My Response to David Barton

Yesterday, on his Wallbuilder’s website, David Barton responded to Getting Jefferson Right. He also had strong words for Clay Jenkinson and Alan Pell Crawford, two other critical reviewers of The Jefferson Lies.

There is much I could respond to, but I will limit myself to some general responses and then issue a challenge to Barton.

Barton leads his response to Getting Jefferson Right by claiming that we are part of the academic elite with a need to publish or perish. His criticisms are not consistent; he says we are academic elites but demeans the book because we published it as an ebook first.  Publishing a digital book for $4.99 is not an elitist move.  If anything, an argument can be made that digital publishing allows authors to bypass the elitist system.  Barton says we are part of the “publish or die” mentality of academia. That criticism shows how little he knows about Grove City College where Michael and I teach (Barton incorrectly called it Grove College). While publications are appreciated around here, the real value is on excellence in the class room.

Barton sets up a straw man immediately by saying:

They begin by candidly admitting that they are critiquing “Barton and religious conservatives in general,” 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and as will be evident below, their real problem with The Jefferson Lies is much more about its worldview than its historical content.

Here is the rest of what we wrote about our aim:

Why focus on claims made by those who offer arguments for the Christian commitments and practices of Jefferson?  This question raises the general issue of Christians and scholarship. The authors of this book are both Christians who believe Christian ethics and Christian theology inform our scholarly pursuits. In that sense, we are speaking to audiences which are familiar to us. Thus, our aim is not to diminish the value of conservative religious traditions. Although we believe this book will be interesting to anyone who wants to get Jefferson right, we hope to make a contribution to our own communities.

Barton portrays us as liberals who dislike America and Christianity.  However, we are approaching this topic because we are citizens and Christians who seek to speak to our communities. We did not write our book to attack Christianity but to be faithful to it.

Barton spends some time going over the value of his historical document collection, faulting me for saying he has lots of newspapers.  My source for that statement was his words in a New York Times article last year.

As he proudly showed a visitor his library, which holds a shock of George Washington’s hair, it was clear that Mr. Barton had affection not just for yellowed pages but also for the hunt itself. And he is looking forward, even as he looks back. “We haven’t had the time to read through even 5 percent of these things,” he said, opening a sheaf of 18th-century newspapers. “You never know what you’ll find.”

I think that would be pretty fun, but I don’t know how disputes over his document collection address any of the 20 key claims we examined in our book.

Barton takes us to task for our examination of the treaty with the Kaskaskia Indians. In his book, he cites the Kaskaskia treaty twice. Barton notes the first citation and we note the second:

a treaty with the Kaskaskia Indians that directly funded Christian missionaries, and provided federal funding to help erect a church building in which they might worship.

While he wants to make the distinction irrelevant, the treaty paid the salary of a Catholic priest and provided for a church building. We got Illinois and more, the Indians got a priest and church and little bit of land.

The Kaskaskia were already Catholic so the framing of this as the government funded missionaries to Indians who were going to be evangelized is misleading.  That is our primary point with this claim. The other relevant point to keep clear is that the treaty was with a sovereign nation. In order to make proper application to first amendment questions, the status of native people at the time is important to remember.

Barton then complains about our treatment of his claim that Jefferson signed documents “in the year of our Lord Christ.” He says we don’t know what documents he has. There is a good reason for that. He won’t say.  In the notes to his book, he just calls it a presidential act dated October 18, 1804. It looks like a sea-letter to me, which is what we said in our book. If it is a sea-letter then our criticism holds – Jefferson did not choose to sign those words, he was required to by treaty and the document was a pre-printed form. If Barton has some other document where Jefferson chose to include those religious sounding words, then why not produce it? Mr. Barton, take an image of it and put it on your website.

About our critique of his approach to the Thompson hot-pressed Bible, Barton says:

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.  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.)

Barton says in The Jefferson Lies:

Furthermore, 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. President John Adams, several signers of the Constitution and Declaration, and other major Founders joined with Jefferson to help fund that Bible.

Do you see anything in this paragraph about Jefferson subscribing to receive the Bible from the printer? You have to go to the footnote to see that he references the subscribers names in the hot-pressed Bible. Barton’s critique of our book appears to assume that readers will know what actually happened. However, there is no explanation in The Jefferson Lies of what Jefferson did, how many subscribers there were or the specifics of Jefferson’s relationship to that Bible. You have to read Getting Jefferson Right to learn those details.

Being a subscriber to a Bible you are purchasing means you want to buy the item. Skeptics own Bibles and people buy books they disagree with in order to critique them. Buying something is often an indication of intent, but not always. Jefferson was a noted skeptic and critic of the Bible, but he appreciated fine art, and the hot-pressed Bible when bound was a beautiful item. Jefferson did have many Bibles and he also cut up a few.

In any case, Barton’s description in his book makes it sound like a small group of founders financed the project. That is not what happened which we detail in our book. By Barton’s description of financing, I personally helped finance McDonalds this morning when I bought some breakfast. Barton says we miss the broader point. I say we believe there is a difference between financing something and buying something. In any case, Jefferson didn’t finish paying for the Bible until after it was complete. Odd way to personally finance a project.

Barton finished by saying we focus only on small details and that these are not that important. I disagree. In general, I think accuracy is worth focusing on details.  Specifically, and on a point Barton did not address, I think citing the entire Virginia law on manumission is not a small detail. Forgetting to cite the middle sentence of an act doesn’t seem like a small detail when that sentence allowed slave owners to free slaves while alive rather than wait to do so in their wills at death. On balance, we illuminate those details that he glosses over; details which make a huge difference in meaning. He says Thomas Jefferson could not free his slaves due to Virginia law, the details say otherwise.

Barton says his success is that he simplifies history. He may be right. However, that is not a defense I would be comfortable to use.  I make no apology for reporting the complexity of Jefferson and his times; that is how you get things right.

As I close this, I have three challenges for David Barton.

1) Produce the documents that you say Jefferson signed where he chose to include the words: In the year of our Lord Christ.

2) Why do you say Jefferson included miracles from Matthew 9 and 11 in his 1804 version when the table of texts Jefferson used did not refer to these passages?

3) Explain why, in your book on page 92, you selectively quoted the Virginia law authorizing the manumission of slaves where you left out this phrase: “or by any other instrument in writing, under his or her hand and seal, attested and proved in the county court by two witnesses, or acknowledged by the party in the court of the county where he or she resides.” This phrase allowed Robert Carter to free his slaves beginning in 1791 and even Jefferson to free two members of the Hemings family in the mid-1790s. You say Jefferson was unable to free his slaves.

That would be a good start.