Going off Half-Cocked: A Review Essay of Arming America

By Wyatt-Brown, Bertram | The Journal of Southern History, May 2002 | Go to article overview

Going off Half-Cocked: A Review Essay of Arming America


Wyatt-Brown, Bertram, The Journal of Southern History


THE PROFESSION OF AMERICAN HISTORIANS IS NO MORE IMMUNE FROM THE toils of notoriety than the business world with its corporate meltdowns. One popular historian seems to have borrowed lengthy passages from compatriots as coolly as some Houston executives cooked their financial books. Likewise, another, often seen on television, admits paying off an author whose work was exploited without attribution. Amid such sensational breaches in public trust, assaults on Michael A. Bellesiles's book Arming America (1) have become almost a cottage industry, with articles appearing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, national journals of opinion, academic newsletters, and elsewhere. (2) In this case the author's problem is neither greed nor the convenience of plagiarism. Instead, Bellesiles stands accused of allowing political aims to override scruples of historical accuracy.

Michael Bellesiles claims that myth alone has deposited firearms in the hands of most Americans from earliest settlement. His interpretation postpones the rise of a genuine "gun culture," as he calls it (p. 15), to the mobilizations of the Civil War. Arming America proposes that, thereafter, munitions makers tempted civilian buyers with cheap weapons. Such marketing led to increased homicides, gun accidents, and other misadventures.

Bellesiles's thesis does not arouse firearms zealots alone. Leaders of the generally liberal and anti-gun academic community have also complained, though for different reasons. In fact, Bellesiles has garnered more faultfinders than any historian in recent memory. For instance, in four pieces published in the January 2002 issue of the William and Mary Quarterly, Gloria L. Main, Ira D. Gruber, Jack N. Rakove, and Randolph A. Roth--though no friends of the National Rifle Association--almost unanimously refute his findings. (3)

Gloria Main, an expert on wills, rejects Bellesiles's assertion that if an inventory failed to mention weapons, the household had none. Main states bluntly, "This is nonsense." She points out that wills rarely included all property. Anything from cows to children's toys might be omitted because these paraphernalia had already been distributed. Worse, Main finds his methods inexact and his claims to extensive research inflated. Her own work revealed a 76 percent ownership of weapons (chiefly guns) in six Maryland counties between 1650 and 1720, whereas Bellesiles comes up with a mere 7 percent for Maryland (p. 109). Such a wide discrepancy "boggles the mind," she concludes. (4)

No less dismayed than Main, Ira Gruber criticizes Bellesiles for failing to acknowledge studies that long ago exploded myths of a venerable, sturdy citizen army. Instead, Bellesiles mentions predecessors but infers that his own views are almost sui generis. Like Main, Gruber also disputes Bellesiles's argument that muskets were impractical in colonial times. If that were the case, Gruber asks, why did Indians, not to mention colonists, generate such a lust for them? (5)

In perhaps the most devastating essay, Randolph Roth convincingly repudiates Bellesiles's statement that "Hamilton, Washington, and every member of Congress ... knew that most Americans did not own guns and had no interest in buying them" (p. 229). Roth summarizes the recent findings of James Lindgren and Justin Lee Heather and other scholars, many of whom have used the colonial probate inventories painstakingly compiled decades ago by the prominent economic historian Alice Hanson Jones. Across the board, the results appear to undermine Bellesiles's thesis of low gun ownership rates. For example, whereas Bellesiles claims that only 18.3 percent of the late-eighteenth-century southern probate inventories that he examined listed firearms (p. 445, table 1), Lindgren's analysis of Jones's inventories indicates that 69 percent of colonial-era southern households owned guns--the highest ratio among all early American regions. And the other scholars whose work Roth describes (who, unlike Bellesiles, have been forthcoming about both their sources and the sophisticated quantitative and statistical methods they employed) reach similar conclusions, with estimated gun ownership rates all in the range of over 50 percent of American households during this period. …

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