April 06, 2005
James Lindgren & The Debunking of "Arming America"
Posted by Gordon Smith

James Lindgren spoke to the Federalist Society at the University of Wisconsin today about his extensive work debunking the claims contained in Michael Bellesiles’s Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture. Jim's law review article on the subject is here, and there is no shortage of stories in the popular press.

The debate is about levels of gun ownership in early America. I don't spend much time on guns, and I was only vaguely aware of the controversy. But even if this isn't your bailiwick, I think you would find Jim's story simultaneously compelling and horrifying.

Here is the abstract from his law review article:

Probate inventories, though perhaps the best prevailing source for determining ownership patterns in early America, are incomplete and fallible. In this Article, the authors suggest that inferences about who owned guns can be improved by using multivariate techniques and control variables of other common objects. To determine gun ownership from probate inventories, the authors examine three databases in detail—Alice Hanson Jones’s national sample of 919 inventories (1774), 149 inventories from Providence,1778 WILLIAM AND MARY LAW REVIEW [Vol. 43:1777 Rhode Island (1679-1726), and Gunston Hall Plantation’s sample of 325 inventories from Maryland and Virginia (1740-1810). Also discussed are a sample of 59 probate inventories from Essex County, Massachusetts (1636-1650), Gloria L. Main’s study of 604 Maryland estates (1657-1719), Anna Hawley’s study of 221 Surry County, Virginia estates (1690-1715), a sample of 289 male inventories from Vermont (1773-1790), and Judith A. McGaw’s study of 250 estates in New Jersey and Pennsylvania (1714-1789). Guns are found in 50-73% of the male estates in each of the eight databases and in 6-38% of the female estates in each of the first four databases.

Gun ownership is particularly high compared to other common items. For example, in 813 itemized male inventories from the 1774 Jones national database, guns are listed in 54% of estates, compared to only 30% of estates listing any cash, 14% listing swords or edged weapons, 25% listing Bibles, 62% listing any book, and 79% listing any clothes. Using hierarchical loglinear modeling, the authors show that guns are more common in early American inventories where the decedent was male, Southern, rural, slave-owning, or above the lowest social class—or where the inventories were more detailed.

The picture of gun ownership that emerges from these analyses substantially contradicts the assertions of Michael Bellesiles in Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture (Arming America). Contrary to Arming America’s claims about probate inventories in seventeenth and eighteenth-century America, there were high numbers of guns, guns were much more common than swords or other edged weapons, women in 1774 owned guns at rates (18%) higher than Bellesiles claimed men did in 1765-1790 (14.7%), and 87-91% of gun-owning estates listed at least one gun that was not old or broken. The authors replicated portions of Bellesiles’s published study in which he both counted guns in probate inventories and cited sources containing inventories. They conclude that Bellesiles appears to have substantially misrecorded the seventeenth and eighteenth century probate data he presents. For the Providence probate data (1679-1726), Bellesiles has misclassified over 60% of the inventories he examined. He repeatedly counted women as men, counted about a hundred wills that never existed, and claimed that the inventories evaluated more than half of the guns as old or broken when fewer 2002] COUNTING GUNS IN EARLY AMERICA 1779 than 10% were so listed. Nationally, for the 1765-1790 period, the average percentage of estates listing guns that Bellesiles reports (14.7%) is not mathematically possible, given the regional averages he reports and known minimum sample sizes. Last, an archive of probate inventories from San Francisco in which Bellesiles claims to have counted guns apparently does not exist. By all accounts, the entire archive before 1860 was destroyed in the San Francisco earthquake and subsequent fire of 1906. Neither part of his study of seventeenth and eighteenth-century probate data is replicable, nor is his study of probate data from the 1840s and 1850s. (emphasis added)

In light of the stories Jim told at his presentation today, the highlighted portion of the abstract seems quite charitable. Over a period of several years, evidence of academic fraud or gross incompetence accumulated, resulting in Bellesiles' resignation from Emory University.

I found two aspects of this story particularly troubling. The first was the manner in which professional historians circled the wagons around Bellesiles when the evidence of problems first emerged. The root problem is that no one who was defending Bellesiles had checked his sources. Those who had checked the sources (Jim and some others) were the people crying foul. For all of the criticism leveled against student-edited law journals, they at least provide that check.

Second, if Jim's reports are accurate, the media stumbled badly on this, sometimes out of an abundance of caution, and other times for what appears to be political motivation. (Bellesiles' book was seen as useful to anti-gun activists.) An interesting detail from this aspect of the story is that Ana Marie Cox (i.e., Wonkette) was working on a story about Bellesiles' book for The Chronicle of Higher Education. After interviewing Jim, she became convinced that the book had problems. Wonkette was ultimately fired from the Chronicle, and Jim suggested a possible connection between that event and this story. [Jim gives "the rest of the story" in his own post at Volokh Conspiracy.]

UPDATE: Jim menioned that Glenn Reynolds was on this story from the beginning. Was he ever! Here is list of Instapundit posts with the word "Bellesiles," dating back to April 17, 2002. In one recent post, Glenn takes professional historians to task for their disdain of legal scholarship. Worth the read.

UPDATE 2: Ann Althouse was also at the talk, and she blogs it here.

UPDATE 3: Welcome Instapundit readers! Feel free to look around. We have a lot of stuff here that might interest you.

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I'm off later today to Duke for this weekend's conference on Term Limits for ..." [more] (Tracked on April 7, 2005 @ 0:53)

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Comments (6)

1. Posted by Larry LaBeck on April 6, 2005 @ 21:32 | Permalink

Thanks to James Lindgrin for his efforts on this subject.

I became aware of the Bellesiles book by hearing him interviewed on NPR's Terry Gross program, Fresh Air twice(first run and rerun). I was surprised at his findings and felt obliged to defer to him as he'd done the work.

Subsequently, I checked the book out from the library and fully signed off on his thesis.

This sort of prejudicial historian is the first I've known to have been caught out. However, for many years I've been disappointed in the parochial and decidedly left-of-center viewpoint college student have come away with from their classes.

By the way, I've never heard Ms. Gross repudiate or allude to the Bellesiles' deceit.


2. Posted by Mike K on April 6, 2005 @ 22:19 | Permalink

The amazing thing about historians in my limited experience is how poor they are at history. I submitted a manuscript of a medical history for medical students to a university press that had done some other medical history books although much narrower in scope. I could not find anything suitable for medical students so finally wrote my own. I thought a university press would be the logical place and the editor was quite interested. She sent the manuscript to several "readers" for opinions. She sent me the reports later and, of course, they panned it.

The most interesting part was the number of errors or misinterpretations in their reports. They actually thought it was well written but I didn't have the right credentials. (I'm an MD) That was OK. But some of the comments were ludicrous. I had mentioned that Napoleon invaded Egypt to cut England off from India. One reader huffily informed me that the Suez Canal was not dug until 1865. Huh ? Did they think Napoleon liked pyramids ? There were some other errors they made because they didn't know any medicine. That, however, doesn't matter. Getting the politics right is all that matters.

Belleisles got his politics right and they didn't care about the rest.

I self-published the history and it's doing fine.


3. Posted by Peter on April 7, 2005 @ 2:13 | Permalink

Readers should know that despite the sloppiness that has been revealed in parts of the book, there are still two sides to the issue, and there are many honest, non-leftwing-wacko academics that still feel Belleisles got more right than he got wrong.

One thing that has changed since the book is that 2nd amendment armchair theorizing is now implicitly understood to be inadequate. Where was James Lindgren before the book? Why are he and other only now looking at probate records and other concrete evidence?

Another thing: Why the silence on the intimidation of those with views on the 2nd amendment at odds with the NRA? Try attending any lecture that has been given any publicity at all and take a look at the thug-types who will be sitting in the back of the room with their arms folded.


4. Posted by Clayton E. Cramer on April 7, 2005 @ 8:22 | Permalink

"there are many honest, non-leftwing-wacko academics that still feel Belleisles got more right than he got wrong."

Feelings aren't enough. I've gone through Arming America with a fine tooth comb--about the only major claim that it makes that is correct is that colonists purchased quite a bit of meat from the Indians.

On every other major claim: very little white on white violence before the Civil War; strict regulation of gun ownership and storage; "only a handful of gunsmiths" in America in the first 150 years; no real market for handguns; no gun manufacturing capability until the Revolution, and limited even then; only a small fraction of Americans hunted: all wrong. I have checked hundreds of his footnotes for accuracy; Arming America is not just wrong, but false. Bellesiles's own sources emphatically contradict him. See http://www.claytoncramer.com/primary.html#MilitiaLaws for examples of his dishonesty about colonial gun regulation. See http://www.claytoncramer.com/primary.html#GunScarcityDocuments for other examples of Bellesiles's sources that directly contradicting his claims about what they said. See http://www.claytoncramer.com/ArmingAmericaFraud.pdf for a list of just intentional and gross fraud by Bellesiles.

The intimidation claim I have heard before concerning UC Irvine. However, when I talk to people who were present at one of these events, their accounts don't match up to the intimidation claims. Perhaps this "intimidation" is in the eye of the paranoid beholder?


5. Posted by David Nieporent on April 7, 2005 @ 9:10 | Permalink

Readers should know that despite the sloppiness that has been revealed in parts of the book, there are still two sides to the issue, and there are many honest, non-leftwing-wacko academics that still feel Belleisles got more right than he got wrong.

I think this illustrates the problem.

1. The word you're looking for is "fraud," not "sloppiness." Plagiarism (while unacceptable) can be the result of sloppiness. Bad math can be the result of sloppiness. Misinterpreting a source can be the result of sloppiness. Pretending to have reviewed records that simply didn't exist is not and can never be "sloppiness."

2. As for "feel he got more right than wrong," I suspect that you're entirely correct with that statement. But it isn't a question of "feel"ing. It's a question of facts -- the only "side" to an issue that matters.

I suspect that these people "feel" this way because of their sympathies with the arguments Bellisiles made. If he were arguing that slavery in the American south weren't really as bad as most historians make it out to be, I suspect that these same honest, non-left-wing-wackos would be far less charitable in their evaluations of him and far less willing to take his research at face value.

I'm not accusing them of dishonesty; it's human nature to be more skeptical of ideas we disagree with than ideas we agree with. But this just points out why "feelings" aren't enough.


6. Posted by Benny Smith on April 12, 2005 @ 18:36 | Permalink

Lindgren has pursued his vendetta against Bellesiles for a long time, something that has skewed his skills as an investigator and tainted his objectivity. As someone who has followed the Bellesiles matter for quite some time, I had this to say about Professor Lindgren on the History News Netowrk:

http://hnn.us/comments/18486.html

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