Emory scholar resigns after academic probe

By Carolina Bolado

Emory University professor Michael A. Bellesiles announced his resignation last Friday after an investigative committee found flaws in the research in his book Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture.

“The controversy surrounding Arming America has made it impossible for me to continue both my scholarly research and my teaching,” Bellesiles wrote in a statement in response to the report. “I will continue to research and report on the probate materials while also working on my next book, but cannot continue to teach in what I feel is a hostile environment.”

Bellesiles’ book, which argued that gun ownership in colonial America was less common than previously thought, stirred controversy after its publication two years ago. Robert A. Paul, the interim dean of Emory College, appointed an investigative committee last February after the book came under fire from scholars who suggested that Bellesiles made errors in his research. Paul accepted Bellesiles’ resignation, effective December 31. Bellesiles has been on paid administrative leave this semester.

Hanna Gray, the Judson Distinguished Professor of History Emerita and President Emerita of the University, served on the investigative committee along with Laurel Thatcher Ulrich of Harvard University and Stanley Katz of Princeton University, who chaired the committee.

“It involved an enormous amount of work and it’s not a pleasant activity at all,” Gray said. “I think it’s a professional responsibility. When one is asked to do something of this kind, one has to have a good reason not to.”

The committee’s report was finished by July but was released just last Friday. According to Gray, Emory’s policies dictate that the professor being investigated be given time to appeal the report.

“There is a process at the university where they first have an internal look and an external committee and then that person has a right of appealing,” Gray said. “So the report is just one step in the process.”

In Arming America, Bellesiles claims that most colonists in the 18th century did not in fact own guns, suggesting that the roots of American gun culture do not run as deep as previously thought.

“Arming America aimed to prompt scholars to rethink one of the prized givens of American history: that American culture has always been permeated with firearms,” Bellesiles said.

Bellesiles studied over 11,000 probate records of 40 counties in the original 13 colonies and he found that only 14 percent of estate inventories from 1765 until 1790 listed guns, over half of which were described as broken or defective.

The investigative committee, however, did not think his research supported these claims. “Given his casual method of recording data and his expansive notion of what constituted an inventory, it would have been easy for him to have produced unusually low percentages of guns,” the committee’s report states.

“The records he selected do not seem to provide the sort of information his project requires…The Welsh inventory includes only livestock and wheat, and the Crippen only livestock and a wagon. These do not seem to be appropriate sources for determining either the presence or absence of guns,” according to the report.

The committee members could not verify Bellesiles’ statistics because much of his probate research, which was written on yellow legal pads, was lost in a flood in his office at Emory.

“Ultimately I can only affirm what I have said repeatedly over the past two years: that I deeply regret the destruction of these notes and that I will do everything I can to recreate that material in hopes of providing something of value for scholars. I cannot imagine what else can reasonably be expected of me,” Bellesiles said.

The committee also found discrepancies in the chronology of Bellesiles’ probate research. Bellesiles did not decide to focus his research exclusively on guns until 1992; prior to that, he had studied comparative frontiers in the colonial period.

Four of the five courthouses where he claims to have researched for Arming America moved their records to the Massachusetts State Archives or offsite storage between November 1989 and the summer of 1992. Bellesiles claims that he found his statistics on gun ownership in the five courthouses in the mid-1980s, but the report points out that he was still focusing on comparative frontiers then and not on gun ownership.

“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,” the report states. “Every aspect of his work in the probate records is deeply flawed… Bellesiles seems to have been utterly unaware of the importance of the possibility of the replication of his research.”

Despite the committee’s findings, Bellesiles has stood by his work. “I have never fabricated evidence of any kind nor knowingly evaded my responsibilities as a scholar,” Bellesiles said.

Gray and the committee members, however, have their doubts.

“It’s very difficult to talk about intentionality. Who knows what goes on in the mind of someone? But I think you will see that there are some assertions that go a little bit beyond carelessness,” Gray said.

Arming America won the Bancroft Prize in American History and Diplomacy last year. The award is presented each year by the trustees of Columbia University to authors of exceptional books in American history.

Bellesiles received his Ph.D. in history from the University of California, Irvine in 1986 and has focused his research on early American history and the Revolutionary War. He was the founding director of the school’s Violence Studies Program. He spent the last academic year working on a second book on gun culture at the Newberry Library in Chicago.

The library awarded him a fellowship with a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, but after the Arming America controversy erupted, the NEH demanded that its name be removed from Bellesiles’ research.