The Magazine

The Cowards of Academe

Michael Bellesiles's rear-guard defenders.

Jun 10, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 38 • By DAVID SKINNER
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A NEW WORK OF HISTORY is published. You review the book on the front page of the book section of the New York Times, saying the author "has dispelled the darkness" surrounding an issue of significant historical interest. Turns out later the book is deeply flawed. Historical sources have been misrepresented. Key numbers are flat-out wrong. Data that should have been carefully collected and made reproducible for verification were neither, and when spot-checked against original documents, prove incorrect. The book's credibility is fatally undermined. Should you feel embarrassed? Why? Garry Wills, who reviewed Michael Bellesiles's "Arming America" for the Times book section on September 10, 2000, doesn't seem at all embarrassed. He simply declines to comment.

Equally sanguine are many other people and institutions who celebrated Bellesiles's prize-winning book for its "debunking" of the "myth" of widespread gun ownership in pre-Civil War America. Well over a year and a half after this mistake-ridden brief for gun control was published, precious few individuals or institutions have recanted or even qualified their support for its sloppy and dishonest work. Columbia University bestowed the prestigious Bancroft prize on "Arming America," but has barely flinched at revelations of missing historical documents and gross miscounts, to say nothing of the author's own preposterous excuse-making, which has consistently dug him deeper in the hole.

For a time, it was rumored that the university would take back the prize. In December 2001, it was reported, the dean's office distributed copies of articles critical of Bellesiles's work to the judges who had awarded him the Bancroft. Nothing came of this. In January, James Devitt, a spokesman for the university, dismissed the idea that the controversy was anything out of the ordinary. Asked who the judges were, Devitt said the committee was "private," but that all three members "definitely have an expertise in these areas." Their identities now revealed, it is not clear that these scholars either have specifically relevant expertise or feel any more regret than the university does.

Professor of American Jewish history Arthur Goren, Columbia's own representative on the Bancroft panel, says after repeated requests for an interview, "I have nothing to say." Jan Ellen Lewis of Rutgers University, the author of "The Pursuit of Happiness: Family and Values in Jefferson's Virginia" and coeditor of a book about Thomas Jefferson's relationship with slave Sally Hemings, is almost as reticent. "I've been very busy with the end of the semester, as well as a couple of writing deadlines of my own," she says via e-mail after several attempts to reach her. "I'm sorry; I don't have any comment at this time." According to her curriculum vitae, Lewis is a close colleague of University of Virginia's Peter S. Onuf, with whom she has collaborated on several books. Coincidentally, Onuf authored a blurb for the jacket of "Arming America," calling it "deeply researched" and a "myth-busting tour de force."

Berkeley professor of history and women's studies Mary P. Ryan, the third Bancroft judge, is apparently also too busy to answer questions. Reached by phone, she seemed unnerved at having been identified. She said several times that it was very rude to call her like this and that she would "only speak through [the Bancroft] committee." Asked whether she had an obligation as a scholar to address the many criticisms of "Arming America," she insisted that she had given a lot of thought to the subject. Pressed for details, she exclaimed, "You are being very rude." Finally Professor Ryan said she would answer questions via e-mail.

After receiving such an e-mail, she wrote back: "I have received your questions and will consider them. You will understand, however, if I find that this discussion is not the most productive way of advancing historical understanding, and it certainly is not the best use of my particular knowledge as a historian working on very different subjects. Therefore I will not be getting back to you until I have met some deadlines of my own." That was over three weeks ago. Professor Ryan has apparently joined the club of Bellesiles promoters who seem unworried that the book is fundamentally mistaken if not fraudulent.