Point/Counterpoint with David Barton at World Magazine

This morning, World Magazine is featuring an excerpt of Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims about Our Third President along with a lengthy rebuttal from David Barton.  Our section is here and Barton’s article is here.
I have not read Barton’s response yet. I wanted to get the links up in order for readers to have some time to wade through the material.  I suspect some of what Barton has to say will be the subject of separate posts. We will have an opportunity from World to post a rebuttal to Barton in a couple of weeks.
So I invite you to comment at the World site and here.
UPDATE: I have read through Barton’s commentary. Although it may take a month, Michael and I will write a response to it for World.  It is hard to know where to start when there is so much to address.
Do I start with Barton’s claim that he welcomes appraisal of his work? Barton did not seem welcoming when he called Michael and me academic elitists and allowed without comment his Wallbuilder’s staffer Rick Green to say that his critics were using tactics of Hitler and Alinsky.  All that nastiness aside, his tone has improved for this rebuttal.
One of the clearest impressions I have after the first read is how Barton simplified our critique on most of the points. For instance, on the slavery question, we never said Jefferson could free his slaves at any time during his life with ease. We said there was a window from 1782-1806 when the laws had been relaxed to allow voluntary manumission of slaves. Jefferson indeed did free two slaves during that period. In that section, Barton gives a lot of dates for other slave laws but he gives no quotes from them.  Also, he cites examples (e.g., Coles leaving the state to free his slaves) that were outside of the window we identified. Throughout that section, Barton does not provide dates to place the requirements within context.
More to come…

Once Upon a Time, the NRA Advocated Gun Control

David Barton was on the Glenn Beck show last week and claimed to provide a brief history of the National Rifle Association and gun control. As usual, the presentation was interesting but mostly incorrect or misleading.

I covered two claims last week. One, Barton claimed Ronald Reagan did not support the gun control efforts of his press secretary James Brady when in fact Reagan did support those efforts and advocated for the Brady Bill. Barton also claimed that the NRA was founded in 1871 by two Union generals who wanted to use the NRA to arm blacks against the KKK.  There is no evidence for this claim and important evidence against it. The NRA was started as an effort to help military men use science to improve marksmanship.

This post will not be an exhaustive look at other claims but in researching the history of the NRA and gun control, I have learned what historians already knew – the NRA once advocated moderate gun control.
Barton claimed during his appearance with Glenn Beck that gun control proposals were not offered until after recent events. According to the Blaze article,

Barton also noted that even after the Whiskey and Shays rebellions, and even the assassinations of Lincoln Garfield and McKinley, calls for gun bans never came into play. In fact, the times even bolstered the Second Amendment.

It was not until the aftermath of Malcolm X, John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King’s assassination that then President Lyndon B. Johnson sought stricter gun control. Ironically, said Barton, President Reagan — although having survived an assassination attempt himself — was very much an adherent to the Second Amendment and opposed then assistant and White House Press Secretary Jim Brady’s bill.

In fact, after the assassination of New York City Mayor William Jay Gaynor, New York passed the Sullivan Act in 1911 which required gun owners to have a license to carry hand guns. While the NRA opposed this bill, they eventually came around to a moderate position and helped develop the Uniform Firearms Act of 1930 which was adopted by five states. Then, the NRA worked with Congress to pass the National Firearms Act of 1934 and supported the Federal Firearms Act of 1938.

The best explication of the NRA’s record on gun control was provided by the NRA in March, 1968 in their American Rifleman magazine. Senator Bobby Kennedy had criticized the NRA, and with pride wounded, the NRA published an editorial defending its position on gun control. Here are some snippets of that editorial.

Terming Kennedy’s accusation “a smear of a great American organization,” NRA Executive Vice President Franklin L. Orth pointed out that “The National Rifle Association has been in support of workable, enforceable gun control legislation since its very inception in 1871.”

A few days later, Orth seconded the request of President Lyndon Johnson, made Jan. 17 in his State of the Union message, for a curb on mail-order sales.

“The duty of Congress is clear,” Orth said, “it should act now to pass legislation that will keep undesirables, including criminals, drug addicts and persons adjudged mentally irresponsible or alcoholic, or juveniles from obtaining firearms through the mails.”

Item: The NRA supported The National Firearms Act of 1934 which taxes and requires registration of such firearms as machine guns, sawed-off rifles and sawed-off shotguns.

Item: The NRA supported The Federal Firearms Act of 1938, which regulates interstate and foreign commerce in firearms and pistol or revolver ammunition, and prohibits the movement in interstate or foreign commerce of firearms and ammunition between certain persons and under certain conditions.

The editorial continued to note that the NRA supported a seven day waiting period and various other regulations. The scans of the editorial are here (page one) and here (page two).

As I understand it, the NRA went through a major change of direction in the late 1970s which led to the current focus on political advocacy surrounding their interpretation of the Second Amendment. However, if the history of the NRA and gun control is going to be part of the societal discussion, one should work with a more complete view than what David Barton presented last week.

Was the National Rifle Association started to drive out the KKK?

Yesterday, I demonstrated that David Barton incorrectly claimed that Ronald Reagan opposed his press secretary James Brady on gun control. In fact, Reagan advocated for the Brady Bill.
During his appearance with Glenn Beck yesterday, Barton also made another claim that I strongly doubt. About the National Rifle Association, The Blaze cites Barton as making an interesting claim about the founding of the NRA:

In addition, Barton addressed the founding of the NRA. While some like to demonize pro-Second Amendment group and even call it  prejudiced, it turns out the powerful group was in fact started by two Union generals in 1871 as a means to driving out the Ku Klux Klan and ensuring that blacks, who although then-free were not allowed means with which to defend themselves — could in fact legally own a gun.

On the follow video, Barton draws out the story that the NRA rose up because the Southern leaders were not policing the KKK. Begin listening at the beginning of the clip.
If Barton’s claim was true, this would be admirable and perhaps improve the image of the NRA. One would think the NRA would include this fact on their website, as Beck wondered. However, they do not. The NRA history page reads:

Dismayed by the lack of marksmanship shown by their troops, Union veterans Col. William C. Church and Gen. George Wingate formed the National Rifle Association in 1871. The primary goal of the association would be to “promote and encourage rifle shooting on a scientific basis,” according to a magazine editorial written by Church.
After being granted a charter by the state of New York on November 17, 1871, the NRA was founded. Civil War Gen. Ambrose Burnside, who was also the former governor of Rhode Island and a U.S. Senator, became the fledgling NRA’s first president.
An important facet of the NRA’s creation was the development of a practice ground. In 1872, with financial help from New York state, a site on Long Island, the Creed Farm, was purchased for the purpose of building a rifle range. Named Creedmoor, the range opened a year later, and it was there that the first annual matches were held.

Go read the rest, there is nothing there about the KKK or getting guns in the hands of newly freed slaves. The reason the NRA doesn’t include is probably because there is no evidence for it. At least, I can’t find any evidence in the early charter of the NRA, or the biographies of the founders. Here is what the charter document said about the aim of the NRA (see also this historical summary):

Although the introduction of the rifle as a military weapon was owing to the lessons of our Revolution, and although our success in the earlier contests of our history depended upon the skill in its use displayed by our ancestors, no recognition has been given by our citizens of the fact that the change which has taken place in the habits of the American people is rapidly depriving them of that personal skill in arms and marksmanship which has hitherto formed one of the greatest elements of our national strength. This is the more to be regretted, as the introduction of long range breech loaders has made this skill of even more importance at the present time; than under the ancient system for not only the conflict between Prussia and Austria, but the more recent French and Prussian contest have demonstrated that the very accuracy and rapidity of fire, which renders these arms so formidable in the hands of trained marksmen, simply results in a waste of ammunition with those unfamiliar with their use, which leaves an army helpless at the decisive moment of battle. Other nations, recognizing these facts, have long since instituted a thorough system of instruction in rifle practice, France, Germany, Switzerland, and above all, England, and Canada unite in giving to rifle practice a leading position in their systems of military training. In the latter countries, the success that has been attained, not only in producing good marksmen, but in making the subject popular among the people at large has been very great. The Wimbledon contests in England are too well known to need description, and 150,000 trained riflemen are a standing proof of their value. So, on our northern border Canada boasts her 40,000 skilled shots, and has her annual Local Provincial and Dominion matches by which their skill is maintained. In this country, on the other hand, the matter has been entirely neglected, although our entire system of defense is based upon the levying of volunteers in cases of emergency, who, to be valuable or even available, must understand the use of arms and supply by their skill as individuals the confidence which discipline gives to regular troops. While England has a system of rifle practice which is required to be annually and thoroughly performed by every soldier in her army whether stationed in India, Australia, or Europe, our War Department has not even enforced the system of Major Willard, adopted in 1862, and sends raw recruits against the Indian hunters of the plains. In the National Guard of New York, and other States, a similar apathy has prevailed so that it has been the rule, not the exception, for a man to serve out his full term of enlistment in their ranks without firing a shot.
This anomalous condition of affairs, having excited considerable discussion among military men through the press, finally on November 24 1871 led to the formation in the City of New York of The National Rifle Association, which was designed and bids fair to be the parent of many similar associations throughout the country.

Shorter NRA history: Northern Americans were bad shots and the founders of the NRA wanted to improve the situation. The NRA established a rifle range and shooting contests in order to achieve their goals. The founding document made this clear:

The main aim of the Association is the encouragement of rifle practice throughout this State and the United States.
They also desire to promote the establishment of ranges throughout the State, and the issue of ammunition, target, and other appurtenances required for their use with offering of prizes both by the State, and by individuals, to the best marksmen. They also seek to build up local of a similar character to their own, which while under official supervision to ensure then proper, yet will be so popular in their character as to secure success.

I have looked through early NRA annual reports, biographies of the founders, and other documents looking for any support for Barton’s claim. Any reference  to the claim on the web is unsourced. If Barton has a source for his claim, he should bring it up.
One nagging uncertainty in this relates to the role of rifle clubs in South Carolina during the campaign for governor in 1876. Wade Hampton and Daniel Chamberlin squared off and eventually both declared victory. Hampton was a Confederate general who was aided by white “rifle clubs” throughout the state. On the other hand, the state armed black militias and some were in rifle clubs of their own. What is not clear yet to me is the affiliation of those rifle clubs. They all may have been local with none affiliated with the NRA. In fact, I can’t find any of the names of the SC clubs in the NRA annual reports, leading me to think that the NRA had nothing to do with either arming blacks or disarming them.
In any case, Barton’s claim is that the NRA arose to drive out the KKK. Currently, I see nothing to corroborate that claim. If anything surfaces, of course I will update this post.

Did Ronald Reagan oppose James Brady on gun control? No, David Barton, Reagan favored the Brady Bill (UPDATED)

UPDATE and Correction (2/26/13): David Barton responded to this post on his website in an article dated 2/21/13. He (or someone – the article speaks about him as if someone else wrote it) wrote:

In one part of the program, David specifically noted that even in the aftermath of the shootings of Presidents Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley, John Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan, there were not calls for gun control – that even Reagan (while lying in the hospital recovering from the wound) voiced opposition to such efforts. None of these shootings was used as a reason to immediately call for increased regulation of guns, as was done by President Obama in the aftermath of Sandy Hook (thus applying Rahm Emanuel’s axiom to never let a crisis go to waste). But several of David’s obsessive critics, being more concerned with opportunism than truth or context, quickly took to websites and blogs claiming that his statement concerning Reagan was erroneous – that Reagan did support gun control. 1But David’s statement was completely accurate, for it was ten years after Reagan was shot, and three years after he left office before he declared support for the Brady gun control bill. David had made very clear that his context was presidential responses in the aftermath of shootings; and President Reagan, unlike President Obama, had not used an emotional national crisis to call for gun control.

To get the context, here again is what Beck and Barton said about Reagan at about 3:53 into the video (embedded below):

Beck: The guy who was shot and almost died on the table, Ronald Reagan – what did he do?
Barton: Fought gun control, was not going to allow it, and it didn’t, I mean it didn’t for 15 years. So you had the press secretary of Reagan [James Brady, who was also shot during the assassination attempt on Reagan] who is for it but Reagan himself said, no, no, no, we punish the perpetrators, not taking everybody’s guns away and we just fought that.

To me, the context does not make it clear that Barton was only talking about the post-assassination attempt period. Beck asked Barton what Reagan did on gun control and the correct answer would have been he initially opposed it but later changed his mind and favored the Brady bill.
However, my post does not make Reagan’s early opposition clear and I should have done so. Reagan did sign a gun control law while governor of California and while president signed a bill in 1986 which restricted new ownership of automatic weapons. However, that same 1986 bill relaxed some restrictions previously in place and Reagan had expressed opposition to strict gun control proposals. Thus, the proper response to questions about Reagan’s position is that he changed his mind over the years and came to favor some gun control proposals.
Barton also claims that prior incidents of gun violence did not bring calls for gun control. This is simply incorrect. Perhaps the sitting president in each case did not call for gun control but such proposals have been made by other political leaders in reaction to gun violence throughout our history. A quick review of the ProQuest database of newspapers finds many such calls after the attempt on Reagan and the murder of John Lennon a year before. Earlier, the National Firearms Act of 1934 was in part a response to mob violence at the time.
(Original post begins here)
With the national conversation on the 2nd Amendment, David Barton is out talking about the Second Amendment and his version of history. In this clip with Glenn Beck, he links the formation of the National Rifle Association to KKK busting activity — something not even the NRA does. But for the purpose of this post, I want to note how he misleads viewers about Ronald Reagan’s position on gun control. First watch (transcript of section from 3:53 to 4:11):


Beck: The guy who was shot and almost died on the table, Ronald Reagan – what did he do?
Barton: Fought gun control, was not going to allow it, and it didn’t, I mean it didn’t for 15 years. So you had the press secretary of Reagan [James Brady, who was also shot during the assassination attempt on Reagan] who is for it but Reagan himself said, no, no, no, we punish the perpetrators, not taking everybody’s guns away and we just fought that.

Barton is off here. In the past couple of days, conservatives have been writing about Reagan’s views on gun control. As they point out, Reagan favored the Brady Bill and in 1991 wrote an op-ed for the New York Times advocating passage of the bill. Brady was for modest gun control and Reagan did not say no, no, no.
Writing in the Hartford Courant, Brett Joshpe reminds us that Reagan favored some gun control proposals. Joshpe notes that Reagan might be considered a traitor in his own party by today’s standards. Reagan’s op-ed in the NYT left no doubt where he stood:

This level of violence must be stopped. Sarah and Jim Brady are working hard to do that, and I say more power to them. If the passage of the Brady bill were to result in a reduction of only 10 or 15 percent of those numbers (and it could be a good deal greater), it would be well worth making it the law of the land.

In the op-ed, Reagan noted that he had signed a gun control law while Governor of CA. Furthermore, Reagan opposed the availability of assault guns. In 1994, Reagan joined former presidents Carter and Ford to favor a ban on the manufacture of assault weapons (also see these remarks on AK-47s). They wrote:

“This is a matter of vital importance to the public safety. . . . Although assault weapons account for less than 1% of the guns in circulation, they account for nearly 10% of the guns traced to crime. . . .
“While we recognize that assault-weapon legislation will not stop all assault-weapon crime, statistics prove that we can dry up the supply of these guns, making them less accessible to criminals.
“We urge you to listen to the American public and to the law enforcement community and support a ban on the further manufacture of these weapons.”

Clearly, Reagan’s views were misrepresented on the Glenn Beck show. Reagan did not oppose James Brady and did not say no, no, no.
UPDATE: Thanks to The Blaze for updating their article to reflect this post and Reagan’s actual position on the Brady Bill.
Also, I asked gun control expert UCLA prof Adam Winkler if the NRA was started in part to drive out the KKK as Barton told Beck, and he replied briefly: “No.” See his tweet here.


David Barton, Robert Aitken and the Importance of a Narrative

In prior posts, I have provided primary source documentation that Congress did not initiate or print the first English Bible in the U.S. (the Aitken Bible). David Barton claims that Congress printed the Aitken Bible for use in schools (see the prior posts) which is not true.
Barton’s narrative derives from several aspects of the story which he weaves together to paint a misleading picture. One of those aspects is the petition to Congress made by Robert Aitken when he was nearing the completion of printing his Bible. Barton takes a sentence from that petition (“a neat edition of the Holy Scriptures for the use of schools”) and presents it as if Congress printed the Bible for that use. As anyone who is willing to read the primary sources will see, Congress did not say this. Aitken wanted his Bible used in schools but no Congressional action endorsed it for that purpose.
Another facet of this story has rarely been examined. To fully understand the implications of what Congress did with the Aitken Bible, it is important to understand what they did not do. Aitken’s request to Congress was couched in a particular view of how the government should relate to Christianity in general and the Bible in particular. Let’s look again at his request to Congress to catch the context:

To the Honourable The Congress of the United States of America
The Memorial of Robert Aitken of the City of Philadelphia Printer 
Humbly Sheweth
That in every well regulated Government in Christendom The Sacred Books of the Old and New Testament, commonly called the Holy Bible, are printed and published under the Authority of the Sovereign Powers, in order to prevent the fatal confusion that would arise, and the alarming Injuries the Christian Faith might suffer from the spurious and erroneous Editions of Divine Revelation. That your Memorialist has no doubt but this work is an Object worthy the attention of the Congress of the United States of America, who will not neglect spiritual security, while they are virtuously contending for temporal blessings.
Under this persuasion, your Memorialist begs leave to inform your Honours That he both begun and made considerable progress in a neat Edition of the Holy Scriptures for the use of schools, But being cautious of suffering his copy of the Bible to Issue forth without the sanction of Congress, Humbly prays that your Honors would take this important matter into serious consideration & would be pleased to appoint one Member or Members of your Honourable Body to inspect his work so that the same may be published under the Authority of Congress. And further, your Memorialist prays, that he may be commissioned or otherwise appointed & Authorized to print and vend Editions of the Sacred Scriptures, in such manner and form as may best suit the wants and demands of the good people of these States, provided the same be in all things perfectly consonant to the Scriptures as heretofore Established and received amongst us, And as in Duty bound your Memorialist shall ever pray
Robt. Aitken Philadelphia. 21, Jany. 1781.

Aitken’s assumption was that the government had an interest in making sure the Bible was available to citizens and that it was accurate in order to prevent heresies from springing up. In order to pursue what Aitken considered to be a public policy objective, he asserted that Bibles needed to printed under the authority of the government. If Aitken’s request had been granted in the manner he asked it, Congress would have published an authorized version of the Bible.
Aitken’s view of government was closer to those who wanted Christianity or some version of it as the state religion. Since the nation was Christian, Aitken reasoned, it made sense that the central government would have an official Bible and an official Bible printer. In the last paragraph, it is clear that Aitken was angling for this job (i.e., “your Memorialist prays, that he may be commissioned or otherwise appointed & Authorized to print and vend Editions of the Sacred Scriptures”).
In short, Aitken wanted Congress to inspect his Bible, then publish it under government authority and he wanted to be the official Bible printer of the United States. As we know, a committee of Congress referred the accuracy inspection to the chaplains. They gave a glowing recommendation. Then Congress commented on the work as important for religion and art and recommended the Bible to the citizens and authorized Aitken to print their recommendation.
Look at what Congress did not do. They did not designate Aitken’s Bible (or any Bible) as an authorized United States version of the Scriptures as Aitken had requested.  Congress was silent about the need to protect Christianity from “fatal confusion” via the publication of an authorized governmental Bible. There was no specific recommendation for the use of the Bible (e.g., schools). And Congress did not designate Aitken (or anyone else) as the official Bible vendor for the new nation. It is what Congress did not do, as much as what they did, that helps us understand the significance of this set of events.
Aitken’s view was that a Christian nation had duties to promote and privilege Christianity. The response of Congress indicates a different perspective. Congress was not hostile to the request but they did not gratify all of Aitken’s wishes. There was no official Bible, no declaration that well-regulated governments prevent “fatal confusion” in Christianity by printing an official text of the Bible. Finally, Congress did not see any need to appoint someone to print Bible under governmental authority.
I am glad that Congress did not establish an official Bible printer and an official version of the Bible. I think Christianity and religion in general do best in an environment low in government regulation. Can you imagine the protests today if the government took over Bible printing and declared an official state Bible?
In any case, full context is necessary, which in this case means understanding what Congress did as well as what Congress did not do.