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Getting history right

"Getting history right" Continued...

“If we could furnish goods enough to supply all their [Indians] wants, and sell them goods so cheap that no private trader could enter into competition with us, we should thus get rid of those traders who are the principal fomenters of the uneasiness of the Indians: and by being so essentially useful to the Indians we should of course become objects of affection to them. There is perhaps no method more irresistible of obtaining lands from them than by letting them get in debt, which when too heavy to be paid, they are always willing to lop off by a cession of land.”[v]

Jefferson’s plan was to get the Indians in debt and use that debt as a bargaining chip to induce them to sell off their lands. The plan worked well and was one factor in the background of the treaty with the Kaskaskia Indians that Barton said was primarily about sending missionaries to evangelize the tribe. In fact, having gotten in debt, the Kaskaskia were willing to lop off millions of acres in exchange for an annuity, debt forgiveness, protection, a church, and a stipend for their priest.

Although Barton accused us of focusing on minor issues, we disagree. Most of the claims we examined in our book are ones that he uses repeatedly in his speeches and videos. Those claims seem essential to his arguments since he comes back to them often (albeit sometimes in different forms). For instance, in The Jefferson Lies he said Jefferson negotiated and signed “a treaty with the Kaskaskia Indians that directly funded Christian missionaries, and provided federal funding to help erect a church building in which they might worship.”[vi] But in his Capitol Tour speech, he changed the narrative by claiming:

“Most people have no clue that Thomas Jefferson in 1803 negotiated a treaty with the Kaskaskia Indians in which Jefferson put federal funds to pay for missionaries to go evangelize the Indians and gave federal funds so that after they were converted we’d build them a church in which they could worship.”

The Capitol Tour description is clearly more false than the claim in The Jefferson Lies. Here are the key details. Prior to the treaty, the Kaskaskia were, for the most part, attached to Catholicism. The federal money did not provide for missionaries plural, the funds didn’t support a new evangelization effort, and the church was built for the existing Catholic community at their request as a condition of deeding the United States most of central Illinois. While his book was not as far off the facts of the case as the Capitol Tour speech, in the context of Barton’s public stance on Jefferson’s actions, we believe we were right to examine the claim because of the manner and frequency in which Barton uses it.

‘Sins’ of omission

Another detail that turns out to be important is Barton’s omission of a section of Virginia’s 1782 law on emancipation of slaves. In The Jefferson Lies (pg. 92), Barton omitted the section of the 1782 law which allowed owners to free their slaves while the owners were alive. He simply omitted it from his presentation of the 1782 law, leaving the impression that owners could only free their slaves via a will at death. We have asked Barton why he chose to omit that portion of the law and have received no reply.

Barton wrote in his WORLD article that his position on Jefferson and emancipation took into account all of the many laws on slavery. However, in The Jefferson Lies, he did not even cite the most important one (the 1782 law) completely. In the WORLD article, he provided dates of many statutes but did not quote any of them or explain why they were relevant. We have read the Virginia statues between 1782 and 1806 cannot find any law that changes how the 1782 law allowed slaves owners to free some slaves (most of the laws in that period concern the activities of freed slaves). Barton further provided the irrelevant case of James Armistead who could have been emancipated by his owner but was not because Armistead sought reimbursement from the Virginia legislature for the loss of slave services. The fact is that Barton wrote in The Jefferson Lies that “Jefferson was unable to free his slaves under the requirements of state law …” (pg. 94) and has refused to acknowledge the misleading nature of his position.

Furthermore, Barton did not describe how Jefferson continued to buy and sell slaves throughout his life. Barton wrote that it was debt that prevented Jefferson from freeing his slaves, but if that was the main factor, then Jefferson would not have spent money to acquire new slaves or paid for bounty hunters to capture escaped slaves. In fact, according to his detailed account of his financial transactions, he often indulged in many expensive items and activities, such as wine, fine china, and constant renovations to Monticello, and thus it wasn’t merely a matter of not having enough money to free slaves. All of this is relevant to Barton’s main point about Jefferson and slavery. In Getting Jefferson Right, we balanced out the rather sentimental picture Barton painted of Jefferson. The truth is that Jefferson opposed the slave trade and said negative things about slavery, but the other side of Jefferson (e.g., his views of race and his actions as a slave owner) is not attractive and should not be ignored.



[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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