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The visitor center at Thomas Jefferson's home Monticello in Charlottesville, Va.
Associated Press/Photo by Steve Helber
The visitor center at Thomas Jefferson's home Monticello in Charlottesville, Va.

Getting history right

Religion | Two professors respond to David Barton’s claim they made ‘mountains out of molehills’ in their critique of his research into Thomas Jefferson and his faith

This is the third and final round of WORLD’s Barton controversy coverage. Below we have Warren Throckmorton and Michael Coulter’s reply to David Barton’s response to their book that critiqued Barton’s The Jefferson Lies. Barton is welcome to offer a final rebuttal, but is under no obligation to do so.

WORLD would like to thank all the writers and readers participating in this debate with the hope that this process is allowing iron to sharpen iron. —Mickey McLean


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First, we are grateful to WORLD for this opportunity to clarify some points and reply to David Barton on the matter of Thomas Jefferson and his faith. WORLDhas shown real courage to further examine the claims related to the controversy generated by Thomas Nelson dropping The Jefferson Lies from publication. Second, although we stand by our work, we thank David Barton for participating.

Generally, in Barton’s reply to us (see “No, I’m not wrong”), he claimed we made mountains out of molehills by picking out a few details to examine in our book Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims about Our Third President. Let’s take a look at those details.

History is the examination of details

First, examining historical claims requires the careful analysis of evidence, bit by bit, and details are important because those details are used to establish and understand the facts and present an accurate historical narrative. Barton’s claim that we selected small aspects of his work appears to us to be an effort to change the subject. In getting history right, details are important and the accuracy of a claim can depend on contextual matters, such as time and place. For instance, Barton quoted Jefferson as saying that the law did not allow slave owners to free slaves in Virginia. The relevance of this statement hinges on when Jefferson said it. Jefferson said this to Edward Coles in 1814, eight years after the laws in Virginia were changed to make it more difficult for slave owners to emancipate their slaves. Coles was born in 1786 and would have been a minor during most of the period in which it was easiest to free slaves in Virginia (1782-1806). Coles was also vehemently opposed to slavery, and Jefferson may have just been telling Coles what he wanted to hear.[i] In our book, we did not claim, as Barton suggested in his WORLD article, that Jefferson could have freed all of his slaves at any time in his adult life. Rather, we identified a 24-year window of time, between 1872 and 1806, when freeing slaves was easier and more common. Jefferson said that “the laws do not permit us to turn them loose” in 1814, but many slaves were in fact freed in the preceding decades. According to Philip Schwarz, author of Slaves Laws in Virginia, the free black population was 12,866 in 1790, 20,124 in 1800, and 30,570 in 1810.[ii]

In his response, Barton created several straw men—that is, he attacked his misrepresentations of our work. He claimed we deny the role of Congress in using religion to civilize the Indians. That is not true. Although peripheral to our purposes, we acknowledge the unfortunate abuse of Indians via religion by the federal government. However, we don’t focus on U.S. relations with Indians because our purpose was to examine Barton’s claims about Thomas Jefferson and the Indians. On point, Jefferson did not hide his thoughts about Indians and missionaries. In a letter to physician James Jay, Jefferson asserted in 1809:

“The plan [Jay’s plan] of civilizing the Indians is undoubtedly a great improvement on the ancient and totally ineffectual one of beginning with religious missionaries. Our experience has shown that this must be the last step of the process.”[iii]

Jefferson added that the Indians preferred Aesop’s Fables and Robinson Crusoe and outlined several steps to civilization before religious matters could be introduced. Yes, the government occasionally paid missionaries to work with Indians, but Jefferson expressed reservations about the policy.[iv]

Because Jefferson expressed these views in the face of opposing practices, one must look at the gnats Barton said we strained at to make sense of Jefferson’s actions. When Barton told readers about one aspect of Jefferson’s actions but omitted the parts inconvenient to his stance, he did something different with the details than we did. One way or the other, one can’t avoid the details. We incorporated them and attempted to tell the whole story. Barton often obscures the details.

This selective quotation of material is evident throughout The Jefferson Lies and in his reply to us. Not only did Barton fail to tell readers about Jefferson’s view of missionary work with Indians, he did not explain other pertinent aspects of Jefferson’s policy toward the Indians. Jefferson laid out a crucial component of his plan in 1802:

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ENDNOTES

[i] We document in Getting Jefferson Right that Jefferson was not above slanting his correspondence to the interests and beliefs of his reader. For instance, see Jefferson’s responses to abolitionist Father Gregoire and friend Joel Barlow in Getting Jefferson Right, pp. 203-205.

[ii] Philip Schwarz, personal communication to Michael Coulter, 9/5/12.

[iii] Washington, H.A., Ed., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. 5, (Washington, D.C.: Taylor & Maury, 1853), p. 440.

[iv] It must be remembered that the federal government viewed the Indian tribes as sovereign nations. There are different First Amendment issues that are raised with citizens than with other nations. Regarding Jefferson’s ideas on missions, he was expressing these ideas as late as 1814. Even at that late date, he did not think it was advisable to send missionaries.

[v] Boyd, J.P., & Oberg, B.B., Eds., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson: 1 July to 12 November 1802, Vol. 38. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012), p. 210; letter to Henry Dearborn.

[vi] Barton, D. The Jefferson Lies, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2012), p. 135.

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