The most significant and oft-repeated criticism of Arming America concerns the probate materials. Many critics maintain that “the entire argument of the book is based on one thousand probate records.” This statement is incorrect. It is true that I had initially been fascinated with probate records as a source, and for years I would stop at every county courthouse I was near and ask if they had any probate inventories from the antebellum period. These materials open a window on the dynamic nature of the early American economy and the structure of the household economy. However, as I presented my findings at historical conferences over the 1990s, I was persuaded that probate records are deeply flawed as a source. Academic conferences are supposed to accomplish precisely this task, helping scholars clarify their ideas and discover what is strongest and weakest in their evidence. Many historians pointed out that a great deal depended on the dedication of the executors. Theirs was a complex job, that of listing and giving a monetary valuation to every single item in the possession of the deceased at the time of death. Many of them must have been tempted to take shortcuts. Additionally, except for when goods are auctioned, there is no indication as to how the executors arrived at their valuation of goods inventoried. There are also many problems with the documents themselves, not the least of which is deciphering them. Some executors possessed a beautiful flowing script, others had the most awful and barely legible handwriting; prior to the 1820s all spelled erratically. But the primary problem with probate records is their built-in class bias. Generally only property holders were inventoried; far too often the poorest were buried without any concern for the distribution of their few goods.
Because of the many conversations I had with scholars over the years about probate records I decided to make little use of them in Arming America. Nonetheless, they remain significant sources, providing some indication of how many guns were in private hands in America and in what condition those guns were kept. As a consequence, this material appears Chapter Two in four paragraphs and a sentence (pp. 74, 109–110, 266–67, and 386). I tried in the book to indicate, as briefly as possible, the limitations of probate records, which are biased by class, race, gender, local standards, and the personalities of the executors. It is very clear that I erred in not devoting far more space to a full consideration of a source that would arouse the interest of readers. The ensuing controversy has led to a number of valuable insights into the use of probate materials, which will hopefully be of some benefit to future scholars. I have posted on my web page an essay I wrote some years back on the uses of probate materials. Further materials and a name-by-name listing of the probate records examined may be found on that site.
23 July 2009
More Michael Bellesisles defence
This time, you can read his own words here