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The Barton Lies: A Review of David Barton’s The Jefferson Lies

more from Hrafnkell Haraldsson
Saturday, May, 5th, 2012, 7:44 am

David Barton begins his new book The Jefferson Lies (2012) with a lie; he ends it with another lie. In between, he fills it with lies. But not before his BFF, Glenn Beck, does some reality matrix shattering riffing, penning a brief homage to the man who has yet to express an honest thought in his attempts to “rediscover” Tomas Jefferson (recreate and repurpose would be better terms).

I am hardly the first to review Barton’s new book; the book has been out for about a month and several historians have already done so, including Warren Throckmorton, who self-identifies as a Christian whose scholarship is informed by Christian ethics and belief, observes that “Barton is well qualified to speak about distortions of Jefferson’s work and beliefs since he has spread so many of them”.

MRFF’s Chris Rodda refers to it as a “load of crap”. Rob Boston on AU’s Wall of Separation blog calls it “David Barton’s new collection of whoppers” and his conclusion that the book is little more than a form of historical creationism” is certainly accurate.

As Alan Pell Crawford, author of Twilight at Monticello: The Final Years of Thomas Jefferson, says in his Wall Street Journal review of Barton’s book, “Jefferson’s religious beliefs are central to Mr. Barton’s thesis, in the service of which straw men are consumed in bonfires.”

Martin E. Marty at the University of Chicago Divinity School, points out that “David Barton, cites Jefferson for Bartonian positions which are directly opposite of Jefferson’s” and scathingly “that he has invented a case and product which serve his viewpoint and draw him enormous followings among ‘conservative’ factions which oppose separation of church and state in most cases except those they choose.”

Barton claims his purpose here is to “rehabilitate” Thomas Jefferson.[1] Apparently, he has fallen into clutches of evil secularists and has had his shining reputation besmirched. You would think that until these evil secularists came along that Jefferson’s reputation was and had remained sterling. In fact, as Frank Shuffelton writes, “In the years after his death on July 4, 1826, fifty years after the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson’s reputation was contested by partisans of all sorts…the twentieth century saw a turn in a more straightforwardly positive direction, as evidenced by the subtitle of Gilbert Chinard’s popular 1929 biography, “Apostle of Americanism.” Jefferson has in fact long been a liberal hero, contrary to Barton’s contention, for as Shuffelton further points out, “This reputation was enhanced by the New Dealers who took Jefferson for their patron saint, putting his face on the five-cent piece and providing a handsome memorial in Washington, DC, on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of his birth.”[2]

Yes, it was “godless” liberals who put Jefferson on the nickel (in 1938) and “godless” liberals who raised a temple to Jefferson (1939-43).[3]

Obviously, reputations change. Jefferson’s was contended the moment he died, and underwent change in the early twentieth century. It has continued to change over the past few decades as attention has focused on various (and not unimportant) issues: his ownership of slaves, his racial biases, and his behavior towards America’s aboriginal inhabitants, among others. Barton laments that the Founders (Jefferson especially) are now known as “a collective group of racists, bigots, and slaveholders.” But Jefferson’s, no less than any man’s character, was flawed, and like all men he was a product of the prejudices and scientific limits of his time. He was a product of the European Enlightenment but he was also a product (and prisoner) of the 18th century. He cannot be removed from that context, though Barton tries.

To turn again to Shuffelton: “These attacks…are…in their extreme versions, often merely reflections of the much more nuanced and sophisticated scholarship that has emerged in these years on Jefferson and the period of the early American republic.” This nuanced approach demands that he be understood as a champion of “equality, tolerance, and individual liberty” at the same time as his many negative attributes are also true; as Shuffelton says, “his contradictions and ambivalences seem to reflect the contradictions of America itself.”[4] This seems reasonable enough. Historical events, no more than people, are black and white.

But David Barton does not want nuance and sophistication: he wants hero worship. His version of American Exceptionalism demands no less.[5] This approach leads to some extreme claims being made by conservatives: that slavery really wasn’t so bad, that black families (a nonexistent item in the antebellum South) were better off as slaves than under liberal governance, and that White Europeans did not really steal Indian lands at all or even engage in genocide.[6] But since America is perfect – being as they argue a part of God’s grand plan for humankind – it would hardly have been fostered by such monsters as Barton claims liberals label the Founding Fathers. To say that Barton’s approach is simplistic is to understate the case. The complexities of history are completely beyond him, as he demonstrates here.

One might say that nuance and sophistication are evidence of a dispassionate approach, one free from tendentiousness (a biased view). It is true that we all have personal ideologies as archaeologist William G. Dever describes it: “a set of ideas with which we approach any phenomenon or experience.” As Dever further points out, that does not make most of us ideologues” in the Marxist sense of “false consciousness”, or perceptions of the world not reality-based.[7] But a historian must as much as possible adopt a neutral position toward his subject, as Throckmorton and Coulter say in their rebuttal to Barton, Getting Jefferson Right (2012), “following the data where they lead.”[8] But to paraphrase Hans Dieter Betz, the problems for Barton begin almost at once: the change in system is “not in accord with history,” because for Barton, “history has to conform to the system.”[9]

To properly interpret history, a historian must try to understand how the people under discussion viewed their world: their worldview is what is important, not the historian’s. We must understand geography as the Romans understood it, or the Iliad as the Greeks understood it. Barton has put the cart before the horse and ignored the Sitz im Leben – the real-life setting of the texts; his driving agenda is not the world as Jefferson and his generation saw it but the world as Barton sees it. The two must match up, but they cannot. Since Jefferson was a Christian (so Barton’s argument goes) Jefferson could never have fathered a child on his slave Sally Hemmings, etc, etc.

Whether or not Jefferson did in fact father a child on his slave is less important here than the motivations behind Barton’s stance.[10] Barton has decided on his Jefferson before writing about him, just as he has decided on his Jesus, and as so often happens with those who purport to study the historical Jesus, he has found the Jefferson most congenial to his views. Barton blames Jefferson’s recent “fall” (so he imagines it) on the evils of what he terms “Deconstructionism, Postculturalism, Modernism, Minimalism, and Academic Collectivism.” [11]

Throckmorton and Coulter point out that “Barton uses these terms in ways that are peculiar at best and generally misrepresent what the general practices employed in the academic study of history.” With regards to “deconstructionism” Barton does not even get the term right, alluding to it as a system of belief when it is in fact a system of reading aimed at “uncovering the full meaning of a term or concept…”[12] Not only is Barton’s view of Jefferson tendentious in the extreme, but so is his interpretation of understanding and interpretating data. The same problems arise with Barton’s definition of American Exceptionalism, which he tackles (unsuccessfully) in his Introduction.[13]

In other words, to even begin to analyze Barton’s presentation, one must have ready access to accurate definitions of these various terms and we must both agree on those definitions. But since Barton abuses these terms (or like American Exceptionalism the term lacks canonized definitions), we will have difficulty finding reference to them in our effort to make sense of Barton’s argument. Barton’s sin here is an egregious one, whether from ignorance or intent. Unfortunately, Barton’s followers will assume Barton knows what he is talking about even though what he has done is to basically create a system to tear down and to blame for people failing to realize that Jefferson was a modern Evangelical Christian.

Naturally, Barton resorts (as he always does) to the Bible to resolve the problem of his failure to understand these various terms noted above: “The best means for overcoming the five modern historical traps,” he writes, “is given in Romans 12:21, which instructs us to defeat the evil with the good – that is, not just to avoid evil ourselves but also to apply its antithesis, or its antidote, to neutralize the effect of its poison.”[14] This is strange advice coming from a habitual liar who has just sealed a 279-page tome with another lie.

David Barton asserts that “Thomas Jefferson was a remarkable man” as though daring us to disagree with him. But this is the view of most historians, just as is the view that Jefferson was not an atheist.[15] It is nothing new or dramatic, no departure from the invented “academic collectivism” Barton so despises.[16] Yet to “rub it in” he cites view after view of scholar after scholar over the past two centuries even while demolishing scholarship by accusing scholars of relying on “the claims of ‘experts’ rather than original documents as the standard for truth.”[17] Why cite, for example, the views of Ken Burns while decrying the very scholarship Burns relied upon?

Barton structures his book around “lies” rather than chapters. He doesn’t even call them chapters. They are literally “Lie #1, Lie #2, etc, for a total of seven lies, though Barton finds plenty of room for hundreds more of his own. The first he addresses is that Jefferson fathered Sally Hemmings’ children.[18] Lie #2 is that Jefferson founded a secular university (something no good Christian could possibly consider doing and therefore Jefferson could not have done it),[19] despite Jefferson himself saying that at his university “a professorship of theology should have no place.” The third lie is the infamous Jefferson Bible, an object Barton argues away and defines out of existence, proving that Jefferson was a good Christian who embraced all the miracles and superstition that Jefferson in fact despised;[20] completely ignoring that in fact Jefferson did produce such a Bible and even considered adding to it the doctrines of Epicurus.[21] It turns out, if you read on, that Jefferson was not a racist after all and that he actually liked clergy. This is apologia at its best and Barton’s religious education degree from ORU is easily spotted nesting in the pages of The Jefferson Lies.

In fact, as will be evident to any informed reader, David Barton’s lies are themselves lies and the reader should appeal to a corrective, like Throckmorton and Coulter’s Getting Jefferson Right (2012) – which I highly recommend – or Chris Rodda’s forthcoming book, to see Barton’s lies demolished one by one.

Barton sums up his deeds in his Conclusion, stating that “reality emerges and truth can prevail” but sadly, truth does not prevail here. Barton only reiterates his lies in briefer form. Barton can decry a “deplorable slip in accurate historical knowledge over the past half-century” (that same period of nuance and sophistication spoken of above)[22] but the real slip in accurate historical knowledge is represented by Barton’s book.

Shoddy scholarship (if that term can be used of the work of a religious ideologue – using ideology in the Marxist sense of belief having no basis in reality) is apparent throughout; anyone can put Jefferson’s writings before them but interpreting them in the proper context is more difficult (thus the need for trained scholars who devote their lives to what most of us would consider minutiae).

It’s clear what Barton’s strategy is here: he claims he will differ from those despicable academics by doing what they refuse to do and examining Jefferson’s actual words; only he doesn’t. Barton cherry picks Jefferson’s writings: he misquotes, omits, takes out of context and even invents facts in his quest of reclamation. The result, as might be imagined, is a colossal disaster for scholarship, a tendentious collection of lies designed to suit the fancy of a wider faith-based reality, and an insult to the man it purports to celebrate.


[1] David Barton, The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson (Thomas Nelson, 2012).

[2] Frank Shuffelton, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Jefferson (Cambridge University Press, 2009), 4. Shuffelston teaches American literature at the University of Rochester.

[3] However, see the objections of Ronald Hamowy of the conservative Cato Institute at The American Conservative, who calls the inscriptions chosen for the monument “[p]erhaps the most egregious examples of invoking Jefferson for purely transient political purposes.”

[4] Shuffelton (2009), 4.

[5] Which he defines as: “the belief that America is blessed and enjoys unprecedented stability, prosperity, and liberty as a result of the institutions and policies produced by unique ideas such as God-given inalienable rights, individualism, limited government, full republicanism, and an educated and virtuous citizenry.” See Barton (2012), xix-xx.

[6] For example, see Thomas E. Woods, Jr., The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History (Regnery, 2004), which claims that the American “revolutionaries” were actually conservatives, the Puritans didn’t steal Indian lands, etc..

[7] William G. Dever, Did God Have a Wife: Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel (Eerdmans, 2005), 83.

[8] Warren Throckmorton and Michael Coulter, Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims About Our Third President (Warren Throckmorton, 2012). Kindle edition, location 160. Throckmorton and Coulter are both scholars who teach at conservative Christian colleges.

[9] Hans Dieter Betz, “The Birth of Christianity as a Hellenistic Religion: Three Theories of Origin” The Journal of Religion 74 (1994), 16-17. Betz is Shailer Mathews Professor Emeritus of New Testament in the Divinity School, the Department of New Testament and Early Christian Literature, and the Committee on the Ancient Mediterranean World at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Betz here is speaking of early Christianity.

[10] For a discussion of this issue see Lucia Stanton, “Jefferson’s people: slavery at Monticello,” in The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Jefferson (Cambridge, 2009), 83-100. Lucia Stanton directs research at Monticello where she is the Shannon senior research historian at the Robert Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies.

[11] Barton (2012), xvi.

[12] Throckmorton and Coulter (2012), location 187-195.

[13] Barton (2012), xix-xx.

[14] Barton (2012), 199.

[15] Richard Samuelson, “Jefferson and religion: private belief, public policy” in The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Jefferson (Cambridge, 2009),  143-154. For Jefferson, moral precepts “innate in man” were true religion; in the words of Samuelson, “Liberate man from religious coercion, and true religion would rise.” Barton misses this point entirely. Richard Samuelson is Assistant Professor of History at California State University, San Bernardino.

[16] See Throckmorton and Coulter (2012), Location 246-253.

[17] Barton (2012), 198.

[18] Barton (2012), 1-30.

[19] Barton (2012), 31-66.

[20] Barton (2012), 67-84.

[21] Jefferson to Charles Thomson, January 9, 1816. In a letter dated April 25, 1816 to Francis Adrian van der Kemp, Jefferson even spoke disdainfully of the “14 centuries he [Jesus] has been enveloped by Jugglers to make money of him.” To William Short on April 13, 1820, Jefferson wrote of the roguery of Jesus’ disciples and stated that “Of this band of dupes and imposters, Paul was the great Coryphaeus, and firm corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus.”

[22] Barton (2012), 196.

The Barton Lies: A Review of David Barton’s The Jefferson Lies was written by Hrafnkell Haraldsson for PoliticusUSA.
© PoliticusUSA, Sat, May 5th, 2012 — All Rights Reserved




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