The Jefferson Lies: Taking on the Critics
*For a more thorough response to the critics on The Jefferson Lies, please go here.
For generations, America recognized an equality of individualism that made the carpenter as important as the university president and the shopkeeper the equal of the statesman. But today, under the influence of Poststructuralism, America has begun to divide itself into groups based not only on identity (e.g., black/white/Latino, straight/gay, union/right-to-work, conservative/liberal, etc.) but also on distinctions such as economic income, social standing, and even degree of academic knowledge – and especially in the latter category as pretentious scholars in law and academics claim exclusive knowledge they believe places them above ordinary citizens.
For example, I repeatedly hear legislators urge that a bill be passed so that they can find out from the judges whether or not it is constitutional. They apparently believe that only a small group is capable of unraveling the meaning of the Constitution and have forgotten that it is actually a very simple document that can be read in its entirety in less than twenty minutes. In fact, it is so easy to understand that for decades, school children took an annual written exam to demonstrate their mastery of its content; and popular texts included the 1828 Catechism on the Constitution by Arthur Stansbury – a work for elementary students. Thankfully, citizens have begun bypassing America’s frequently haughty academic aristocracy – evidenced by the fact that two recent modern-language editions of The Federalist Papers have become national best-sellers.
And just as they have done with the Constitution, academic elitists have also tried to make themselves the sole caretakers of historical knowledge, holding that history is too complicated, with too many intricacies for the average person to understand. They even become intolerant of those who try to break through these false barriers and open history to the average citizen. I personally know this to be true, for I often find myself the object of their attacks.
I have penned numerous best-selling history works, and characteristic of each is a heavy reliance on primary-source documentation. Across the past twenty years, I have amassed a collection of some 100,000 originals (or certified copies of originals) predating 1812, including hand-written documents and works of those who framed and signed the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Not many individuals in America have read more original works (or fewer modern ones) than I have; and the general public has responded enthusiastically to this history based on original documentation.
In fact, notice how these types of history books regularly appear on the New York Times bestseller list. Whether it is David McCullough’s John Adams, Glenn Beck’s Being George Washington, Newt Gingrich’s Valley Forge, or my own The Jefferson Lies, people are willing to pay good money to learn the simple uncomplicated history that used to be taught in school.
Conversely, typical history works by modern elitist professors generally sell very poorly; and seeing their own influence wane, they often lash out and condescendingly criticize the more popular documentary works. But this practice is not new. After all, when the Apostle Paul began to attract a growing following, some of the intellectuals of his day who were losing standing “went wild with jealousy and tore into Paul, contradicting everything he was saying,” “sowing mistrust and suspicion in the minds of the people” (Acts 13:44-45, 14:2).
After The Jefferson Lies, rose to a New York Times best-seller, similar attacks were launched against it from academic elitists. I will address three of these attacks below, but first, I must tackle their oft-repeated talking-point that I am not a qualified historian – a claim they make to cast a shadow of doubt over all the facts I present. However, this charge, like their others, is completely false. After all, I am:
- Recognized as an historical expert by both state and federal courts;
- Called to testify as an historical expert by both the federal and state legislatures;
- Selected as an historical expert by State Boards of Education across the nation to assist in writing history and social studies standards for those states;
- Consulted as an historical expert by public school textbook publishers, helping write best-selling history texts used in public schools and universities across the nation.
Their real objection is that I make history uncomplicated, and thus make them irrelevant. In fact, the very point of The Jefferson Lies was to allow Jefferson to speak for himself through his 19,000 letters, thereby eliminating the need for the educational elitists who for the past fifty years have anointed themselves as Jefferson’s sole interpreters.
Consider some of their objections against The Jefferson Lies.
Warren Throckmorton and Michael Coulter
A common mantra for today’s academics is “Publish or die.” Believing that if they are not publishing something new that their academic career is regressing, they therefore regularly “discover” something they believe to be a new revelation on some obscure micropoint of history, and then, as if having received an earth-shattering revelation, write an article or book giving their personal opinions about it. Significantly, however, the public does not respond well to these works, for publishers claim that with few exceptions most academic scholars’ books sell only two hundred or so copies a year. 1
Professors Warren Throckmorton and Michael Coulter, in their work penned against The Jefferson Lies, begin by candidly admitting that they are critiquing “Barton and religious conservatives in general,” 2 thereby openly confessing their hostility toward me and my personal religious beliefs. As they acknowledge up front, and as will be evident below, their real problem with The Jefferson Lies is much more about its worldview than its historical content.(Throckmorton is a psychology professor at Grove College currently writing about sexual orientation and identity, and Coulter teaches political science there.)
For example, early in the book I applaud American Exceptionalism, which I define 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.” 3 But Throckmorton and Coulter launch into a lengthy exegesis, quoting a number of liberal professors to prove that American Exceptionalism is a bad thing, not something good. 4 So from the start, these two make clear that they object to the philosophy I set forth that America’s blessings, prosperity, and liberties are the result of God-given rights and ideas.
Another insightful moment in their critique occurs when these two try to explain away those 100,000 originals that form much of the basis of my historical works. They attempt to dismiss those works by stating, “While he [Barton] does have a nice collection of Bibles and signatures, he also has a lot of old newspapers which have little relevance to the claims he makes.” 5
Notwithstanding the fact that they’ve never seen my collection and therefore don’t know what I do have, their comment about old newspapers is particularly revealing. Every genuine historian knows that old newspapers have great significance; in fact, it is hard to underestimate the importance of old newspapers in the way that these two have done. While newspapers do not replace primary source writings when such are available, there are definitely many times that newspapers themselves become the primary source documents and therefore cannot be dismissed out of hand as these two professors have done.
Significantly, many of the writings of the Founding Fathers, including the indispensable Federalist Papers, first appeared as newspaper articles; and old newspapers regularly contain noteworthy historical information found in no other source. For example, nowhere in George Washington’s writings does he say that he leaned over and kissed the Bible at his inauguration, but numerous old newspapers reporting those proceedings establish that fact (along with reporting the six other religious activities that occurred at his inauguration). So, contrary to their preposterous claim, old newspapers do have much relevance, not only to my claims but also those made by many other historical writers as well.
Furthermore, while my collection does include a “nice collection of Bibles and signatures,” it also has scores of full-length books by Founding Fathers as well as countless legal works, court rulings, religious sermons, military writings, original documents from black history, women’s history, and writings in scores of other areas. Yet even if it were nothing more than a “nice collection of Bibles and signatures,” that would still be significant, for that collection contains Bibles such as the John Thompson Bible of 1798, which documents Jefferson’s role in helping print that Bible – an aspect of Jefferson’s actions that these professors foolishly dismiss as being insignificant.
But aside from their flawed view about the importance of specific types of original documents, consider some of the absurdities contained in their critique. For example, Throckmorton and Coulter object to my statement that, “In 1803, President Jefferson signed a treaty with the Kaskaskia tribe to provide them Christian ministry and teaching.” 6 To prove their objection, they quote the treaty, including the part stating:
And whereas, the greater part of the said [Kaskaskia] tribe have been baptised [sic] and received into the Catholic church to which they are much attached, the United States will give annually for seven years one hundred dollars towards the support of a priest of that religion, who will engage to perform for the said tribe the duties of his office and also to instruct as many of their children as possible in the rudiments of literature. And the United States will further give the sum of three hundred dollars to assist the said tribe in the erection of a church. 7
This treaty is signed at the bottom by President Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of State James Madison.
So, let’s see: I state that Jefferson signed a treaty “with the Kaskaskia tribe to provide them Christian ministry and teaching,” and the two provide the part of the treaty proving that it does. I made the simple statement; they show documentation that the statement was correct; end of story, right? Hardly! After proving that the treaty does indeed have that provision, they then launch into a lengthy explanation attempting to show why that provision is really not important. It is amusing to see the lengths to which they go in their convoluted attempts to explain why historical documents do not really mean what they actually say.
Similarly, I state that “Other presidential actions of Jefferson include . . . closing presidential documents with the appellation, ‘In the year of our Lord Christ’.” 8 I then include in the book a picture of such a signed document. But Throckmorton and Coulter dismiss that document with the statement that “we know of no other document signed by Jefferson with the phrase ‘in the year of our Lord Christ’ printed on the form.” 9 So apparently, since they personally know of no other similar documents, then the one I showed apparently means nothing (at least to them). Significantly, however, we personally own other such Jefferson documents; and literally scores, if not hundreds, of similar Jefferson documents are contained in other libraries and archives. But because these professors don’t personally know about them, then they apparently don’t exist! Clearly, so strong are their own personal predilections about Jefferson that they won’t even allow what they see with their own eyes to alter their predetermined conclusions.
Throckmorton and Coulter also object to my statement that “in 1798, Jefferson personally helped finance the printing of one of America’s groundbreaking editions of the Bible. That Bible was a massive, two-volume folio set that was not only the largest Bible ever published in America to that time, but it was also America’s first hot-pressed Bible.” 10 That Bible, published by John Thompson, is known as the Thompson Bible; but Throckmorton and Coulter claim that Jefferson subscribing, or helping fund this Bible, is an insignificant and irrelevant thing:
At the completion of the effort [the Bible], the printers compiled a list of subscribers for placement at the end of the second volume. . . . [A]ccording to the subscriber’s list, 1272 people paid to receive one [sic] these Bibles, with Jefferson’s name listed among the subscribers. . . . Certainly, several Founders subscribed. . . . The subscribers were not investors in the project. The investors in the project were printers, John Thompson and Abraham Small. 11
As they do so often throughout their critique, they entirely miss the primary point obviously being made in that section of the book – which is that individuals associate their name and money only in projects with which they have a general philosophical agreement, as Jefferson did here. But if they are right that being a subscriber is trivial and irrelevant, then if we should someday see a racist anti-Semitic publication with Throckmorton’s name listed as a subscriber, we should dismiss it as meaningless??? Hardly! Being a subscriber to a work tells us something of what that person believes and supports – which is why it is significant that Jefferson’s name appeared in the Thompson Bible and that he also offered to help finance other Bibles as well.
Furthermore, the Thompson Bible was one of many examples I provided to demonstrate occasions where Jefferson helped promote/fund/print the traditional unedited Bible. But Throckmorton and Coulter deliberately ignore this broader point and devolve into a pointless discussion about what a subscriber is. On multiple occasions, these two acknowledge that the particular fact I set forth did indeed happen but then try to shift the focus away from the self-evident simplicity of that which appears in the original documents.
(By the way, contrary to their errant claim, subscribers definitely were investors, for frequent was the occasion when printers were unable to publish a work due to a lack of subscribers. 12 It was common that if printers or authors did not have sufficient up-front, in-hand funds from subscribers, the work was not printed; so subscribers definitely were investors in the work.)
Another of their oft-repeated complaints is that I don’t include enough of what they personally consider to be negative things about Jefferson. But part of the reason I wrote my book was to reintroduce the numerous good things about Jefferson that so many of today’s Deconstructionist scholars refuse to acknowledge. Strikingly, if most of today’s academics were to write a biography about the Biblical David, they would undoubtedly include what occurred with Bathsheba, Uriah, Absalom, and Adonijah but completely ignore David’s role as the courageous shepherd who slew the lion and the bear, the fearless youth who defeated Goliath, the beloved leader venerated by his nation, and the tender and repentant individual who was a devout worshipper of God – they would highlight the bad and downplay the good.
Sadly, many of today’s academics miss the big things in history and focus on the miniscule. They would have fit well into medieval times, when the scholars of that era vigorously debated what they believed to be the compelling issues of that day – such as how many angels would fit on the point of a needle, 13 or whether God in His majesty could create a rock so big that God in His power could not move it. They were completely out of touch with society and even accelerated its decline by remaining focused on meaningless trivia and minutia – or as Jesus said, they were able to find what they believed to be the microscopic speck of sawdust in someone else’s eye but completely miss the obvious plank in their own.
Clay S. Jenkinson
Clay Jenkinson also wrote a scathing review of The Jefferson Lies. He is described as “an American humanities scholar, author, and educator” who “co-hosts public radio’s The Jefferson Hour” and “lectures at Dickinson State University and Bismarck State College.” 14 Interestingly, to prove me wrong, Jenkinson uses the very historical malpractices that my book is written to expose – including lifting very short phrases from lengthy historical writings and making them say the reverse of what they actually say.
For example, I provide scores of Jefferson’s own writings and declarations to conclusively demonstrate that he was not a deist; but Jenkinson completely dismisses all of that documentation on the basis of six words that Jefferson told his nephew: “Question with boldness the existence of God.” However, I also used that same six-word phrase in my book – only I printed the entire part of that letter (several pages long) containing that phrase. Jefferson explained that if someone was willing, with an open mind, to “question with boldness the existence of God,” that he would end up proving beyond any shadow of a doubt that there truly was a God. 15 But Jenkinson lifted and used the six-word phrase completely out of context to make it say the opposite of what Jefferson said.
Additionally, Jenkinson, like Throckmorton and Coulter, admits major points I make in The Jefferson Lies but then also tries to explain them away. For example, I show that even though modern scholars repeatedly claim that Jefferson omitted everything related to the Divine and the supernatural from his so-called “Jefferson Bible,” that he actually included Jesus raising the dead, healing the sick, casting out demons, calling Himself the Son of God, speaking of His Second Coming, etc. 16 Jenkinson admits that Jefferson did include these passages but then dismisses them as unimportant by (1) first pointing out that all other scholars similarly dismiss those passages, and (2) then giving his own personal opinion that Jefferson really didn’t believe what he included in that work. 17 This ploy is called “psychohistory,” and results when a modern so-called “psychological” analysis is applied to the actions of a person long dead; “psychobabble” is the result of such an analysis. This trick enables folks like Jenkinson (and scholars like him) to assert that he personally knows what Jefferson was secretly thinking two centuries ago, so therefore whatever Jefferson actually said or did should be completely ignored.
Strikingly, Jenkinson’s attempt to prove me wrong involves: (1) lifting short phrases out of context from Jefferson’s lengthy works; (2) imputing to Jefferson sinister motives that lack historical evidence and can be proven only in the inner workings of Jenkinson’s own mind; and (3) invoking what other academics say about Jefferson rather than using Jefferson’s own words – the very historical malpractices that The Jefferson Lies was written to combat.
Alan Pell Crawford
Alan Crawford, a journalist and author, also penned a review very critical of The Jefferson Lies; and like the others, he, too, resorts to the tools of modern historical malpractice in order to discount the clear message of historical documents. For example, in summarizing my views about Jefferson, Crawford claims:
That Jefferson might have been what we would think of as a deist or even a Unitarian, as many historians believe, Mr. Barton also disputes. Jefferson was “pro-Christian and pro-Jesus,” he says, although he concedes that the president did have a few qualms about “specific Christian doctrines.” The doctrines Jefferson rejected – the Divinity of Christ, the Resurrection, the Trinity – are what place him in the camp of the deists and Unitarians in the first place. 18
Significantly, in the chapter on Jefferson’s religious beliefs, I document that Jefferson went through several religious phases during his life. In the first half of his life, he held orthodox Christian views, and in his “Notes on Religion, 1776,” he consistently expounded what orthodox Christians still believe today. In middle life, his faith faltered when his beloved wife unexpectedly died, but he eventually retained his orthodox beliefs. But many decades later in the last years of his life, he embraced what was known as Christian Restoration or Christian Primitivism, which promoted Unitarianism and called into question some orthodox Christian doctrines, thus reversing his beliefs of earlier decades.
But Crawford, ignoring Jefferson’s many writings documenting his changing religious phases, instead asserts that Jefferson was a Unitarian for his entire life. On what grounds does he claim this? – on the basis of any Jefferson writing? No. Rather, he says it is because “many historians believe . . .” So, like the other critics, Crawford refuses to allow Jefferson to speak for himself but instead believes that only modern academics like himself can speak for Jefferson.
Crawford further claims that “No Jefferson scholar to my knowledge has ever concluded that Jefferson was an ‘atheist,’ as Mr. Barton suggests.” 19 But by this claim, Crawford proves that he has not even read the book he is critiquing, for I begin each chapter with a list of documented quotations from modern writers and scholars repeating a particular lie about Jefferson, and I certainly did that in this chapter as well. But Crawford, like Throckmorton and Coulter, says “to my knowledge,” thus again limiting historical truth to his own personal experience rather than to objective documents and facts.
— — — ◊ ◊ ◊ — — —
It is striking that the negative critiques of The Jefferson Lies revolve around the academic arrogance that says “Unless we tell you so, it just can’t be; we are the sole gatekeepers of historical truth.” But Governor Mike Huckabee, in speaking of my approach to history, stated: “In typical Barton style, every syllable is given scholarly research and backed up with source documents. Those who hate America and God’s Word won’t like it, but they won’t be able to discredit it.” Clearly, academics such as Throckmorton, Coulter, Jenkinson, Crawford, et. al., simply don’t like what the self-evident documentation actually proves.
I find it refreshing and uplifting that ordinary citizens today are hungry to be reconnected with their simple and clearly-documented history – they want to rediscover America’s greatness, find a renewed national purpose, and learn how to get the nation back on track; but just like the citizens in Nehemiah 3:5, Americans have likewise found that most of today’s academics are like the “nobles who would not put their shoulders to the work.” Indeed, far too many scholars, rather than helping restore the nation, insist on destroying American Exceptionalism – on teaching students why they should apologize for America rather than appreciate it. But most Americans today definitely do not agree with these academic elitists – which is why the published attacks of Throckmorton et. al. do not sell well but books like The Jefferson Lies do.
For those who may have been influenced by seeing a negative critique of The Jefferson Lies, I urge you to read the book yourself, examine its 756 footnotes, and allow Jefferson to speak on his own behalf. I predict that if you do, you will be persuaded by the abundance of primary source documentation and will quickly see through the shallow motives behind the critics’ self-serving and disingenuous attacks.
1. See, for example, “How many copies does an average university press book sell?” Political Science Job Rumors (accessed on July 9, 2012); “Sales Statistics,” How Publishing Really Works, March 17, 2009; Steven Piersanti, “The 10 Awful Truths about Book Publishing,” Berrett-Koehler Publishers, July 26, 2007; etc. (Return)
2. Warren Throckmorton and Michael Coulter, Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims about Our Third President (Grove City, PA: Warren Throckmorton, 2012), “On getting American history wrong.” (Return)
3. David Barton, The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2012), p. xix. (Return)
4. Warren Throckmorton and Michael Coulter, Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims about Our Third President (Grove City, PA: Warren Throckmorton, 2012), “On getting American history wrong.” (Return)
5. Warren Throckmorton and Michael Coulter, “The Book David Barton Doesn’t Want You To Read,” Religion Dispatches, June 11, 2012. (Return)
6. David Barton, The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2012), p. 71. (Return)
7. Warren Throckmorton and Michael Coulter, Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims about Our Third President (Grove City, PA: Warren Throckmorton, 2012), “Did Jefferson provide missionaries to the Kaskaskia Indians?” (Return)
8. David Barton, The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2012), p. 136. (Return)
9. Warren Throckmorton and Michael Coulter, Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims about Our Third President (Grove City, PA: Warren Throckmorton, 2012), “Did Jefferson sign presidential documents “In the Year of Our Lord Christ?” (Return)
10. David Barton, The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2012), p. 68. (Return)
11. Warren Throckmorton and Michael Coulter, Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims about Our Third President (Grove City, PA: Warren Throckmorton, 2012), “Most Beautiful Production of Its Nature Hitherto Seen.” (Return)
12. See, for example, “Art by the Book,” The Age, July 22, 2006; “Phillis Wheatley,” Answers.com (accessed on July 11, 2012); Richard Gray, A History of American Literature (West Sussex: Blackwell Publishers, 2012), p. 155; “A Pair of Albums, Each Titled ‘Sketches of Custome by Coke Smyth,’ Containing Original Watercolours,” AbeBooks.com, book description for John Richard Coke Smyth, A Pair of Albums, Each Titled Sketches of Costume, 1835 (accessed on July 11, 2012); “William Hogarth Biography,” Hogarth Biography (accessed on July 11, 2012); and many others. (Return)
13. Richard Baxter, The Reasons of the Christian Religion (London: R. White, 1667), p. 530. (Return)
14. “Clay S. Jenkinson,“ Wikipedia (accessed on July 6, 2012). (Return)
15. David Barton, The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2012), pp. 61-63, quoting Thomas Jefferson, Memoirs, Correspondence, and Miscellanies, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, editor (Boston: Gray and Bowen, 1830), Vol. 2, pp. 216-218. (Return)
16. David Barton, The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2012), pp. 73, 80. (Return)
17. Clay S. Jenkinson, “Review of David Barton’s Book The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed about Thomas Jefferson,” The Thomas Jefferson Hour, June 3, 2012. (Return)
18. Alan Pell Crawford, “A Still Unsettling Founding Figure,” The Wall Street Journal, April 13, 2012. (Return)
19. Alan Pell Crawford, “A Still Unsettling Founding Figure,” The Wall Street Journal, April 13, 2012. (Return)