Bellesiles: the Larger Context

Reading new left-liberal books is like listening to an oldies station on the radio. You remember the theme, you can predict the next chorus, it recalls times and events in your life, and the main point is nostalgia. And there are only a few themes at work, repeated ad nauseum: the crisis of capitalism is about to arrive, some minority group is being oppressed, big government can be made to work with the following reform plan, justice equals redistribution.

No matter which discipline you focus on, whether economics, history, or philosophy, the theme is the same. There are very few new arguments, very little new research, and it is all deadly dull. The books get published because the market of tax-funded university libraries and classrooms is dependable, and publishers and their review committees don’t like taking too many risks.

That is why Michael Bellesiles’s book Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture seemed so notable. The thesis, now completely debunked and the author’s having resigned in disgrace from Emory University, was that gun ownership was not widespread before Lincoln’s war. Individual gun ownership is really a modern obsession; indeed it is an invention. He attempted to show this by original research into probate records and diaries.

The thesis seemed counterintuitive, but what scholars call the apparatus was there: immense footnotes and citations suggesting massive research. What really mattered was the subtext. It implied that the gun control advocates had history of their side, that personal ownership of firearms is no more necessary now than in frontier times, that conservative scholars were all wet, that the state should monopolize the use of force.

That alone would have been enough for the book to garner praise, including the prestigious Bancroft Award and highly enthusiastic reviews from leading critics. And yet there is a more important reason that goes beyond the thesis and the argument. It is a sociological point. In a sea of mundane left-liberal books written by aging academics who haven’t made a new argument in thirty years, the Bellesiles book stood out as unique.

Michael Bellesiles was a young professor, not an aging socialist. His research and research methods were original. The scholarship was daring and enticing. Here in one package was something new in the genre, at long last! The very existence of the book seemed to indicate that left-liberalism still had some scholarly life in it, that it could survive another generation and perhaps even gain some intellectually respectable converts!

This aspect of the book, more than its thesis or argument, had an immense impact. It lifted the spirits of a dying generation of intellectuals. Perhaps their religion can last after all! Perhaps it has a future! Maybe their lives haven’t been a total waste! It was these sentiments, which did so much to lift this book to immense fame, that also caused a generation of academics to fly into panic when its thesis came into question.

Everyone knows the upshot of the second guessing. Once the original sources were checked out, it turned out that at all crucial junctures, the book was a hoax. His research, it would appear, didn’t check out. His quotations of first-hand accounts were altered. He trimmed and cut the evidence to match his thesis. Then, to make matters worse, his explanations seemed increasingly implausible. Finally a review committee was established that concluded in questioning the author’s “scholarly integrity.”

But just as the significance of his book went far beyond its academic claims, so too does the significance of his disgrace. It turns out that the first new thing in left-liberal academics in decades was nothing more than fraud. Imagine yourself as a left-liberal professor whose hopes were so lifted by the existence of this treatise. Imagine how you might feel now that Bellesiles is out of a job?

Who was responsible for unearthing the truth? Not the prestigious review committee. They only certified what had been discovered by people like Clayton Cramer and Joseph Stromberg, and others from gun-rights organizations. These were not exactly establishment sources, and they were going up against all leading literary reviews and even the National Endowment of the Humanities, which had thrown its weight behind the Emory historian. This was a case of David and Goliath.

But the disgrace of Bellesiles takes us back to square one. Instead of being a model and ideal of left-liberal scholarship in a new generation, it is now the most famous modern case of lying research, bad eggs at prestigious institutions, and the shoddiness of the academic class generally. The political paradigm that has limitless faith in the power of government, and no confidence in the ability of individuals to manage their own affairs, has been robbed of its biggest break in many years.

People ask if there is any reason for libertarians to be confident. If you understand the sociology of ideas, it is easy to see that the statist project is running out of intellectual steam. It survives mainly due to the momentum it gathered during and after World War II. But it has no new source of strength other than its domination of existing structures of power, and without intellectual life and vibrancy, it is profoundly vulnerable.

Saying that statism has lost intellectual energy is not to claim assurance of the final victory of its opposite, of course. But we must not rule out the possibility. After all, as Mises says, “The outstanding fact about history is that it is a succession of events that nobody anticipated before they occurred.”

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