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Disarming Errors

by Clayton E. Cramer & Dave Kopel

Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture, by Michael A. Bellesiles (Knopf, 603 pp., $30). More by Kopel on the Bellesiles fraud.

From National Review, print edition, Oct. 9, 2000, pages 54-55

MICHAEL BELLESILES, a professor of history at Emory University, has written a startling book that claims to demolish many myths about the gun culture of pre-Civil War America. Hailed as a major work of revisionist history, it is getting a lot of attention: Bellesiles has been cited, profiled, or reviewed by the New York Times, Washington Post, National Journal, Chicago Tribune, London Telegraph, The Economist, and the New York Times Book Review, which featured a fawning cover essay by Garry Wills.

Bellesiles's work is receiving glowing reviews from those who would like to limit and regulate the right to bear arms in this country. Hitherto, their standard argument has been that the Second Amendment is merely an anachronistic leftover from colonial times. Bellesiles goes further by trying to show that even in its own time the idea of a well-armed and self regulated populace was a delusion: Most Americans were at first indifferent to guns, then positively hostile, and almost no one hunted.

Perhaps least controversial, though still contentious, is Bellesiles's negative portrayal of the American militia. Historians have long recognized that the militia was not as effective as rosecolored odes to the American Revolution have claimed, but Bellesiles regards it as little more than a gaggle of nitwits. "One could go on and on with examples of inept, poorly armed, and horribly disciplined militia almost losing the War of 1812 for the United States," he writes. "Mostly the militia just did not show up." A more balanced and realistic account can be found in Mark Kwasny's excellent book, Washington's Partisan War. Detailing the use of the militia in Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey, Kwasny shows that while militiamen could not, by themselves, defeat the British in a pitched battle, they were essential to American success: They responded quickly to attacks, harassed the Redcoats, and guarded regions where George Washington could not send the Continentals. Though exasperated by their penchant for coming and going as they wished, Washington never questioned the militiamen's bravery or loyalty.

Bellesiles's major premise is that guns and hunting were scarce in America until just before the Civil War. This, he says, was partly because the U.S. lacked significant manufacturing capability-- hence guns were very expensive-but also because there was no culture of gun ownership in America. In the period before the Mexican War, "the majority of American men did not care about guns. They were indifferent to owning guns, and they had no apparent interest in learning how to use them." He claims that even hunting was almost unknown until the mid 1830s, when a small number of wealthy Americans chose to ape the British upper class. Prior to that, he says, most hunting was done by a small number of professional hunters or by Indians. For Bellesiles, this lack of interest in guns reflects the peaceful, Arcadian nature of early America. Indeed, he would have us believe that by the 1830s, a pacifist movement fiercely hostile to guns and hunting was becoming a major influence on American society.

Bellesiles's book is being presented as a major work of original scholarship. In particular, his copious footnotes have impressed reviewers, suggesting that the author has put an enormous amount of work into examining a variety of primary sources. Arming America is certainly a novel work, in two senses: Much of it is "new," and much of it is highly imaginative fiction. Indeed, a close inspection of Bellesiles's sources reveals that they not only fail to support his argument, but prove precisely the reverse: Guns were in fact widely owned, used, and appreciated in pre-Civil War America.

Take Baynard Rush Hall's memoir The New Purchase, describing frontier life in Indiana in 1816. Hall offers a detailed account of the importance of hunting for most settlers. Target-shooting matches were common, and Hall makes occasional reference to pistols, with no indication that they were rare or regarded with particular concern. He also describes the use of rifles, both by settlers pursuing criminals and by criminals trying to avoid arrest. Though these descriptions take up 41 pages of Hall's book (including an entire chapter on the joys of target shooting), Bellesiles somehow missed them. He also missed Anne Newport Royall's discussion of the commonplace use of guns for self defense and hunting in her Letters from Alabama, 1817-1822, which he claims to have read.

Bellesiles expends a lot of energy promoting the idea that hunting was a rare activity in early America, restricted to professionals and Indians. In support, he discusses Charles Augustus Murray's Travels in North America, which details the Englishman's late-1830s hunting expedition in America. "Hunting in America disappointed Murray," writes Bellesiles. "He had expected more gentlemen hunters, but only army officers on frontier posts seemed to fit that description." The average reader might conclude that there weren't many hunters in America, since Bellesiles has spent many pages making this claim. But Murray met lots of hunters, most of whom weren't "gentlemen," but rather ordinary farmers: "I lodged the first night at the house of a farmer, about seven miles from the village, who joined the habits of a hunter to those of an agriculturalist, as is indeed the case with all the country people in this district; nearly every man has a rifle, and spends part of his time in the chase."

Although Bellesiles has grossly mischaracterized some accounts, there are dozens of others that he omits altogether-including common works such as Alexis de Tocqueville's Journey to America. A young Alabama lawyer told Tocqueville in 1831, "There is no one here but carries arms under his clothes. At the slightest quarrel, knife or pistol comes to hand." Tocqueville also presents evidence that widespread gun ownership was not peculiar to Alabama. A Tennessee farmer tells him: "There is not a farmer but passes some of his time hunting and owns a good gun." Indeed, in a typical "peasant's cabin" in Kentucky or Tennessee one finds "a fairly clean bed, some chairs, a good gun, often some books and almost always a newspaper.

Historians have generally traced America's gun culture to the intersection of several independent causes, including the abundance of game and the absence of an aristocratic monopoly on hunting; the need for firearms for protection on the Indian frontier and in rough urban centers; the American ideology of individualism and self reliance; the role of armed Americans in securing independence and in taming the frontier-and of course the Second Amendment, which every 19th-century legal commentator and court agreed was a guarantee of a personal right to keep and bear arms.

Bellesiles argues instead that the development of an American gun culture was an outgrowth of the federal government's continual encouragement of gun ownership as a cheap alternative to maintaining a large stand army, combined with the expansion of gun manufacturing and consequent reductions in the price of guns, and the availability of surplus guns after the Civil War. In brief, Bellesiles, contrary to the historical record, sees guns as something that the masses didn't want, and that only continual government pressure and blandishments made attractive.

Although Bellesiles tells us much less than he promises about the origins of America's historic gun culture, he has has done for modern gun control what his Emory colleague and advisor Arthur Kellermann has done for public health in numerous articles: produce an enormous body of impressive-looking factoids ready for instant deployment by political ideologues. That subsequent scholars have found Kellermann's research to be riddled with factual and methodological flaws has done little to reduce the frequency with which his phony claims are used to terrify Americans. Sadly, Bellesiles's fictional history is likely to enjoy similar success.


Mr. Cramer is author of Concealed Weapon Laws of the Early Republic: Dueling, Southern Violence, and Moral Reform. Mr. Kopel is research director of the Independence Institute, www.i2i.org.

 

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