In our post on the AR Forward Assist, we noted that not everything on the internet is true, and brought you info from a more authoritative source. Well, not everything in books is true, either. A reader gets nowhere if he does not trust his writer, but he gets further if he verifies that writer’s sources. (Indeed, one of the crucial weaknesses of the excellent book we cited in the Forward Assist controversy, The Black Rifle, is its lack of index and notes. Notes are there so you can follow up and learn more).
And that brings us to, we only realized when looking at some of Glenn Reynolds’s 10-year archive posts, the 10-year anniversary of the long, slow evisceration of a historian named Michael A. Bellesiles (pronounced be-LEEL, kind of like the Biblical demon of similar name, isn’t it?) that took place throughout 2001 and 2002.
Bellesiles produced a book called Arming America that made some bold assertions: hardly anybody had guns in the Colonial era. Civilians were seldom armed, and poorly armed when they were. Guns didn’t become common till after the Civil War. Bellesiles aimed his book squarely into the then-raging controversy over 2nd Amendment interpretation, and took a novel approach — one that no one had ever done — and saw things in the historical record that no one had ever seen. These were blockbuster assertions.
Perhaps it was just because his story hit the sweet spot of a narrative the media and academia wanted — one that reinforced their beliefs about guns — but it made Bellisles a success and a celebrity overnight. He got the Bancroft Prize , positive reviews in scholarly and general-interest publications, and a write-up in Playboy. He was a rock star of a historian.
For about six months. But then one reader after another was unable to follow up with his cited sources. Some sources didn’t say what he said they did. Others didn’t exist. Probate records he’d cited in colonial Rhode Island didn’t map to wills that backed him up, just to names of people who died intestate. 19th-Century San Francisco probate records that he depended on turned out to have burned without trace in the earthquake and fire of 1906. These were not small, inadvertent errors. The book was a complete and systematic fraud.
Organized historians jumped to Bellesiles’s defense and stuck with him even as his stories changed, transmuted and twisted into unintelligibility. His hard drive crashed. His office flooded. His dog ate the date. The American Historical Association and Organization of American Historians defended Bellesiles. The History News Network’s gang of ponytailed 60s throwbacks shouted down questions. Roger Lane in the Journal of American History described Bellesiles’s research as “meticulous and thorough” — without ever seeing any of it. The National Endowment for the Humanities gave Bellesiles a fat government-funded library fellowship. But Bellesiles never did his part by producing the data. He couldn’t, of course: there was no data. He’d started with his book idea and made up data to fit.
The historians, protecting Bellesiles, did nothing to protect the reputation of their profession. It was amateurs and non-historian academics, particularly law professors, journalists, and amateur historian Clayton Cramer, a computer programmer, who did their work for them, and oh, do the historians hate them for that! Cramer’s two takedowns are here (intentional fraud) and here (90 pages of errors).
Bellesiles’s book was withdrawn by its prestigious house (it was later republished by a radical fringe house). Columbia withdrew the hastily-granted Bancroft Prize (Bellesiles kept the money). He resigned in disgrace from Emory University. Roger Lane changed his opinion: “[T]he guy is a liar and a disgrace to my profession.” A few defenders stuck by him, Marxist historians like Jon Weiner who see history as propaganda.
Cramer ultimately got interested enough in the research Bellesiles had said he’d done, to actually do it — pore over Colonial probate records, seek period references. His book reached conclusions opposite to Bellesiles’s — but only after doing what Bellesiles would not, read the sources. Cramer didn’t get the Bancroft prize, he didn’t get a story in Playboy (is it still around, or did it die off when the last Baby Boomer couldn’t get aroused any more?), and he got panned by the pros.
Bellesiles surfaced again in 2010. A Connecticut state college, needing a warm body more than academic integrity, hired him as an adjunct, and he wound up teaching a military history course ( like hiring a Grand Kleagle to teach Civil Rights). He wrote a moving story about a student whose brother had died in the Iraq war. Like Arming America, the story teemed with liberal tropes, and like Arming America, despite Bellesiles’s reputation, editors never bothered to check. They should have, as this, too, was a fabrication. Bellesiles did convince his superiors at the commuter college that the student, not the “professional historian,” was responsible for the historian’s falsehoods this time. His students have some comments here.
His new book in 2010 sold poorly, despite boosterism from his professional-historian friends. Supposedly it’s history. Well, according to Bellesiles, anyway. Meanwhile, he stands up in a classroom and gets paid to lie. And he still defends the book that was proven fraudulent: “It was a good book,” he told the New York Times. He reserves his bitterness for the critics who exposed his fraud and says the book “ruined my life.”
Gee, if the book did that, what effect has failing to take responsibility for it had?