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Getting Jefferson Right – A Review

In The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson (2012), reviewed here yesterday, pseudo-historian David Barton employs numerous sins against the rules of logic (straw men and false dilemma’s abound), not to mention honesty, in an attempt to “reclaim” Thomas Jefferson as a Evangelical Christian, a Jefferson more useful to Barton’s culture warrior goals than is the Jefferson of history.

It seems only fair then that I review a book that serves as an important corrective to Barton’s biases. In Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims about Our Third President, conservative Christian scholars Warren Throckmorton and Michael Coulter set the record straight, issuing a much-needed correction to Barton’s best-selling book. Sadly, it is unlikely to get the attention Barton’s book has received.

This is a point-by-point take-down of Barton’s claims (with the glaring omission of Barton’s claims about Jefferson and  Sally Hemmings) and it is brilliantly done, appealing to those same texts Barton uses and showing how Barton cherry-picks Jefferson’s words, fails to understand his meanings, or takes them out of context – even inventing “facts” out of whole cloth without substantiated them textually. They show how Barton invents terms (including especially “Academic Collectivism”) and misinterprets others, like post-structuralism (Barton even omits the hyphen). Barton’s technique is tendentious in the extreme, constructing arguments and terms to attack and destroy.

Throckmorton and Coulter do not cherry-pick Jefferson’s words in order to force history to conform to ideology but carefully examine his words, showing the reader where Barton has led them astray. Simply set this book alongside Barton’s; you can go from Barton’s carefully numbered lies to Throckmorton’s and Coulter’s analysis and almost watch the winds clear away the clouds of deceit.

There is no way of course Throckmorton and Coulter can counter every single one of the lies Barton tells but they do a very good job regardless, beginning with a discussion about how history should be done before examining the all-important issue of Jefferson’s views on church and state and the grounds for disestablishment.

One might accuse Barton of simply not understanding the issues under discussion but the number of times he is caught in an outright lie (for example, with regards the famous Jefferson Bible) make it difficult to accept that Barton is not willfully engaging in a corruption of history for his own ends.

The authors here explain facets of 18th century history that Barton does not, for example, why documents Jefferson signed contained the words “In the Year of Our Lord Christ” (they were there according to treaty, pre-printed, not hand-written, on the document to be signed); and they show how Barton tells only half the story when he claims Jefferson wanted a Biblical story on the National Seal: Jefferson wanted the biblical story on one side and a Pagan story on the other – the Pagan Saxon leaders Hengist and Horsa. Barton doesn’t want his Evangelical fanboys and girls to know about inconvenient facts like this.

They also show how Barton outright lies about Jefferson founding the Virginia Bible Society (Barton doesn’t even attempt to prove it – he just asserts it is so) and refute Barton’s claim that Jefferson “financed” the first hot pressed Bible (he subscribed to it, like hundreds of others).  Obviously, owning a Bible doesn’t make you a Christian and Jefferson owned more than one – he also owned a Qur’an, though Barton won’t publicize this.

Another of Barton’s lies claims Jefferson established the University of Virginia as a transdenominational school and Throckmorton and Coulter demolish this as they do his others: the August 4, 1818 Rockfish Gap Report of the University Board of Visitors “about religion in the plan for the University” exposes Barton for the liar he is, as does a November 2, 1822 letter of Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Cooper (important parts of which Barton omits to make his argument). An August 5, 1821 letter from Jefferson’s “point man” in the Virginia Legislature illustrates the hostility of the religious community for the university. In the words of Throckmorton and Coulter, “If there was some contemporaneous sense of the University as being “transdenominational” important religious leaders in Virginia didn’t feel it.”

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is absolutely essential to read this book if you intend to read Barton’s. Significantly, the authors are not atheists: they are both professors at conservative Christian colleges who assert that Christian ethics and belief inform their scholarship. They are both, in the end, honest scholars willing to examine the facts on the ground and render the necessary judgment: and therefore in the end, they are everything Barton is not and their book is everything Barton’s will never be: actual history. If there is such a thing as “academic collectivism” we apparently need more of it.

As a final note, I read this book in its Kindle format and it does suffer from the all-too typical Kindle formatting issues and it is not always clear when blockquotes end and begin. There were also initial issues with images not appearing but that has been corrected. You do not have to own a Kindle to read a Kindle book: you can download the Kindle app and read it on your computer or on your iPad. I can only conclude by offering kudos to Mssrs. Throckmorton and Coulter for a job well done.

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