History re-written to undermine gun rights?
Geoff Metcalf interviews historian and author Clayton Cramer

Editor's note: There can be no doubt that gun rights are under assault in America these days. Manufacturers are facing intimidation and lawsuits from various government agencies and gun owners are having to endure increasingly restrictive laws affecting their rights to purchase, keep and use firearms. A large part of this ongoing battle revolves around public perception. Certainly school shootings and accidental deaths of children playing with unlocked guns affect the public's attitudes, as do television ads, talk-show guests and books dealing with gun control.

In December, Geoff Metcalf interviewed Dr. Joyce Malcolm, a professor and historian. Dr. Malcolm wasn't convinced of the assertions made by Professor Michael Bellesiles in his book, "Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture." Bellesiles claims that the American colonists did not, by and large, own or value firearms. In her critique of Bellesiles' work, Malcolm takes on his research methods, conclusions and use of selective information.

Enter Clayton Cramer, an author and historian. While doing research on a related historical topic when Bellesiles first began presenting his findings, Cramer became interested in what Bellesiles had to say since it affected his own research. WorldNetDaily staff writer and talk-show host Geoff Metcalf recently interviewed Cramer and, today, we learn what Cramer discovered about Bellesiles' work and its relevance to the gun-control debate.

By Geoff Metcalf

Question: The left more than embraced "Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture." Here we have a "scholar" who says that colonists really didn't have much value for firearms, and here we have the "facts" to support that. So what's the deal?

Answer: When Bellesiles first presented these ideas in a Journal of American History paper back in 1996, it was a really startling idea he was presenting -- and I did not immediately discount the possibility. It would not be the first time that an historian sat down and looked at something everyone knows and found out that, no, it wasn't that way after all. I couldn't immediately throw it out as a possibility.

I was doing research on a related topic at that time -- it was why concealed weapons laws appear when and where they do. I found they suddenly occurred in about the 1830s in some of the southern states and, if Bellesiles was correct, there hadn't been a great many guns in the U.S.

Q: Why would you have to control them then?

A: Yeah. There would be some logic to that. So it was something that I was prepared to at least use as a working hypothesis as I was going through old newspapers, travel accounts and diaries. But the problem was, the more I read of them, the more it became apparent that something was really, really wrong.

Q: The classic example I gave Joyce Malcolm when she joined us was kind of personal. My family is from New England. There was a Michael Metcalf who, in 1676, was living in Dedham, Massachusetts, and he came home one day to discover the Indians had burned his home to the ground and pillaged his livestock. It was the beginning of "The King Phillips War." It was an Indian war. So Michael put a militia band together and they headed south into Rhode Island and fought the Indians in the Great Swamp. Guns were ubiquitous.

A: It would certainly seem like you would get that impression. Bellesiles makes the claim that, for the most part, when the Indians and the Europeans did fight, the Europeans mainly worked on starving the Indians out by destroying their crops and, in fact, there is a little truth to that. In a number of accounts of the 18th century that I have read, there is mention of starving the Indians as the most effective way of dealing with them.

Q: And what was the method used to starve them?

A: The method used was to take away their guns. But here is the thing that was really troubling: The more I started to check the sources that he cites in his book, the more discrepancies I found. Something a little worse than cherry-picking the sources.

Q: Let's get to it: What you are suggesting is that his big problem is not just the selective cherry-picking of facts that supported his hypothesis, but that he actually lied.

A: I would say he has a very, very severe reading problem that somehow has been undiagnosed all the way through his doctorate.

Q: You are being very politic and generous, but go on.

A: Let me give you an example. There is one section of his book, about page 74, where he makes the claim that the colonial governments had very little trust of their populations and required that -- with the exception of people who might be in outlying areas -- pretty much all guns were required to be stored in central storehouses. And he has this very impressive footnote with about 15 or so primary sources listed -- public records of Connecticut for example, records of Massachusetts Bay -- a very impressive list and if you actually looked all those things up and they said what he said, he would have a very strong argument.

Q: Conversely, if people were to come into California today and look up the list of registered assault weapons in California today they would find that California only has about 25,000 assault weapons.

A: Right, but this is a little more serious a problem than that maybe the records are incomplete. The difficulty is some of these sources I've been looking up -- this particular example I'm giving you mentions a book, "For the Colony in Virginia Britannia." It was published in 1969, it was a reprint of a very old book, it lists pages 9 through 25 as evidence for the fact that guns were required to be stored in central storehouses. Well, you go to that book, you look through those pages, and there is no mention of guns -- at all. Nothing!

There is discussion of the death penalty for sodomy, the death penalty for adultery, boring holes in peoples tongues for blasphemy, orders to bakers telling them how to bake their bread, orders that you are not to relieve yourself within some distance of the outside wall of Jamestown -- all sorts of very detailed regulations but there is nothing about guns. Nothing!

Q: Hold on. Although I really don't like this guy, let's try to give him the benefit of the doubt and consider publishing errors -- could it have been an error in listing the citation?

A: That would explain one of them. The next one on the list is called "Colonial Laws of New York in the Years 1664 to the Revolution." The citation there is Volume One, 49-50. So I went over to the library. They had it on microfilm and I was able to find the pages in question. There is a statement that ammunition -- publicly owned ammunition -- in the future would be stored in storehouses to be built in every city. Well, there is not a word mentioned about guns being stored in those storehouses, and later, in that same section -- on pages 49 and 50 -- it is very explicit that everyone will own a gun and that either the head of the household, in which case you are obligated to go out and buy a gun for yourself and all the men of militia age in your home ...

Q: Ah! The Kennesaw ordinance?

A: Oh, yeah, this is quite common. That's another thing: You look up a number of these statutes that he cites as proof that they didn't trust the population with guns and you find that in many cases there are statutes that say everyone will provide himself with a serviceable gun.

Q: Clayton, you have tried hard not to say that Bellesiles is making stuff up and passing it off as scholarship ...

A: Um ...

Q: You don't want to say that, but you are certainly implying that?

A: I would say, when you find dozens and dozens and dozens of examples of sources that you look up and you find that they don't say what he says -- or the date is different from what he claims the date is -- when you find the text of U.S. laws altered and you find these mistakes all overwhelmingly in the same direction, that is, something that supports his claim of a relatively gun-free America, it is difficult to say this is just sloppy.

Q: About 25-odd years ago in Worcester, Massachusetts, I was running a talk-radio station and a guy who worked for me quoted some real compelling but arcane statistic. When he got off the air, I asked him, "Where did you ever find that?" And he laughed and said, "I made it up!" I was angry and said, "What?" He replied, "Hey, I made it up. Nobody is going to check it." Well, you may expect that kind of sloppy sleazy stuff from some talk-show hosts or TV talking head, but from a bona fide scholar?

A: Yeah, and the thing that is interesting is, I was at a panel discussion at Columbia recently in which several of us took turns taking apart the serious problems with this book. Steven Halbrek, interestingly enough, had read the previous book that Professor Bellesiles had written about Ethan Allen and said, "It is a fine piece of scholarship." It doesn't have the sort of highly-biased writing -- even if you ignore the problems of accuracy which are fairly serious in "Arming America," there is an awful lot of usage of language that shows ...

Q: ... he had an agenda.

A: Not just an agenda, but that he wasn't very good at hiding it. For example, at one point he refers to capital punishment as "legalized murder." Well, I'm not particularly a fan of capital punishment either, but "legalized murder" is simply a nonsensical statement. It says something about Professor Bellesiles' ability to be objective that he would make such a silly statement. By definition, murder is something which is "illegal" -- that is what distinguishes it from capital punishment or justifiable homicide.

Q: I spoke with Joyce Malcolm and she did an article in Reason Magazine that excoriated Bellesiles.

A: Yes.

Q: What has been the reaction -- normally historians don't go out of their way to discredit one another?

A: No they don't. And that is one of the interesting things that is going on here. One of the problems we are running into is that historians operate on certain assumptions. And one of them is that if someone says they found thus and such at thus and such location, that they are telling the truth. As a general rule, I would say historians do not generally engage in gross misrepresentations. They may misread an ambiguous source in a way that fits their agenda, but that doesn't surprise me too much.

Q: And that will happen on both sides of the political spectrum.

A: Oh yeah, it does.

Q: I too often say some people don't like facts that contradict their preconceived opinions. The corollary to that is also true: If you can find facts to support your preconceived opinion -- HOORAH!

A: Right. And it doesn't surprise me when people make a sort of selective use of the facts. But it is so rare to actually find people effectively creating facts out of thin air -- or actually completely inverting the meaning of the source that they are citing to achieve that end -- that I don't think that very many historians even consider the possibility.

Q: Allegedly, this guy Bellesiles is a respected scholar -- an historian. Are his colleagues or his academic community going to let him get away with this?

A: To let you know how bad this really is, he has just received the Bancroft Prize for 2001.

Q: What is that?

A: This is the most prestigious award for the writing of American history.

Q: For this book?

A: Yes. What is really interesting is that the reaction of most historians I talk to -- and I am on a number of e-mail lists with professional historians -- the reaction of most people is, "We don't want to hear it." On a couple of lists, I was told to not send anything more about this to the list by the moderator -- "No one is interested."

The difficulty is partly that what this book clearly is intended to promote -- stricter gun control -- is something that is very popular among academics. And the other problem is it appears "rude" to point out that the book is largely a fabrication because so little of it actually checks out.

And that's something historians don't normally do because they don't usually have much reason to do that. Normally, if you look up facts that are cited in a book written by a professional historian, you can be pretty sure you can at least find the quoted text there -- you will at least find that there is something that can be, in some way, justifying the position the person is taking.

Q: But what about peer review? Isn't that supposed to be the big whoop-de-doo in scholarly circles?

A: I'm not terribly impressed with what I've seen of it. The difficulty with peer review is that if there is a very strongly held belief by a large minority of the reviewers -- or if there is a very, very strong majority that tends to take a position -- they tend to prevent anything from getting published that significantly disagrees with that.

This, by the way, is why there is this proliferation of history journals out there. There is a History of Labor Journal because, once upon a time, only about 25 years ago, the left felt -- and perhaps with some reason -- that their point of view was simply never going to get published in any of the mainstream history journals. Now, of course, things have sort of turned around in the other direction. That's one of the down sides of peer review. The other thing is there is a difference between history journals and law reviews.

Q: How so?

A: For example, when I submit something to a law review, once they accept it for publication, they will go through and check in their library every citable fact that I have in that article. If they can't find one of my sources, they will ask me to make a photocopy of it and send it to them. That never happens with history journals.

Q: I'm just an interested observer on the outside, but in the wake of the work Joyce and you and others have done on this, I would expect that at some point -- unless this is something that just doesn't happen in the historian sub-culture -- that some wag would come out and publish a book, not even heavy on the commentary but just a litany of the alleged "facts" that Professor Michael Bellesiles cites in his book, with the text of the actual citings and proof that, "Hey, it ain't there!"

A: That is exactly what I am doing right now. I am also submitting articles to some of the history journals -- one of which is basically 25 pages of "Here is what Professor Bellesiles writes in his book, here are the citations, here is what it actually says at the source. You can see they do not match or they are actually in contradiction of each other."

Q: What does Bellesiles say about this criticism? He's heard it from you and others.

A: Unfortunately -- let me emphasize something -- there has been an enormous amount of harassing e-mail to Emory University. These are not polite: Basically, "You've got a fraud on your faculty" -- these are really quite nasty and vicious. So if anyone out there thinks they're doing any good by taking that kind of approach -- you're not.

Q: But what about Bellesiles reaction to criticism?

A: The very first piece of significant criticism I posted on a professional historian e-mail list was to point out that he had altered the text of the Militia Act of 1792. The statute actually says, "shall provide themselves" -- and he changed it to be "shall be provided" and went to claim that Congress, by passing this law, was taking upon itself the responsibility of arming the militia because there simply weren't enough guns in America and ordinary people couldn't afford them.

Q: So what happened when you pointed out the quote was just flat-out wrong?

A: I didn't actually say that, but I pointed out that people could find a copy of the text at the Library of Congress website to see it for themselves. Bellesiles reaction was: Well, who does this guy think he is? He certainly is not an historian.

Q: Refuting your facts with "I am an historian. I am a PhD. I am God!"?

A: Yeah -- and I only have a Masters degree in history, although I actually have more books published than he does. He also then went on to say Mr. Cramer clearly doesn't understand the difference between a bill which is clearly an early copy of the law before it was finally passed by Congress. Interestingly enough, even though I could tell people where to go to find a copy of the original statute, most of the people involved didn't bother. They simply assumed he knew what he was talking about.

Three weeks later, he finally -- after apparently a number of people had pointed it out to him -- admitted that what he had quoted was not really the Militia Act of 1792 (even though that's where he says he got it from); he says it was actually the 1803 Militia Act. The problem, however, is the 1803 Militia Act doesn't say that either, and it makes the rest of the paragraph in which he's made this quotation simply nonsensical. He is now trying to explain things that happened in the 1790s based on a law that was passed 10 years later.

Q: So what happened after that?

A: Ever since then, he has simply refused to directly respond to any of the points I have made of gross inaccuracy, of altered dates, altered quotations: It all turns into he is being "stalked," he says. When what he really means is someone has caught him at his game, and he doesn't like it.

Q: This isn't something that is normally expected from academia. You expect it from politicians.

A: Yes, you expect it from politicians, but we have seen something happen in this country in the last 20 years that is really unfortunate. And that is, there is an older generation of academics, like the ones I studied under, who, even if they had a strong leftist position -- which many do -- there was still a recognition that there were certain standards of acceptable behavior. And one of them was, you try to be fair as best you can and you accurately cite stuff. But now, we seem to be getting the effects of a generation that operates on a sort of "What is the meaning of 'is'?" philosophy.

Q: Are the screw-ups by Bellesiles one or two errors, or sloppy footnoting -- or is it really more significant than that?

A: In some cases there are six or seven errors in a single paragraph. What we have done is posted the notes from the talk I gave at Columbia -- which is basically a series of slides showing the problems with Bellesiles' book. I give a photocopy of the relevant paragraph from his book, photocopy of the citation where he tells you where he got this from -- and then the actual source itself, a photocopy of the actual document. These are really gross and disgusting things.

Q: For example?

A: He makes the assertion that there is an inventory done in 1630 by the Massachusetts Bay Company that shows there were only 100 guns in all of Massachusetts -- one gun for every 10 people. And, when you actually go and look up the source, you see that, in fact, the inventory wasn't done in 1630 -- the date was 1628 -- and then you look carefully and you see it doesn't even say it's an inventory. It says this is the list of guns the company would like to buy and bring over -- this is before the colony has even been formed -- no one is even here yet!

Q: What does his university say? I know they only have semi-formal oversight on this stuff, but there has to be some kind of association or organization or something that must keep track of members, isn't there?

A: It's interesting. There is a very strange response we are beginning to get. An acquaintance of mine who attends the University of Massachusetts has also been researching this and has done a little bit of legwork for me on a few sources that aren't available to me on the west coast.

Q: Which U-Mass? The one at Amherst?

A: Yeah. He's had some interesting conversations with professors of history -- some of whom were enthusiastic about Bellesiles' book when it first came out --- and, as he has pointed out some of the flaws, the interesting reactions he has gotten are varied. Some of them have quite rightly been horrified and disturbed by this, but others are kind of interesting, "Well gee, if this comes out, I certainly don't want to have published a lot of stuff that cites it." The reaction isn't: "Oh, this is a horrifying thing that someone would have something this grossly and utterly clearly wrong."

Q: They don't want to be embarrassed and have other work tainted. But if they would accept blatantly false information and put their imprimatur on it, it diminishes the credibility of any future work coming of out in this venue and specifically that university.

A: It does.

Q: Is there any kind of professional organization looking into these chronic and gross errors? Or are they more concerned with the potential of having Emory University and/or academia embarrassed by scholastic fraud?

A: I think it is more the latter. A professor in the Midwest, when he saw the extent of the discrepancies, brought them to the attention of the dean of the history department at Emory and the reaction was basically, "This is one of our brightest shining stars. Until it gets published in a refereed journal, we're not interested." Until it is an embarrassment, they don't care.

Q: So snobbery wins out over accuracy?

A: Yeah. It was interesting: In the awards ceremony for the Bancroft Prize -- which was carried on C-SPAN II, as was our panel discussion demonstrating the many problems with the book -- Bellesiles delivered a big chunk of the speech when he received the award to the "dangers of the Internet," where all sorts of lies can be propagated and, suddenly, professors are no longer being reviewed just by their peers -- they were having to deal with all sorts of people out there.

Q: What they don't like is having to deal with facts which have been previously suppressed or manufactured.

A: Right -- or, not even suppressed, but the average person just doesn't go out and do the research required. The thing that really made this quite easy -- and it is actually an example of your tax dollars at work in a very good way for a change -- is quite a number of his sources are now available on the Library of Congress online.

Q: Hold on a moment. This "Bancroft Prize" for creative writing: Who awards it?

A: Columbia University's history department. They recognized there was a degree of controversy connected to the award of this prize. And the speeches given that night by the department chairman, Allan Brinkley -- an historian I have held in high regard -- made it very clear that at least part of what was motivating this was that this book was clearly a tool for doing something about gun control. It is clear that is the reason this book has received the enormous level of praise that it has.

Q: Bellesiles is -- or was -- a scholar of some repute who has written other largely-ignored stuff. However, he has never enjoyed the celebrity or attention he has since this book came out. The left embraced him as if he found the Rosetta Stone.

A: Yes, I'm sure that there are parts of central Asia and darkest Africa where people are reading reviews of this book. It was a truly astonishing accomplishment. On the other hand, if he had written a book that stated that guns were fairly common in early America, that would have been an uninteresting topic since it would have just confirmed what everyone already knew -- and, because much of the media establishment in this country doesn't want to hear that. They are looking for some way to make us more like Europe.