Historian Michael A. Bellesiles Resigns After Academic Fraud Accusations

Scandal followed the publication of Michael A. Bellesiles’s 2000 book Arming America, a study claiming that guns were relatively rare in the American colonies and the United States before the U.S. Civil War. Although he was accused of research falsification and distortion, Bellesiles still received the coveted Bancroft Prize for American history. However, in October, 2002, he was forced to resign his professorship after a panel of historians found him guilty of scholarly misconduct.

Summary of Event

Michael A. Bellesiles was a respected professor of American colonial history at prestigious Emory University in Atlanta. He was also the director of the Center for the Study of Violence and an expert in gun and frontier culture in early America. He had received fellowships to the Stanford Humanities Institute and the Newberry Library in Chicago. In 1993, he published Revolutionary Outlaws: Ethan Allan and the Struggle for Independence in the Early American Frontier, a book that was well received by historians. [kw]Bellesiles Resigns After Academic Fraud Accusations, Historian Michael A. (Oct. 25, 2002)
[kw]Fraud Accusations, Historian Michael A. Bellesiles Resigns After Academic (Oct. 25, 2002)
Bellesiles, Michael A.
Arming America (Bellesiles)
Emory University
Bellesiles, Michael A.
Arming America (Bellesiles)
Emory University
[g]United States;Oct. 25, 2002: Historian Michael A. Bellesiles Resigns After Academic Fraud Accusations[03240]
[c]Education;Oct. 25, 2002: Historian Michael A. Bellesiles Resigns After Academic Fraud Accusations[03240]
[c]Cultural and intellectual history;Oct. 25, 2002: Historian Michael A. Bellesiles Resigns After Academic Fraud Accusations[03240]
[c]Publishing and journalism;Oct. 25, 2002: Historian Michael A. Bellesiles Resigns After Academic Fraud Accusations[03240]
Lindgren, James
Cramer, Clayton E.

In late 1995, while working on a project on the early American frontier, Bellesiles claimed to have discovered that, contrary to tradition, gun ownership was rare in America during the antebellum period—the period before the American Civil War—even on the frontier, and that arms became widespread only with the mass production of firearms. As part of his research, he examined legal, probate, military, and business records, as well as travel accounts and personal letters. His discovery would soon add even more controversy to the ongoing debate between advocates of gun control and proponents of the right to bear arms, a debate that includes the belief by gun proponents that gun possession is an integral part of America’s identity as a nation.

Bellesiles first published his revolutionary thesis in his article “The Origins of Gun Culture in the United States, 1760-1865” in the Journal of American History in 1996. His finding garnered enthusiastic reviews by many influential scholars, including Edmund Sears Morgan, an eminent authority in early American history. Also, the article won the best article of the year prize from the Organization of American Historians Organization of American Historians. However, other scholars, such as James Lindgren, professor of law at Northwestern University, were skeptical of Bellesiles’s thesis, which claimed that for the years 1765 to 1770, very few probate inventories listed guns. During the late summer of 2000, Lindgren requested to see the data used for this groundbreaking theory, but Bellesiles claimed that all his notes were lost in a flood that affected Emory University that same year.

The culmination of Bellesiles’s research, Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture, was published in September of 2000. Criticism of the book followed immediately. Clayton Cramer, at the time a master’s degree student at Sonoma State University in California, became Bellesiles’s most persistent critic. Cramer was the first to claim that Bellesiles had misquoted sources, taken them out of context, and even modified texts so they would fit his thesis. Similarly, in two articles published in 2002, Lindgren claimed that Bellesiles had altered statutes, dates, citations, and counts. In one case, Lindgren claims, Bellesiles provides a count of guns for seventeenth and eighteenth century Providence, Rhode Island, based on wills that did not exist. Bellesiles also claimed to have counted probate inventories that were, in fact, destroyed in the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Lindgren argues that Bellesiles, in effect, disregarded accounts and records that did not fit his thesis.

Despite increasing skepticism about the validity of Bellesiles’s research, Arming America was granted Columbia University’s Bancroft Prize, generally considered the most prestigious award in the field of American history. However, this honor did not stem the criticism. During the months that followed, the book became a favorite theme of academic debate, and of media scrutiny. One point that attracted significant critique was Bellesiles’s analysis of the gun culture of Europe, especially in England, as part of his introduction to his investigation into gun use in America. The historian claimed that the English government outlawed the use of guns by commoners, and that all guns owned by the militia were carefully kept in governmental magazines. However, in contrast, Lindgren pointed out that there were laws exhorting commoners to practice with their muskets, and records show that guns were kept in owners’ homes for personal defense and hunting.

Bellesiles further claims in the book that in the United States, guns were uncommon, either because they were expensive, inefficient, highly regulated, or simply undesired by civilians. According to Bellesiles, guns were not widely used for hunting either, a claim based on his study of less than one hundred travel accounts. Moreover, he dismisses the militias’ status as professionals, remarking that their guns were mostly unusable. He also claims that just over 14 percent of men owned guns between 1765 and 1859, and that this percentage began to increase just before the Civil War, mostly due to the successful mass production of the Colt revolver.

The intense criticism and media attention forced Emory University to initiate an internal inquiry into Bellesiles’s scholarship. An external investigative committee examined the matter as well. Both committees found grave errors, some due to the misuse of evidence and some due to the lack of evidence. The external committee issued its report on July 10, 2002. Emory announced Bellesiles’s resignation from the university on October 25 (effective December 31).

For the first time since the award was established, Columbia rescinded Bellesiles’s Bancroft Prize and asked that he return the $4,000 he was awarded. Also, his book contract with Alfred A. Knopf was dropped. In 2003, Soft Skull Press published a revised edition of Arming America, which was preceded by the seventy-four-page “pamphlet” Weighed in an Even Balance, in which Bellesiles steadfastly defends the validity of his research, pointing out that only one-fourth of his research had been contested.


With the publication of Arming America, Bellesiles found himself at the center of the ongoing debate over gun possession. Hailed as a hero by those opposed to the easy availability of weapons in the United States, Bellesiles was later vilified by proponents of the right to bear arms. He was blacklisted in academia, stripped of his Bancroft Prize, and forced to resign from his position at Emory University.

The Bellesiles scandal came at a time when other similar scandals rocked academia, especially the field of history. Concurrent with this scandal were those of historians Joseph Ellis and Doris Kearns Goodwin, who were accused of academic misconduct as well. The scandal that arose because of the inaccuracies in Arming America was attributed by many to the pressures of writing popular history and by others to postmodern scholarship’s tendency to relativize the truth. Bellesiles argues that the scandal arose because of a higher level of scrutiny by the media. Bellesiles, Michael A.
Arming America (Bellesiles)
Emory University

Further Reading

  • Cramer, Clayton E. Armed America: The Remarkable Story of How and Why Guns Became as American as Apple Pie. Nashville, Tenn.: Nelson Current, 2007. Detailed critique of Bellesiles’s claims, including diaries, travel accounts, and statistical evidence. Written by a leading critic of the historian’s work.
  • Hoffer, Peter Charles. Past Imperfect: Facts, Fictions, and Fraud—American History from Bancroft and Parkman to Ambrose, Bellesiles, Ellis, and Goodwin. New York: PublicAffairs, 2007. Examination of the key controversies in the historical profession, including the Bellesiles case, as the culmination of the tensions between the New Left scholars and traditional historians.
  • Lindgren, James. “Fall from Grace: Arming America and the Bellesiles Scandal.” Yale Law Journal 111, no. 8 (2002): 2195-2249. A detailed scholarly study of Bellesiles’s book, the data he used, and the book’s alleged errors. Written by one of his main critics.
  • Lindgren, James, and Justin L. Heather. “Counting Guns in Early America.” William and Mary Law Review 43, no. 5 (2002): 1777-1842. Another detailed study of Bellesiles’s controversial book.
  • Skinner, David. “Cheating History: Ambrose, Bellesiles, Ellis, and Goodwin—The Historians Who Let Us Down.” The Weekly Standard, November 29, 2004. Focuses on a dozen key controversies ranging across the political spectrum and representative of a wide variety of charges.
  • Wiener, Jon. Historians in Trouble: Plagiarism, Fraud, and Politics in the Ivory Tower. New York: New Press, 2005. Offers a detailed analysis of court documents and other evidence. Less partial when judging the gravity of some historians’ work, lessening Bellesiles’s acts, and harshly critical of historians Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin.

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