History 233 Reading Guide

Gun Culture, Historical Methods, and Academic Honesty/Dishonesty

  • James Lindgren, "Fall From Grace: Arming America and the Bellesiles Scandal," Yale Law Journal 111 (June 2002), 2195-2249.  JSTOR
  • Further readings:  Michael Bellesiles, "The Origins of Gun Culture in the United States, 1760-1865," Journal of American History 83.2. (1996), 425-455.  JSTOR
  • Forum: "Historians and Guns," William and Mary Quarterly 3d Ser., 59.1 (2002), 203-268.  History Cooperative or JSTOR  Note: scroll down through the issue to "Forum:  Historians and Guns."

Michael Bellesiles was one of the four historians in the historical profession's Scandal of 2001-2002 who made national headlines as scholars and the media—in newspapers, journals, news websites, online discussion lists, and on television—discussed and debated the issues of academic honesty and dishonesty. His 1996 article in the Journal of American History was awarded the Organization of American Historians prize for the best article published in the JAH in 1996. His September 2000 monograph, Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture, received the prestigious Bancroft Prize in April 2001.

James Lindgren, Stanford Clinton Sr. Research Professor at Northwestern University School of Law, first questioned Bellesiles in August 2000 about the probate record evidence which provides the foundation for Bellesiles's groundbreaking thesis that early America did not have a "gun culture." Other scholars had questioned Bellesiles's evidence and methodology as early as 1996. By early 2001, scholarly criticisms of his research methods and therefore of his claims were emerging from a variety of fronts. Lindgren's article, published in Yale Law Journal in June 2002 and reprinted by History News Network, recounts the sequence of events in this story, analyzes a number of the claims that Bellesiles makes in his book, as well as his methods of collecting and analyzing data, and provides an appendix which presents some of the documents that Bellesiles misread or misused.

If you have time, read Bellesiles's 1996 JAH article, and the Jan. 2002 William and Mary Quarterly Forum on “Historians and Guns.”

  • Which evidence do you find most compelling—either Bellesiles's evidence or the evidence against him?
  • What do you think the primary issues are in this case?