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.


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”

Don’t believe David Barton, Glenn Beck or me: Read the Jefferson Bible for yourself

Sunday and earlier today, I posted about David Barton’s recent appearance on the Glenn Beck Show where Barton made claims about The Jefferson Bible.

Barton said that Jefferson included miracles such as feeding the multitudes and raising the dead in his 1804 extraction from the Gospels (he didn’t). The best reconstruction of the 1804 extraction can be found in a 1983 book published by the Princeton University Press and edited by Dickinson Adams, titled Jefferson’s Extracts from the Gospels.

The Smithsonian Institute has provided an online way to view the 1820 extraction (Jefferson called it The Life and Morals of Jesus) which is quite user friendly. Click this link to see it.

Don’t take anyone’s word for it. Go look at it yourself.


Government to ministers: Preach or pay

Spoof alert – Taketh not this first part seriouslyeth.

Washington, DC (HUH) – Today, Barack Obama pledged to introduce legislation which would allow the President to set days of public prayer and thanksgiving. Obama said he had come to recognize the importance of prayer to the nation and he believes the President should set the tone.

However, a clause in the proposal has some religious leaders nervous. According to the Bill for Appointing Days of Public Fasting and Thanksgiving, ministers who decline to preach a sermon , “suited to the occasion,” on government appointed feast days will be fined if they cannot produce “a reasonable excuse” for the lack of sermonizing.

This has conservatives up in arms with complaints about the heavy hand of the government in religious matters. David Barton of Wallbuilders spoke out against the proposal. “I have concluded that Obama is the most Biblically hostile President ever, and this is just one more example,” Barton claimed.

Continue reading “Government to ministers: Preach or pay”

The Jefferson Lies: Does the Jefferson Bible include the miracles of Matthew 9?

These days I am working toward completion of Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims About Our Third President. A prominent focus of the book is David Barton’s new book, The Jefferson Lies. With GJR coming out, I intend to write more about both books going forward.

I have had many headslapping moments reading The Jefferson Lies. One of them is the subject of today’s post. In TJLs, Barton includes a chapter on what is commonly called The Jefferson Bible. In our book, co-author Michael Coulter and I fully explore the development of both of Jefferson’s efforts to extract what Jefferson considered to be the gold from the dross of the Gospels for his own use. The only surviving version of those efforts was titled by Jefferson, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth extracted textually from the Gospels in Greek, Latin, French & Latin. The term “Jefferson Bible” has become a short hand for this book completed sometime between 1820 and 1824 (we describe evidence in the book which seems to place the binding of the Life and Morals of Jesus closer to 1824).

In TJLs, Barton claims that Jefferson did not remove all of the supernatural and miraculous aspects of the Gospels. He claims this was not Jefferson’s intent. Despite the fact that Jefferson said on several occasions that such an extraction was his intent, Barton makes this claim based on passages he says Jefferson included. Most of the passages Barton offers as proof are verses about the afterlife. Truly, Jefferson did believe in an afterlife with rewards and punishments as appropriate. Jefferson did not believe in the atonement of Jesus but rather that good works in this life were necessary for a happy afterlife. In that sense, there is a supernatural element in Jefferson’s extraction. However, Barton includes as evidence of miracles, three miracles from Matthew 9 which are not in either the 1804 or 1820 version. Barton writes:

That abridgement also contained the miraculous resurrection of Jarius’s (sic) daughter (Matthew 9:1), the healing of the bleeding woman (Matthew 9:18-26), and the healing of two blind men (Matthew 9:27-34), all of which are clearly acts of a miraculous or supernatural character.

The footnote for this paragraph leads to Charles Sanford’s book on the religious views of Jefferson. Consulting that book, I find that Sanford does list those verses but when one examines the 1804 and 1820 extractions from Jefferson, Matthew 9 is not included in the 1804 version at all, and in the 1820 version, only Mt. 9:36 (where Jesus was moved with compassion on the people gathered around him) is there.

Apparently, Barton did not check the versions but rather simply accepted the erroneous citation of Sanford. And these are not only verses which Barton includes which were not included. We fully document all of this in the GJR book. There are several prominent instances like this in TJLs — where Barton cites a source but that source turns out to be in error or quite suspicious. When  we explore the source, we learn the story is not true or quite implausible.

This observation is relevant to fact checking. Barton and defenders almost always make a point to note how many footnotes he uses while criticizing books with fewer notes. However, many footnotes do not a fact make if the citation is unverified or in error. We may not get all of them in GJR, but we do get some major ones.

Stay tuned…

Monumental Question: Did Signers of the Declaration and Constitution Finance a Bible for Every American Family?

David Barton told Kirk Cameron they did for Cameron’s new movie Monumental. Watch the video clip from the movie:

For this post, I am interested in what Barton and Cameron say about the first Bible mentioned by Cameron and Barton dated 1798.

Kirk Cameron: What are these?

David Barton: This is a family Bible done in 1798.

Barton: This Bible was funded by about a dozen signers of the Constitution and signers of the Declaration as well as by President John Adams and Vice-President Thomas Jefferson. They’re the guys that put up the financial backing to do this Bible.

Cameron: Funded by signers of the Declaration…

Barton: and Constitution

Cameron: and Constitution

Barton: yeah, Gunning Bedford, signer of the Constitution, John Dickinson, signer of the Constitution, you had so many of the signers who were part of this, you had Alexander Hamilton helped fund this Bible.

Cameron: Because they wanted families to gather around the Bible…

Barton: They wanted the Word of God out to every family.

Cameron: Because they believed that would make for a better country.

Barton: Makes for a better country, makes for a better faith. And again, this is a product of our atheist, agnostic, deist Founding Fathers, or at least, that’s who we’re been told they were today, When you see this stuff, you go wait a minute. These guys…why would any atheist, agnostic, or deist promote the Word of God, fund it and want it distributed to every family and everyone in America? Why would they fund a Bible that you can take and give out to your neighbors, and evangelize them, it doesn’t make sense. Now, on the other hand, if these guys happened to be Christians, that makes a lot of sense.

Did a dozen or so Signers of the Declaration and Constitution finance this Bible to give to every family in America? Since Barton did not say who published the Bible mentioned in the clip, I cannot respond with 100% certainty. However, given the size and the publication date, I doubt the claim that the Founders put up money to get that 1798 Bible to every family.

The only Bible of that size published in 1798 that I can locate is the Thompson Hot Press Bible. At the time, it was the largest Bible printed in the new nation and it was the first hot press Bible published. The ink and type were heated and then seared — hot pressed — onto the page, making a very clean impression.

The 1798 Bible was issued originally in 40 sections starting in June 1796 at half a dollar a number. One of the sources I consulted indicated that Thomas Jefferson paid $5 in February of 1798 as a payment on a subscription of $20 for a hot press Bible. Jefferson’s name is listed among the subscribers.

Buying a Bible by subscription was common then and was a way to provide the printer with some idea of how many copies to print. An analogy today might be to think of a magazine subscription is a purchase of a year’s volume of issues. You are committing to pay one price but might pay in payments instead. Here is a description of a Bible being offered by subscription in 1688 by William Bradford:

The first proposal to print the Bible in English in America was made in 1688 by William Bradford of Philadelphia. The publication that announced this intention was worded as follows: —

“These are to give Notice, that it is proposed for a large house-Bible to be Printed by way of Subscriptions, [a method usual in England for the Printing of large Volumns, because Printing is very chargeable] therefore to all that are willing to forward so good (and great) a Work, as the Printing of the holy Bible, are offered these Proposals, viz.: 1. That It shall be printed in a fair Character, on good Paper, and well bound. 2. That it shall contain the Old and New Testament, with the Apocraphy, and all to have useful Marginal Notes. 3. That it shall be allowed (to them that subscribe) for Twenty Shillings per Bible: [A Price which one of the same volumn in England would cost]. 4. That the pay shall be half Silver Money, and half Country Produce at Money price. One half down now, and the other half on the delivery of the Bibles. . . . Also, this may further give notice that Samuell Richardson and Samuell Carpenter of Philadelphia, are appointed to take care and be assistant in the laying out of the Subscription Money, and to see that it be imploy’d to the use intended, and consequently that the whole Work be expedited. Which is promised by

“william Bradford. “Philadelphia, the 14th of the 1st Month, 1688.”

Bradford wanted half down and the rest later. Buying by subscription allowed printers to go ahead with a project but the result was that the subscriber got what he paid for. Barton told Cameron that the 1798 Bible was funded and financed by the Signers so that it could be “distributed to every family and everyone in America.” If, indeed I am correct and the Bible in the movie Monumental is the 1798 hot press Bible, then this claim is quite misleading.

Barton says the Bible was “funded by about a dozen signers…” However, the 1798 hot press Bible had, by my count (I have the two page subscriber’s list), 1272 subscribers. Some of the signers of the Declaration and Constitution were on that list, but they were subscribers just like the other 1200+ people who paid their subscription money to get the entire Bible. Barton’s narrative makes it seem as though the signers mentioned (e.g., Adams, Jefferson, Bedford, Dickinson, etc.) put up money over and above the price of a personal copy in order for the printer to distribute them to others. That is not what happened with the 1798 hot press Bible.

If there is some other folio sized Bible published in 1798 that was created in the manner described by Barton, then I hope he will identify it. I can’t find it. However, if the Bible mentioned in Monumental is that hot press Bible, then Cameron’s movie will be at least one part historical fiction.


What Barack Obama and Thomas Jefferson have in common

Both of them were/are considered infidels and anti-Christian during their tenure in public life by the religious right of their era.

I started this post when some Christian right leaders went ballistic over Barack Obama’s reference to his religious views at the National Prayer Breakfast earlier this month. Then, Rick Santorum called Obama’s theology “phony.” And then today I see that my friend at Messiah College John Fea is at the heart of a storm over his statement that Barack Obama is “the most explicitly Christian president in American history.”

Glenn Beck is all over the Messiah history prof because of course one cannot view Barack Obama’s statements in the same way one views the religious statements of other Presidents.

For sure, though, there is a parallel between Obama and Jefferson.

During the campaign of 1800, Rev. Thomas Robbins wrote in his diary:

The Anti-Federalist ticket has prevailed in the city of New York, and they have chosen Democratic members for their assembly. It is said this will make a majority of Democratic electors in their legislature, and bring Jefferson into the Presidential chair. Blessed be God that all things are in His hands, and may He avert such an evil from this country, for His name’s sake. I do not believe that the Most High will permit a howling atheist to sit at the head of this nation.

As we know, the Most High did permit Jefferson to sit at the head of the nation.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Jefferson was very cautious about his correspondence surrounding his Presidential years because he feared the reaction of religious leaders – “genus irritabile vatum” (irritable tribe of priests ) he called them. Many in religious establishment in his day believed that Jefferson was antagonistic toward religion and opposed him politically. Sound familiar?

I am not sure I agree with John, although I am not convinced I disagree with his statement regarding Obama. I am sure though that Jefferson and Obama have at least one thing in common.

Fight the good fight, John.

Locke and Jefferson on Toleration of Religion

For our edification:

In Thomas Jefferson’s Notes of Religion (Oct. 1776), Thomas Jefferson quotes John Locke on toleration of religious views.

He [Locke] sais ‘neither Pagan nor Mahomedan [Muslim] nor Jew ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the Commonwealth because of his religion.’ Shall we suffer a Pagan to deal with us and not suffer him to pray to his god? Why have Xns. [Christians] been distinguished above all people who have ever lived, for persecutions? Is it because it is the genius of their religion? No, it’s genius is the reverse. It is the refusing toleration to those of a different opn [opinion] which has produced all the bustles and wars on account of religion. It was the misfortune of mankind that during the darker centuries the Xn. [Christian] priests following their ambition and avarice combining with the magistrate to divide the spoils of the people, could establish the notion that schismatics might be ousted of their possessions & destroyed. This notion we have not yet cleared ourselves from. In this case no wonder the oppressed should rebel, & they will continue to rebel & raise disturbance until their civil rights are fully restored to them & all partial distinctions, exclusions & incapacitations removed. (Online Library of Liberty: The Works, vol. 2 (1771-1779).

He who has ears to hear, let him hear.


Was the Jefferson Bible just the words of Jesus? Part 2

In the mail Saturday, I received my copy of the Smithsonian edition of the Jefferson Bible. It is a marvelous reproduction of the original on display at the Smithsonian. Here is a picture of one of the pages which is photograph of the original manuscript:

You can’t see the words well but Jefferson cut out the portions of the New Testament he wanted to include in Greek, French, Latin and English. Verses are arranged so that the reader can see how they are translated in each language.

I am interested in the Jefferson Bible because it gives some insight into what Jefferson believed about Jesus. Also, I wanted to inspect the manuscript more closely to address the false claims of David Barton about the Jefferson Bible. In his American Heritage DVD series, Barton said this about Jefferson’s efforts:

What happens is, this little document here is called the Jefferson Bible. We call this the Jefferson Bible and the last 30 years, people have consistently said this is the Scriptures that Jefferson cut out everything with which he disagreed. Well if you go to the front of this work, it doesn’t have the title Jefferson Bible. If you’d used that title with him, he’d have probably punched you out for saying it. The title he gave it is the Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. What he did was he went through and cut out all the red letters of Jesus and pasted them from end to end so he could read the red letters of Jesus without stopping. He’s not what he cut out but what he put in. But why did he do that?

He tells us, he did this twice, he did this in 1804 and he did it again in 1819. He said that he did this to be a missionary tool to evangelize the Indians. Because if we can get them to read the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, it’ll changed their lives. So this was not a work that he turned and cut out everything he disagreed with. It’s a work where he took all the words of Jesus and put them there so you could read the words of Jesus non-stop.

I addressed this claim first in January, and want to expand on that post here. About Jefferson’s effort, Barton said:

What he did was he went through and cut out all the red letters of Jesus and pasted them from end to end so he could read the red letters of Jesus without stopping.

and then, he added:

So this was not a work that he turned and cut out everything he disagreed with. It’s a work where he took all the words of Jesus and put them there so you could read the words of Jesus non-stop.

Barton’s claim that Jefferson “cut out all the red letters of Jesus and pasted them end to end so he could read the red letters of Jesus without stopping” is provably false. There are many red letters which Jefferson omitted. Jefferson wrote in the margin of his work the references to the passages he snipped from the manuscripts. Reviewing my edition, I did not find any references to Jesus’ words in John 14-17. Jefferson included lengthy passages from Mt. 5, and Luke 12 but omitted the lengthy sermons in red letters in the chapters 14-17 of John (see John 14-17 in this online red letter edition of the New Testament). Most of the words in this section of John are words of Jesus. Jefferson omitted them.

Jefferson may have done so because in these passages Jesus speaks of Himself as deity. For instance, in John 14:1-4, Jesus says He is going to prepare a place in heaven and calls God His Father:

14:1-4 – “You must not let yourselves be distressed – you must hold on to your faith in God and to your faith in me. There are many rooms in my Father’s House. If there were not, should I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? It is true that I am going away to prepare a place for you, but it is just as true that I am coming again to welcome you into my own home, so that you may be where I am. You know where I am going and you know the road I am going to take.”

And then John 17: 1-3 proved unreliable as an actual teaching of Jesus to Jefferson:

17:1-3 – When Jesus had said these words, he raised his eyes to Heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son now so that he may bring glory to you, for you have given him authority over all men to give eternal life for all that you have given to him. And this is eternal life, to know you, the only true God, and him whom you have sent – Jesus Christ.

Given that Jefferson left out long passages of the words of Jesus, it is clear that David Barton is misleading his audiences when he says Jefferson’s book of teachings of Jesus is all the red letters laid out in order. And when one examines what Jefferson left out (what he considered a “dunghill” from which he extracted “diamonds”), it seems clear that Jefferson believed these passages were not original with Jesus. He told John Adams that his work represented the collection of the real teachings of Jesus, saying:

In extracting the pure principles which he [Jesus] taught, we should have to strip off the artificial vestments in which they have been muffled by priests, who have travestied them into various forms, as instruments of riches and power to themselves. We must dismiss the Platonists and Plotinists, the Stagyrites and Gamalielites, the Eclectics, the Gnostics and Scholastics, their essences and emanations, their logos and demiurgos, aeons and daemons, male and female, with a long train of … or, shall I say at once, of nonsense. We must reduce our volume to the simple evangelists, select, even from them, the very words only of Jesus, paring off the amphibologisms into which they have been led, by forgetting often, or not understanding, what had fallen from him, by giving their own misconceptions as his dicta, and expressing unintelligibly for others what they had not understood themselves. There will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man. I have performed this operation for my own use, by cutting verse by verse out of the printed book, and arranging the matter which is evidently his, and which is as easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill. The result is an octavo of forty-six pages, of pure and unsophisticated doctrines, such as were professed and acted on by the unlettered Apostles, the Apostolic Fathers, and the Christians of the first century.

If you are interested in seeing for yourself how Jefferson edited the New Testament, I recommend the little manuscript. It is a fascinating piece of history, but it is nowhere near what David Barton says it is.


Did Thomas Jefferson give the Jefferson Bible to missionaries?

I can’t find the original quote, but Craig Fehrman wrote in the LA Times yesterday that Daivd Barton said Jefferson gave his edited Bible to missionaries to evangelize Indians.

Fehrman says that is a fabrication. I wonder if Barton will answer this charge.

In any case, the LA Times article is worth a read.

As I have written here, if Jefferson meant for his Bible to be an evangelism tool, then he was pushing a different Christianity than the orthodox version.

Here is at least one place that Barton made the claim about Jefferson and the missionaries: