David Barton Uses Jefferson Quote He Says is Unconfirmed

I had a hard time deciding what part of this story should go first.

In an email to supporters yesterday titled, “Addressing Mass Murder and Violent Crime,” David Barton quoted several founders on religion and public morality. The subtitle was “Sandy Hook and Public Policy” so it was clear from the beginning that Barton wanted readers to draw some lesson from the Sandy Hook atrocity. Barton began by claiming that calls for gun control are “misdirected.”

His basic message?

The lessons of Scriptures and history are clear that the key is controlling what is in one’s heart, not what is in one’s hand. As the great Daniel Webster reminded a crowd at the U. S. Capitol:
[T]he cultivation of the religious sentiment represses licentiousness . . . inspires respect for law and order, and gives strength to the whole social fabric. Whatever makes men good Christians, makes them good citizens.

Barton’s practical solutions are:

  1. Get a Bible course in public schools around you
  2. Start a Good News Club in a nearby public school
  3. Get your legislature to pass a law authorizing an elective course on the Bible, such as those already passed in TexasTennesseeArizona, and other states.

It is not surprising that Barton would use this tragedy to recommend that the state privilege Christianity (would he want a course in the Buddhists’ Eight-Fold Path?).  What was surprising was his use of a quote from Jefferson which he once included on his list of “Unconfirmed Quotes.” In his email yesterday, he quotes Jefferson as saying:

I have always said, and always will say, that the studious perusal of the Sacred Volume will make better citizens, better fathers, and better husbands. Thomas Jefferson, President, Signer of the Declaration

However this quote cannot be found in any of Jefferson’s writings or speeches. Barton acknowledged this on his list “unconfirmed quotes” which was at one time on the Wallbuilders’ website. I have a link to it via the Internet Archive. The quote from yesterday’s newsletter is #12 on the “unconfirmed” list.

12. I have always said and always will say that the studious perusal of the Sacred Volume will make us better citizens. — Thomas Jefferson (unconfirmed)

This quote can be found attributed to Thomas Jefferson in an 1869 work by Samuel W. Bailey, but as yet we have not found it in a primary source.

I could not find this list on his website yesterday so perhaps he is making changes to it. However, it was there at one time. About the quotes on the list, Barton said, “we recommend that you refrain from using them until such time that an original primary source may be found…”

According to the Monticello Foundation, the Daniel Webster claimed Jefferson said this in a conversation. Webster reported the conversation in a letter many years later. However, for a variety of good reasons, the quote cannot be verified. Given his writings elsewhere about the Bible, I doubt he said it in that way. The Monticello Foundation has the story with source material; see their website for the rest of the story.

I think this may be the first time I was able to debunk Barton by using Barton.

The broader issue Barton raises would require more of a response but suffice to  say that I think he and other evangelicals are being simplistic to call for more Bible and prayer in schools. We have to do something about the role of mental illness and the availability of assault weapons to disturbed people. I don’t have a Jefferson quote, made up or otherwise, to support my view, but I don’t need one. Jefferson is not here.