J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, June 01, 2020

“The Illegality of holding the Court in any other Town than Boston”?

On 1 June 1770, the Massachusetts house continued its discussion with acting governor Thomas Hutchinson about why the legislature was meeting in Cambridge.

The dispute over that issue began in 1769, when Gov. Francis Bernard moved the Massachusetts General Court out of Boston. It continued when Hutchinson convened a second session of that term in March.

The first thing the new house did after electing their officers was to prepare a “remonstrance” against not meeting in Boston. The committee to write that protest included James Bowdoin (named first and thus probably the principal author), Samuel Adams, Joseph Hawley, John Hancock, and Daniel Leonard.

The remonstrance began:
BEING returned by our respective Towns to represent them in the Great and General Court or Assembly of this Province, directed by his Majesty’s Writ under your Hand and Seal, to be convened at Harvard-College in Cambridge, We beg Leave to represent to your Honor our Opinion: That the only Writ established by Law for the convening a General Assembly, is apparently formed, upon a Supposition that the Town-House in Boston is the only Place where the said Assembly is to be convened, held and kept.

Our Fathers in the Year 1721 were evidently of Opinion, that the convening holding and keeping the Assembly at any other Place, was contrary to the Act of this Province, of the Tenth of William the Third, which establishes the Form of the Writ: Accordingly, when the Assembly was then adjourned to this Place, though the Providence of God had rendered it impossible for them, consistent with Safety to their Lives, to meet in Boston, by reason of a contagious Distemper which raged there, Governor [Samuel] Shute declared, that he did not mean the Adjournment should ever after be drawn into Precedent; And the three Branches of the Legislature passed a Resolve, to make valid their Proceedings; which they would not have done, if they had thought the Adjournment from the Town-House in Boston, however necessary, had been consistent with the aforementioned legal Establishment.
The message went on to discuss Gov. William Burnet convening the assembly in Salem in 1729.

Hancock was the one member of the drafting committee also named to the committee to deliver the result to Hutchinson. But the lieutenant governor avoided meeting with Hancock and his colleagues on 30 May. He read the remonstrance and replied with a letter dated the next day, and it was entered into the house record 250 years ago today.

The acting governor said:
By the Charter the Governor has the sole Power of Adjourning and Proroguing the General Assembly. There is no Limitation of Time or Place. Can it be supposed that merely by Force of the Form of a Writ for calling the General Assembly, this Power is taken away or abridged? Will it not rather be supposed that the Word Boston in this writ, is meer Matter of Form, especially when it is considered that it will be equally necessary for the Writ to be dated at Boston, (for that is a Part of the Form) as it is for the Court to be convened there? Now it must, in the very Nature of the Thing, be perfectly indifferent in what Place the Writ is dated.
As for deploying historical precedents, you don’t address the author of The History of the Colony of Massachusets-Bay without having all your evidence in order. Hutchinson acknowledged what happened under Shute and Burnet but said those disputes actually showed the question had been decided in favor of his position. He then went on to a historical moment of his own:
I must put you in Mind that in the Year 1737, the King, for the more convenient carrying into Execution a Commission for settling the Line between this Province and New-Hampshire, instructed the Governor to remove the General Court to Salisbury, where more than one Session was held: Whether this was necessary or not, I will not determine; but if it was necessary, I know that his late Majesty was the sole Judge of the Necessity.

I was then a Member of the House, and do not remember a Word to have been said of the Illegality of holding the Court in any other Town than Boston. The Point had been settled a few Years before, and was fresh in the Memory of the House.
Neither side in this debate mentioned how the General Court had met in Cambridge during the smallpox epidemic of 1764, only six years before. As under Gov. Shute, people agreed that a raging contagious distemper required taking unusual steps, especially when their own health was concerned.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

“I wish for a happy Harmony in the Legislature”

As the Boston Whigs held a simulation of Election Day ceremonies on 30 May 1770, the real thing was going on across the river in Cambridge.

At nine o’clock the recently elected members of the Massachusetts General Court met in the chapel of Harvard Hall. The Council chosen a year before sat upstairs in the “Philosophy Chamber”—the room where Harvard College kept its advanced scientific instruments (such as the half-hour and hour glasses shown here).

The representatives of all the towns in the province (the towns that had chosen to send representatives, that is) showed their credentials and swore the Oath of Abjuration, promising allegiance to the Protestant Hanoverian dynasty instead of the Catholic Stuarts.

The house chose its clerk. Every member voted for Samuel Adams. Not only did that job grant Adams some sway over the business of the house, but it also provided the income that let him maintain his family in genteel style.

Next the house chose its speaker. Again the vote was unanimous, reelecting Thomas Cushing. He had served since 1766, a strong Whig but not a radical. Still, the acting governor had the power to nix that choice.

Back in April, Cushing had been ill, and the previous house had to choose a temporary replacement. The legislators voted for John Hancock. Hutchinson vetoed him. (The house then chose James Warren of Plymouth, who was acceptable and would also become the speaker in his own right in the summer of 1775.)

On this day, the Boston Gazette reported:
About Ten o’Clock His Honor the Lieutenant-Governor [Thomas Hutchinson], being escorted by his Troop of Guards from his Seat at Milton, arrived at Harvard-College, and being in the Chair, a Committee of the House presented the Speaker elect to his Honor, who afterwards sent a Message in Writing, agreeable to the Royal Explanatory Charter, that he approved of their choice.
People were thus in a more agreeable mood when they recessed. At eleven o’clock everybody walked over to the town’s main meetinghouse, “preceded by the first Company in Cambridge of the Regiment of Militia, commanded by the Hon. Brigadier [William] Brattle.”

The Rev. Samuel Cooke, minister out in the western village of Menotomy, preached a sermon titled The True Principles of Civil Government. He worked from 2 Samuel 23:3-4, beginning: “HE that ruleth over Men, must be just, ruling in the fear of GOD.” Unlike the Rev. Dr. Charles Chauncy, who spoke in Boston that same morning, Cooke didn’t speak about the most incendiary issues of the day, such as the Boston Massacre. He criticized a royal governor, but it was Edmund Andros, ousted in 1692.

Nonetheless, Cooke ventured onto controversial ground by raising a new issue:
I trust, on this occasion, I may, without offence—plead the cause of our African slaves; and humbly propose the pursuit of some effectual measures, at least, to prevent the future importation of them.

Difficulties insuperable, I apprehend, prevent an adequate remedy for what is past.

Let the time past more than suffice, wherein we, the patrons of liberty, have dishonored the christian name,—and degraded human nature, nearly to a level with the beasts that perish.

Ethiopia has long stretched out her hands to us—Let not sordid gain, acquired by the merchandize of slaves, and the souls of men—harden our hearts against her piteous means.
All the officials then went back to Harvard Hall for midday dinner—“an Entertainment,” the Gazette said. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the servants who prepared or served that dinner were enslaved.

In the afternoon, the house became more confrontational. It approved a remonstrance to the acting governor for convening the legislature in “any Place, other than the Town-House in Boston.” A committee headed by Hancock went to deliver it. They came back and reported that “his Honor was not in the Chair.” Hutchinson had left the building.

Under formal protest, the house proceeded to choose the new Council in the usual way. They invited the sitting Council to come down to the chapel, and then as a body the men voted for eighteen Councilors from the old Massachusetts Bay colony, four from the old Plymouth colony, four from Maine, and two at large. This list included all eleven men that Gov. Francis Bernard had vetoed the previous year.

The next morning, 250 years ago today, the house convened again. Lt. Gov. Hutchinson was back, so Hancock’s committee got to deliver their remonstrance. The house then presented its list of Councilors for the acting governor’s approval.

Hutchinson approved all the elected Councilors but two: Hancock and Jerathmeel Bowers of Gloucester. One member, Joseph Gerrish of Newbury, declined to serve. Those three men remained in the house. Some members elected to the house, such as James Bowdoin and James Otis, Sr., now departed for the Philosophy Chamber, perhaps pleasantly surprised at the governor’s assent. Eleven towns, including Boston, would have to hold new elections.

Both legislative houses for the upcoming year now complete, Lt. Gov. Hutchinson called all the members upstairs. He delivered a speech about the priorities of reducing the public debt and heading off unimportant petitions. The acting governor concluded:
I wish for a happy Harmony in the Legislature, and I will most readily concur with you in every Measure you shall propose, as far as can consist with my Duty to the King, and the Regard I bear to the Interest of the Province.
Of course, there was still the matter that the General Court was meeting in Cambridge, not Boston.

TOMORROW: The response to the remonstrance.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

“On Election Day a Sermon will be preached”

Election Day was a holiday in colonial Massachusetts. Not the day that people voted for their General Court representatives—that happened in town meetings, and each town could choose its own date.

Rather, Election Day was when the new legislature assembled for the first time and elected the new Council, as well as the speaker and clerk of the lower house.

That day usually involved a banquet for the legislators and guests, a procession, and an “Election Sermon” by a prominent clergyman. Did New Englanders know how to party or what?

On 30 May 1770, 250 years ago today, acting governor Thomas Hutchinson convened the General Court across the Charles River in Cambridge. All the official events would be taking place there. What was Boston to do?

The Whigs decided to arrange their own unofficial observations instead. On 29 May, they paraded an ox through town, “to be roasted whole” the next day. That meat was designated “to be given to the Poor and Prisoners.”

The 28 May Boston Gazette announced:
A Number of Gentlemen, Friends to the Rights of America and Mankind, taking into Consideration the unprecedented Removal of the General Election of Counsellors for this Province from its Ancient Seat, and being desirous of celebrating the usual Festivity of said Election, request the Favour of the Company of the Gentlemen of the Clergy of all Denominations who may be in Town, to dine with them at FANEUIL HALL on Wednesday next, the 30th Instant, at Two o’Clock precisely.
According to young printer John Boyle, the ox was taken over to Faneuil Hall after roasting. Probably the gentlemen and clergy dined inside, the populace outside (and, we hope, some meat was sent to the jail).

Before that hour, Edes and Gill also promised, “On Election Day a Sermon will be preached at the Old Brick Meeting House, by the Rev. Dr. [Charles] CHAUNCY.” That was the church right beside the Town House, where the legislature usually met, and Chauncy was its highly respected minister.

Edward M. Griffin’s biography reports that Chauncy created a thirty-five-page sermon titled Trust in God, the Duty of a People in a Day of Trouble, based on a verse from the 22nd Psalm. He directly addressed the governor’s choice to move the legislature to Cambridge, but he wound up on the most anticipated event of the time, the upcoming trials for the Boston Massacre.

Chauncy preached:
If there should have been, in any measure, a failure in this respect, since the King’s troops were stationed in this town, from whatever cause, it is now hoped that “justice and judgment will run down our streets as a stream”: And I the rather mention this, because the opened earth in one of our streets, in the month of march last, received the streaming blood of many slaughtered, and wounded innocents. So shocking a tragady was never before acted in this part of the world; and GOD forbid it should ever be again!

Who the sheders of this blood were may possibly appear, upon the tryal of those who are under confinement, as being supposed to be the guilty persons. We wish them as fair and equal a tryal as they themselves can desire. And should they all, or any of them, be found guilty, though their sin be as “scarlet, and red like crimson”, we heartily wish their repentance, that, of the mercy of GOD in Jesus Christ, they may escape the second death; though our eye is restrained from pitying them so as to wish their deliverance from the first death. For the supreme legislator has said, “whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed”—“life shall go for life”—“No satisfaction shall be taken for the life of a murderer—He shall surely be put to death.

SOME have whispered a suspicion, as though a reprieve from death would be granted, should the guilt of blood be fastned upon some who are supposed to have been actors in this horrid wickedness—But it is an high indignity offered to him, who has the power of giving a reprieve, so much as to suspect he would do it in the case of BLOOD GUILTINESS, clearly proved upon any, in consequence of a fair and impartial tryal.

Surely, he would not counter-act the operation of the law both of GOD and man. Surely, he would not suffer the Town and Land, to lie under the defilement of blood! Surely, he would not make himself a partaker in the guilt of murder, by putting a stop to the shedding of their blood, who have murderously spilt the blood of others! All such suspicions should be suppressed. They are virtually a scandalous reproach reflected on him, of whose integrity, and regard to public justice, we should entertain a more honorable opinion.
Justice of the peace James Murray referred to this sermon as “the pains taken by the Revd. Doctr. Chauncey and others to prejudice the People of Boston against Capt. [Thomas] Preston.” But it was equally a warning to Hutchinson not to pardon that officer.

TOMORROW: Meanwhile, over in Cambridge.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Preparing for the Political Season to Reopen

Back in May 1768, the Massachusetts General Court added seven Whig House members involved in the Circular Letter dispute to the Council, which functioned as the legislature’s upper house and an advisory board for the governor.

Gov. Francis Bernard had vetoed six of those seven men.

In May 1769, a new legislature convened and elected those six men to the Council again. On 1 June, Gov. Bernard vetoed them again. He also vetoed five more names, including:
A couple of weeks later, Gov. Bernard moved the whole legislature out to Cambridge. Meeting in Harvard Hall (a building the governor himself had designed, shown above) instead of Boston’s Town House produced even more controversy. The House petitioned the Crown to remove Bernard from office. The legislative session ended in July. Bernard left Massachusetts forever in August.

On 15 Mar 1770, acting governor Thomas Hutchinson called the Massachusetts General Court back into session, once again in Cambridge. He said that he didn’t feel he had the authority to change the venue. There was a lot more arguing about that, as well as about Bernard’s and other officials’ letters to London, the recent Boston Massacre, and more.

Towns held elections for new General Court representatives in May. I discussed the Boston election here. The legislature was due to reconvene on 30 May, once again in Cambridge, and one of the first tasks would be to elect a new Council. The 28 May Boston Gazette shows the Whigs maneuvering to resume the arguments from the previous years.

One Councilor whom Bernard had removed in 1768 and 1769 was James Otis, Sr., but he would be back in the legislature nonetheless:
The Town of Barnstable have made Choice of the Hon. JAMES OTIS, Esq; to represent the Great and General Court the Year ensuing.——It is observable the good old Patriot had 92 Votes out of 101.
Edes and Gill also reported a complaint from the legislature’s unwitting host:
We hear that the Honorable Corporation of Harvard College, from a Regard to the Rights of the People and the good of that Seminary, have lately presented a Remonstrance to his Honor the Lieutenant-Governor, on the General Court’s being summoned to meet at that Seat of Learning, and have also entered a Protest on their Records to present this illegal Measure from being drawn into a Precedent.
The other big political development chronicled in that issue of the Boston Gazette was that Parliament had repealed most of the Townshend duties while keeping the most lucrative one, the tax on tea. What did that mean for the North American non-importation protest against all those tariffs? Merchants in Newport were reportedly shipping in goods already. Committees in Philadelphia and New York were asking what Boston would do.

On 23 May the Whigs had convened another public meeting of “the Trade” in Faneuil Hall, which “VOTED almost unanimously” to “still strictly adhere to the Non-importation Agreement.” The Boston Gazette assured “our Brethren of the other Colonies” that Boston wouldn’t be the first to reopen for regular business.

TOMORROW: Election day in Boston.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

“To catch a red herring at last”

Yesterday I shared a use of the phrase “red herring” in a political setting from 1782. Here’s a trail to an even earlier usage.

Lord Carteret, who after 1744 was the second Earl Granville, was active in the British government from 1719 on. He was mostly involved in foreign policy. Through the 1720s and 1730s he was one of prime minister Robert Walpole’s rivals, partly from their convictions and partly from their sheer ambitions.

Lord Carteret was the most influential man in the British government after Walpole’s fall in 1742, but he himself was forced out of his office as Secretary of State two years later.

In 1751 the earl became Lord President of the Privy Council, a high-ranking position with little direct power. He remained in that post until he died in early 1763.

Later that year the British press published “A Dialogue Between the Late Earls of Orford [i.e., Walpole] and Granville,” depicting the two old opponents meeting in the afterlife. This item appeared in the 21-23 June London Chronicle and John Caesar Wilkes’s Weekly Magazine for 27 June. The Beauties of All Magazines reprinted it in July.

A longer version of that dialogue appeared in the June 1763 issue of The Universal Museum and Complete Magazine (volume 2, page 319). That appears to be the original; Frederick M. Keener lists it as such in his English Dialogues of the Dead: A Critical History, an Anthology, and a Check List (1973). Although I’m pretty sure the Universal Museum from 1763 is in the public domain now, Google Books offers only snippet views and no copies are available on HathiTrust.

As someone in this etymological discussion also found, a portion of the dialogue that didn’t make it into the London Chronicle or other sources was:
Lord G. It is right, however, that mankind should pursue it. It is productive of many good effects. The trumpet of fame rouses great minds to great actions.

Lord O. And to many bad ones too. Fame, you know, my Lord, has two trumpets. And though the pursuit of it may be good exercise for the general pack of mankind, and keep them in breath, it seems (to speak in my favourite language of a sportsman) to be only hunting a trail, to catch a red herring at last.
This may be the first print source to take the common, smelly object of a kipper, as used in training a hunting pack, and make it into a metaphor for something that distracts people from what’s really important. And it’s from 1763.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

John Courtenay: “On the red herring scent of American taxation”

This week I learned from the Words for Granted podcast that one of the first documented uses of the phrase “red herring” as a metaphor for a distracting false lead arose from the American Revolution.

For centuries “red herring” meant a herring preserved by smoking, or a kipper. There are also references from the late 1600s to smelly red herrings being used to train horses or dogs to follow a scent in preparation for hunting.

On 20 Mar 1782, a Member of Parliament named John Courtenay (1738-1816) was speaking in the House of Commons. Courtenay was a former British army lieutenant born in Ireland. He represented Tamworth in the 1780s, but really he was a witty mouthpiece for his political patrons, at this point Viscount (later Marquess) Townshend.

As reported in volume 6 of The Parliamentary Register, published later in 1782:
The noise, clamour, and cry to adjourn were so strong, that Mr. Courtenay, though he spoke in a strong, and elevated tone of voice, could scarcely be heard, upon which he called out very audibly, “that neither his temper, disposition, nor country, inclined him to be intimidated, embarrassed, or easily put out of countenance, he would therefore finish what he had to say before he sat down,” which was, that though he had not the honour of being one of those sagacious country gentlemen, who have so long vociferated for the American war, (a war which he should ever think impolitic, unjust, and inexpedient) who had so long run on the red herring scent of American taxation, before they found out there was no game on foot; they, who like (their prototype) Don Quixote, had mistaken the barber’s bason for a golden helmet, he now congratulated them on having, at last, recovered their senses, and found out their error…
The references to “country gentlemen” and “no game on foot” clearly tie this metaphor to aristocratic rural hunters. Courtenay thus presented “American taxation” as a foolish and distracting political goal, not worth chasing.

As I’ve noted before, at the start of the unrest in America, British printers were still prosecuted for reporting on speeches in Parliament. John Almon had started to issue the Parliamentary Register in 1775, just in time for the American war.

By the 1780s reporting on debates had become acceptable enough for John Stockdale to issue Beauties of the British Senate: Taken from the Debates of the Debates of the Lords and Commons, as a “greatest hits” collection of rhetoric with extracts of speeches back to Robert Walpole’s ministry. Courtenay’s entries were listed in the contents under “Humour,” “Remarkable Sayings,” “Satire,” “Simile,” and “Wit” rather than, say, “East-India Affairs” or “Freedom of Election.” The red herring speech, rendered in first-person present instead of third-person past, was one of his memorable “Similes.”

A few years later, Courtenay broke with William Pitt’s party to join Charles James Fox’s opposition. Deploying truckloads of sarcasm, he supported the changes across the Channel in Philosophical Reflections on the Late Revolution in France (1790). In parliamentary debate Courtenay reminded Edmund Burke “how he exulted at the victories of the rebel [George] Washington.”

Many authorities credit William Cobbett (1763-1835, shown above) with coining the metaphor of a “red herring,” based on a story he published in his Political Register weekly in 1807 and expanded in 1833. Cobbett did indeed use the phrase “political red herring” at the end of a shaggy-dog story about him as a boy drawing hounds off the scent of a hare with a kipper.

However, in that period Cobbett and his printer, Thomas Curson Hansard, were also publishing their own Parliamentary Debates reports and a multi-volume Parliamentary History of England. Volume 22 of Cobbett’s Parliamentary History, which came out in 1814, presented Courtenay’s speech as printed back in 1782, with changes only in punctuation. So Cobbett knew about Courtenay’s earlier use.

TOMORROW: An even earlier appearance.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

“Including the records of very poor people”

I’ve been analyzing Michael Bellesiles’s interview on Daniel Gullotta’s Age of Jackson podcast last year, particularly his comments about the Emory University committee that criticized his book Arming America.

The relevant part of that podcast was transcribed here at Contingent magazine.

As my last point, I find these statements from Bellesiles particularly audacious:
They also criticized me for my approach, for including the probate records of the poor. . . . The committee wrote that I clearly examined the probate records I listed, but they criticized me for including the records of very poor people who owned very little.
Nothing in the Emory report criticizes Bellesiles for “including the records of very poor people.” In fact, it’s ludicrous to imagine any set of modern American historians disparaging good study of the poor.

What’s the basis of Bellesiles’s description? I suspect it grew from passages like this:
Our concern about his definition of “inventory” was raised first by his conflating of “wills” and “inventories” in his handling of the Providence, Rhode Island inventories. Obviously including wills in the total count of records greatly reduced the percentage of guns in estates, since few wills list guns or any other specific kind of personal property. . . . we think that the extraordinarily low percentages of guns in Professor Bellesiles counts may be a consequence of an unusually broad definition of what constitutes an inventory…
Specifically discussing records from Northampton County, Pennsylvania, the report found Bellesiles’s “results (only 5 guns in 39 inventories) are so at odds with hers [Alice Hanson Jones’s] (5 in 21 inventories). Apparently his definition of an inventory was broader than hers.”

Alice Hanson Jones (1904-1985, shown above) was an economic historian who worked for the U.S government and taught at Washington University in St. Louis. Her magnum opus was Wealth of a Nation to Be: The American Colonies on the Eve of the Revolution, supplemented by three volumes of inventory transcriptions, American Colonial Wealth: Documents and Methods.

In assessing who owned what, Jones analyzed only probate files that included inventories of goods. A file might contain no inventory because that paperwork had disappeared, or because the estate didn’t need to be divided or evaluated to settle debts, or because people didn’t think inventorying would be worthwhile since the deceased had so little property. As Jones acknowledged, that last factor meant poor people were less likely to have their estates inventoried. But without an inventory, it’s nearly impossible to say whether a particular person was poor or owned any particular item.

It appears that Bellesiles’s approach was to count probate files with guns listed in inventories and then divide not by all inventoried estates but by all estates. In other words, he lumped all the estates that had no inventories in with those that had inventories but no guns—in effect, assuming that every dead person not explicitly found to have owned a gun didn’t own one. As the report found, that method “greatly reduced the percentage of guns in estates.” It raised the number of poor people reflected in the data, but with no way of knowing which of the added people were poor or were gun-owners.

I see no evidence that in his articles, book, and responses to the Emory committee Bellesiles ever cited the need to include poor people’s estates as the reason for counting as he did. The Emory committee therefore had no reason to criticize Bellesiles “for including the records of very poor people,” and they didn’t. Instead, those senior historians criticized the approach behind Arming America as badly defined, not clearly explained to readers, liable to error, and impossible to trace back.

To me this aspect of Bellesiles’s response to the Emory report looks like not only denial of the problems inherent in his approach, but an attempt to tar the committee members as snobbish and unconcerned about poor people.

Monday, May 25, 2020

“Prolix, confusing, evasive and occasionally contradictory”

As I described yesterday, in 2002 Emory University asked three senior historians from other colleges to investigate specific questions about Michael Bellesiles’s research in Arming America.

The committee’s report (P.D.F. download) concluded:
Subsequent to the allegations of research misconduct, his responses have been prolix, confusing, evasive and occasionally contradictory. . . . The Committee's investigation has been seriously hampered by the absence or unavailability of Professor Bellesiles’ critical and apparently lost research records and by the failures of memory and careful record keeping which Professor Bellesiles himself describes. . . .

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. . . . his scholarly integrity is seriously in question.
Emory had asked the committee to assess the evidence for intentional falsification of data. The senior historians could not find such intent on two of the five questions they were given. They went on:
On Question 3, we find that the strained character of Professor Bellesiles’ explanation raises questions about his veracity with respect to his account of having consulted probate records in San Francisco County. On Question 4, dealing with the construction of the vital Table One, we find evidence of falsification. And on Question 5, which raises the standard of professional historical scholarship, we find that Professor Bellesiles falls short on all three counts.
In his conversation with Daniel Gullotta for the Age of Jackson podcast, Bellesiles characterized the committee’s conclusions differently:
That committee acknowledged that I had in fact conducted the research in the archives listed in the book, but they criticized my record-keeping as archaic, for relying on paper rather than the new computer-based systems. . . . The committee wrote that I clearly examined the probate records I listed…
In fact, the committee concluded:
Given his conflicting statements and accounts, it has been difficult to establish where and how Professor Bellesiles conducted his research into the probate records he cites: for example, what was read in microfilm and where and in what volume, what archives, in some cases, were actually visited and what they contained.
The committee cited particular doubts about Bellesiles’s claims to have examined archives in California, Georgia, and Massachusetts. I think a proper summary of the committee’s findings is that they confirmed his visits to some archives, accepted his claims about others, and were skeptical but unable to disprove his (revised) claims on still more. And that’s before discussing how he handled information from those archives. The committee summarized, “Every aspect of his work in the probate records is deeply flawed.”

Continuing his theme, Bellesiles stated:
The committee also noted that I had done extensive research in military archives, feeling the need to quote one archivist as stating that I was there often, but that he didn’t like me. (I still don’t understand why they felt the need to include that gratuitous dig.)
Here’s the relevant passage in the Emory committee’s report, from an appendix written by the research assistant:
I visited the Worcester Facility on 14 June 2002 and spoke with the Director of Historical Services, Col. Leonid Kondratiuk, who told me that the reference I had given him did not correspond to a document.

Although I did not tell Col. Kondratiuk that I was checking Prof. Bellesiles’s footnotes, he recognized the reference from other researchers who had previously asked for information about the table. He told me that Prof. Bellesiles had been to the archives about eight years ago but that no one who had been at the archives at that time worked there any longer. Col. Kondratiuk made no attempt to conceal his negative opinions about Prof. Bellesiles or his book, and this is important because the archives manuscript resources are not accessible by card catalog, and I was forced to rely on Col. Kondratiuk’s knowledge of what materials the archive contained. I have no reason to believe that Col. Kondratiuk concealed information from me. He spent several hours with me, allowed me access to restricted space and showed me several letter books whose titles were similar to the one Bellesiles gave or which he thought might contain similar information.
It’s obvious why the report mentioned Kondratiuk’s “negative opinions about Prof. Bellesiles or his book”—to acknowledge the possibility that the facility director might not have been eager to cooperate in vindicating the professor’s claims. In other words, that information could have been helpful to Bellesiles’s case.

What’s more, Bellesiles’s description of “one archivist as stating that I was there often, but that he didn’t like me,” leaves the impression that Kondratiuk had personally seen Bellesiles at work and taken against him. In fact, the colonel told the committee researcher that neither he nor any current colleagues had ever met Bellesiles at the archive. Kondratiuk also said nothing about Bellesiles visiting the facility “often.”

[Kondratiuk appears above in a photo from the Charlestown Patriot-Bridge, portraying Paul Revere in the National Lancers’ recreation of Revere’s ride on Patriots’ Day in 2016. He is now a brigadier general.]

Bellesiles told Gullotta:
I was able to recover one-quarter of my probate material from my notes and put it on the Web. The committee acknowledged this fact, but they faulted my reliance on paper and pencil rather than a computer database.
The report doesn’t include the word “pencil” nor say that Bellesiles should have used a “computer.” The committee did say, “his recording methods were at best primitive and altogether unsystematic,” but that wasn’t a matter of the medium he used. Instead, the report concluded, “Bellesiles seems to have been utterly unaware of the importance of the possibility of the replication of his research.”

The committee report did mention Bellesiles’s website (now down) multiple times. The passage with the most detail is:
Professor Bellesiles responded to the intense criticism of his probate data in Arming America with a website that purported to move beyond his earlier work with new information gathered more systematically and with samples extending over several years. At this writing, the website includes only two areas cited in the sources for the JAH article and Table One in Arming America—the Vermont data that he gathered in the 1980s and a summary of an unknown number of probate files from Westmoreland, Pennsylvania. How the Westmoreland material survived the flood in his office, we do not know.
The J.A.H. article cited what the committee called “an apparently comprehensive survey of records from 38 jurisdictions,” but only two of those locations reportedly overlapped with what Bellesiles put on the website. That doesn’t add up to an acknowledgment that he had recovered “one-quarter of my probate material.”

TOMORROW: A final accusation.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Arming America: How “the Controversy Arose”

As I described yesterday, in 2002 Emory University asked three outside scholars to investigate charges of “failures of scholarly care and integrity” against Michael Bellesiles, author of Arming America.

Those scholars were academic heavyweights: Stanley N. Katz of Princeton, Hanna H. Gray of the University of Chicago, and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich of Harvard. They had the assistance of a graduate student who visited archives in Massachusetts, checked other sources, and reran calculations.

That committee filed their report (P.D.F. download) in July. Emory University released it in October. On the same day, Bellesiles resigned.

In his interview last year with Daniel Gullotta for the Age of Jackson podcast, Bellesiles made some comments about that report and other criticism of his book. I decided to assess those remarks against the historical record.

Bellesiles told Gullotta:
The controversy arose because seventeen years ago, there was a flood in Bowden Hall at Emory University in Atlanta, which severely damaged the offices of numerous professors in the history and philosophy departments, including mine. Most of the original notes for my book Arming America were destroyed in that flood. And within days, opponents of the book picked up on this loss to argue that I had never conducted the research supporting three paragraphs in the book that concern probate records.
The sprinkler-pipe flood happened in April 2000, nineteen (not seventeen) years before this conversation. Arming America was published in early September 2000, so “opponents of the book” couldn’t have responded to the flood “within days” because the book didn’t yet exist. But of course we may not recall exact details of a difficult time.

Here’s the sequence of events as best I can recreate it. Bellesiles published a paper on gun ownership in early America in the Journal of American History in 1996. Its evidence included travel accounts and probate inventories. Clayton E. Cramer, a graduate student with whom Bellesiles had corresponded about gun laws, then wrote to the journal listing other travel accounts that contradicted the paper’s findings. Bellesiles replied by dismissing Cramer’s criticism as politically motivated.

Meanwhile, Bellesiles had agreed with the Knopf division of Random House to publish what became Arming America. The July 1999 Economist reported on the upcoming book. In December, Charlton Heston, president of the National Rifle Association, sniped at Bellesiles’s work. The editing and production process on the book must have also begun in 1999. That sprinkler pipe burst in April 2000, making news only in the Emory community. In that same month, the New York Times reported on Bellesiles’s intriguing conclusions.

Arming America was officially published in September 2000, receiving prominent and mostly positive reviews in the mainstream press. As early as 30 August, Prof. James Lindgren of Northwestern University wrote to Bellesiles with questions about his research since he’d been working on the same questions using probate inventories. On 19 September, Bellesiles sent Lindgren an email saying, among other things, that the office flood had destroyed his notes. That appears to have been the first link between the burst pipe and the probate data, and it came from Bellesiles himself. (Subsequently, the Emory committee found, Bellesiles made a “disavowal” of some other statements in those 30 August and 19 September emails to Lindgren.)

The first public mention of that flood’s effect on the debate that I’ve found was a draft of Lindgren and Justin Lee Heather’s essay “Counting Guns in Early America” dated 28 December. Some critics of the book were indeed skeptical of Bellesiles’s explanation about the loss of his probate data—some had to be convinced there even was an office flood. But Lindgren and others accepted, if only for argument, that Bellesiles had indeed counted probate records on yellow pads as he described and included that in their analyses of his work. That was sloppy technique and the numbers still didn’t add up, they said.

But that aspect of the book wasn’t where the “controversy arose” first. Cramer had objected to Bellesiles’s conclusions back in 1997. After the book appeared, Cramer expanded on his criticism, finding more omitted and distorted sources. As a software engineer, he used his expertise with computers to set up webpages sharing those findings. Unfortunately for the appearance of political leanings, Cramer located his pages within the website of the Golden Gate United National Rifle Association, making it easy for Bellesiles and his defenders to dismiss the complaints.

Cramer, as a graduate student in California, didn’t have the resources to try to replicate most of Bellesiles’s probate research in the east. But he found plenty of other details in Arming America to criticize. Lindgren and his team had already worked in some of those probate archives, so they could analyze what data Bellesiles reported and find discrepancies. Eventually formal reviews in scholarly journals voiced more doubts, though most didn’t appear until late 2001 or 2002, after Arming America had received the Bancroft Prize.

I’ve always been struck by how Lindgren’s critique carried much more weight than Cramer’s. According to Bellesiles in his interview with Gullotta:
Now, I think the reason they picked on the probate records is because those are the most obscure of all the materials I use, that pretty much require you to go to the individual archives in order to examine them. It’s not something that could easily be verified by going to a good research university library.
Except that Cramer found a lot wrong with Arming America by “going to a good research university library.” Bellesiles’s ongoing emphasis on the book’s small section about probate inventories gives the false impression that no one had found other problems with the book.

There are better explanations of why Lindgren’s criticism got more traction within the academic world than Cramer’s. Lindgren was a professor at Northwestern. Cramer was a graduate student at Sonoma State University. Lindgren wasn’t a proponent of gun ownership in contemporary America while Cramer was. Lindgren’s argument rested mostly (but not wholly) on numbers. Cramer’s critique was largely about words, which can seem more open to interpretation. But isn’t quoting words out of context just as inaccurate as reporting a false count of wills?

Whatever the reason, we can see that Emory University gave more weight to the Lindgren critique. All five of the questions it tasked the outside committee with examining involved “probate records” of some sort. Furthermore, the committee noted that its mandate covered “ONLY” those questions. (In Appendix B, Part 3, the research assistant did address discrepancies with travel narratives that Lindgren had noted, but disagreed with parts of his assessment.)

TOMORROW: Bellesiles’s comments on the committee’s conclusions.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Arming America Twenty Years On

As my Sestercentennial postings from last fall recounted, the last part of the year 1769 in Boston was punctuated with gunfire:
There were no serious injuries from those gunshots, much less deaths. Nonetheless, they showed that violence in Boston was becoming more lethal. And indeed, the first two months of 1770 would bring the shooting deaths of Christopher Seider and then five people in the Boston Massacre.

Back in 2000, Michael Bellesiles published a study titled Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture. It received prominent pre-publication blurbs and lots of newspaper reviews, most of them (but not all) laudatory. At the time, I looked at the book for what it said about pre-Revolutionary Boston and was surprised to see this statement on page 177:
The only incidence of gunfire in the long decade before the Revolution came in Boston in 1770, when British soldiers opened fire on an angry crowd and killed five men.
I already knew that Boston alone provided several counterexamples to that blanket statement. Bellesiles had apparently missed not only the non-fatal shots of 1769 but Ebenezer Richardson shooting a child from his window—not to mention James Otis shooting out his own window two months later.

Back then, the main platform for discussion among historians was listservs and other forms of email groups. (A few years later, blogs took over, with Boston 1775 among them. A few years after that, and most of the discussion moved to Twitter, with podcasts gaining ground.) I noted that mistake in the book on H-Net’s OIEAHC listserv (now H-Early-America) in October 2000 and probably on the Revlist group on Yahoo! as well.

During those months, however, I wasn’t ready to write off Bellesiles’s entire book. Those examples of more gunfire in Boston didn’t necessarily negate Arming America’s larger argument because it claimed that there were more guns in port towns than in interior farming communities. The unwelcome stationing of the army regiments in Boston in 1768-1770 definitely made it an exceptional place.

I also wasn’t ready to conclude that such errors were evidence that Bellesiles had knowingly misrepresented the historical record—not without more solid evidence. As long as there was a way to reconcile the evidence he cited with what others were bringing to light, I felt we should consider that before deciding the only explanation was fraud.

At the same time, I found myself speaking up in the online discussions for Bellesiles’s harshest critics, reminding scholars not to dismiss them because they came from outside academia without considering the evidence.

As time went on, it became clear that Bellesiles’s evidence was full of holes. The book’s citations didn’t support its claims. A burst pipe in his Emory University office building had destroyed his notes on probate inventories, he said. (There was indeed such a disaster.) But then other researchers found that his counts of those inventories didn’t add up—mathematically couldn’t add up. Some of the archives he listed as having consulted didn’t exist.

In that context, what might have seemed like careless errors—overlooking the gunfire in pre-Revolutionary Boston, misreading accounts of life on the frontier, missing examples of gun crimes in the courts—came together in a more ominous pattern. On the H-Net listservs I posted messages about how I found Bellesiles’s explanations unconvincing, which prompted some pearl-clutching for a week and also produced one of the first academic citations of my work.

In 2002 Columbia University revoked the Bancroft Prize it had awarded Bellesiles for Arming America. Emory commissioned three respected historians to review particular accusations about his work—not all of them, just those raised by other academics and most easily tested. Random House stopped publishing the book, though Soft Skull Press issued a paperback edition with Bellesiles’s corrections and response to his critics (the edition shown above).

Last year, Daniel Gullotta of the Age of Jackson podcast tracked down Bellesiles and interviewed him at length following a discussion of the book with one of its early critics, Joyce Lee Malcolm. The transcript of the second half of the Bellesiles interview was published on the Contingent Magazine website. And I found myself wading back into those waters.

TOMORROW: Assessing claims in that interview.