Regardless of your specific topic, if you’ve been involved in the historical profession in the last decade chances are that you’ve at least heard of the Michael Bellesiles affair (conversely, I wasn’t involved at that point, but I do remember reading about the notorious episode in subsequent years). The seemingly brilliant historian, whose book Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture (2000) seems to totally re-write our conception of early American life, takes a beating at the hands of gun-right activists, and eventually at the hands of his peers. Sustained investigation by top-notch historians demonstrates pretty conclusively that his sources were either a) fabricated, b) sloppily consulted, or c) improperly analyzed (roughly in that order). Elite historians such as Garry Wills pull their early praise of the book, Columbia University rescinds the Bancroft Prize (one of the most prestigious awards in the profession), and Emory University conducts an investigation which produces damning conclusions on the brilliant historian’s (lack of) ethical scholarship (conclusions which the gentleman consistently denies), and Bellesiles resigns his position at Emory shortly after.
I’d forgotten all about it until my friend Andrew posted a link to this article in The Chronicle of Higher Education today, “Teaching Military History in a Time of War.” The article appeared on June 27 of this year, and I’d read it and been quite underwhelmed. The “punch” I was expecting from the title, however it came, was just lacking. As I told Andrew, I already had the impression that the Iraq War most likely had affected many of my students in one way or another; that theme wasn’t new. And I have a number of friends and acquaintances who served over there, including one person who suffered serious wounds and still struggles with them every day. When I as a civilian talk about military history, the need for precision and careful qualifiers goes without saying.
Anyway, I never connected the names on the article and the book, but my friend mentioned that this chap was controversial, and provided his Wikipedia entry, which explained exactly what that meant. Memories awoke. At the end of the Wikipedia article, however, were links to two different critiques of Bellesiles’ new article, both raising serious questions as to the veracity, or at least accuracy of this latest article’s story and setting. The first comes from Dutton Peabody at Big Journalism, dated July 6. The second, and in my opinion somewhat weightier critique, comes from Jim Lindgren at The Volokh Conspiracy, on July 6 and again on July 9. Lindgren just followed up today with another commentator’s critique of the article, which Lindgren carefully qualifies. The entire series can be found here–I’ve decided to post the link to all of Lindgren’s columns, so that readers can get a feel for the still-developing situation. His critique has prompted the Chronicle to begin its own investigation of the story, which remains ongoing.
If I may be forgiven for delivering a half-baked half-judgment, the situation doesn’t look good for this Bellesiles column, and I’ll be rather flummoxed if these suspicions are indeed borne out. As a profession, we do value honesty of presentation, and I think most historians would agree that a dull-ish project that admits its thwarted ambitions is preferable to a project creatively interpreted so as to generate more audience interest. At any rate, and whatever the outcome, the questions being once again asked of Michael Bellesiles are a potent reminder of the truly rigorous standards to which we must all strive to adhere.