17, 2002, 11:10 a.m.
University rescinds Michael Bellesiles’s Bancroft
Bellesiles, a former Emory University history professor and
author of Arming
America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture, can no
longer claim the prestigious Bancroft
Prize, awarded to him in April 2001, as his own.
statement released Friday, Columbia University announced that
the school's trustees had voted to rescind the prize because
Bellesiles "had violated basic norms of acceptable
scholarly conduct." Arming America "had not and
does not meet the standards they had established for the
Bancroft Prize," the trustees found. Columbia also
requested that Bellesiles return $4,000 in prize money.
It is the
first time the prize for "distinguished works" in
American history and diplomacy has been withdrawn since it was
first awarded in 1948.
America was immediately embraced by many scholars because it
appeared to confirm what many already believed: that the Second
Amendment only protects a collective right to bear arms, and
individual gun rights were unimportant to America's Founders.
The thesis of the book is that there were few guns in early
America and that most of the guns that did exist were old and
October, Bellesiles was
forced to resign from his professorship at Emory after a
panel of historians built on the seed work of critics (most
notably James Lindgren of Northwestern University) and found
that Bellesiles was "guilty of unprofessional and
misleading work." The National Endowment for the Humanities
also withdrew its name from a Newberry fellowship awarded to
Bellesiles for a second book on guns (the NEH and the William
& Mary Quarterly were the first to seriously examine the
charges against Bellesiles).
provost, Jonathan Cole, tells NRO that his school's decision
came at the end of a careful process that began in the fall of
2001. Though they were ultimately influenced by the results of
the Emory investigation, Columbia's trustees also consulted with
outside historians in their deliberations about the fate of
Bellesiles's award. In fact, Bellesiles was even allowed to
provide his input before Columbia made its decision.
recent evaluation of Arming America by its trustees,
administration, and faculty contrasts sharply with the original
review by the Bancroft selection committee in 2001. Despite
early revelations that Bellesiles had made many errors in the
book, Columbia's prize committee issued the award anyway, as
reiterated last Friday, because Arming America appeared
to fulfill criteria of "enduring worth and impeccable
scholarship that make a major contribution to our understanding
of the American past."
the Bancroft Prize was awarded in 2001, scholars had already
shown that Bellesiles's main probate data were mathematically
impossible, and that he had miscounted, misinterpreted, and made
up substantial portions of information. When
asked by National Review last fall, Arthur Goren,
professor emeritus of Columbia, then chair of the prize
committee, said he wasn't aware of a public debate or serious
questions about Arming America when the committee
considered it: "We reviewed 150 books over a four month
period. As you undertake that process and seek to recognize
innovative work, among other things, it is probably inevitable
that some of the books will touch on controversial topics."
This, despite the fact that one of the original Bancroft panel
members, Rutgers historian Jan Lewis, had been sent a scholarly
manuscript detailing most of these problems.
more, on April 18, 2001, the day that Columbia presented
Bellesiles his prize, the Columbia College Conservative Club
(CCCC) held a roundtable discussion on the author's work. Not a
single Bancroft committee member or member of the school's
history department attended. "On April 9, I e-mailed
members of the history department and the Bancroft committee
with a summary of the case against Bellesiles including some
clear cases of fraud. I received no responses," explains
Ron Lewenberg, then president of the CCCC. He tried again and
was shunned again. "I was not allowed to put the packets in
the mailboxes of professors and staff, so with the approval of
the secretary, I placed them on the desk. According to a
friendly TA, whose anonymity I have kept secret for the
protection of his career, Professor Eric Foner, saw the handouts
and threw a fit. All of the packets were thrown out."
what Lewenberg interpreted as Foner's attempt to suppress
knowledge of possible problems with the book, Foner last week
defended the committee's ignorance in comments to the Associated
Press: "The Bancroft judges operate on a basis of trust. We
assume a book published by a reputable press has gone through a
process where people have checked the facts. Members of prize
committees cannot be responsible for that."
relieved that the school's trustees withdrew Bellesiles's
Bancroft Prize, Joyce
Malcolm, a history professor at Bentley College who has
written a book on the Anglo-American conception of gun rights,
and who was an early skeptic of Bellesiles's research begs to
differ: "The sad part is that if the prize committee had
taken the trouble to read the serious criticism of the book
before bestowing this award they would never have been put in
this embarrassing situation. The award was meant to be for a
work of impeccable scholarship, and it was clear before April
2001 that Arming America was not such a book."
about the book's publisher, Knopf? In the wake of Columbia's
actions, Knopf announced plans to continue to publish the same
paperback edition that Emory and Columbia found to be the
product of "misconduct" and "falsification"
— problems serious enough for Bellesiles to lose his tenured
position at Emory and the coveted Bancroft Prize but not for
Knopf to stop selling his discredited book, and its lies.
Seckora is an NR editorial associate.