Speech Before Columbia University Conservative Club
April 18, 2001
My topic is Michael Bellesiles’s book Arming America, winner of the Bancroft Prize, and the very serious problems with it. Thank you to the Columbia University Conservative Club for inviting me to speak here today. Let me emphasize, first of all, that the problems with Arming America have, or at least should have, nothing to do with politics: whether one is conservative, liberal, progressive, or Marxist, careless, sloppy, grossly inaccurate history should be unacceptable.
Back in 1996, the Journal of American History published a paper by Professor Bellesiles that contained the essential ideas of his book Arming America. According to Professor Bellesiles, before the 1840s, guns were scarce in America; few Americans owned guns; most didn’t have any interest in owning guns; few Americans hunted, even on the frontier; and at least among whites, there was very little violence.
When I read that paper by Professor Bellesiles in 1996, I was intrigued by his claims. They were certainly outside the mainstream of American history, but that’s okay; it would not be the first time that conventional wisdom both inside and outside of the academic community has been wrong.
I found Professor Bellesiles’s claims intriguing because I was researching a related issue at the time: why did eight slave states take the lead in regulating the carrying of concealed deadly weapons? Professor Bellesiles’s paper suggested a possible explanation, and one that I attempted to verify.
But as I researched my topic, I found myself increasingly perplexed. The newspapers, travel accounts, diaries, and official documents of the early Republic described a country where guns were common, hunting nearly universal, and at least in some parts of America, white-on-white violence was depressingly common--with guns, with knives, even with hammers. I completed my research project, and wrote a letter to the Journal of American History suggesting that Bellesiles’s America was, at least from my research, a very incomplete description. Like the blind men attempting to describe an elephant, I concluded that Professor Bellesiles and I had grabbed different parts of the early Republic, and ended up with different descriptions because of it.
At that point, I was convinced that Professor Bellesiles’s paper reflected some sort of unconscious political bias. It was clear from the opening and concluding paragraphs of that paper that he had some sort of interest in promoting restrictive gun control, and I assumed that, as often happens, his desire to find a gun-free and therefore peaceful America had caused him to selectively pick or misread ambiguous sources. It was, I thought, a common enough sort of mistake. Of course, just because a mistake is honest doesn’t mean that it is okay for it to become the basis of public policy.
When Arming America was published last year, I received a review copy of it, and I started reading it. I found that the book was, indeed, an extended treatment of the same ideas as the Journal of American History paper. But as I read, and started making notes of startling claims, I found something quite disturbing: Bellesiles was quoting some of the same travel accounts that I had read, and "an examination of eighty travel accounts written in America from 1750 to 1860 indicate that the travelers did not notice that they were surrounded by guns and violence."
Of course, we don’t all have perfect memories, so I went back and started comparing his quotations of some of his sources with the sources themselves—and what I found was really shocking. I found that at last eight of his eighty sources did describe an America where guns and hunting were common, and several were explicit and horrified by the levels of white-on-white violence. As an example, Isaac Weld’s Travels Through the States of North America says, "The people here, as in the back parts of the United States, devote a very great part of their time to hunting, and they are well skilled in the pursuit of game of every description. They shoot almost universally with the rifle gun, and are as dexterous at the use of it as any men can be." And yet this was one of Bellesiles’s eighty accounts where the traveler didn’t notice that he was surrounded by guns!
I’m not even going to get to the problems of logical fallacies and arguable conclusions in Arming America; there is so much wrong with the facts that he cites that it is almost irrelevant what arguments he constructs from those facts. What is really troubling is that there are so many of these misread sources that I can often find several dramatic misreadings in a single paragraph! For nearly every error that I have found in Professor Bellesiles’s book, the error is on the side of proving his thesis: that guns, hunting, and white-on-white violence were uncommon.
I have picked several fairly blunt examples of this problem with Bellesiles’s misreading of sources to show you here on the overhead. I picked these because they were easy to demonstrate; altered dates; significant details left out; sources misquoted. But there are many dozens of other examples that I have cataloged of very serious misreading of sources.
Bellesiles makes much of inventories or arms censuses taken by various governments to demonstrate that guns were scarce. These arms censuses would be very persuasive evidence that guns were rare in early America—if Bellesiles’s sources said what Bellesiles says they say.
As part of his proof that guns were in short supply among the population of Colonial Massachusetts, Bellesiles writes:
In 1630 the Massachusetts Bay Company reported in their possession: "80 bastard musketts, with snaphances, 4 Foote in the barrill without rests, 6 long Fowlinge peeces...."
And a long list of guns. Bellesiles then says, "There were thus exactly one hundred firearms for use among seven towns with a population of about one thousand."
The source cited for this claim is "Shurtleff, ed., Records of Massachusetts Bay 1:25-26." But Records of Massachusetts Bay 1:25-26 says something completely different. First of all, the year that Bellesiles gives is wrong. The dates on the document Bellesiles cites are February 26 and March 2 1628/9 (Old Style). The year 1630 does not appear. (Of course, if Bellesiles had given the correct year, most historians would have immediately wondered how the Massachusetts Bay Company could have done an inventory of guns in the colony before the colony existed.)
It is not a list of weapons in Massachusetts Bay in 1630, or even a list of them in 1628, or 1629. It is not even a list of guns owned by the Company in Massachusetts in any year. It is a list of, "Necessaries conceived meete for o[u]r intended voiadge for New England to bee prepared forthwith": a list of arms to be brought over by the Company, only some of which were already owned by them.
There is nothing on the pages Bellesiles cites that indicates that this is a list of all the guns in the colony. There is nothing that indicates this list includes privately owned guns in Massachusetts Bay, as Bellesiles implies when he says "one hundred firearms for… a population of about one thousand." Is this a minor point? No, because he uses this as evidence that there weren’t many guns in America—and the document he cites doesn’t even come close to saying what Bellesiles says it says.
Here’s our next example. Bellesiles claims that in 1806 "a congressional committee estimated that there were 250,000 guns in America." Bellesiles clearly intends the reader to understand this estimate as indicating the total number of guns in America, both publicly and privately owned.
The 1806 congressional committee report that Bellesiles cites, however, is quite explicit about what guns were included in this number. The report explains, "From the best estimates which the committee has been able to form, there is upwards of 250,000 fire arms and rifles in the hands of the militia, which have, a few instances excepted, been provided by, and are the property of, the individuals who hold them." There were at least 250,000 guns in the hands of the militia alone—and nearly all of them were privately owned.
The following paragraph of the 1806 report, on the same page (where Bellesiles should not have missed it) gives a count of the number of guns in the federal magazines: 132,000, of which 120,000 were "fit for use" and 12,000 "which need repairs." This report indicates that at a bare minimum, there were 382,000 guns in the United States.
The guns in the state magazines would have to be added—and the report is explicit that these were not counted. If there were a count of guns in the hands of non-militia members (which there is not in this report, or any other source that Bellesiles cites), this would also need to be added.
Depending on how one interprets the congressional committee report, it is possible that there were also large numbers of firearms owned by militia members that were not considered to be military weapons, and thus not included in this estimate of "upwards of 250,000 fire arms and rifles…." Bellesiles’s representation of the 1806 congressional committee report is utterly wrong; indeed, one is hard pressed to see how anyone could read that report, and describe it the way that Bellesiles does.
Here’s our next example. Bellesiles discusses the Militia Act of 1792, and how it obligated every able-bodied free white male between 18 and 45 to enroll in the militia. Bellesiles quotes the Militia Act of 1792:
Further, "every citizen so enrolled, shall...be constantly provided with a good musket or firelock, a sufficient bayonet and belt, two spare flints," and other accoutrements. Congress took upon itself the responsibility of providing those guns….
But Bellesiles’s quote from the Militia Act of 1792 is incorrect. It is not just that Bellesiles leaves out important words—he adds some of his own, and changes its meaning. The actual text (sorry about the crummy image, but this is a scan from the Library of Congress’s web site) is:
That every citizen so enrolled and notified, shall within six months thereafter, provide himself with a good musket or firelock, a sufficient bayonet and belt, two spare flints, and a knapsack, a pouch with a box therein to contain not less than twenty-four cartridges, suited to the bore of his musket or firelock: or with a good rifle, knapsack, shot-pouch and powder-horn, twenty balls suited to the bore of his rifle, and a quarter of a pound of powder.... [missing text emphasized]
Not only does Bellesiles leave out the words "provide himself" that demonstrate that Congress did not take "upon itself the responsibility of providing those guns," but his misquotation of the Militia Act of 1792 includes the words "constantly provided," which hides the change in the tense of the verb "shall."
When I first confronted Bellesiles with this very dramatic error on one of the professional historian email lists, he first denied that there was any error at all, insisting that I had read an early version of the bill, and that I didn’t understand the difference between a bill and the final statute passed by Congress. Eventually, some weeks later, as the weight of evidence accumulated, he admitted that the text was incorrect, and explained his error as:
It took me a while to find my original source at a library in South Carolina, but the phrase "shall...be constantly provided with" is in the 1792 militia act. But you are right that it is not in any version I could find from the 1790s. So I then went carefully through the legislative records and found an 1803 Amendment to the 1792 Act…. Checking further, I found it as US Statutes II: 207, passed March 2, 1803.
So I was at fault in not reconciling the 1815 version I used with the 1792 version I also read (I assumed that they were just different versions of the same act).
In spite of explicitly listing his source for the quotation as US Statutes 1:271-74 and Debates and Proceedings in the Congress 3:1392-95, he actually quoted a later document that Bellesiles says contained the 1803 Militia Act.
There is an 1803 Militia Act that says, "That every citizen duly enrolled in the militia, shall be constantly provided with arms, accoutrements, and ammunition…" But this doesn’t match Bellesiles’s "quote" either. It does have "constantly provided", but the rest of the sentence is different. Even ignoring this, Bellesiles didn’t cite the 1803 Militia Act, and a number of the following paragraphs explain Congressional action in 1792 and 1794 based on a law that had not yet been written.
Here’s our last example. Virginia armed its militia through a combination of private contracts and a state gun factory, and Arming America describes Virginia’s attempt to arm its militia with these standardized weapons. As is usual with Bellesiles’s work, there is a near-complete disconnect between what Bellesiles’s source says, and what Bellesiles says that it says. The entire paragraph to be dissected below from page 236 of Arming America has a single footnote. The source Bellesiles lists is Giles Cromwell’s marvelously detailed history of the Virginia Manufactory of Arms, pages 2-57:
The shortage of gunmakers in the early republic is clearly illustrated in the history of Virginia's effort to establish an armory. In 1797 Governor James Wood informed the legislature that his government had searched the state to find anyone who could make arms for the militia, without success.
Bellesiles’s source for this claim, Cromwell’s book, tells a somewhat different story:
At the junction of the Rivanna and Fluvanna Rivers, the Point of Fork Arsenal centered around the storing of munitions and repairing arms, and a small force of artificers was maintained there from 1781 to 1801. Furthermore, scattered throughout the mountain and valley regions were many individual rifle makers who advanced their skills by making exceptionally fine rifles.
Bellesiles describes how Governor Wood of Virginia sought to obtain more arms for the state militia:
Wood therefore contracted to purchase four thousand stands of arms from England and another four thousand muskets from the Globe Mills in Pennsylvania. The latter source made just 925 arms over the next five years and then went bankrupt.
Cromwell’s account matches this, in part, but then describes how after McCormick went into bankruptcy, his foreman James Haslett finished another 50 arms, bringing the total up to 975, and then how John Miles, Sr., completed McCormick’s 4,000 musket contract, and made 250 pairs of pistols for Virginia as well. For some odd reason, Bellesiles missed this important detail, giving an incomplete and inaccurate picture of American gunmaking capabilities.
Cromwell also reports that George Wheeler of Culpeper County made at least 1,000 muskets for Virginia, and James Haslett completed another contract for 600 muskets. In addition, Virginia also contracted with a number of gunsmiths to make 2,145 rifles in the years 1809-19—and Cromwell makes the point that these contracts were "generally limited...to residents of Virginia...." (Cromwell’s Appendix B.8 lists the twenty Virginia contract rifle makers, and the number of guns actually completed and delivered.)
Bellesiles, by leaving out these other contracts for muskets and rifles, misleads the reader into thinking that gun makers were so scarce that when Virginia’s one private American contractor went bankrupt, Virginia was left in the lurch, and were forced to start a state gun factory for this reason.
Bellesiles claims that Clarke, who was hired by the state to run the state gun factory, found that there were few gunsmiths in Virginia: "More frustrating, he quickly discovered that there were only a few gunsmiths in Virginia and they all did exclusively repair work." Cromwell does mention that Virginia was short of "skilled artificers," but then goes on to explain the problems that Clarke was having, and in terms that do not fit Bellesiles's characterization very well. According to Cromwell—Bellesiles’s source:
The various gunsmiths in the different sections of the state were restricted primarily to limited repair work and in some instances to rifle making itself, and while some of these rifle makers would eventually seek employment in the armory, in most instances they were financially better off remaining in their own independent shops.
Consequently, Clarke defended his travels by saying that had he remained in Richmond and advertised for gunsmiths most probably he would have acquired the most indifferent workmen who were unable to find employment at other works.
So the problem was not that Virginia lacked gunsmiths, but that the terms that Clarke was prepared to offer would not attract the better Virginia gun makers, who were presumably making a decent income from their own shops. Somehow, this doesn’t sound like a scarcity of gunsmiths, nor a shortage of demand for their products. Bellesiles must have read over these pages in Cromwell too quickly.
Bellesiles continues his misreading of Cromwell that there were few gunsmiths in Virginia, and not many more in the rest of America, because Americans didn’t make guns: "Clarke ended up hiring sixty-eight workers, all of them from outside Virginia and a dozen brought over from Ireland."
The reason that Cromwell gives for hiring outside of Virginia is very different from Bellesiles's claims about a scarcity of gunsmiths in Virginia. "Clarke had found during his travels that the lowest wages were paid in Massachusetts and Rhode Island; so he concentrated on hiring people in those areas."
Concerning those "dozen brought over from Ireland," Cromwell’s account is very clear, and in complete contradiction to Bellesiles’s representation of it. According to Cromwell, "He was also successful in hiring artificers from Pennsylvania, where they had previously been employed by Haslett, and of the nineteen workmen who came to Richmond from this source, the majority were originally natives of Ireland."
This is an important point. Bellesiles’s claim was that Cromwell said gunsmiths were so scarce in America that Clarke had to bring over a "dozen" from Ireland to work at the Virginia Manufactory of Arms. This is simply not so, and Cromwell does not make any such claim; these Irish-born gunsmiths were already at work in Pennsylvania as gunsmiths when Clarke hired them.
Let me emphasize: I have picked the easiest problems with this paragraph of Bellesiles’s about the Virginia Manufactory of Arms. To avoid putting you all to sleep, I have not bothered to discuss several other gross misreadings of Cromwell by Bellesiles—in a single paragraph of Arming America!
As the reader by now should have figured out, I am not impressed with the quality of Professor Bellesiles’s scholarship. The reviews in the popular press, often by distinguished American history professors, have been overwhelmingly positive. It would appear that many of America’s most prominent historians assumed that if Professor Bellesiles makes an astonishing factual claim, well, he must have looked it up, because Arming America is full of endnotes.
Yet it is apparent that there are many dozens of statements of fact in Arming America that do not stand up to even the most cursory examination. At a minimum, those who are partial to citing Arming America as a source would be well-advised to check his citations before using any of his "facts." Columbia University would also be well-advised to take a bit more a look at the "distinguished" books to which it awards the Bancroft Prize.