Rewriting Jefferson

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A couple of weeks ago a friend of mine sent me a link to David Barton’s book, The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson. It’s almost like my friend, knowing my academic interest in Thomas Jefferson, cast some bait in my direction. And two months later, I took it.

I can honestly say that I went into it with an open mind. Even if Barton misinterpreted Jefferson, maybe he would do so in at least a semi-convincing way. After all, it’s possible for individuals to have high opinions of Thomas Jefferson without being historical hacks. I have tremendous respect for David Mayer, for example, and his opinion of Jefferson is completely different than mine.

Sadly, my low expectations were met. To be sure, Barton does offer enough arguments to rebut the most absurd and historically inaccurate claims about Jefferson. For example, Barton correctly points out the fallacy of the claim that it has been definitively proven that Thomas Jefferson fathered children by the slave Sally Hemings. I also believe that Barton’s insinuations about the partisan motivations behind the claims have some merit. But this chapter exemplifies so much of what is wrong with Barton’s methodology. While there can be no conclusive argument made that Jefferson fathered children by Hemings, it is also impossible to assert with any certainty that he did not. But Barton cannot leave well enough, and Barton distorts the findings of the commission tasked with determining the paternity of Hemings’ children to make it appear that Jefferson almost certainly could not be the father. While it’s certainly true that genetic testing at this stage of history cannot offer conclusive proof one way or the other, the idea that the father of Hemings’ children can be any one of  a dozen men or so is also not really credible. Personally I am rather agnostic on the question, and don’t think it is of huge historic import, but Barton stretches the truth almost as badly as those who adamantly insist that Jefferson was the father.

The real meat of the book focuses on the topic of religion. Again, Barton is incredibly frustrating to read. He asserts towards the beginning of the book that it is important to read primary sources, and to truly understand the historical context when judging historical figures. He is correct on both counts. He then incredibly proceeds to selectively cite dubious secondary sources in order to prove his assertions, and then ignores broader context when cherrypicking quotes from Jefferson.

A prime example of Barton cherrypicking Jefferson occurs in a chapter in which Barton tries to prove that Jefferson was no fan of the secular French Enlightenment. Barton offers as proof of this assertion a critical passage in one of Jefferson’s letters regarding the French philosopher Guillame Raynal. Evidently one critical passage about one obscure thinker is all the evidence we need that Jefferson was at odds with French Enlightenment philosophy. Well then.

Barton’s reliance on dubious sources bites him when discussing the supposed Jefferson Bible. Again, Barton is correct in the narrowest sense when he notes that Jefferson did not attempt to create a bible. Rather, two separate works by Jefferson – The Philosophy of Jesus and The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth – were compilations of Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus. It wasn’t a “bible,” and Jefferson never attempted to pass these compilations off as such. But then Barton claims that neither work was as unorthodox as historians have claimed them to be. Jefferson did not cut out the supernatural elements from the Gospel, and indeed included some stories that referenced miracles and the afterlife. But as Warren Throckmorton and Michael Coulter demonstrate in Getting Jefferson Right, Barton’s source declaring that Jefferson included the miracle stories in his compilations is just plain  wrong. As for the other examples of Jefferson including references to the supernatural, these were mainly concerned with the afterlife. Throckmorton and Coulter concede that Jefferson did believe in the afterlife, thus it isn’t all that surprising that Jefferson would include these references. After all, Jefferson was not an atheist. He certainly believed in God, though he did not believe that Jesus Himself was a member of the Godhead.

And that is really the fundamental problem with Barton’s work. Barton tries mightily to paint Jefferson as some kind of conventional Christian, suggesting that his heterodoxy developed late in life as he fell under the Unitarian influence. Barton has to ignore almost an entire lifetime of Jefferson’s work in order to reach this conclusion. Here is how Jefferson expressed his views on Jesus:

The question of his being a member of the Godhead, or in direct communication with it, claimed for him by some of his followers, and denied by others, is foreign to the present view, which is merely an estimate of the intrinsic merits of his doctrines.

1.He corrected the Deism of the Jews, confirming them in their belief of one only God, and giving them juster notions of his attributes and government.

2.His moral doctrines, relating to kindred & friends, were more pure & perfect than those of the most correct of the philosophers, and greatly more so than those of the Jews; and they went far beyond both in inculcating universal philanthropy, not only to kindred and friends, to neighbors and countrymen, but to all mankind, gathering all into one family, under the bonds of love, charity, peace, common wants and common aids.  A development of this head will evince the peculiar superiority of the system of Jesus over all others.

3.The precepts of philosophy, & of the Hebrew code, laid hold of actions only.  He pushed his scrutinies into the heart of man; erected his tribunal in the region of his thoughts, and purified the waters at the fountain head.

That’s pretty clearly not orthodox Christianity to me.

Jefferson would even call Jesus’s teachings defective, though he praised Jesus as an ethicist. His compilations from the Gospels were meant to restore Christ’s teachings to their original intent, as it were. Jefferson believed that Paul and the other Apostles had distorted Christ’s work, so that is why he took out all accounts of miracles and references to Jesus being in any way part of the Godhead. Most importantly, his compilation ends at the death of Christ on the cross and his placement in the tomb. Jefferson rejected the resurrection.

Jefferson repeatedly excoriated Paul as one of the principle impostors who distorted Christ’s teachings.

Of this band of dupes and imposters, Paul was the great Coryphaeus, and firm corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus.

Jefferson added that Paul was a “Platonist who had brought beclouding mysticism to Jesus’ clear moral teachings.”

Barton also glosses over Jefferson’s disdain of the clergy. He cites some examples of Jefferson praising men of the cloth, but in almost every example Jefferson was praising a fellow heterodox Christian. It would be like trying to prove that someone is a faithful Catholic by highlighting their words of praise for Voice of the Faithful or Catholics for a Free Choice.

In several of his letters, Jefferson overtly criticized organized religion. “My opinion is that there never would have been an infidel, if there had never been a priest,” he wrote to Samuel Smith, meaning that religion creates artificial guidelines which restrict freedom of thought. He added that clergy only lay down these rules in order to augment their own power. “The artificial structures they have built on the purest of all moral systems, for the purpose of deriving from it pence and power, revolts those who think for themselves, and who read in that system only what is really there.”

Barton is correct to temper some of the more extreme claims about Jefferson and religion. Jefferson was no atheist, and it would not entirely be correct to say that he disdained Christianity as such. On the other hand, Barton glosses over much of Jefferson’s more negative assessments of Christianity. Most importantly, his attempt to portray Jefferson’s heterodox views as a late-life aberration is simply laughable.

Barton and those that follow him do neither conservatism nor Christianity any favors by distorting the historical record. Barton seems to be under the impression that each of the Founding Fathers must be protected from the slings and arrows of Progressive historians who would tear down these great men. I share Barton’s distrust and even contempt for most contemporary historians. But Barton’s pseudo-history is no way to counter this trend, and only provides ammunition to those who would mock conservative Christians. The progressive reading of Jefferson happens to be the correct one. Well, you know what they say about stopped clocks.

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  1. “then ignores broader context when cherrypicking quotes from Jefferson.”

    The ignorance of some people who write books on subjects is vast. The cherrypicking quotes phenomenon is picking up steam the past few years on historical themes, where polemic and assertions based on a very superficial knowledge of a period and the individuals involved appear to be the order of the day. I see this all the time in books about Lincoln.

  2. I was delighted to see this review and correction. I concur with Mr. McClarey that cherrypicking historic narratives is totoally destructive of decent scholarship. As Christians the refromers did it to the Bible and gave us heresies and schisms that abound to this day.

  3. I read and at times skimmed Barton’s book and found it weak in portraying the true Jefferson. As one who esteems Jefferson, who crafted one of the greatest documents in history — The Declaration of Independent — and who espoused limited government, states’ rights and individual liberty, I lament that we live in Hamilton’s America characterized by big central government with “implied” constitutional powers beyond those originally intended. Indeed, Jefferson had his warts, as we all do, but in the main our third President was a great man whose ideas and ideals helped form a great nation.

    As much better description of Jefferson the man and his political philosophy can be found in Marco Bassani’s book, “Liberty, State & Union: The Political Theory of Thomas Jefferson.” Bassani writes that in Jefferson’s view the three greatest men that civilization had produced were John Locke, Francis Bacon, and Isaac Newton. In contrast, Hamilton said the “greatest human: was Julius Caesar.

    Don and others are right in noting that “cherrypicking” of quotes is a common practice used to support an author’s sometimes skewed or mistaken point of view. Mencken, Hitchens, Dawkins and other atheists frequently quoted from Scripture and other sacred writings to argue their cases, as do countless others. As has been said, “The Bible is an old fiddle on which you can play any tune.”

  4. I lament that we live in Hamilton’s America characterized by big central government with “implied” constitutional powers beyond those originally intended.

    Wrong. In fact, we are very much living in Jefferson’s America, but it’s the anti-tradition, utopian Progressive Thomas Jefferson. Hamilton was not the proponent of a leviathan state that his critics (and, I guess, some supporters) have made him out to be.

  5. Paul, I respectfully disagree. States’ rights, a linchpin of Jeffersonian democracy, have all but vanished. Once considered sovereign, the states, which are supposed to have all rights not reserved to the federal government, are subordinate to the federal government. This was the core of Hamilton’s national view.

  6. Joe, you have to separate the surface-level stuff from the deeper philosophy. Yes, Jefferson was an ardent states’ righter – in fact, his views on states rights can be considered extreme. But when you dig deep into Jefferson’s worldview, you have actually have the elements that lead to the creation of the leviathan state. Jefferson would have abhorred what has happened to state sovereignty, but in a greater sense its his very own philosophy that helped lead to this moment. And isn’t that the fundamental problem with the Progressive philosophy, namely, unintended consequences?

  7. Jefferson is easier to cherrypick than other figures since he had a vast correspondence throughout his life and he wasn’t the most consistent thinker to begin with.

    Very true. Thomas Jefferson left behind an enormous amount of correspondence, and over his life you can probably find him taking both sides of almost any issue. But I do think that it’s possible to sift through the totality of his writing and come to very firm conclusions as to where he generally stood.

  8. Paul, when you refer to a leviathan state I automatically think of Hobbes whose thesis was that government rested on a social contract, an idea that Locke among others embraced. It is know that Jefferson was influenced by Locke and perhaps a step removed by Hobbes. No doubt Jefferson would have “abhorred” the loss of states’ rights but I imagine, too, that even Hamilton, Madison and the other Framers would not have recognized the modern United States of America.

  9. Not that it is terribly important, but I remember reading somewhere that the descendants of Sally Hemings’ oldest child had French markers so he could not be Jefferson’s son. The descendants of her other children did not have those same markers, but had markers found in the Jefferson family. I remember that his nephew was strongly suspected as the father, but Jefferson himself could not be ruled out. Now someone tell me if I am remembering correctly.

  10. Nearly OT, but worth sharing: there’s an interesting theory that Jefferson may have been inspired by St. Robert Bellarmine’s writings (as filtered through an absolutist Anglican critic) in drafting part of the Virginia Declaration of Rights.

    More expansive (and unsupportable) claims have been made regarding Bellarmine’s influence, but Hunt’s thesis makes modest and more supportable claims.

  11. Man, as a sovereign person, constitutes the government, gives government its sovereignty. When government stops respecting and appreciating the sovereignty imbued to it by the sovereignty of the human being, it ceases to be government and is hell.

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