The Book David Barton Doesn’t Want You To Read

What inspired you to write Getting Jefferson Right

Throckmorton: While writing about the First Amendment last year, I saw some of Barton’s statements about Thomas Jefferson and John Adams and they didn’t seem right. I went back to the relevant primary sources and found that Barton’s claims were quite misleading. Some of those initial investigations ended up as posts on my blog. When I heard that Barton was putting his claims in a book about Jefferson, I thought it would be timely to collect and expand those posts. In the process, I approached a colleague, Michael Coulter, who teaches political science, about collaborating on the project.

I should add that the material is inherently interesting, so it has not been difficult to dig deeply into these claims. It may seem unusual for a psychology professor to write a book like this, but given my background, it isn’t that odd. My dissertation included a review of the history of mental health financing, and teaching classes at Grove City College, I include material about the historical context of the various theorists I review. I don’t think you can fully comprehend the tenets of psychological theorists unless you understand the historical context. 

Coulter: In the past few years students have come to me with claims made by Barton, many of which seemed wrong, but since Barton isn’t taken seriously in the academy, I didn’t take him seriously. But as there were more and more students and others who were reading Barton, it seemed that he needed to be taken seriously and carefully critiqued.

What sealed the deal for wanting to offer a lengthy critique of Barton was reading his book. Reading The Jefferson Lies and finding so many errors and distortions convinced me that an extended critique was needed.

What’s the most important take-home message for readers?

Throckmorton: Readers should examine historical claims for themselves. As harsh as it might sound, this is especially true when the claims come from Mr. Barton. When people, whether on the right or left, make claims about historical events and figures in order to win political points in the present, it is critical to examine the facts and context of those claims. One benefit, I believe, of my training as a psychologist is that I accept the proposition that people are subject to various biases (e.g., group-serving bias, confirmation bias) in making attributions and forming opinions. The scholarly disciplines of reflection, checking and re-checking facts, peer review, and considering statements and events in context are important tools to help offset cognitive biases.

Coulter: Being a Christian scholar is first and foremost about getting the facts right and it should not be about trying to make an historical figure match your religious and political views or agenda. Sloppy and misleading historical writing used for advancing an agenda harms the general reputation of Christians as scholars.

Is there anything you had to leave out?

Our book examines the key claims made by Barton about Jefferson. At times it felt that we could have engaged in a sentence by sentence analysis of The Jefferson Lies, but that would have been a project that would have been many hundreds of pages more and taken much longer. In each chapter of The Jefferson Lies, there were many claims we considered to be false but we felt we needed to leave those for another day so that our extended critique of Barton’s claims could be seen in a timely fashion.

One topic we did not cover was Barton’s claims about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. Barton defends Jefferson against historical and current claims that he fathered at least some of her children. We believe there is evidence to support both sides of this claim, and we acknowledge that there are good scholars on both sides of the matter. In the end, the question may never be decided given the limitations of the evidence, historical and scientific.

We do note that the slaves freed by Jefferson were related to Sally Hemings. He freed no other slaves even though he could have done so.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?

This is a hard question to address because broadly we address the misuse of history conducted by Barton, while, at the same time, fact-checking specific claims about Jefferson. On Barton, we hear often from evangelicals that Barton must be right in his claims because he possesses so many original documents from the early American period. While he does have a nice collection of Bibles and signatures, he also has a lot of old newspapers which have little relevance to the claims he makes. In any case, having historical documents does not make one a historian.

Regarding Jefferson, there are so many views of him that it is hard to name the biggest misconception. For those who want him to be an atheist, he wasn’t and for those who want him to be orthodox, he certainly wasn’t that either.

For us, the biggest surprise was looking at Jefferson’s mixed record on slavery. His views on race were quite abhorrent, and his rhetoric and actions on the freedom of conscience and dignity of man were in sharp contrast to how he wanted to handle the emancipation and deportation of slaves. That he continued to acquire slaves throughout his life—and even offer bounties for escaped slaves—is deeply disappointing for a man who spoke about the natural rights of human beings.

Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing? 

Generally speaking, the audience is readers of Barton and promoters of his books, such as ministries, radio hosts, and the conservative religious community. That audience needs to see that they are being offered a distorted and misguided presentation of Jefferson. In addition, the book will be valuable for anyone who wants to see Jefferson more clearly and evaluate historical claims more completely.

Are you hoping to just inform readers? Give them pleasure? Piss them off?

Yes. The answer depends on the audience. The book will certainly inform readers. Those who have been critical about Barton in the past will take pleasure in the book. There might be some who are upset by this book because it may appear that we are unduly criticizing a fellow Christian. While this effort critiques one particular Christian author, we believe that it is in service of Christian scholarship more generally because, first and foremost, Christian scholars must get the facts straight and not have as a goal to turn every important historical figure into an orthodox Christian.

What alternative title would you give the book?

“The Book about Jefferson that David Barton Doesn’t Want You to Read.”

How do you feel about the cover?

We like it. We wanted it to convey that Jefferson is viewed differently by people on the right and left, even though he is the same person.

Is there a book out there you wish you had written? Which one? Why?

Throckmorton: The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age by Randall Stephens and Karl Giberson or Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? by John Fea. Stephens and Giberson examine the parallel world that often is the evangelical community, and Fea writes well about a matter of contemporary contention within the community.

Coulter: There are too many to name, but Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue is a truly magisterial work that draws on several disciplines in an engaging account of Western moral philosophy. 

What’s your next book?

Throckmorton: I am completing a book on sexual orientation and identity, hopefully by mid-August, to be published by Inter-Varsity Press.

Coulter: I am working on manuscript about John Locke’s conception of citizens within a liberal political order.