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 | Warren Throckmorton, Michael Coulter

Getting history right

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

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


Get your risk-free, 30-Day FREE Trial Membership right now.

We see you’ve been enjoying the content on our exclusive member website. Ready to get unlimited access to all of WORLD’s member content?
Get your risk-free, 30-Day FREE Trial Membership right now.
(It’s quick and painless, we promise!)


Already a Member? Sign in here:



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:

“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.

Shifting standards

In the past, Barton has criticized historians for not relying on primary sources. In a recent posting on his website, Barton “challenged writers on all sides of the debate over religion in the Founding Era to stop relying on secondary sources and quotations from later eras and instead to utilize original sources.”In that same article, Barton chided evangelical historians Mark Noll, George Marsden, Nathan Hatch, and John Fea for citing what Barton called secondary sources.However, Barton deviated far from this standard in The Jefferson Lies and his WORLD article. For instance on page 12 of his WORLD article, he defended his contention that Jefferson gave his 1804 edited version of gospels to Indian missionaries by means of a footnote from Henry Stephens Randall’s biography of Thomas Jefferson. Randall, who did not personally speak to this source, wrote in 1858:

“This [i.e., the 1804 work] is sometimes mentioned as Mr. Jefferson’s ‘Collection for the Indians,’ it being understood that he conferred with friends on the expediency of having it published in the different Indian dialects as the most appropriate book for the Indians to be instructed to read in.” (Emphasis added by Barton.)

There is no primary source material for this claim. When we couldn’t find any evidence, we asked the Monticello research library for help. Librarian Anna Berkes told us, “I’ve searched Jefferson’s papers as thoroughly as anyone can, and can find nothing to support Barton‘s statement regarding Jefferson’s Bible compilations and American Indians.” However, despite the absence of primary source material, Barton asserts in his WORLD article:

“The proof of Jefferson’s intent to distribute his 1804 work among native peoples is not only the title he himself placed on the work but also the testimony of his own family members and friends.”

According to Barton’s own Wallbuilder’s challenge, what Randall “understood” is inadequate to prove anything and should not be used.

The distance between Barton’s claims and primary sources can be substantial. For instance, he relied on a book by Mark Beliles, who relied on a book by George Sanford, who relied on Henry Stephens Randall’s book to make claims about the verses Jefferson used in making his 1804 gospel compilation. Randall was able to see the list of verses Jefferson used but made several copying errors. However, none of those men saw the Bibles Jefferson actually cut up to make his extractions. Yet, Barton chided us for relying on the scholar who did examine those Bibles and had the original list of verses to reconstruct the 1804 version. Barton’s admonition to use primary sources did not stop him from making dogmatic claims based on sources far removed from the original. In contrast, we included in Getting Jefferson Right images of the original list of verses Jefferson intended to include.

We could easily offer more instances (e.g., using a fiction novel as a source for historical claims), but we hope these points help show readers the general problems that we document in Getting Jefferson Right.

We want to close by returning to the purpose of our book, which is to get history right. Gregg Frazer of The Master’s College summed up our thoughts well when he wrote:

“[W]hat has been in question all along is not Barton’s standing as a cultural battler, but his standing as a historian. That is determined by how accurately one writes history, not how well one stems the progressive tide.”

The first order of a Christian scholar is not to present a polemic to help fight the culture war, but rather, the accurate presentation and careful analysis of all the facts, even if those facts show a person or event or theory in a less than favorable light.

As one means of continuing this conversation and providing as much assistance as possible on these very detailed questions, we are making ourselves available to answer follow up questions from readers. If you have any questions about a source, citation, or evidence we offer, please email us from this webpage.

Also, if new claims come up that readers want to explore (e.g., was the NRA founded to counter the KKK?), please feel free to contact us. We have asked a group of history, religion, and political science professors to assist us in providing accurate answers to historical questions. —W.T & M.C.

For more information about the claims made in David Barton’s WORLD article, see our book Getting Jefferson Right and the following articles posted at the Getting Jefferson Right website and the Warren Throckmorton blog:

W.T & M.C.

View this article on the full website