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Bellesiles vs. History

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Tags Media and CultureU.S. HistoryPolitical Theory

10/03/2000Joseph R. Stromberg

Professor Michael Bellesiles has made a big splash with his claim that the Second Amendment was never more than a sop to deluded republican theorists, who in the face of overwhelming "evidence" thought that an armed people was the proper basis for the defense of a free society. But, alas, for those poor romantics, there were virtually no guns in American down to the 1830s, and citizen militias--the embodiment of the idealized armed people-- almost never successfully defended anyone from any attackers, anywhere, at any time.

His book, Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture (Knopf, 2000), is a well-hyped counterblast to the apparent victory in recent years of such pro-Second Amendment writers as Stephen P. Halbrook, David Kopel, Robert Shalhope, and William Van Alstyne, who created the so-called "standard model." On their reading, the amendment recognized an individual right to bear arms and the states’ power over their militias.

Bellesiles asserts that his book is not written to make a contemporary political point. But his comment that "nothing in history is immutable" belies that claim (p. 16). He also writes: "Nor does this book seek to pull out a few quotations scattered through America’s long historical record to strengthen a current political position" (p. 14). No, indeed, it fairly bludgeons the reader into submission with truckloads of quotations from regular army officers and other Certified Great Men. It is, in its way, an admirably focused and sustained performance. A relentless deployment of any and all evidence which could possibly discredit guns or the dolts who want them leads Bellesiles into some very interesting corners and byways. His text, as any right-wing post-modernist could tell you, deconstructs itself rather quickly.

Bellesiles’s set forth his basic thesis in the Journal of American History, 83 (1996), pp. 425-455. His case is much the same in that article and in his new book, Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000), but the latter’s embellishments shed much light on his underlying system.


A Book Divided Against Itself

This is a very strange book. For a while, Bellesiles lulls the reader with the story of European gun technology. He shows a working knowledge of the metallurgy and other technical aspects of the subject. One begins to think he is in for a decent, old-fashioned book like Garrett Mattingly’s The Spanish Armada, which remains a classic of its kind. Bellesiles’s book may become a classic, too, but of a far different kind.

The next several chapters could have been replaced with 10,000 repetitions of "There Were No Guns," saving the editors and typists much work. For variety, "They Were All Rusty and Neglected" could be thrown in every tenth line. The last chapters could be replaced with 10,000 repetitions of "There Were Too Many Guns" and "White Southerners Embodied All Evil."

Unhappily, there is more to it. Moral judgments in history are not a bad thing. Lord Acton handled them rather well. One can make such judgments, but as C. Wright Mills wrote, one ought to be explicit about the values involved. But instead of explicit moral premises we get abuse. Thus, Southern militias can never be brought up for any reason at all, without an immediate warning that they were only useful for slave patrolling. I wonder if the PC crowd will ever learn that even the kind-hearted and open-minded tune out after the fortieth such public service announcement.


A Tour of American History

But let us take quick tour of the book, so that we can get on with the more interesting task of uncovering Bellesiles’s philosophy of history. It is necessary to peer behind his ill-fitting mask of historical objectivity. Fortunately, his zeal against firearms helps us do this. His "evidence" is so self-contradictory that it cuts its own historical throat; but at least it doesn’t use a firearm.

The earlier colonial period yields up the insight that there were few firearms in North America and that warfare depended, in the end, on weapons of up-side-the-head hacking, chopping, and stabbing, such as hatchets, swords, and pikes. Muskets were expensive, unreliable, and inaccurate, so that a single opening volley soon gave way to slashing and chopping. Surprise attacks were employed by whites against Indians, by Indians against whites, the British against the French, and vice versa. The two great rivals for imperial control of North America signed up Indian allies whenever possible.

I have no reason to quarrel with much of this as history. A little economic history goes a long way and of course guns were expensive and therefore less than plentiful, especially when every one of them had to cross the Atlantic Ocean. In an apparent attempt at comic reversal, Bellesiles argues that the only people who actually realized the republican-theory ideal of an armed people were Indian warriors, who had spare time in which to learn better marksmanship than white colonists who had other things to do. Does he realize how un-PC this sounds? It resurrects Mark Twain’s comment that Indian braves just partied, hunted, and fought, leaving their women to do all the real work. It suggests, further, that the colonists, having a more complex civilization to maintain, couldn’t produce as many specialized warriors.

Of course it may be PC after all, since the anthropologists will have shown that civilization isn’t much to brag about and that hunting and gathering are pretty complex, too. The Indians even get to invent guerrilla war (p. 134), unlike the American revolutionaries, who were apparently too stupid. And so we pass through chapters three and four.

Now we round out the risible colonial period and give up more of our illusions. We hear tell of the bayonet’s decisive role at Culloden (1745). James Wolfe is quoted, saying that the bayonet was "by far the most destructible weapon" (p. 145). (I figured out that means "destructive" rather than "likely to be destroyed." Otherwise, I should have to call on Mr. Garry Wills, the reigning expert on 18th-century English, and he would find a zeugma in there.)

Leaving the Scots to the Duke of Cumberland, the Sherman of his day, we have another look down our noses at the colonists and the Noble Red Men. A few risible "wars" later, we learn that only a "Europeanization" of New World wars would answer the case. The militia had proved "inept" and "incapable" of doing whatever it was they were supposed to do – an interesting political question left hanging in the wind, as it has no immediate bearing on the evils of guns and the fecklessness of the American colonists. A clue: the militia was no good for conquering Canada, from 1758 to the War of 1812. Lucky Canadians. That militias were not ideal for empire-building might be in their favor.

While William Pitt, whom the author regards as a Man of Vision, was dealing with such imperial questions, the Americans were reading English opposition writers. All Bellesiles can say is that "[e]ducated Americans seem to have picked up fears of a standing army from the Commonwealthmen" (p. 169). That’s it on the works which formed the ideological core of the American Revolution. Apparently, Bernard Bailyn, Caroline Robbins, J.G.A. Pocock, and Robert Shalhope have been wasting their time on a trivial matter. A few notions were "picked up." That colonists could tell the difference between "benign neglect" and the new, proactive program of Lord North and George III and that they were aware of "royal reactions" in Denmark and elsewhere is of little interest.

Chapter five yields to chapter six, as Bellesiles relativizes, minimizes, and largely abolishes the American Revolution. As revolution looms--we are not given the slightest reason for this, as there are no politics in this book--we witness once more the aimlessness of American shooters. Given the gun shortage, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress "authorized the seizure of all British munitions in the colony" (p. 186)-- in late 1774! This is strange, if the union is older than the states, but Bellesiles is not drawn to such questions.

The guns were still few and far between. Probate records tell Bellesiles that no more than fourteen percent of colonial white males ever had guns, and most of those were rusty and not working. Even that percentage puts the Americans ahead of, say, Irish or Prussian peasants of the same period, but no matter. I should add here that I am writing as if Bellesiles’s numbers are true, and focusing on other infelicities of his case. Clayton E. Cramerand other historians are leveling withering fire on those numbers. It may be that, legless so to speak, Bellesliles’s argument will soon fall between the statistical and interpretive stools.

Now the war looms, comes into being, and is even won, but all as backdrop to the sad spectacle of gun-shy, gun-fumbling American ineptitude. Bellesiles grazes the truth when he writes that General Charles Lee "rejected the idea of the militia fighting in any but partisan actions" (p. 193). He’s soon off and away, quoting regular army officers and Certified Great Men, especially George Washington, on the uselessness of the militia. Anti-militia complainers abound, but the people to ask are the British officers in their letters home. They knew who was cutting their supply lines, disrupting communications, harassing their movements, and then disappearing. Such partisans-- with formal militia status or not-- played a key role in the war, but foolishly neglected to hire themselves press agents and publicists.

How does Bellesiles think the revolutionary war was won? Guerrilla war is wholly absent from his account, since wars are won by Certified Great Men. And by the way, he tells us that partisan warfare does not require "excellent marksmanship" (p. 207) so much as persistent harrying of the foe. But Bellesiles has a blind eye for such things. With a wave of his historical riding crop, he writes: "Republican ideology had not won the Revolution" (p. 207). So much for old John Adams, who told us that the ideological change was the revolution.


The Only Active Force in History

Now (in chapter seven) we discover how the federal government deliberately promoted guns and the coming of the "gun culture." Driven quite mad by the very republican ideas which hadn’t won the war, the feds pursued harebrained schemes to make the militias work. All ended in predictably laughable failure.

Certified Great Men saw further. Little Jamie Madison swindled the people with a Second Amendment which changed nothing, the author says, despite the literal meaning of "amend." No matter, Little Jamie’s privately held views are the key to original intent, even if the ratifiers had no idea what those views were. This makes Madison our most successfully devious leader up to Wilson and FDR. Success is no longer a "bitch goddess" for liberals, provided that Certified Leaders succeed in improving the rednecked rabble. "Status," however, is still bad, especially when people buy guns as status symbols.

From all the hype, I thought Bellesiles had made out a threatening case against the right which some Americans believe the Second Amendment protects. I cannot find such a case in this book. He seeks to prevail by indirection. Ignoring the "standard model" findings of a private right alongside the states’ power to maintain their militias, he ties the whole issue to the militias, which are then dismissed for the usual reasons.

Bellesiles has gone into coalition with J.G.A. Pocock. Pocock, an incomparable scholar on republican theory, never quite noticed the other ideological currents which entered into the "American synthesis" during the Revolution. He slighted Lockean liberalism, English law ("the rights of Englishmen"), and Protestantism. Taking law as an example, the celebrated Blackstone-- widely read in the colonies-- held the right to self-defense to be among the fundamental rights of Englishmen. His opinion might have some bearing on how we read our amendments. It might indeed outweigh the alleged secret doctrines of James Madison.

No matter. Bellesiles will write volume II, proving that there were only ten copies of Blackstone in the colonies, eight of them rotting away from neglect. The last two copies belonged to Thomas Jefferson, incendiary, racist forerunner of the radical right, who was driven crazy by reading them. An outside agitator from Ireland can write the preface.

Bellesiles brushes up against English law (p. 214), presses it into temporary service, and then forgets about it. He can’t spot the rights of Englishmen, so he sure can’t spot any natural rights, nor would he care if they derive from God or clockwork. Yet such ideas about rights, including self-defense, had radicalized the American Revolution.

But there is little real change in this book. No one learns much. Ploughboys only learn how to shoot under extensive training in hierarchical armies commanded by Certified Great Men. Rightless, Bellesiles is constitutionally incapable of keeping more than one amendment in mind at a time. Yet read together, the first ten seem to add up to a systematic attempt to protect the rights of the people and the powers of the states; they underscore the point that the general government was meant to be one of limited, delegated, and enumerated powers. Thus a purely procedural problem arises: even if Bellesiles’s arguments are accepted and endorsed, where exactly is there lodged in the Constitution an enumerated power adequate to carry out his implicit program?


The World the Federal Government Made

Our author further tells us that the federal government invented, or at least first applied, the concept of interchangeable parts. Government, ever wasteful, could play around with an innovation (p. 234) for which markets had not yet felt a pressing need. But Bellesiles’s account of Eli Whitney’s famous defense contract belies his case. Whitney, he says, only pretended to be using interchangeable parts and produced some rather poor guns, behind schedule and at high costs. But Whitney’s pretense suggests that the idea was already in circulation and didn’t require government to invent it.

Despite the problems (on Bellesiles’s own account) with government-sponsored gunmaking, he defends the protectionism on which it rested. Certified Great Man Alexander Hamilton wanted an American arms industry. The usual "infant industry" argument was mooted. Bellesiles, ever thorough, notes that better and cheaper guns were available from Europe and inadvertently makes the case for free trade. Why didn’t George, Alex, and their successors just buy these cheaper, superior guns from overseas until they felt exactly safe. On this showing, it couldn’t have cost more money. So chapter seven.

With this commitment to federal planning and protectionism, Bellesiles should seek employment in the campaign of Patrick J. Buchanan. Certainly, if Bellesiles is a protectionist or even a socialist, he has every right to express his views, even if it’s just a mere amendment that protects that right, until or unless he suffers a new interpretive turn.

For all we know, he may write volume III, proving that only one percent of Americans ever owned a printing press, that early Americans didn’t hold their pens right, that they couldn’t spell, and that American speech has always been about stupid and unimportant things. American speakers and writers have always been racists, xenophobes, and haters. Certified Great Men may need to regulate speech-- and even "infringe" it-- given the awful results of free speech to date.


Too Few; Too Many

Having set out to blow a big hole in the Bill of Rights, Bellesiles has missed his target. This is awkward after several hundred pages ridiculing Americans’ bad shooting and sneers about guns handed down from father to son in touching "ceremonies of manhood" (p.110). But then this book is really about public policy and the class hatred felt by many intellectuals for a broad section of the American people.

But suddenly Bellesiles shifts gears and demonstrates that Americans--that is, the doltish WASP political nation, leaving aside persons held to service and Indians not taxed-- were very civilized and peaceful, even after the 1830s when guns became cheaper, more numerous, and more accurate. In this book, American people is a mere concept of convenience, to be praised or vilified according to the changing needs of the argument. For nearly a hundred pages, they are suddenly rather likeable sorts, anti-military, law-abiding, cooperative-- even , or especially, on the frontier. The only exceptions were those vile Southerners and a few pompous asses, who promoted hunting because of their status anxieties.

But then came the war of 1861-1865. Thousands upon thousands of guns were produced. All American males learned to use them in orderly training camps overseen by Certified Great Men. Bellesiles never quite comes to grips with whether or not war is a conceptually separate problem from those damned old guns. Maybe it would be better to avoid war. Who knows? He doesn’t seem to. Anyway, the vile Southerners can take all the blame which hasn’t stuck to the guns as such.

As the book winds down, everything has gone wrong. Guns were everywhere. The people, formerly peaceful and loveable-- with the usual exceptions, were now vicious, violent, and hateful. It’s enough to make a person move to Europe, where bad things seldom happen. Bellesiles seems stunned that the victorious union-savers failed to disarm the defeated Southerners. Perhaps the Yankees should have just shot them. Their Certified Great Men had already made other interesting innovations in the laws of war.

In the author’s mind, the Southerners used their guns to stop much-needed social reform. This was Reconstruction, which is presented as a wonderful blend of idealism and a cynical Republican drive to hang on to political power forever.

Bellesiles’s whole discussion turns on blind acceptance of the revisionist view of Reconstruction, which has become standard over the last several decades. No doubt this reading has its merits, but it reminds me of nothing so much as the "scholarship" on South Africa from about 1970 to the recent Machtübernahme by the saintly ANC and its, er, allies. That scholarship, too, had its merits, but since many of these essays included in their final section an obligatory recruitment poster for the ANC and the South African Communist Party, I never could think of them as an unalloyed blessing.


The Bellesiles Message

Does a coherent philosophy of history lurk amidst all this ruin? Aside from a powerful dislike of guns and Americans, I think we can tease out a few threads. First, there is little change in history. There is little ideology. The American Revolution didn’t change much of anything. And true enough, since it failed to settle slavery then and there and fell far short of instituting social democracy. There is little learning from experience, by anyone, unless imposed by Great Leaders on the wayward masses. There is much drift and little mastery.

Second, Certified Great Men give form to history and shape the inert masses, raising them above their incompetence and racism. It is really a great wonder that anything worthwhile was done at all in the whole colonial period, although Bellesiles does mention farming from time to time.

Third, perhaps the most important causal force in American history is "racism." This genial heuristic device props up such a heavy explanatory load in Bellesiles’s book that its buckling and breaking cannot be far off.

Fourth, it follows that there is no real political life, no real political conflict over principles, interests, or anything. Great Men use the state to do great things except when they catch some ideological bug-- like republicanism-- from the people. Just as racism is the great causal force for bad, so the state, when properly led by Great Men, is the main creative, causal force in history. Move over, Francis Fukuyama; Professor Bellesiles has usurped your G. W. F. Hegel Chair.

There may be a few other such points. The ones I have listed seem problematic enough. The late Murray Rothbard wrote four volumes on the colonial and revolutionary periods. He noted all those instances so lovingly presented by Bellesiles, wherein militia men failed to show, failed to show enthusiasm, fought poorly, and so forth. For Bellesiles, this proves that they were racist bozos needing to be shaped up by Great Men. Rothbard, knowing political and ideological conflict when he saw it, credited the people with being smart enough to see through wars and campaigns designed to empower and enrich Great Men at the expense--in blood and treasure--of the people.

Bellesiles says time and time again that colonial leaders "had to" resort to conscripting militia men. This generally failed. Later in the book he notes more than once that volunteer militia companies were better motivated and better equipped than their counterparts in the dwindling conscript units. This is all a great puzzle for him.

Perhaps people didn’t like being conscripted; maybe they had other things to do--farming, perhaps. But before this possible explanation can catch Bellesiles’s eye, he’s off demonizing the guns themselves again, followed closely by the Satanic Mason-Dixons. Where Rothbard cheered the people’s gut-level determination to be free, Sgt. Major Bellesiles sees only drunken, racially insensitive colonial louts and ploughboys in need of more drilling and bayonet practice.

Nowadays, of course, we do have good marksmen trained rigorously in big organizations and so forth. One fellow is so good he can "take out" a mother holding a baby with a perfect head shot at hundreds of yards. Yet, the man is so well-bred that he modestly understated his professional skills in a state court. But we press on.

Since there is no real political struggle in the book, there is likewise no battle for freedom against tyranny. Tory Bellesiles thinks that system best which governs most. Great Men will graciously grant the people as much liberty as they are capable of using.

The most remarkable thing about this whole display is that Bellesiles never stops to consider whether or not war as such might have a brutalizing effect on people. No, to him wars are as morally neutral as the weather, and come and go like the rain. Bellesiles shows no interest in whether wars were good, bad, just, unjust, or anything else. He is the Namier of the gun question. His book should be called "The Structure of Bloodshed at the Accession of George Washington." Popular reluctance to take part in wars only reveals the character flaws of the people. Great Leaders must work harder to achieve their goals, whether or not the goals are worth achieving.

Bellesiles isn’t even clear about Mr. Lincoln’s war. I suppose he must favor it as an unparalleled chance to slaughter those Masons and Dixons, but not even this high moral purpose deflects him from making guns the main villain. Even his enthusiasm for Reconstruction is subordinated to the use he can make of it as an example of Southerners using guns.

Bellesiles’s abolition of politics leads him to overlook a number of questions: republic vs. empire, liberty vs. power, decentralization vs. centralization. They must be unimportant, except insofar as guns were involved. The small matter of empire may be the most startling omission.

Bellesiles almost notices empire when he discusses the English Whig Establishment’s response to their Commonwealthman critics. The Whig Oligarchs saw republican theory as "a formula for anarchy, one guaranteed to reduce the empire to feudalism in a nonfeudal world" (p 148). This was their way of saying that a decentralized military and political system would never build for them an empire of the kind over which Certified Great Men feel entitled to rule.

Well spotted, Whig Oligarch! Our secession from that empire reopened the debate in a new form. The American Greats wanted to build a new empire, with themselves in charge. Hence, the alliance with France at a time when American partisan warfare and the occasional maneuver by Washington’s army already denied the British effective control of all North America save for a few secure areas like New York (the city).

The same debate ran through both ratifications--Articles and Constitution--and into the contest between Federalists and Republicans. If the latter eventually abandoned their own ideas, it was not that the ideology was insane but that they, too, preferred empire to liberty. But none of this comes up in this book. There is apparently no choice in human history. This performance makes me miss the Marxists. They gave you something substantial, as opposed to fixating on one material object.

The results of Bellesile’s single-minded crusade against guns are a bit odd. He has effectively abolished most liberal complaints about American history. There is no longer any need to feel guilty about all those dead Indians. To his mind, colonial Indian wars were small-scale, comic affairs with not enough genocide to worry about, because the militia were too cowardly and stupid to show up or fight well. On his account, all successful wars against Indians were waged by British regulars.

Well that’s good enough for me. It discredits the militia clowns, and if Great Men wanted the wars, the wars must have been necessary.

My favorite example is the following: Intent on showing how gun-shy early 19th-century Americans were, even on the edge of civilization, Bellesiles paints a glowing picture of life on the frontier. His discussion of the joys of peaceful, orderly, civilized progress on the frontier is chock full of paleo conservative implications. One day soon, he’ll wake up, look in the mirror, and realize that he’s about to go on PC trial for having written a glowing description of an intact, not particularly diverse, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture, whose ties to Western civilization yet lingered.

They won’t get him on one charge, however. No one will ever accuse the fellow of holding back his feelings about the South and white Southerners. In pop-Freudian terms, his mental health should be topnotch, as he has vented his spleen against the South more times than one would like to count.

Still, in the face of all this Southern evil, he can’t bring himself to say a kind word for Abe Lincoln. Maybe guns were used in Abe’s war. But I can agree with Bellesiles on this one. I never say a kind word for Abe, either. Bellesiles condemns the NRA for accepting federal subsidies. I heartily agree. What can you do with a politically inept "gun lobby" founded by two Yankee officers? But perhaps Bellesiles was actually condemning the government for giving the NRA money which should have gone to trendy art-phonies.

Keen to leave his opponents no hope at all, Bellesiles has packed his labyrinthine book with every maneuver and strawman of which he could think. The biggest straw man is the claim that the right to keep and bear arms vitally depends on our believing that early Americans were violent, cantankerous, highly armed, and ready to explode into bloodshed at the drop of a discouraging word. This is the great myth, which the poor, doltish public believes and which the sinister NRA exploits. Those trapped in the myth believe in the Hollywood version of the Old West. To head off a possible claim that the Old West was peaceful because people were armed, he has told us, instead, that the people were Anglo-Saxon. I can live with that.


The Strange Career of Jim Gunne

By about the second page of Bellesiles’s Journal of American History piece I had cottoned on to the scope of his ambition. He wants to be the C. Vann Woodward of the gun issue. Woodward argued in The Strange Case of Jim Crow (1955 [1966]) that segregation in the South, after Reconstruction, was purely a case of successful social engineering. Therefore, social engineering by the federal government could reverse all those evils and make America the happy, multiracial paradise which it has of course become in the last four decades. Social engineering is the hero, only the details have been changed.

Bellesiles claims the government created the "gun culture"; the government can therefore put an end to it. The government giveth and the government taketh away. I don’t think it’s nearly that simple. Good luck. Of course, if the guns could be gathered in, I suggest melting them down to make a tricephalic statue. The three heads would of course be those of Lincoln, Wilson, and FDR.

Bellesiles writes that "[m]any Indians came to invest supernatural powers in firearms" (p. 135). The author should know.

I do like one aspect of the book. There is a picture of a very nice gun on the jacket.


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