Dear David Barton: Virginia Law Allowed Manumission of Slaves After 1782

In his pulled-from-publication bookThe Jefferson Lies, David Barton took the position that Virginia law did not allow Thomas Jefferson to free his slaves. In our book on Jefferson, Getting Jefferson Right, Michael Coulter and I demonstrated that slave owners were allowed to manumit (free) slaves after Virginia lawmakers passed the 1782 Law on Manumission. However, Barton keeps spreading the misinformation.
In February, Barton told Charis Bible College students George Mason was not allowed to free his slaves (at 1:38 into the video). Prior to 1782, slaves could only be freed by the Virginia legislature due to some meritorious service by the slave.  Mason died in 1791 so his window of opportunity to free his slaves came near the end of his life. However, despite his strong rhetoric against slavery, he did not manumit his slaves in life or at his death. Barton told the Bible college students Mason didn’t free his slaves “because in the state of Virginia, it was illegal to free your slaves.” Not so.
More recently, he told the pastor of Calvary Chapel Jack Hibbs that Virginia law didn’t allow manumission. It is beyond me why he keeps saying this when it is an easy to look up Virginia’s manumission law as well as the many deeds of manumission which were filed after 1782 (Utah State’s Michael Nicholls is the go to person on this). In prior posts, I have pointed out the amazing story of Robert Carter III who began a process of manumitting more than 450 slaves beginning in 1791.
Barton’s remarks to Hibbs on his show Real Life with Jack Hibbs are below. I provide the video and link to the transcript.

Barton: So just—Let me jump in again on that because one of the blemishes is Washington owned slaves, Jefferson owned slaves, they could not have been good people. It’s interesting that Washington who did own slaves and inherited slaves and Thomas Jefferson inherited most of his slaves when he was fourteen, he got almost two hundred slaves between his inheritance and his and his in-laws. Virginia law made it illegal to free your slaves.
Hibbs: Listen why, yeah.

At 14, Jefferson was not allowed to free his slaves. As an aside, Jefferson did not inherit most of his slaves at 14. This is easily checked by examining Jefferson’s Farm Book. He acquired many of his slave through inheritance from his father-in-law John Wayles. By 1774, Jefferson listed “187 in all.
Barton asserts that “Virginia law made it illegal to free your slaves.” Before 1782, that was true; after 1782, Virginia allowed manumissions. Jefferson owned slaves until he died (1826) and so it is misleading to say Jefferson could not have freed slaves. In fact, he did. He freed two slaves before he died and then he freed five more in his will. Barton is simply misleading his audience.
In The Jefferson Lies, Barton made the claim that Virginia law did not allow manumission. In a prior post, I pointed out that Barton cited the Virginia law of 1782 in his book but left out the part of the law which allowed slave owners to free slaves by a deed of manumission. Here is what Barton cites from the law in his book:

[T]hose persons who are disposed to emancipate their slaves may be empowered so to do, and…it shall hereafter be lawful for any person, by his or her last will and testament…to emancipate and set free, his or her slaves.

Now, here is the entire relevant section of the 1782 law on manumission:

[T]hose persons who are disposed to emancipate their slaves may be empowered so to do, and the same hath been judged expedient under certain restrictions: Be it therefore enacted, That it shall hereafter be lawful for any person, by his or her last will and testament, 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 to emancipate and set free, his or her slaves, or any of them, who shall thereupon be entirely and fully discharged from the performance of any contract entered into during servitude, and enjoy as full freedom as if they had been particularly named and freed by this act.

Note the second selection above in bold print. This is the relevant portion of the 1782 law Barton omits. This section allowed living slave owners to release their slaves by filing a deed. Emancipated slaves needed a document which was recorded according to the law as proof of their status. This law allowed slave owners when they were alive to free their slaves, provided slaves were of sound body and older than eighteen if a female and older than 21 if a male, but not above the age of 45. Thus, Jefferson could have freed many of his slaves within the law while he was alive. Not only was Jefferson legally permitted to free his slaves, he actually freed two slaves in the 1790s, Robert (1794) and James (1796) Hemings.

Barton clearly knows what the law on manumission said but chose to remove the part of the law that contradicts his statements to the public. Even though this has been pointed out, he still fails to tell audiences that Virginia law allowed manumission.

While it would have been economically difficult for Jefferson and Mason and Washington to manumit large numbers of human beings, it is simply false to say there was not an opportunity to do it.

The Monticello website explains:


During his lifetime, Jefferson freed two enslaved men.  At his death, Jefferson bequeathed freedom to five men in his will.  At least three other slaves were unofficially freed when Beverly Hemings, Harriet Hemings, and James Hemings, son of (Critta Hemings Bowlesto leave Monticello without pursuit. 

A single paragraph cannot do justice to the issue of Jefferson’s failure to free more than a handful of his slaves. Some of the possible reasons include: the economic value of his human property (at certain times, his slaves were mortgaged and thus could not be freed or sold); his lifelong view that emancipation had to go hand-in-hand with expatriation of the freed slaves; his paternalistic belief that slaves were incapable of supporting themselves in freedom and his fear they would become burden to society; his belief in gradual measures operating through the legal processes of government; and, after 1806, a state law that required freed slaves to leave Virginia within a year. Jefferson wrote that this law did not “permit” Virginians to free their slaves; he apparently thought that, for an enslaved African American, slavery was preferable to freedom far from one’s home and family.

Jefferson did free slaves. It might have been economically difficult for him to free the rest of them at various times between 1782 and 1806 but Virginia law allowed it. Barton misleads the audience when he says without qualification that the law did not permit it. Jefferson said in a letter that the law did not permit Virginians to free slaves, but he wrote this in 1814, long after the laws had changed to make it difficult to emancipate slaves. Barton then has to account for George Washington’s actions to free his slaves at death in 1799.

They would not let you free your slaves, now there was a period of reprieve for a short time starting in 1782 and so when George Washington died he freed all of his slaves on his death, there was a loophole in the law and the legislature goes “oh my gosh we didn’t see that,” they changed the law, so Jefferson was not even able to free his slaves on his death.

This is a misleading story from The Jefferson Lies. Barton here mentions “a period of reprieve for a short time starting in 1782” and then correctly says that George Washington freed his slaves in his will in 1799. However, the “loophole in the law” is a fiction. As noted above, Jefferson freed five slaves at his death via his will in 1826. There was no loophole. Virginia made it more difficult for freed slaves after 1806 because freed slaves needed to leave the state. For some slaves, this was deterrent because it meant leaving family.
There are many other things Barton told Hibbs and his audience that are inaccurate. For now, I hope it is clear that Virginia law allowed manumission of slaves after 1782 and that many such slaves were freed by owners in Virginia.


More of the Story Behind the Demise of David Barton's The Jefferson Lies

On his Wallbuilders show last Friday, David Barton belittled the number of Facebook followers Getting Jefferson Right has. I replied:

At the end of the broadcast, the gang makes light of the number of Facebook likes the Getting Jefferson Right page has. How about another comparison with the now pulled from print The Jefferson Lies? How about comparing the number of favorable reviews from actual historians each book has?
I know our book has several quality reviews posted on our book website, but I am not aware of any for The Jefferson Lies. Looking for one, I went to Barton’s book website for The Jefferson Lies. On the front page, there is a link that appears to be a review page but it goes nowhere but back to the home page. I know of several critical reviews for The Jefferson Lies but no positive ones from historians.
In my search, I clicked through to Barton’s effort to answer his critics. The following paragraph caught my eye:

In August 2012, several media outlets reported that Jay Richards, a philosopher and theologian with the Discovery Institute who was also a public endorser of Throckmorton’s book, had asked “10 conservative Christian professors to assess my work.” It was reported that their responses were “negative.” However, some of the ten listed by him had flatly refused to participate in his quest but yet were still listed as providing “negative” responses against me. And in direct conversations I had with Richards after he coordinated these attacks, he openly confessed to me that he knew very little about history. Only four of the ten scholars contacted by Richards actually provided any critiques of my work: Glenn Moots, Glenn Sunshine, Greg Forester, and Gregg Frazer. Of these four, only Frazer specializes in religion and the American founding, but his critique did not even address The Jefferson Lies, and it is not clear that he even bothered to read it. Instead, he watched and criticized a twenty year old video entitled America’s Godly Heritage.

I asked Jay Richards if the claims in this paragraph are accurate. Richards said that he recalled about six written responses from historians with others saying they didn’t have time to do a written review. In other words, they provided reactions but not all were written. None were favorable to The Jefferson Lies. Some who lacked time later commented publicly about Barton’s vision of Jefferson. In an August 2012 World article by Thomas Kidd, Daniel Dreisbach, Kevin Gutzman and James Stoner all disputed Barton’s characterization of Jefferson as being orthodox before 1813. In the paragraph above, Barton minimized the critical reaction to The Jefferson Lies.
Richards agreed that Gregg Frazer’s written submission was about America’s Godly Heritage (I published Frazer’s devastating critique here) but reminded me that Frazer also critiqued an aspect of The Jefferson Lies in World. It also should be noted that America’s Godly Heritage is still for sale on Wallbuilders’ website so Barton’s qualification that the DVD is twenty years old is irrelevant.
Then Richards added something that I don’t think has been reported before. He said:

The entire context is missing from the statement: I contacted a diverse group of scholars with related expertise and clear conservative credentials to ask them their opinion of Barton’s work and The Jefferson Lies in particular. I also asked for written evaluations if possible. The purpose was to compile these and give them to Glenn Beck so he could evaluate them for himself. In the meantime, Thomas Nelson got word of genuine controversy over the book, conducted their own evaluation and pulled the book. This happened before the World article ever came out, and so was not in response to negative media criticism.

Fewer than ten written evaluations from the scholars does not mean the other scholars refused to critique Barton. They did offer Richards feedback and, as noted above, some of them were interviewed by Thomas Kidd for World. Barton’s answer to critics omits this context. Furthermore, Glenn Beck had this feedback and chose to disregard it. He continues to do so, as do other religious right leaders who know about the false historical claims but continue to tout Barton as a respected historian.
Another little known detail about the incident is that Thomas Nelson had pulled the book from publication before World reported on the story. I have learned that the book had been pulled from the publisher’s website at least several days before it was reported in World.
Barton also claims in his response to critics that Simon & Schuster picked up The Jefferson Lies. To date, that publisher has not issued another edition.
From the vantage point of the present, it seems more remarkable than ever that Thomas Nelson pulled The Jefferson Lies from print. Over the last year and a half, we have witnessed publishers stick with authors who have plagiarized material and books with dubious content.  For instance, Tyndale House stuck with Kevin Malarkey’s The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven long after the publisher was aware that there were credibility problems with the story. The publisher only pulled the book when the boy who was the subject of the book publicly recanted his story. The Jefferson Lies publisher, Thomas Nelson (now part of HarperCollins Christian), is sticking with similar book  Heaven Is for Real and quietly fixed multiple plagiarism problems in Mark Driscoll’s Real Marriage. Even in this publishing environment, Thomas Nelson pulled a best selling book because of their investigation of the facts.
Barton appears to want to change the subject in his reaction to critics by invoking the sale of Thomas Nelson to Rupert Murdoch’s HarperCollins publishing company:

Clearly, Thomas Nelson’s public statements about the reason for pulling the book are incongruous with the above facts, so was there perhaps some other reason behind their announcement? Quite possibly, for only two weeks prior to suddenly dropping The Jefferson Lies, Thomas Nelson had been taken over in an acquisition by Rupert Murdoch and HarperCollins Publishers.

It is hard to know what Barton is implying here. Murdoch is a conservative who founded Fox News, a network which has been generally friendly to Barton’s brand. Given other books HarperCollins Christian offers and has preserved (e.g., Driscoll’s book), it is hard to make a case that the change of ownership had an any effect on the decision to pull the book.

The Great Confrontation of 2012: David Barton and the Evangelical Historians

In August 2012, Thomas Nelson (now part of Harper Collins Christian) pulled David Barton‘s book The Jefferson Lies from publication. This rare move by Thomas Nelson took place in the midst of efforts by several people to confront Barton with his errors. While I cannot tell the whole story (in part because I don’t know it and in part because the main players are not willing to discuss it completely), I can provide a little more insight into the situation. The door was opened to this by a footnote on David Barton’s website and other vague references to a series of meetings that took place in 2012. The footnote is on the page where Barton claims to explain false quotes from his first book. Barton says this:

Although many people, including several respected academics, have told David that they admire his honesty and transparency, others have attempted to use this practice against him. For instance, in a recent critique of David’s work, Professor Gregg Frazer of The Master’s College writes:

“Having been confronted over the use of false quotes, Barton was forced to acknowledge their illegitimacy in some way on his website. There, he describes them as “unconfirmed” – as if there is some doubt about their legitimacy. In a computer age with search capabilities, we know that these quotes are false – the fact that they are listed as “unconfirmed” reflects a stubborn attempt to hold onto them and to suggest to followers that they might be true. That is made worse by the fact that under these “unconfirmed” quotes are paragraphs maintaining that the bogus quote is something that the person might have said.” 2

What an interesting reward for trying to be honest and transparent.

Barton’s claim to be “honest and transparent” requires much more attention, but for the purpose of this post, let me move on to Barton’s description of the source of Gregg Frazer’s words. In the footnote, Barton explains the source of Frazer’s quote:

From a hostile written review of David Barton and WallBuilders written by Gregg Frazer at the request of Jay Richards. That written critique was subsequently passed on to David Barton on August 13, 2012, by the Rev. James Robison, to whom Jay Richards had distributed it. 

After Jay Richards read my book with Michael Coulter, Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims about Our Third Presidenthe asked ten Christian historians to read both The Jefferson Lies, and then our book. Richards wanted to get expert opinions on the facts in each book. He also asked Gregg Frazer to review Barton’s DVD, America’s Godly Heritage (which is still for sale on Barton’s website).

With Frazer’s permission, the complete review of America’s Godly Heritage is now available here.

As is clear from an examination of the paper, Frazer did not look at each one of the quotes in Barton’s first book. He specifically examined the DVD series America’s Godly Heritage. Even though the DVD is still for sale, Frazer found faulty quotes in it.

As Barton says in his footnote, this paper was presented to Barton by James Robison surrounding the time when his book was pulled by Thomas Nelson (August 2012). Robison is an apostolic elder at Gateway Church and host of the television show Life Today. As this footnote reveals, Robison was in on the confrontation as was Richards and the Christian historians. While I don’t know specifics, some met with Barton at his ranch where he rejected their advice and counsel. Furthermore, Barton met with at least one leader at the Family Research Council in August 2o12. In that meeting, Barton’s errors were confronted with promises from Barton to provide corrected material. However, nothing happened on Barton’s end until the Family Research Council was confronted by numerous Christian historians in the Spring of 2013.

Despite numerous clear factual errors, FRC continues to have Barton involved in their presentations to pastors. As Politico documented in 2013 (Sen. Ted Cruz defends Barton in this article), Barton has been accepted back into the good graces of the political arm of the Christian right (e.g., this apologetics conference).

The awareness of Barton’s systematic distortion of the nation’s founding is well known at the highest levels of the Christian political right and yet many such groups continue to promote Barton as an exemplary historian.  Because the Christian right is aware of the problems but continues to feature Barton as an historian, the “great confrontation of 2012” has turned into the “great cover-up of the present.”

Gregg Frazer’s review of America’s Godly Heritage is a devastating critique of this popular DVD program. It has been read by high level decision makers on the Christian right and ignored. I urge readers to read it and pass it around. I intend to give it more attention by focusing on various highlights in upcoming posts. Here is a follow up post on Frazer’s review.

Conference on Faith and History: Taking It To The Streets: Engaging Bad History In Public

Christian Historians and PublicsI just returned from the Conference on Faith and History which was held at Pepperdine University from September 24-28. On Saturday, I presented a paper as part of a panel titled, Professors, Prisoners, and the Polls: Engaging the Past in the Public Square. The session was chaired by Dwight Brautigam, Huntington University. Other papers given were: “In God We Trust”: Teaching Faith In and Through the U.S. Capitol, by Fred Beuttler, Carroll University and former Deputy Historian for the U.S. House of Representatives, and Teaching History Behind Bars: The Public Platform of a Texas Maximum Security Prison, presented by John Wilsey, professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. The featured commenter was Jonathan Boyd, InterVarsity Press.
The abstract is below, the full paper is at the link.

David Barton is a popular Christian writer who specializes in making a public case that America is a Christian nation. Immensely popular with conservative Christians, Barton distorts historical events to support conservative political positions in the present day. Up until recently, left-leaning and progressive critics have led the way in calling out Barton’s historical errors in the public square.
However, in 2012, David Barton published a book on Thomas Jefferson that generated much public reaction, most of it critical, from Christian scholars. Along with co-author Michael Coulter, I published a book length critique of Barton’s work on Jefferson. Eventually, publisher Thomas Nelson listened to the critics and pulled Barton’s book from publication.
This episode was unprecedented in that a Christian publisher pulled a New York Times bestselling book due to vocal public complaints from Christian scholars. What can be learned from this situation?
I take the position that Christian historians and other scholars should engage their brethren in critical scholarship when other avenues have not brought resolution. Myth-busting in this situation can serve the Kingdom and our vocation by placing a quest for truth above narrow in group interests. In-group pressures are often so strong that no real change will occur if those within the Christian community do not raise issues publicly.

Read the entire paper.
Read all posts on the Conference on Faith and History.

Two Years Ago David Barton's The Jefferson Lies Was Pulled From The Shelves

Two years ago today, Tommy Kidd was on the case, reporting for World Magazine that Thomas Nelson ceased publication and distribution of David Barton’s book The Jefferson Lies.
Eventually Barton claimed that the book would be republished by Glenn Beck’s Simon & Schuster imprint. However, currently there is no second edition.
World featured an online debate of sorts involving my Getting Jefferson Right co-author Michael Coulter, The Masters College historian Gregg Frazer and me on one side and Barton on the other.
I’ll present some of this work in Pepperdine University next month at the Conference on Faith and History.

Nice Review of Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims about Our Third President

This was a pleasure to see:

Excellent Rebuttal of David Barton’s inappropriately named book, “The Jefferson Lies.”, March 12, 2014
This book saved me the trouble of rebutting David Barton’s book, “The Jefferson Lies.” The authors supply the reader with the missing words of Thomas Jefferson. They also supply information from Jefferson’s time to provide background. David Barton is so intent on making all Founders agree with his ideas of what belief in God, the Bible, and Christianity entails that he “cuts and pastes” their writings to suit his needs. It is not enough for Barton that there were Founders who believed as Barton does. He cannot accept that some Founders, like Jefferson and John Adams beliefs were unorthodox to Barton’s faith. Jefferson in an Oct. 19 letter to William short footnotes all that he disbelieves about Christianity and Jesus. These include the virgin birth, deification, miracles, resurrection, ascension, trinity, corporeal presence in the Eucharist, original sin, atonement, election (pre-destination).
Bruce Braden, Editor of “Ye Will Say I Am No Christian: The Thomas Jefferson/John Adams Correspondence on Religion, Morals, and Values.”

Still wondering when Barton’s second edition of The Jefferson Lies is coming out. We’re ready when it does. For now, one can pick up Getting Jefferson Right at a bargain price at Amazon.
Not sure if the stars will ever align properly, but if they do, I would like to do a similar book on John Adams.

David Barton Says His Christian Critics Were Recruited By "Secular Guys"

Just when you think you’ve heard it all…
In a video posted November 9, David Barton told an audience at Ohio Christian University that “secular guys” recruited the Christians professors who critiqued The Jefferson Lies.
Barton claims his Christian critics were recruited by “secular guys.” Of course, this is flatly false, at least in my case and anyone I know. No one recruited Michael Coulter and me to critique Barton’s book. Furthermore, there are dozens of Christian professors who have critiqued Barton’s work simply because it is the right and honest thing to do.
Jay Richards is a Fellow at the Discovery Institute who recruited 10 scholars to read our book and The Jefferson Lies. None of these scholars were recruited by secular people to critique Barton.
Even the Family Research Council recognized flaws in Barton’s presentations and pulled his Capitol Tour video from view. Also, Focus on the Family edited Barton’s talks to remove two major historical errors. Perhaps Barton is going to include FRC and Focus on the Family among those recruited by the unnamed “secular guys.”
If it is true that Barton has an entire chapter devoted to Getting Jefferson Right, I can’t wait to see it.
In the mean time, I wrote to Dave Garrison at Ohio Christian University with a request to allow Michael Coulter and me to come to the school and present our work. If they really want to get at the truth, they will take us up on the offer.

A Year Ago Thomas Nelson Lost Confidence in The Jefferson Lies

This week a year ago, Thomas Nelson publishers pulled David Barton’s book The Jefferson Lies from publication. As I recall, I first learned of the event from Tennessean reporter Bob Smietana who called me to ask for comment. I think the first to get it on the web was probably Thomas Kidd at World Magazine on August 9. The news broke the day after a major NPR expose on Barton’s historical claims. A day before that World posted an article citing Jay Richards and others who had raised concerns about The Jefferson Lies. There were many stories at the time on the removal of the book, an event which Thomas Nelson described as “extremely rare.”
Two of the stories World did on the constroversy (David Barton Controversy – #3; Lost Confidence – #5) were in World’s top 25 news stories for 2012.  In the aftermath, World magazine hosted a debate of sorts involving Barton, Glenn Frazer, Michael Coulter and me.
Another surprising source of coverage was The Blaze, Glenn Beck’s web presence. Without taking sides, Billy Hallowell made a good effort to present our concerns about Barton’s claims, and then allowed Barton to respond.  The Blaze also did two webcasts, the first with Barton and then with us. In the end, Beck allowed Barton to present his claims unanswered on his television broadcast. Since we were not invited to rebut those claims on the air, we addressed them in a  series of posts here (on Jefferson and slavery, part 1; Jefferson and slavery, part 2; Jefferson and slavery, part 3; Jefferson and the Bible, part 4; Jefferson and the Bible, part 5).  As I post these links, I notice that Beck’s network has removed some of the Barton videos.
Since then, a few Christian groups have reviewed Barton’s materials and made edits or ceased using his materials. Most notably, Family Research Council made Barton’s Capitol Tour video private on YouTube. Barton then made audio edits to the video to repair some of the errors and posted the edited version on his Wallbuilders’ account without explanation.
The Barton controversy continues to expose the gulf between evangelical scholarship and evangelical participation in the culture war. Just recently, Barton incorrectly said that out of 60,000 professors, just four criticized his book. He also said that “Christian professors were basically trained by pagan professors who hate God, and they’re just repeating what they’re been told.” Over the past year, Barton and his defenders have portrayed critics as academic elites who are using the strategies of Hitler and Alinsky. All because evangelical academics want to get the facts right.
For evangelicals to truly defend religious liberty and retake some moral high ground, there must be a truce in the war between culture warriors and evangelical scholars. Academics shouldn’t be judged by the academic cover they give to culture war talking points or icons. Nobody is really fooled anyway, and increasingly, younger people are just checking out. Hopefully, the ripples have not stopped rippling and there are more important lessons to learn from the controversy over The Jefferson Lies.

Happy Independence Day! Price Reduced on Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims about Our Third President

From today until Sunday, the price of the Getting Jefferson Right in paperback has been reduced to $9.95 (23% off).
It will take awhile for the price to change on Amazon but you can get the lower price on the paperback from our CreateSpace site now.
Happy Independence Day!

World Publishes Our Response to David Barton

World continues the focus on the Barton Controversy with our rebuttal to Barton’s response to our book.
We focus on Barton’s contention that we make mountains out of molehills in our critique. In fact, the details matter as we demonstrate.
We also make it clear that Barton isn’t living by his own standards. He takes historians to task for using secondary sources, but he does the same thing. His sources are often unknown as with the Louis L’Amour story presented on Glenn Beck’s Show as an historical fact.
In this article, we also launch a feature on the Getting Jefferson Right website called Ask a Professor. Have a question about American history facts? Our panel of historians will attempt to help out.