Editor’s note: Dr. Joyce Malcolm, a professor and historian, wasn’t convinced of the assertions made by Professor Michael Bellesiles in his book, “Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture.” Bellesiles claims that the American colonists did not, by and large, own or value firearms. In her critique of Bellesiles’ work in Reason Magazine, Malcolm takes on his research methods, conclusions and use of selective information. As the author of “To Keep and Bear Arms: The origin of an Anglo-American Right,” Malcolm has an extensive background in early American history and the development of the Second Amendment. WorldNetDaily writer and talk show host Geoff Metcalf recently interviewed Malcolm about her criticism of Bellesiles’ book and his controversial conclusions.
Metcalf’s daily streaming radio show can be heard on TalkNetDaily weekdays from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. Eastern time.
Question: Professor Michael Bellesiles wrote a book called “Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture.” It is such a crock of bullfeathers that I couldn’t finish the book. Please give our readers an overview of Bellesiles’ contentions.
Answer: He claims that the idea that guns were influential in America’s past, that many Americans had them during the colonial era or afterwards, is really all a myth. In fact, he says that guns were rare and that Americans were not interested in them; that the colonists thought that the ax was as useful as the gun; that the colonial legislatures kept trying to get people to pay attention and be interested in having arms; that guns were not used for hunting; and that there was a complete disinterest in them until just before the Civil War.
Q: If there was such complete disinterest, how come the first three battles of the War for Independence had to do with gun control?
A: Well, (laughing) he doesn’t go into that in particular.
Q: Actually, what is fascinating — and duplicitous — is that he doesn’t go into anything that contradicts his preconceived opinion. Please explain how he came up with the supporting documentation to support his bogus theory.
A: It’s hard to be very brief about that. He claims that he was looking at some probates — these are inventories that are taken after someone dies listing all the valuables in the house — and that he was looking at some of these for the colonial period in Vermont, and what he didn’t see was many guns listed. So he claims that got him increasingly interested in whether, in fact, there really were that many guns around. He now claims to have examined over 11,000 of these probates and says that only 14.7 percent of them list a gun of any sort, that most of these guns that were listed were described as old and unserviceable.
Q: Because the serviceable ones were with Captain Parker on Lexington Green when the British came to confiscate powder and ball.
A: He doesn’t explain how the colonists were able to, so quickly, gather, arm themselves and confront the British. Even a year before the battles of Lexington and Concord, there was something called the “Powder Alarm.” There was something of a fright that the British were taking the powder from the town of Somerville, which is near Boston. The alarm went out through Massachusetts and, within hours, there were thousands of armed men marching toward Boston. One of the observers claimed there were some 20,000 from the Connecticut River Valley, which is at the center of the state.
Q: Two fascinating things about Bellesiles’ claim that the probates that he examined didn’t list guns — one, it is axiomatic that a colonist might not list all their forks and socks and, two, there might have been the concern — given the British penchant for confiscating these things — that maybe they didn’t want to list them.
A: That’s right. And, in fact, probates often were only taken if a person was a debtor so, obviously, there was a concern to give things away before death or to have family members take things that were valuable. If the probate was of someone elderly, they might well have given away any guns they had before they died. He doesn’t say whether these were probates of men or women or how old they were. He is extremely vague about how many of these were in any of the counties he looked at or for what years. They form the core of his thesis — what he relies on heavily — but he gives very, very little information.
Q: I have a saying I have been overusing for 10 years, and that is that “some people don’t want to be confused with facts that contradict their preconceived opinions.” I got the impression that what this guy did was to go out and selectively find data that specifically supports his thesis — and that he wasn’t the least bit interested in anything that contradicted that.
A: As someone who did a lot of work on the origins of the Second Amendment and the English experience with firearms, with their rights, I can certainly tell you that he was happy to ignore any evidence that didn’t fit in with his thesis.
Q: I find it kind of pretentious that this “Arming of America” is presumed to have “shattered a myth.”
A: It is. It assumes that all of those who wrote about and who lived through those years were creating a myth; that all the historians were wrong; that all the first-hand accounts were exaggerations of one sort or another; that all the laws passed by colonial legislatures insisting that people have guns were just wishful thinking. You have to dismiss a lot of things in order to come up with his theory. It is amazing how many aspects of that book are not to be relied upon.
Q: What I find particularly galling is that the mainstream media think this is the slickest thing since pre-sliced bread.
A: I think there are two reasons for that. First, obviously, it is something they have been waiting a long time to hear. Udall explained on one of the blurbs on the dust jacket of the book that Americans have been waiting a long time for this information, that there wasn’t any so-called gun culture or guns in America until the middle of the 19th century. So it was a nice opportunity to come in with a new theory that would somehow discredit the Second Amendment and the right of people to be armed. I think that was part of it.
The other part is a lot of serious historians have praised this book, perhaps partly because they like its findings, but also because they just trust all of these footnotes. They believe — and they ought to be able to believe — that someone’s scholarship is based on fact.
Q: One thing I found moderately encouraging happened last year. Laurence Tribe, a neighbor of yours and a very, very liberal Harvard law professor, had a personal epiphany last year — and I haven’t heard the mainstream talking a whole lot about it. After years and years of arguing to the contrary, he all of a sudden has come to the conclusion that — you know what? In the Second Amendment, when they refer to “we the people” they mean WE the people — and it isn’t a collective right, it is an individual right. Now I don’t like Larry Tribe, but I give him points for that.
A: It is very difficult to admit you are wrong. For 20 years, his textbook on constitutional law, which is the major textbook used by law schools across the country, literally relegated the Second Amendment to a footnote. It was in a footnote in the 1978 edition and the 1988 edition. It was only last year, after all those years, that the Second Amendment emerged from being a footnote to about 10 pages. And he admits that there is indeed an individual right to be armed. I think that is because there has been a tremendous amount of serious research done that he has come to that conclusion.
Q: Although I was both annoyed and offended by Bellesiles’ book, there was one thing I found that I could agree with. He argues that there wasn’t a “gun culture.” He is probably right about that because guns, in colonial times, were considered as much a tool as were hoes or axes or shovels.
A: I think his definition of a gun culture is very strange. He says that it is identifying with a gun, loving it, being really obsessed with guns — so I’m not surprised he didn’t find a gun culture in the past. I think he sort of exaggerates the presence of that kind of obsession.
Q: How does he come up with this gun culture developing in the mid-19th century?
A: In the middle of the 19th century, you get mass produced weapons for the first time, around the time of the American Civil War. So, guns were cheaper and, obviously, because of the Civil War itself, they were being produced in large numbers. I gather that a lot of soldiers were able to keep them after the war. So, he finds a jump in the number of guns.
Q: Do you think he really believes that there was nearly a gun-free America once upon a time?
A: It is hard to know what he believes. He certainly claims that the idea that there were guns was the myth that we all created — that he alone knows the truth. The Founding Fathers, when they referred to a well-armed people, were exaggerating.
Q: A friend and colleague you may know, because he used to work in Boston, Gene Burns, has an observation about academia. I mean no disrespect when I say this, but Gene’s perception of academia is you study more and more about less and less until eventually you know everything about nothing.
A: (laughing) I think in this case, he has tried to do just the opposite. Bellesiles has tried to make it very broad. But I think he is intent on producing a book that is going to be startlingly different and sell many copies.
Q: I’m sure the left is going to just scoop this thing up but, the problem is, it is false.
A: They have scooped it up. It has been reviewed all over — almost always with someone extremely impressed by the book and finding that we will all have to address it now that this is the “new truth.”
Q: I find it fascinating he is so comfortable in denigrating the American militia as being an ill-equipped, inefficient fighting force, notwithstanding the fact that they kicked the British’s butt.
A: He says the militia was little more than a political gesture. The militia was not very good in the long run. They were fine for short terms and defending their home areas, but they were people who had farms to get back to. So, over the course of the Revolution, we really did need an army that could sign-on for the duration — which is what Washington eventually got. But the militia did fight well. There were problems with it — it wasn’t perfect, but neither were the British.
Q: I have a personal story. A hundred years before the Revolution, in 1676, I had a relative, Michael Metcalf, who was living in Dedham, Mass., at the time. He came home and found his cabin had been burnt to the ground. It was a product of a little thing not many people know about called the King Philips War.
He formed a militia and they went down into what ended up becoming my home state of Rhode Island — and they fought the King Phillips War in the Great Swamp. When they finished, he went back to Dedham and rebuilt what had been burnt down. The militia was very effective a hundred years before the Revolution. The reason it was effective was because everybody had guns.
A: They needed them to protect themselves. In fact, they were required to even if they hadn’t thought of it themselves, which one would have thought they would. All of the colonies required that householders had a certain number of weapons — a certain kind of weapon or a certain amount of ammunition. Some of them required that when you went out, even a mile or so from town, that you carried them with you. Georgia insisted that you take your guns to church. The picture we are all so familiar with — of Pilgrims going to church with their guns — was not a myth.
Q: I forget the name of the laws, but Florida and Louisiana had very strict laws that their residents had to be armed as well. It was primarily to defend the town against problems they faced from Indians, raiders and other pirates.
A: Yes, they needed it against the Indians. The slave states were afraid of slave rebellion. People needed it for protection — it was just a natural thing. Bellesiles claims that not only did people not have them but, as he put it, they perceived that the ax was the equal of the gun. He refers to the “complete failure” of early settlers to care for guns or to learn their use.
Q: Wrong! This is obviously a guy who is going to take a knife to a gunfight.
A: (laughing) The idea that the ax would be so useful? Clearly, the Indians thought that guns were a good idea and got them as soon as they could. In fact, some of the early colonial laws were against selling guns to the Indians. If the gun was so useless, and there were so few of them, they wouldn’t have needed legislation to keep Indians from getting them.
Q: Part of his discussion was of English customs and rights. He said that was the basis, the starting point. What he fails to acknowledge is there was dissention between the English and the colonials. The colonials weren’t very happy with the way things were — and they weren’t exactly trying to emulate what they left.
A: In fact, though, when it comes to the right to be armed, there was an English right that they had been guaranteed. The charters that these colonies had promised them — all the same rights as if they had been born and were abiding in England. It was one of the ways to get people to come to what was in fact a wilderness.
Q: Didn’t Henry the 8th require Englishmen to find a gun?
A: Yes. All men between the ages of 16 and 60 were required to be in the militia and to have a weapon. And when guns came in, they had to have a firearm and to practice using it. In 1689, a century before our Bill of Rights, the English passed their own bill of rights — it included a right for Protestants, who were 90 percent of the population, to have arms for their defense. This was the right that the American colonists inherited and it became the origins of the Second Amendment.
Q: What factoid does Mickey come up with to suggest that only aristocrats, among private citizens, had guns?
A: There was a statute that said to have handgun, you had to have a certain income. I think he must be relying on that and ignoring all the rest. He also claimed that since guns were so expensive and rare, no one else could afford them. And he refers to the guns that the Englishmen had in the 16th, 17th and 18th century as these very fancy engraved works of art, quite ignoring that the highways were full of highway robbers, all of whom had pistols.
Q: Bellesiles says guns were not used in colonial times for hunting.
A: He says that he’s looked at some 80 memories of people who traveled in the United States during the early part of the 18th and 19th century who don’t mention hunting at all — and then some of the very ones that he cites, in fact, have whole chapters on hunting with guns, or using guns for self defense, and he just completely ignores it. And he doesn’t even bother with Alexis de Tocqueville, the most famous observer of that time period. De Tocqueville describes what he calls a “typical peasant’s cabin” in Kentucky or Tennessee as containing “a fairly clean bed, some chairs and a good gun.” Bellesiles completely ignores the evidence he doesn’t want to see.
Q: Who is Harold Gill? He’s another historian right?
A: Yes. He works on Virginia records and probates.
Q: How many probates did Bellesiles allegedly go through to come up with statistics to support his contention?
A: He claims to have looked at over 11,000 but no one has actually had a chance or been allowed to see his database.
Q: Gill went through 500 plus right?
A: Right. He went through almost 600 probates from Virginia.
Q: And what did he find?
A: He found that 80 percent of the men’s probates, the men’s estates, had guns. He also pointed out that probates aren’t all that inclusive, that there are often things that were not mentioned. Some of the people who were known to be craftsmen, if you looked at their probates, you couldn’t tell they had been craftsmen of any particular craft.
Q: Which brings me back to what I was thinking in the beginning — that a lot of these people who may not have included guns in their personal inventory may not have included hammers or saws or axes or forks and household utensils because they were tools.
A: They did sometimes include small things, but it is really difficult to know how honest these probates were, whether guns were just routinely passed on before. You don’t know the age of these people. Some probates were just about real estate and not about personal property. If you owned land in another community, upon your death, there would be a probate — but just of the land, not on your personal property. So if you’re counting 11,000 probates, who knows how many of them were just real estate?
Q: My personal perspective on this is tainted. Jonathan Ingalls, a direct ancestor of mine was on the Green at Lexington. Burgess Metcalf fought in the Revolution from New Hampshire. So, when I read that most of the guns were housed in government arsenals, my reaction is: Where the hell did you come up with that fiction?
A: There was often an arsenal for militia gunpowder to be stored or some special weapons that were just used for militia service, but people were also supposed to have weapons at home and were required to have weapons at home. Connecticut said you had to have a weapon in your home and to keep it with you. There was no way that they were all housed by the government.
Q: The first three battles of the Revolution were over the confiscation of powder and ball. If it wasn’t such a big deal, why did the British want it?
A: And if it wasn’t such a big deal, how was it that the people at Concord were so busily trying to amass enough arms for an army of 20,000? Apparently, they had quite a lot, including two or three cannon. Also, he talks about slave owners having raids on slaves’ cabins. If guns were so rare, you’re not going to have any raids on slaves’ quarters, because they’re not going to have any guns, and neither would the Indians have them. Yet, early on, the Indians got guns.
One of the professors at Northwestern, a man named James Lindgrin, looked at some probates in one of the frontier counties. He was interested in looking at how many other things were listed to get a sense of what other types of property were listed.
Q: What did he find?
A: He found that more guns were listed than knives, and more guns were listed than books, and more guns were listed than Bibles.
Q: As a native of Providence, R.I., my eye fell to his reference to having taken 186 inventories in early Providence. The way he distorts the facts is appalling. And this guy is supposed to be some kind of academic historian. Come on!
A: Every figure that he gave about those probates is wrong. How many guns there were and what condition they were in. If you can’t rely on someone doing an honest job, then the whole thing is totally worthless. People are supposed to be able to rely on a professional historian to tell the truth and this book is seriously distorted.
Q: I compare Bellesiles to Dr. John Lott. When John Lott started his research, he wasn’t a pro-gun advocate. He went into it as a researcher. He had his epiphany when confronted with the overwhelming fact that more guns mean less crime.
A: I know. Even in this book “Arming America,” the things he picks are distorted. For instance, in talking about muzzleloaders — about how they weren’t even as effective as bows and arrows in hunting. Then he cites New York’s 1994 hunting season — that one state for that one year — and he said there were far fewer deer killed with muzzleloaders. Apparently, there are some million people in the U.S. and Canada who hunt with these early weapons. There were far fewer deer killed with muzzleloaders than there were killed by archers.
But what he doesn’t say is that was an extraordinary year for New York. They had had a harsh winter the year before so the muzzleloading season was just two weeks and they were only permitted to shoot bucks. The archery season was two and half months, and they could kill deer of either sex.
He doesn’t tell the reader that the archers have two and half months and the muzzleloader hunters have two weeks. It’s that kind of selective information thrown in. How many people would know that that was unusual or would have the information to know that was a terrible distortion?
Q: Beyond the piece you wrote for Reason Magazine, what other critics have responded?
A: Michael Korda has an article planned that is coming out next month. There is a whole series of scholars who have been working on different aspects of the book who should be bringing things out shortly. I’m going to be writing for a law journal an article that will come out in May in the University of Texas Law Journal.
Q: Does he address John Adams, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison?
A: The times when he can’t get around it or feels that he must. For instance, when James Madison is boasting about the marksmen in Virginia, Bellesiles just claims it is rhetoric or wishful thinking or getting carried away.
Q: I’m curious if he even read about what happened in Lexington and Concord? Or was that just a historical anomaly?
A: Or a myth (laughs), since he’s busting myths.
Q: In the wake of the most recent gun tragedy in Massachusetts, again the clarion call is the need to sacrifice freedom for security. The press feeds on these stories like maggots on rotting meat.
A: What they don’t mention when one of these tragedies occurs is that the rate of violent crime in this country has been going down for eight consecutive years. Even though these tragedies get a tremendous amount of publicity, I think they shouldn’t obscure the fact that the country is actually getting safer.
Q: Two axioms I talk about probably too much are that when law-abiding citizens have access to firearms, crime goes down. It goes down because bad guys don’t like armed victims. When law-abiding citizens are denied an opportunity to have firearms, crime goes up. And it goes up because bad guys like unarmed victims. In Australia, when they took guns away from law-abiding citizens, violent crime when through the roof because the bad guys knew their victims were unarmed.
A: Exactly. I just completed a book on the relationship between firearms and violence in England. The English rate of violent crime has been going up steadily, especially since the 1950s. They now have a virtual complete ban on handguns and, even so, armed crime has gone up. The more they do to tighten up what law-abiding citizens can do to defend themselves, the more the criminals are emboldened.
Q: It is beyond frustrating that people will not reference John Lott. His study is conservative, if anything.
A: It is an excellent study, and he was so viciously attacked because people just don’t want to hear it.
Q: About Michael Bellesiles’ book, you said, “In his eagerness to bust a myth about an American gun culture, it’s induced him to create one.” Boy, have you got that right!
A: Yes. I just hope what people understand is that what he has done is create a myth. It’s important that the public and the courts know the truth — that this book is not busting any myths; that there really were guns in America’s past, and it wasn’t some fabrication; that there is a right to be armed; and that people, in fact, took advantage of it.
Joyce Lee Malcolm’s book, “To Keep and Bear Arms: The origin of an Anglo-American Right” is available online.
Visit Geoff Metcalf’s archive for previous “Sunday Q&A” interviews.