Fall from Grace: Arming America and the Bellesiles Scandal

56 Pages Posted: 30 Mar 2005


Before there was a scandal, there was a book - Michael A. Bellesiles's Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture. Arming America is a well-written and compelling story of how early Americans were largely unfamiliar with guns until the approach of the Civil War. It tells a wide-ranging, detailed, but relatively unnuanced story of gunlessness in early America. Bellesiles writes: "The vast majority of those living in British North American colonies had no use for firearms, which were costly, difficult to locate and maintain, and expensive to use." His primary evidence was low counts of guns in probate records, gun censuses, militia muster records, and homicide accounts.

According to Bellesiles, in early America there were very few guns. Privately owned guns were mostly in poor working condition. By law, guns were not kept in the home but rather stored in central armories, and guns were too expensive for widespread private ownership. He even claims that men generally were unfamiliar with guns and that they did not want guns - preferring axes and knives instead, in part because guns were so inaccurate that they were of little use. He argues that axes made very good weapons in hunting, and in battle, people considered "the ax the equal of a gun." Bellesiles claims that states enacted laws that restricted gun ownership to white Protestants who owned property. White-on-white homicide was rare in colonial America, according to Bellesiles, and guns were rarely the weapon used in homicides. Guns were not culturally important, either: Travel narratives do not show that guns were part of everyday life, even on the frontier. At least in probate records, women did not own guns. He further claims that the background of the Second Amendment shows that the Anti-Federalists had no problem with restricting militia membership to those above the lower social classes. Last, with a few exceptions, the militia were extremely ineffective.

Unfortunately, except for the last claim of militia ineffectiveness, all 15 of these major contentions of Arming America turn out to be false.

Two meta-arguments by Bellesiles might have direct public policy applications (though, as a work of history, Arming America does not directly advocate any gun policies). One is that guns and violence go together. In early America, he claims, we had very low gun ownership and low homicide rates; after the Civil War, we had lots of guns and high homicide rates. The second is that if guns were not widely owned, then it is unlikely that gun owning was understood as an individual right in the Second Amendment.

In this review article, I examine the following questions:

How Common Was Gun Ownership? Was Homicide Rare? Were Privately Owned Guns Mostly in Poor Working Condition? How Expensive Were Guns? How Effective Were Guns, Bladed Weapons, and the Militia? Were Guns Kept in the Home? Were Guns Common in Travel Accounts? How Central Are the Errors to the Thesis of Arming America?

Since the book's publication, scholars who have checked the book's claims against its sources have uncovered an almost unprecedented number of discrepancies, errors, and omissions. Indeed, the review ends with an appendix documenting over 200 specific errors in Arming America. When these are taken into account, a markedly different picture of colonial America emerges: Household gun ownership in early America was more widespread than today - in a much poorer world.

Arming America claims that we did not have a gun culture before the Civil War, but that we have had one since then. There is an obvious conceptual problem with this thesis: What would it mean to have - or not have - a gun culture? It is hard to judge the truth of this claim without deciding on what a gun culture is. Bellesiles gives us some hints of what he means, but he never clearly states his criteria. This is an unfortunate way to frame the inquiry. Cultural analysis is not an all-or-nothing proposition. America had one form of gun culture in the late eighteenth century, it had another form of gun culture in the late nineteenth century, and it has another form today.

Although Bellesiles never defines what he means by having a gun culture, he puts great store in owning guns, familiarity with guns, and the prevalence of guns in popular culture - such as in magazines, television, and movies. If having a gun culture requires gun-lover magazines and violent film and television crime stories (or the contemporary equivalent), then we have a gun culture today, but did not two centuries ago. If, instead, having a gun culture means growing up in households with guns, learning how to shoot them, widespread participation in military training where guns are used, and using guns as a tool (such as for vermin control), then we definitely had more of a gun culture in the eighteenth century than we do today.

Arming America is an impressive book, especially to those not versed in the materials that Bellesiles wrote about. It is extremely well-written for a book that covers so many apparent specifics of gun ownership and use. Superb historians praised it on its release. Yet even from the beginning, there were those who found disturbing differences between Arming America and its sources. As time has passed and other scholars have entered the debate, these errors - which once looked like such serious defects that they could not be true - have been confirmed.

The book and the scandal it generated are hard to understand. How could Bellesiles count guns in about a hundred Providence wills that never existed, count guns in San Francisco County inventories that were apparently destroyed in 1906, report national means that are mathematically impossible, change the condition of most guns in a way that fits his thesis, misreport the counts of guns in censuses or militia reports, have over a 60% error rate in finding guns in Vermont estates, and have a 100% error rate in finding homicide cases in the Plymouth records he cites? We may never know the truth of why or how Arming America made such basic errors, but make them it did.

As scholars, we must content ourselves with correcting errors and searching for the realities of gun ownership, use, and social meaning.

[Note: Although this review was first posted on SSRN in March 2005, it was previously downloaded from Instapundit.com in 2002-2003 over 130,000 times and probably downloaded from the History News Network several hundred thousand times more.]

Keywords: Guns,History,Bellesiles,Arming America,violence,homicide

Suggested Citation

Lindgren, James T., Fall from Grace: Arming America and the Bellesiles Scandal. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=692421

James T. Lindgren (Contact Author)

Northwestern University - Pritzker School of Law ( email )

375 E. Chicago Ave
Chicago, IL 60611
United States
773-294-9043 (Phone)

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