Did we parrot our professors to write Getting Jefferson Right?

Yesterday, on his Wallbuilder’s radio show, David Barton took another swipe at Getting Jefferson Right. More precisely, he said:

The book we recently did on the Jefferson Lies, there’s two professors who came out with a book rebutting it before I’d even released the book! We don’t have to read this stuff, we know it all false.

I know of no other book by two professors which rebuts The Jefferson Lies, so I am pretty sure he is referring to our book. As RightWingWatch blogger Kyle Mantyla points out in his write up of Barton’s show, we announced the May 1st release of our book on May 3rd. Barton’s book was officially released on April 10, 2012.

Stranger still is Barton’s contention that we (including other Christians who have critiques Barton’s writing) are all parroting our secular professors. RightWingWatch has the audio, but here is the relevant portion:

…what’s happened is all these secular guys have been training students that were Christians, but now these Christian kids have been trained with a secular philosophy, they’ve become our professors and they’re just parroting what they heard. It’s not that they went back and check for themselves, they just assumed that their professors were right- they really like their professors, they were nice guys and they were really educated and had three Ph.Ds and they told me all the Founders were atheists. And so now you’ve to Christians repeating exactly what they’ve been taught rather than what truth and what history actually is.

In my case, I took undergraduate history from professors at Cedarville University, a pretty conservative Baptist school. None of my professors there told me that the founders were atheists. Beyond that, I don’t remember much of what they taught, except that the founders were a pretty diverse bunch. In my psychology and counseling graduate training, I don’t think I ever heard anything about the founders.

Mike Coulter is a graduate of Grove City College with his graduate work from the University of Dallas, a pretty conservative Catholic school. We both teach at GCC which is pretty well established as a conservative school, not known for parroting a liberal position.

Mr. Barton, that dog won’t hunt.



The Jefferson Lies in Williamsburg, VA

While visiting Colonial Williamsburg yesterday, I ran into a surprising display. See below:

The Jefferson Lies was on a prominent display along side other legitimate books of scholarship in the Williamsburg Visitor’s Center bookstore. When I talked to the manager about the book, he was sympathetic but said there was nothing he could do, saying such books are included as a business decision.

Idealist that I am, I was disappointed to see it there. Gentle readers, weigh in. Should I be surprised? Am I expecting too much of a place which strives for historical integrity to have those values spill over into decisions about which books to carry in the book store? I was at Monticello yesterday also and the bookstore there did not carry the book; why should Williamsburg?

Dear Thomas Nelson: How many reviews will it take?

Last week, InterVarsity Press stopped printing a new book on the Reformation due to a negative review of the book by Reformation scholar, Carl Trueman.  The book pulled was by G.R. Evans and titled The Roots of the Reformation. Trueman uncovered multiple errors of fact and other misleading statements in the book which led IVP to make a decision to take the following action:

Therefore, as of the beginning of June, IVP has taken The Roots of the Reformation out of print and will no longer be shipping orders of this edition. Our goal is to publish a carefully revised second edition of the book by the end of August, in time for Fall semester classes. Further, IVP will offer a complimentary copy of the second edition, including free shipping, to everyone who has already purchased the current edition.

That is amazingly commendable of IVP. One fact based review and the publisher did an honorable thing. This action made me wonder when Thomas Nelson might do the same thing with David Barton’s The Jefferson Lies. How many reviews will it take? Before I list my own posts and link again to Getting Jefferson Right, let me list the reviews I have seen which have address The Jefferson Lies.

Wall Street Journal – “A Still Unsettling Founding Figure” by author Alan Pell Crawford.  Crawford asserts:

But to claim, as Mr. Barton does, that Jefferson was “unpretentious, living and acting as the common person for whom he had sacrificed so much” lays it on a little thick. Such a description would have surprised Jefferson’s purchasing agents, through whom he ordered hundreds bottles of French and Italian wine annually, on credit.

Jefferson’s religious beliefs are central to Mr. Barton’s thesis, in the service of which straw men are consumed in bonfires.


A commitment to the notion that Jefferson promoted Christian orthodoxy leads Mr. Barton to misinterpret the early history of the University of Virginia.


Mr. Barton seems not know these facts, and he virtually ignores the cultural and theological world of the young Jefferson’s time and place—what it meant to grow up a scion of the Virginia gentry, a classically educated Anglican, and an intellectual whose attitudes toward church and state were informed by a knowledge of the religious wars that had scarred Europe little more than a century before.

In a scathing and extended review, humanities scholar Clay Jenkinson blasts The Jefferson Lies, detailing the many errors of fact in it. Jenkinson, who hosts a weekly radio program called The Jefferson Hour devoted a program to the critique and provides a must-read review on his blog. About the errors in the book, Jenkinson says:

Barton makes a large number of factual errors in the course of his book. It would be interesting to enumerate all of them, but it would be a tedious and thankless task, and the book is not sufficiently important in Jefferson studies to merit the scores of hours it would take to correct all of them. A few will suffice to show the level of historiography in The Jefferson Lies. Almost all historians make mistakes. The problem with Barton’s errors is that many of them seem to be deliberate distortions.

He summarizes by saying:

David Barton’s The Jefferson Lies is a dangerous book. Although some of the arguments Barton develops might have served as a corrective to the somewhat over-secularized portrait of Jefferson that has emerged in recent years, he greatly overstates his case, omits whatever does not fit his preconceived notions about Jefferson, distorts the truth, takes Jefferson’s pronouncements out of context, and lines up a series of straw men to cast down on behalf of his irresponsible claims.

So far, the reviews are far worse than what Trueman had to say about the IVP book. There are more.

Noted church historian Martin Marty was one of the first to review The Jefferson Lies, doing so on his Sightings page at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School. Marty wrote:

Reviewer Craig Ferhman (sic) in the Los Angeles Times found all that Barton found to be “outrageous fabrication.” On TV, Barton even said, with no evidence, that Jefferson gave a copy of his Jesus book to a missionary, to use “as you evangelize the Indians.” Had the Indians been converted with that text, their heirs would have had no place to go but to what became the humanist wing of the Unitarian-Universalist church.

Why does any of this matter? One, basic honesty is at issue; do American religionists need to invent such stories in order to prevail? Two, what if they did prevail? Most of the founders thought that religion was most honest and compelling when its leaders and gatherings did not depend upon lies about the state and, of course, upon the state itself. “Separation of church and state” is admittedly a complex issue, dealing as it does with inevitable conflict and messiness in a free and lively republic. May debates over it go on, but with honest references to Jefferson and his colleagues and not on the grounds David Barton proposes.

Then there are John Fea’s blog posts on The Jefferson Lies, parts one, two, three, four, five and six. John is chair of the history department at Messiah College and author of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? None of these posts are positive about the book and they expose Barton’s misuse of history from the beginning. Fea also approvingly notes my post on Jefferson as a slave owner, where I document Barton’s selective quotation of Virginia law. We should also add Fea’s quotes about Barton’s approach to history in this Salon article.

In his review of Getting Jefferson Right, University of Colorado history professor Paul Harvey outlines some of the factual problems with The Jefferson Lies. At the same time, Harvey wonders if exposing the factual problems with Barton’s book will matter. I wonder that too. Thomas Nelson, will it matter?

Finally, I have exposed many of these problems on this blog and in my book with Michael Coulter. As one can see, we am not alone. Scholars, Christian and otherwise, have exposed the significant issues of fact and Barton’s tendentious approach to Jefferson. There are far more errors in The Jefferson Lies than Dr. Trueman found in The Roots of the Reformation. These errors have been exposed in significant publications and blogs for the world to see.

Thomas Nelson, how many reviews will it take for you to follow IVP’s lead?



David Barton’s whitewash of Thomas Jefferson as a slave owner

In Getting Jefferson Right, we examine David Barton’s claims about Thomas Jefferson’s role as a slave owner and supporter of emancipation for slaves. Jefferson did make several efforts toward emancipation and spoke about the evils of slavery. However, there is another side to Jefferson as a slave owner that Barton whitewashes in The Jefferson Lies.

In the book we examine three main questions: could Jefferson have freed his slaves under Virginia law? Was Jefferson merely a passive slave owner? and Did Jefferson believe blacks and whites could live together? In this post, I am going to show one way that Barton obscures the truth about Virginia law in his book.

Here is what Barton claims about Jefferson:

If Jefferson was indeed so antislavery, then why didn’t he release his own slaves? After all, George Washington allowed for the freeing of his slaves on his death in 1799, so why didn’t Jefferson at least do the same at his death in 1826? The answer is Virginia law. In 1799, Virginia allowed owners to emancipate their slaves on their death; in 1826, state laws had been changed to prohibit that practice.

So according to Barton, Jefferson was unable to free his slaves while alive and couldn’t at death because of Virginia law. Is this true?

Not at all. In fact, Barton must know this because he cited Virginia’s 1782 law on manumission which made such emancipation possible. Well, he cited part of the law. Here is what Barton cites of 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 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. In addition to The Jefferson Lies, Barton, in a recent radio program, emphatically stated that after 1782 slaves could only be freed at the time of a slaveholder’s death. Not only was Jefferson legally permitted to free his slaves, he actually freed two slaves in the 1790s, Robert (1794) and James (1796) Hemings.

In 1806, emancipation became more complex due to some law changes (read more about this in our book), Even so, there was a 24 year window when Jefferson could have freed a substantial number if not all of his slaves. What an amazing gesture it would have been for Jefferson to set his slaves free during his presidency.

Other slave owners set slaves free. In a dramatic example of manumission, Virginia plantation owner, Robert Carter III, planned for the freedom of 452 slaves beginning in September, 1791. Over the course of a decade, he emancipated all of them. A key historical work on Carter’s acts of emancipation is Andrew Levy’s The First Emancipator: The Forgotten Work of Robert Carter the Founding Father Who Freed His Slaves. Levy contends that Carter’s decision to free his slaves has been overlooked by historians because of the tarnish it brings to more prominent founders, Washington and Jefferson. Levy cites several historians who defend Washington and Jefferson’s practices as slave owners and then says:

Robert Carter’s Deed of Gift [document emancipating slaves as allowed by the Virginia law we cited but David Barton omitted], of course, does substantial damage to these arguments. It becomes difficult to argue that the founding fathers acted liberally within their own moral universe when small slave owners up and down the Virginia coast were freeing their slaves. It becomes impossible, however, to make that argument when one of their peers commits the same radical act. Similarly, the argument that there existed no practical plan for mass emancipation makes sense only if Robert Carter’s Deed of Gift is suppressed within the historical record…Joseph Ellis, in American Sphinx, notes that Jefferson could find “no workable answer to the unavoidable question: what happens once slaves are freed?” In fact, Jefferson was not looking for one. If the history of the founding fathers were written in a manner that accounted for Robert Carter, they might be that much less heroic, but they could be regarded that much fully as active agents in their own destinies, as men who made choices — who knew, as McColley writes, that “the Virginia statesmen who came out publicly against slavery would be very quickly retired to private life,” and who, as John Quincy Adams once said, “had not the spirit of martyrdom.”

Barton’s treatment of Jefferson certainly doesn’t take into account Robert Carter. Not surprising, I suppose, when Barton’s rendering of slavery in Virginia omits an inconvenient section of the law he quotes.

For more on this topic and many others, see Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims about Our Third President.


Getting Jefferson Right at Religion Dispatches

Today, Religion Dispatches published a review of Getting Jefferson Right by history professor Paul Harvey. Harvey is also blogmeister at Religion in American History blog.

While Harvey is skeptical that our book will change many minds of those committed to Barton’s faux history, I see it differently. I am encouraged that exposure of these issues will make some difference.

Getting Jefferson Right in Salon today

Salon today posted my article on David Barton and a brief look at the falsehoods in Barton’s book, The Jefferson Lies.

One claim I haven’t spent much time on until lately is Barton’s claim that Thomas Jefferson could not emancipate his slaves due to restrictions in VA law. Barton says in The Jefferson Lies that Jefferson could not have emancipated his slaves and blamed Virginia law. As I point out in the article and we point out in the book, that is a false claim.

Thanks to John Fea at Messiah College for the comments and blog post I cited.

UK Guardian cites Getting Jefferson Right

One the UK’s leading news sources, The Guardian, has a mention of our eBook, Getting Jefferson Right in a column yesterday on Texas’ War on History.

Columnist Katherine Stewart wrote:

Barton recently came out with another piece of propaganda, The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson. To their credit, a pair of professors who identify themselves as conservative Christians, Warren Throckmorton and Michael Coulter, have stepped forward to debunk Barton’s latest exercise in their book, Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims About Our Third President. But that hasn’t stopped Barton’s book from becoming a bestseller.

Got your copy yet?

What Did Thomas Jefferson Include in His Edited Gospels

Late last week, David Barton appeared on Bryan Fischer’s American Family Association radio program Focal Point. One topic of conversation was the contents of Thomas Jefferson extractions from the Gospels, aka known as the Jefferson Bible. More properly, the Jefferson Bible is considered to be the Life and Morals of Jesus which Jefferson put together sometime during or after 1820. The first time Jefferson cut and pasted portions of the Gospels was in 1804 when he did it at the White House in a few nights work.

On Fischer’s show, Barton said Jefferson included miracles of healing and feeding the multitude in the 1804 version. In his book, Barton claims that three miracles in Matthew 9 (the raising of Jairus daughter in Mt. 9:1; healing a bleeding woman in Mt. 9:18-26 and the healing two blind men in Mt. 9:27-34) were included by Jefferson in The Philosophy of Jesus. However, a review of Jefferson’s table of texts as found in Henry Randall’s 1858 biography of Jefferson and Dickinson Adams’ definitive work demonstrates that these texts were not included in either of Jefferson’s abridgments.

The fourth false text Barton uses is Matthew 11:4-6 which reads:

4Jesus answered and said unto them, Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see: 5The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. 6And blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me.

Again, a review of the table of texts comes up empty for this passage. Jefferson did not include it in either his 1804 or his 1820 versions. Continue reading “What Did Thomas Jefferson Include in His Edited Gospels”

David Barton ignores reality on Bryan Fischer’s radio show

I will have more to say about this next week, but I never cease to be amazed by Barton’s ability to say with confidence things that can be proven false with ease. In this clip, he says Jefferson included healings and feeding the multitudes in his 1804 version of the Jefferson Bible. Truly stunning.

I will soon have from the University of Virginia digital copies of the table of texts Jefferson extracted from the Gospels. I will publish these for all to see.

Continue reading “David Barton ignores reality on Bryan Fischer’s radio show”