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December 17, 2002, 11:10 a.m.
Prized, No Longer
Columbia University rescinds Michael Bellesiles’s Bancroft Prize.

ichael 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.

In a 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It is the first time the prize for "distinguished works" in American history and diplomacy has been withdrawn since it was first awarded in 1948.

Arming 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 broken.

This 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).

Columbia's 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.

Columbia's 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."

But did it?

Before 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.

What's 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."

After 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."

Though 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."

And what 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.

Melissa Seckora is an NR editorial associate.

     

 

 
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