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, 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.


Don Carleton said...

I recall reading that Bellesiles retrospective interview last fall, and concluding from it that maybe he'd been railroaded, but then I read the earlier critiques and concluded that he seemed like a very sketchy character indeed.

From my own knowledge of colonial military history, I knew that equipping provincial recruits with proper military firelocks was always a challenge, and so was sympathetic to Bellesiles's basic argument about the lack of effective weapons in civilian hands, but was appalled by what even in his own admission was an alarming degree of sloppiness in the evidence-gathering department.

Too bad he didn't have that good old J.L Bell doggedness and diligence when it came to evidence and sources, that's my conclusion!

J. L. Bell said...

I think the vast majority of historians are more dogged and diligent than Bellesiles was on the Arming America project.

I should acknowledge that Bellesiles took up a big topic—gun ownership over all of early America in the centuries from European settlement to the Mexican-American War. He also used a lot of methods, analyzing published sources, correspondence, laws, and those pesky probate records. As I discussed yesterday, the probate records became the crux of this investigation, but there were problems in all areas.

On the one hand, such a broad topic makes an error in a lesser-known detail more understandable. I took that approach with Bellesiles’s statement about the Boston Massacre, quoted a couple of days ago. I happened to have researched the heck out of that event, but I hadn’t delved into the other periods and places and sources Bellesiles claimed to study, so I didn’t want to say all his work was unreliable. But then the pattern built up.

This 2019 interview was remarkable in showing the misrepresentation of sources didn’t stop with that book. It’s carried into the discussion about that book, including the Emory report that everyone can still read for themselves.

Don Carleton said...

I agree, John, I think Bellesiles has some chronic problems with the truth. Surprised he hasn't been tapped for a job in the current administration!

Now I wonder will it EVER be possible to tackle the subject of gun ownership in early America in a dispassionate, evidence-based manner that could be accepted by all sides in the debate?

J. L. Bell said...

Even before Arming America was published, it was caught up in the country's debate over gun ownership, and that debate is far from being dispassionate or evidence-based.

Clayton Cramer published his book Armed America as a direct response to Bellesiles's claims. I'm sure Cramer sees his work as dispassionate and evidence-based, but I doubt everyone agrees. That book came out from Thomas Nelson, which describes itself as "a world leading publisher and provider of Christian content." Gun ownership is a long way from the Sermon on the Mount, showing how the weight attached to that topic has distorted other parts of our discourse.

Saul Cornell has published several books on militia laws, the Second Amendment, and related topics. I'm sure he too sees his work as evidence-based. One aspect of writing in that field is being drawn into debates over modern laws and court cases, making it almost impossible to argue a historical thesis without considering its modern legal implications.

I know some other scholars are working on questions about guns in early America. It will be a long time before they can publish into a dispassionate public environment, I suspect.