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Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture
Synopses & Reviews
How and when did Americans develop their obsession with guns? Is gun-related violence so deeply embedded in American historical experience as to be immutable? The accepted answers to these questions are "mythology," says Michael A. Bellesiles.
Basing his arguments on sound and prodigious research, Bellesiles makes it clear that gun ownership was the exception even on the frontier until the age of industrialization. In Colonial America the average citizen had virtually no access to or training in the use of firearms, and the few guns that did exist were kept under strict control. No guns were made in America uuntil after the Revolution, and there were few gunsmiths to keep them in repair.
Bellesiles shows that the U.S. government, almost from its inception, worked to arm its citizens, but it met only public indifference and resistance until the 1850s, when technological advances such as repeating revolvers with self-contained bullets contributed to a surge in gun manufacturing. Finally, we see how the soaring gun production engendered by the Civil War, and the decision to allow soldiers to keep their weapons at the end of the conflict, transformed the gun from a seldom-needed tool to a perceived necessity opposing ideas that are still at the center of the fight for and against gun control today.
Michael A. Bellesiles's research set off a chain of passionate reaction after its publication in the Journal of American History in 1996, and Arming America is certain to be one of the most controversial and widely read books on the subject.
"Columbia University's Trustees have voted to rescind the Bancroft Prize awarded last year to Michael Bellesiles for his book Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture. The Trustees made the decision. Based on a review of an investigation of charges of scholarly misconduct against Professor Bellesiles by Emory University and other assessments by professional historians. They concluded that he had violated basic norms of scholarship and the high standards expected of Bancroft Prize winners. The Trustees voted to rescind the Prize during their regularly scheduled meeting on December 7, 2002 and have notified Professor Bellesiles of their decision...." Excerpt from the official announcement released Friday, December 13, 2002, by the Columbia University Board of Trustees — History News Network.
"Arming America is a myth-busting tour de force. Michael Bellesiles moves to the front rank of American historians with this deeply researched, brilliantly argued, energetically written, and timely book. It is an instant classic, one of the very most important works of historical scholarship published in recent years. In future years it will be impossible to talk about the role of guns in our civic culture without coming to terms with this superb study." Peter S. Onuf, author of Jefferson's Empire
"NRA zealots beware! This splendidly subversive book will convince any sane reader that America's 'gun culture' owes little to personal self-defense in its pioneer past — or even to putting meat on the table. It was not the challenge of the wild frontier that armed Americans, but instead a relentlessly insistent federal government." Robert R. Dykstra, author of The Cattle Towns
"Arming America is an exciting, timely book. Thinking people who deplore Americans' addiction to gun violence have been waiting a long time for this information. Michael Bellesiles has uncovered dramatic historical truths that shatter the 'Ten Commandments' hokum peddled by the National Rifle Association and its ersatz Moses." Stewart Udall, author of The Myths of August and The Quiet Crisis
"We can hardly understand the context for the Second Amendment without first reading Arming America. No one previously has given us such an authoritative account of firearms in our history from the colonial period through the Civil War." Don Higginbotham, author of George Washington and the American Military Tradition
"Meticulously, even extravagantly researched, this book is a tour de force. Bellesiles has done what no one before has — examine the fact behind American gun mythology. This book will transform the modern gun debate by moving it from hysteria to sensible analysis. In every respect, a superb piece of historical work." Robert J. Spitzer, author of The Politics of Gun Control
"This is stunning history, brilliantly argued. It knocks into a cocked hat our most cherished assumptions about guns and gun culture in early America, making us rethink one subject after another. What an eye-opener." Alfred F. Young, Senior Research Fellow, Newberry Library
"At long last a superb book that systematically dismantles one of our most cherished and dangerous national myths. Bellesiles has made a major contribution to a significant public policy debate." Robert C. Ritchie, Director of Research, The Huntington Library
"Arming America is an astonishingly original and innovative book, chock full of fascinating revelations. It ought to raise current controversies about gun control to a more fact-based and rational level. It is certain to endure as a classic work of significant scholarship with inescapable policy implications." Michael Kammen, Past President, Organization of American Historians
"This book changes everything. The way we think about guns and violence in America will never be the same. Neither will our notions of manhood, race, the rise of big business, or our national character. Neither will our understanding of the Second Amendment. Michael Bellesiles is the NRA's worst nightmare." Michael Zuckerman, author of Peaceable Kingdoms
"Bellesiles has uncovered one of the most profound ironies in American history. The contemporary debate about the role of guns in American society has actually turned history on its head. While many early Americans rallied at their government for doing too little to arm the American people, some in contemporary America now rail at their government for seeking to limit access to weapons. No one interested in the controversial problem of guns in American society can afford to ignore this important book." Saul Cornell, author of The Other Founders
"Michael Bellesiles' work shifts the terms of the debate about the gun's place in the modern United States. Today we assume that the gun has always been central to American culture. Those who seek to limit its prevalence have largely accepted that they ask us to depart from a tradition of long standing. Bellesiles argues, however, that the centrality of guns is a recent phenomenon, dating form the mid-19th century. His research raises fundamental issues that go to the heart of widely-held but apparently erroneous assumptions about American gun culture." Carla Gardina Pestana, author of Liberty of Conscience and the Growth of Religious Diversity in Early America
"This is a book for scholars and, above all, citizens, a wonderful work that bring historical insight and plain good sense to a critical national debate. With wit, commitment, and an unerring command of his argument, Michael Bellesiles shows us that gun culture has not always been embedded in American culture in the past — and perhaps doesn't have to be in the future. It's a lesson we all need to learn from a book we all need to read." Greg Nobles, author of American Frontiers
Book News Annotation:
Bellesiles (history, Emory U.) explodes a number of myths about the role of guns in American history. Examining probate records, correspondence of militia commanders, and a number of other sources he finds that gun ownership among average Americans wasn't widespread until as late as the Civil War. He also argues that from the very beginning of European settlement, guns were highly regulated by authorities and that guns were viewed as having a special status as being ultimately at the disposal of government.
Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
About the Author
Michael A. Bellesiles is Professor of History at Emory University and Director of Emory's Center for the Study of Violence. He is the author of Revolutionary Outlaws: Ethan Allen and the Struggle for Independence on the Early American Frontier, and of numerous articles and reviews. He lives in Atlanta.
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