Prize rescinded for 'Arming America' book

By MELISSA SECKORA  |  Dec. 17, 2002 at 4:56 PM
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WASHINGTON, Dec. 17 (UPI) -- Columbia University's Board of Trustees has rescinded a major prize its selection committee had awarded to an author despite early red flags that his book on gun-ownership rights was based on flawed research.

On Friday, the university announced that its trustees had voted to rescind the prestigious Bancroft Prize given in April 2001 to former Emory University history Professor Michael Bellesiles for his book "Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture."

The thesis of the book is that there were few firearms in early America and most of the guns that did exist were old and broken -- an assertion that provoked vigorous and widespread skepticism before the prize was awarded.

The Bancroft Prize is given for works judged to be "of enduring worth and impeccable scholarship that make a major contribution to our understanding of the American past."

Columbia said its trustees made their decision based on a review of an investigation of scholarly misconduct by Emory University and other assessments of professional historians. These investigators concluded that Bellesiles "had violated basic norms of acceptable scholarly conduct."

Bellesiles was allowed to provide his input before Columbia made its decision.

The book "had not and does not meet the standards ... established for the Bancroft Prize," the trustees found.

Columbia also requested that Bellesiles return $4,000 in prize money. It is the first time the prize has been withdrawn since it was first awarded in 1948.

Columbia's recent evaluation of "Arming America" by its trustees, administration and faculty contrasts sharply with the original review by the Bancroft selection committee in 2001. Columbia's prize committee issued the award though there were several indication it was based on flawed research.

"Arming America" was embraced by many scholars because it appeared to confirm what several already believed: that the Second Amendment protects only a collective right to bear arms, and individual gun rights were unimportant to America's Founders.

In October, Bellesiles resigned from his professorship at Emory after a panel of historians built on the work of critics (most notably James Lindgren of Northwestern University) and found the author was "guilty of unprofessional and misleading work."

The National Endowment for the Humanities also withdrew its name from a Newberry fellowship awarded to Bellesiles for a second book on guns. (The NEH and the William & Mary Quarterly were the first to seriously examine the charges against Bellesiles).

Columbia's provost, Jonathan Cole, told National Review his school's decision came at the end of a careful process that began in the fall of 2001. But before the Bancroft Prize was awarded the previous April, scholars already had shown that Bellesiles's main probate data -- through which he tried to show that few guns were inherited as parts of estates -- were mathematically impossible. Further, he cited records that were destroyed in the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906.

When asked by National Review last fall, Arthur Goren -- a Columbia emeritus professor who was then chair of the prize committee -- said he wasn't aware of a public debate or serious questions about "Arming America" when the committee considered it: "We reviewed 150 books over a four-month period," he said. "As you undertake that process and seek to recognize innovative work, among other things, it is probably inevitable that some of the books will touch on controversial topics."

A scholarly manuscript detailing most of these problems was sent, however, to one of the original Bancroft panel members, Rutgers historian Jan Lewis.

On April 18, 2001, the day Columbia presented Bellesiles his prize, the Columbia College Conservative Club held a roundtable discussion on the author's work. No Bancroft committee member or member of the school's History Department attended.

"On April 9, I e-mailed members of the History Department and the Bancroft committee with a summary of the case against Bellesiles, including some clear cases of fraud," said Ron Lewenberg, then president of the CCCC. "I received no responses." Lewenberg repeated the mailings with the same result.

"I was not allowed to put the packets in the mailboxes of professors and staff, so with the approval of the secretary, I placed them on the desk," he said. "According to a friendly TA (teaching assistant), whose anonymity I have kept secret for the protection of his career, Professor Eric Foner saw the handouts and threw a fit. All of the packets were thrown out."

On Tuesday Foner, who was not on the committee, said he had no recollection of the event and found Lewenberg's account "implausible."

"Anybody can leave anything in the mailbox of professors," he said. "Our mailboxes are in a public hallway."

Last week, Foner defended the process the committee followed, saying it worked "on a basis of trust."

"We assume a book published by a reputable press has gone through a process where people have checked the facts," he said. "Members of prize committees cannot be responsible for that."

Joyce Malcolm, a history professor at Bentley College who has written a book on the Anglo-American conception of gun rights and who was an early skeptic of Bellesiles's research, disagrees.

"The sad part is that if the prize committee had taken the trouble to read the serious criticism of the book before bestowing this award, they would never have been put in this embarrassing situation," she said. "The award was meant to be for a work of impeccable scholarship, and it was clear before April 2001 that 'Arming America' was not such a book."

The book's publisher, Knopf, said it would continue to publish the work's paperback edition.


(Melissa Seckora is an editorial associate at National Review magazine.)

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