Michael Bellesiles’ Comeback

Michael Bellesiles’ new book 1877: America’s Year of Living Violently, is coming out next week. For those of you who don’t know or remember, in 2001-02, Bellesiles was accused of scholarly dishonesty and falsifying data in his award-winning book Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture. Arming America‘s critical argument was that widespread gun ownership was a post-Civil War development. The book was at the center of a political firestorm over 2nd Amendment rights and seemed to provide scholarly ammunition (pun intended) for advocates of more stringent gun control. Scholars James Lindgren and Clayton Cramer, however, uncovered discrepancies and outright fabrications in Bellesiles’ quantitative data, and they and others also noted citation errors in the book. Ultimately, a book that had won numerous prizes, including the Bancroft, cost Bellesiles his faculty post at Emory University and harmed his academic reputation.

Bellesiles was only one of several notable cases of historians accused of academic fraud and/or plagiarism in the early 2000s. Stephen Ambrose, a favorite historian of the World War II generation, faced serious scrutiny for plagiarism in several of his books. Doris Kearns Goodwin, who often appeared on cable news as a presidential expert, also came under criticism for alleged plagiarism. Peter Charles Hoffer’s book, Past Imperfect: Facts, Fictions, Fraud American History from Bancroft and Parkman to Ambrose, Bellesiles, Ellis, and Goodwin, provides an excellent overview of all three cases.

You can read more about Bellesiles here. This NYT story has links to pertinent information about his Arming America plagiarism case, including the findings of the panel of independent historians. You can also find extensive discussions of the case in the H-SHEAR discussion log archives, esp. 2002-03. History News Network also had extensive coverage of the case, as well as the other cases involving Ambrose and Goodwin.

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