively few in the United States until well into the 19th century. While exaggerated, Bellesiles's extended discussion of the unreliability of firearms before the development of the rifle hardly sounds novel, no more so than the uncontested deficiencies of the untrained militia. Further, even if he could prove his claim that few American men owned or wanted to own guns, that fact in and of itself would not refute either of the standard interpretations of the Second Amendment. Even further, that states acted to regulate gun ownership has no bearing on the Second Amendment, since that Amendment limited the power of the federal government, not that of the states./23/ The virtually inexhaustible evidence demonstrating that the state and federal governments struggled ceaselessly, but more or less futilely, to make the militia effective and to assure a supply of arms for the national defense in a hostile world hardly bespeaks a deliberate campaign to promote a "gun culture" in the United States, whatever that means. Finally, who ever doubted that the availability of effective and reliable firearms increased the human destructiveness of war, or that the aftermath of war--especially civil war--brought a significant increase in the level of interpersonal violence./24/ Paraphrasing the late Richard Hofstadter on a different topic, "Any news here?"

Bellesiles's defense of his work never actually joined the major charges brought by the critics: unwarranted conclusions based on a methodologically flawed and inadequate review of the probate records and inventories, gun censuses, and militia musters apparently influenced the interpretation of the other evidence adduced, leading him at times to misconstrue--perhaps inadvertently--the apparent meaning of the other sources consulted. Having persuaded himself of the validity of his conclusions and thesis, he read the data and the record to support the thesis. How else can one explain his patently erroneous, even false, claims about the incidence of gun ownership or the homicide rate? Or his unsupported claim that pre-Civil War Americans preferred the axe or the sword as a weapon? Or his unproven thesis that federal policy deliberately fostered the "gun culture" that emerged after the Civil War? Several commentators have alleged deliberate fraud, and even the special examining committee concluded that he engaged in falsification of the evidence in the construction of the table based on the probate records./25/ One of his most severe critics observed that the claim that "most Americans did not own guns [before the Civil War] and had no interest in buying them...is not supported by the sources Bellesiles cites, by others he does not cite, or by data he presents;" and further that, while raising important and interesting questions, Bellesiles "never tests his thesis against the best available evidence, and it appears that every mistake he makes in his own calculations goes in the same direction, in support of his thesis."/26/

Even more fundamental, and more damning of those who reviewed his article and book for publication, Bellesiles never defined what he meant by the term "gun culture" or explained his methodology. His reviewers apparently understood what he meant when he referred to a "gun culture" without definition and allowed him extraordinary freedom to speculate at will. Even his early critics appeared to understand the sense of the terminology, although they undoubtedly rejected it, since they leaped to the defense of their political agenda. Only later, after having initially rallied to his defense, did the scholarly critics--some of whom aligned with the political critics on the issues of today--raise questions about his use of terms and his methodology. The academic historians initially failed to question his use of either terms or evidence./27/

Those failings bring into focus the weaknesses of the accepted process for the review and evaluation of scholarly work, or at least of scholarly historical work. The Alfred A. Knopf editor for the Bellesiles manuscript responded defensively to criticism: "I realize that he made some errors, but they certainly were not made intentionally. They were the result of over-quick research."/28/ However, no one disputes Bellesiles's claim of having spent 10 years--hardly "over-quick"--doing the research for the book, although one critic questioned whether any single scholar--even with assistants--could possibly have reviewed the probate records he insisted that he consulted during that period./29/ By way of dismissing the issue, the Knopf editor concluded, "We can't go and re-research the book--and neither can the people who review manuscripts for us. So we simply have to trust the author. It's a difficult thing." It becomes less difficult if the process involves critical review and the reviewers have the appropriate expertise. Surely a publisher has the responsibility to satisfy at least those two requirements.

However, the academic historians tended to agree with the rationale provided by the Knopf editor. Thus Professor Eric Foner, Columbia University, a former Bancroft Committee member but not of the Committee that recommended the Bellesiles book for the prize, remarked, "The Bancroft judges operate on a basis of trust." As he said, "We assume a book published by a reputable press has gone through a process where people have checked the facts. Members of the prize committee cannot be responsible for that."/30/ As James Lindgren noted, "Arming America is an impressive book, especially to those not versed in the materials that Bellesiles wrote about."/31/ More to the point, Lindgren suggested that the scandal could have been avoided if the editors and readers along the way had acted responsibly. Robert H. Churchill concurred, concluding as follows:

In this respect, the book serves as a cautionary tale. Good research on politically charged topics generally turns up enough evidence to fuel both sides of the debate. There is enough material lying un-discussed in the book's footnotes to lend credence to the myths that Bellesiles wishes to debunk. The standards of the profession demand that scholars address such evidence forthrightly, even if they fear its impact on contemporary political debate./32/

Actually, Lindgren and others notified Bellesiles of errors they found in his work before going public, even offering to assist in establishing accurate conclusions. However, Bellesiles rejected the offers of assistance, explaining that he intended to get to the recounting when time permitted. "Bellesiles responded to the criticism in a way that he repeated throughout the scandal--he mentioned all the hostile e-mail invective that he had received from gun lovers and attacked the quality of the work of everyone who disagreed with him," including giants in the field./33/ Despite his continued assurances of a deep commitment to the search for the truth, he explained that other priorities kept him from acting immediately to correct errors in his work. While urging that "Scholarship must be open to new directions, allowing scholars to build on their own earlier research, to qualify previous generalizations they have made, to correct errors in their work, and even to change their minds in the face of more compelling evidence," he acted quite differently./34/ Even if belatedly, most academic historians ultimately called him to task for these failings.

At least one scholar disagrees with this description of what happened to Bellesiles. Professor Jon Wiener, University of California at Irvine, offered the opinion that "what started as a politically motivated effort by the gun lobby and its supporters has expanded to include several scholars and historians who have devoted weeks and months to checking Bellesiles's footnotes in the archives where he did his research--a practice that is extremely unusual in historical scholarship."/35/ If, indeed, Wiener accurately characterized the process of scholarly review, and if, indeed, scholars do not check the evidence adduced to support arguments and interpretations, traveling to the archives where the evidence resides if they have no other access, what constitutes scholarly review of a manuscript? If, indeed, assumptions based on a genteel respect for one's peers in the profession rather than spirited exchange prevail, then what remains of the much vaunted peer review process?


Based upon a reasonable reading of the work and the scholarly critiques, the most generous conclusion is that Bellesiles, his disclaimer to the contrary notwithstanding, accepted unsubstantiated analyses because of his concern for current policy issues. An advocate of gun control and a proponent of the argument that the availability of guns leads to their use for interpersonal violence, he perhaps inadvertently--because of an inadequate and flawed methodology and an inclination to read the probate record evidence one way rather than another--reached conclusions that influenced his reading of all other sources. Certainly every historian brings certain predilections to the study of history. But every historian also has the ethical obligation to suspend judgment until finding the evidence overwhelmingly persuasive, the method beyond reproach, the results replicable, and the analyses sound./36/ Bellesiles failed all the tests. To the scholarly community, his book stands as a warning to all of the consequences of failure to attend the ethical obligations of the profession. Lindgren, the legal scholar who initially questioned Bellesiles about his probate record results, has argued that the scandal occurred because of an individual's failing compounded by the profession's unthinking leap to the defense of one of its own.

At the end of the day, the Bellesilles scandal has not enhanced the historical understanding of his topic or broken new ground in the ongoing debate about the Second Amendment. As one scholar put it,

Arming America is a very frustrating book. The subject and its implications are important. But Bellesiles's scholarship does not do justice to his subject. [...] His efforts to minimize the importance of guns, militia, and war in early America and to portray the Civil War as the catalyst for a national gun culture founder on a consistently biased reading of sources and on careless uses of evidence and context. Had he not been so determined to set the early history of the colonies and nation sharply against the Civil War, had he been willing to see some variations in the importance of guns and levels of violence from one period to another--had he been willing to let the sources add unexpected and refreshing complexities to his argument--he might have produced the kind of history that would not only have won the admiration of scholars but also have provided an uncontested foundation for a fresh debate on guns and violence in the United States./37/

In fact, the scholarly community suffered severely because the "book and scandal," as one of the early and most persistent critics warned, "is changing the way that some historians think about their own profession and how some scholars in fields allied to history regard historical research and publishing."/38/ Nonetheless, Lindgren opined optimistically in 2002 that "the historical profession will survive the Bellesiles scandal," although much injured.

If people had gone to the library when questions were raised over a year ago, then much of the acrimony could have been avoided. The errors in the...materials...are just as clear and just as easy to check as those of Stephen Ambrose or Doris Kearns Goodwin. But Ambrose and Goodwin did not just claim that they were political martyrs. They knew that people would eventually check the source books and see for themselves; they knew there was no point in denying the claims of error.

Bellesiles took a different tack. I was surprised when he did not take the usual scholarly approach of grudgingly admitting his errors--either when I contacted him privately or when I later presented my scholarship publicly./39/

Bellesiles's personal failings aside, I submit that an objective, complete account of the scandal will entail the confessions of many involved that they failed to fulfill their ethical obligations./40/ The Editor of the Journal of American History did not secure a thorough evaluation of the 1996 article, although he submitted the article to peer review. Academic historians accepted the article uncritically, for the most part, and failed to suspend judgment until they reconciled its argument with the evidence. The Knopf review committee and editor apparently focused only on style, assuming that the JAH reviewers had checked the evidence. The scholars who served on the Bancroft Committee did not evaluate the argument and the evidence, but rather assumed that the reviewers for publication did. The Newberry Library Committee accepted the judgments of all others and did not conduct an independent review. Along the way, no one thought to do the obvious: request a review by an expert in probate record analysis and the study of firearms. Finally, academic historians rallied in defense of a colleague they deemed under unwarranted attack on political grounds, asserting very persuasive arguments in support that relate to the maintenance of open and free discussion of the issues, all the while refusing to give credence to the arguments raised by the critics of Bellesiles because of their political alignments./41/ The fact remains that the scholarly community failed the test it so frequently sets for itself: to allow the truth to prevail in open and free discussion.


Perhaps in part as a response to the Bellesiles and other scandals, the American Historical Association has acted recently to remove itself from proceedings involving charges of unprofessional conduct./42/ As happened with Bellesiles, the employing institution will have the responsibility to take appropriate action. The Organization of American Historians has charged a special committee to review this development because of concern for the integrity of the profession./43/ Just so, the experts cannot agree whether to remove from the libraries or label as defective such frauds as the work perpetrated by Bellesiles./44/ Does that mean we have no standards? That truth, in fact, does not exist? Or that we cannot possibly know the truth? And, if so, how do we know even that truth? Surely, we can find more solid ground.

However, I will leave that debate for another day. I must say that I believe we in the scholarly community must take action soon to restore the ethical integrity of our profession. We know from recent experience how easily events overtook accountants, business people, board members, managers of the stock market, and others. Some will argue that we lack the wisdom, prudence, resources, and even the means to put our house in ethical order, since success in the endeavor will depend in the end on the integrity of each individual involved, a requirement beyond the competency of the profession to control. I disagree, having had those early lessons about an adequate socialization process and an accepted code of professional conduct indelibly etched in my mind. We must begin now to reassert and enforce the ethical standards to which we all purport to subscribe. Doing so will require a reaffirmation, perhaps a restatement, of the code of ethical conduct in terms sufficiently clear that all wishing to enter and remain in good standing in the profession will understand. We can no longer criticize the world for the failure to abide standards of decency and professionalism while refusing to articulate and enforce such standards for ourselves. I have no doubt that enforcement will prove difficult and challenging, but not impossible given the will to persevere. The sheer hypocrisy of criticizing the failings of others while ignoring our own provides reason enough for action.


* President Dennison declines to name the mentor to whom he is indebted for these lessons out of concern that it may be inferred that the teaching he then enjoyed was a matter of happenstance, a consequence of idiosyncrasies of his benefactor. But the teaching of such lessons was then customary and traditional practice in the profession, and it should be so today, the President believes. Some readers will be interested to know, however, that the seminar leader was John Van de Wetering, then a Professor in UM's History Department--later Chair--and some years after President of what was then known as Eastern Montana College (now MSU-Billings)--Ed.[Back]

  1. Garry Wills, "Spiking the Gun Myth," New York Times (10 September 2000), Section 7, at 5.[Back]

  2. See Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams: An Autobiography (Boston and New York: Houghton & Mifflin Co., 1918), passim.[Back]

  3. See Neil Hamilton, Academic Ethics: Problems and Materials on Professional Conduct and Shared Governance (Westport: ACE & Preager, 2002), passim, on this point.[Back]

  4. For Ambrose, see Richard Pearson, "Stephen Ambrose Dies; Popular U.S. Historian," The Washington Post (14 October 2002): B07, and at <http://www.stephenambrose.com>; on Goodwin, see Bo Crader, "Lynne McTaggert on Doris Kearns Goodwin," The Daily Standard, at <http://www.weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/000/817fdukv.asp>, and "Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin under fire," Online Athens, at <http://www.onlineathens.com/stories/030902/boo_0309020007.shtml>; for Bellesiles, see below.[Back]

  5. See "Statement of Michael Bellesiles on Emory University's Inquiry Into Arming America," November 2002, available at "How the Bellesiles Story Developed," History News Network, at <http://hnn.us/articles/691.html>.[Back]

  6. See <http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/law/jan-june02/history_1-28.html>. See also William W. Savage, Jr., "My Favorite Plagiarist: Some Reflections of an Offended Party," Journal of Scholarly Publishing 34.4 (July 2003): 214-20. Referring to a different instance than those mentioned in the text, Savage discusses an unknown but undoubtedly high incidence of plagiarism on the part of established scholars, who usually claim honest and harmless error, often attributed to research assistants or computers, and typically with no sanction except to apologize publicly. Apparently sanctions are reserved for undergraduate--or perhaps graduate--students.[Back]

  7. See Michael A. Bellesiles, "The Origins of Gun Culture in the United States, 1760-1865," Journal of American History 83.2 (Sept. 1996): 425-455, esp. 426-427.[Back]

  8. See ibid., 424-427.[Back]

  9. See Michael A. Bellesiles, Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000), 603.[Back]

  10. See the quotation at the outset for an example, although Wills and Morgan subsequently changed their views, as see "How the Bellesiles Story Developed," History News Network, cited in note 5 above. See also Robert H. Churchill, "Guns and the Politics of History," Reviews in American History 29.3 (September 2001): 329-37, for the comment that Bellesiles and Wills--among others--signed an amicus curiae brief for a Supreme Court case involving gun control.[Back]

  11. See Michael A. Bellesiles, "Disarming the Critics," OAH, Newsletter, at <http://www.oah.org/pubs/nl/2001nov/bellesiles.html>.[Back]

  12. see ibid.[Back]

  13. See ibid.[Back]

  14. See the excerpts from an interview quoted and refuted in James Lindgren, "Fall from Grace: Arming America and the Bellesiles Scandal," The Yale Journal 111.2 (April 2002): 2195-2249.[Back]

  15. See Bellesiles, "Origins," 427, and Bellesiles, Arming, 445. He expanded the time frame for the table as it appeared in the book, primarily to support his claim that the incidence of gun ownership in the country rose significantly from the early colonial period until the Civil War.[Back]

  16. See Lindgren, "Fall from Grace," 2195-2249, esp. "Appendix: Selected Errors in Arming America" at 2234 ff.; and Clayton E. Cramer, "Fraud in Michael Bellesiles's Arming America," at <http://www.claytoncramer.com>; and James Lindgren and Justin Lee Heather, "Counting Guns in Early America," Northwestern University School of Law, Research Paper Series, Research Paper No. 01-1, at <http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=268583>, also in William and Mary Law Review 53.5 (April 2002): 1777-1842.[Back]

  17. See Florence Olsen, "Historian Resigns After Report Questions His Gun Research," The Chronicle of Higher Education, at <http://chronicle.com/prm/weekly/v49/i11/11a01701.htm>, for the finding of the special review panel that his methodology amounted to "falsification" of the evidence; and Randolph Roth, "Guns, Gun Culture, and Homicide: The Relationship between Firearms, the Uses of Firearms, and Interpersonal Violence," Forum, The William and Mary Quarterly 59.1 (January 2002), at <http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/wm/59.1/roth.html>, refuting the justification for excluding some years from the time series.[Back]

  18. See Bellesiles, Arming, 13. For criticism by an expert of Bellesiles's imprecise use of terms and references, see Gloria L. Main, "Many Things Forgotten: The Use of Probate Record in Arming America," Forum, The William and Mary Quarterly 59.1 (January 2002), at <http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/wm/59.1/main.html>, including his failure to note that not all probate inventories had accompanying wills.[Back]

  19. See Bellesiles, Arming, 14.[Back]

  20. See Editors, "Update on Arming America," The Nation, at <http://www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20021125&s=editors2>; Danny Postel, "Did the Shootouts Over 'Arming America' Divert Attention From the Real Issues," The Chronicle of Higher Education, at <http://chronicle.com/prm/weekly/v48/i21/21a01201.htm>; Olsen, "Historian Resigns," cited in note 17 above; and "How the Bellesiles Story Developed," History News Network, cited in note 5 above.[Back]

  21. See Michael A. Bellesiles, "Exploring America's Gun Culture," Forum, The William and Mary Quarterly 59.1 (January 2002), at <http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/wm/59.1/bellesiles.html>, footnote 23.[Back]

  22. See Lindgren, "Fall from Grace," cited in note 16 above; Lindgren and Heather, "Counting Guns," cited in note 16 above; Churchill, "Guns and the Politics of History," cited in note 10 above; Main, "Many Things Forgotten: The Use of Probate Records in Arming America," Forum, The William and Mary Quarterly 59.1 (January 2002), at <http://historycooperative.org/journals/wm/59.1/main.html> also cited in note 18 above; Jack N. Rakove, "Words, Deeds, and Guns: Arming America and the Second Amendment," in ibid., <http://historycooperative.org/journals/wm/59.1/rakove.html>; Roth, "Guns, Gun Culture, and Homicide: The Relationship between Firearms, the Uses of Firearms, and Interpersonal Violence," in ibid., http://historycooperative.org/journals/wm/59.1/roth.html; Ira D. Gruber, "Of Arms and Men: Arming America and Military History," in ibid., <http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/wm/59.1/gruber.html>; Cramer, "Fraud," cited in note 16 above; Merritt Roe Smith, Harpers Ferry Armory and the New Technology (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977), passim; Sandford Levinson, "The Embarrassing Second Amendment," Yale Law Journal 99 (December 1989): 637-650; and Saul Cornell, "The Current State of Second Amendment Scholarship," Paper presented at the SHEAR Annual Meeting, July 2001, at <http://www.h-net.org/~shear/paper/CornellSaulPaper.htm>. Various interpretations of the Second Amendment persist.[Back]

  23. See Barron v. Baltimore, 32 U.S. (7 Peters) 243 ff. (1833) for the ruling that the first ten amendments to the Constitution did not apply to the states. That interpretation prevailed until well into the 20th century. On the Second Amendment specifically, see the citations to Levinson and Cornell in note 22 above.[Back]

  24. See David Thelen, Paths of Resistance: Tradition and Dignity in Industrializing Missouri (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), passim.[Back]

  25. See Olsen, "Historian Resigns," cited in note 17 above; "How The Bellesiles Story Developed," History News Network, cited in note 5 above, for the report of the special committee that quotes the ethical standards adopted by the American Historical Association; and, for a similar case, Keith Stimely, "Uproar in Clio's Library: the Case of Dr. David Abraham and 'The Collapse of the Weimar Republic,'" Journal of Historical Review, at <http://www.ihr.org/jhr/v05/v05p440_Stimely.html>.[Back]

  26. See Roth, "Guns, Gun Culture, and Homicide," cited in note 17 above.[Back]

  27. See especially Main, "Many Things Forgotten," cited in note 18 above, at paragraph 5, for the interesting and not rhetorical question: "Did no one--editors or referees--ever ask that he supply this basic explanation" of his sources and methods?[Back]

  28. See Postel, "Shootouts," cited in note 20 above.[Back]

  29. See Bellesiles, Arming, 13; and Main, "Many Things Forgotten," cited in note 18 above.[Back]

  30. See Hillel Italie, "Columbia Strips Historian of Bancroft Prize," The Washington Post (14 December 2002), C04; and "How The Bellesiles Story Developed," History News Network, cited in note 5 above, for the Foner comments.[Back]

  31. See Lindgren, "Fall from Grace," cited in note 14 above.[Back]

  32. See Churchill, "Guns and the Politics of History," cited in note 10 above, at 335-6.[Back]

  33. See Lindgren, "Fall from Grace," cited in note 14 above, 2231.[Back]

  34. See Bellesiles, "Statement," cited in note 5 above.[Back]

  35. See Olsen, "Historian Resigns," cited in note 17 above, emphasis supplied; and Stimley, "Uproar in Clio's Library," cited in note 25 above for at least partial refutation of the claim.[Back]

  36. See "How the Bellesiles Story Developed," History News Network," cited in note 5 above, for the report of the special committee that quotes the ethical standards adopted by the American Historical Association; for the revised statement, see American Historical Association, "Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct," at <http://theaha.org/pubs/standard.htm>.[Back]

  37. See Gruber, "Of Arms and Men," cited in note 22 above.[Back]

  38. See Lindgren, "Fall from Grace," 2197 and 2232.[Back]

  39. See ibid., 2233.[Back]

  40. For a "humble" discussion of a similar conclusion, see Clayton E. Cramer, "What Clayton Cramer Saw and (Nearly) Everyone Else Missed," History News Network, at <http://hnn.us/articles/1185.html>.[Back]

  41. See, for example, OAH, Newsletter, cited in note 11 above.[Back]

  42. See American Historical Association, <http://www.theaha.org/perspectives/issues/2003/0309/0309aha4.cfm>; and OAH, Newsletter 3 (August 2003), at <http://www.oah.org/pubs/nl/2003aug/newsorg.html>.[Back]

  43. See OAH, Newsletter, cited in note 42 above.[Back]

  44. See "Debate: Should Libraries Remove Bellesiles's Book from the Shelves," "How the Bellsiles Story Developed," History News Network, at <http://hnn.us/articles/1128.html>.[Back]

[The Montana Professor 14.2, Spring 2004 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

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