Tuesday, July 24, 2012

David Barton v. the internet

The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You've Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson (Hardback)I wrote several weeks ago about David Barton’s new book on Thomas Jefferson (which recently beat out Howard Zinn’s Marxist retelling of the American Founding for the title of the “least credible history book in print”). At the time (as I stated) I had not yet read it, but was responding to the reviews of others. Now, however, I have had a chance to look through the book. In addition to standing by my original review, I have two additional observations.
First, there is significant weight to the argument that Barton is responding to straw men. While he claims to be responding to the “twentieth-century practices that now dominate the study of American history and its heroes: Deconstructionism, Poststructuralism, Modernism, Minimalism, and Academic Collectivism.” (xvi), an examination of his footnotes tells a very different story. For chapters 3-7, Barton takes a specific issue, shows what the “experts” say, and then refutes them. The problem is that his experts are largely not historians or academics but websites like secularhumanism.org, modernghana.com, hubpages.org, about.com (one of his favorites), or The Secular Web. Even when engaging with serious academic works, he cites newspaper or blog reviews rather than the original work itself (Chapters 4 & 7). The one book he does cite with frequency to show mainstream Jefferson misconceptions is “Six Historic Americans,” a 1906 book by John Remsburg, an anti-Christian freethinking lecturer. This book, however, barely qualifies as a “twentieth-century” work, cannot be considered mainstream today, and appears to be a revisionist hit-job on the founders.

The most telling example of this straw-man argument is Barton’s response to Alan Pell Crawford, who stated that “No Jefferson scholar to my knowledge has ever concluded that Jefferson was an ‘atheist,’ as Mr. Barton suggests.” Barton replies:
[B]y this claim, Crawford proves that he has not even read the book he is critiquing, for I begin each chapter with a list of documented quotations from modern writers and scholars repeating a particular lie about Jefferson, and I certainly did that in this chapter as well. But Crawford, like Throckmorton and Coulter, says “to my knowledge,” thus again limiting historical truth to his own personal experience rather than to objective documents and facts.
I have read the book. Barton’s proof that Jefferson is regarded as an atheist, which he trumpets so loudly, consists of:
That is the entirety of Barton’s authority for his claim that modern academia has painted Jefferson an atheist, presented in order and without omission. None of those sources are mainstream historians or academics, and only one mentions atheism (two if one accepts Barton’s argument that freethinking is premised on atheism). Barton does not engage with serious historical writing; instead, he scours the internet for inflammatory blog posts and paints them as representative of the whole of liberal academia. This is not a proper approach to either history or research.

Furthermore, despite decrying the modern tendency of “writers and scholars quote each other and those from their peer group rather than consult original sources” (p. xxii), Barton has made this exact error in his review of the Jefferson “Bible.” Instead of consulting the original, he cited Charles Sanford’s 1984 book The Religious Life of Thomas Jefferson for the proposition that Jefferson did not exclude all the miracles from his edited bible (p. 73). However, although the cited book does include that information, it is not an accurate reflection of the original Jefferson documents, which show that Jefferson did omit the miracles (as you can see for yourself)

Second, Barton has fallen into the “Minimalist” error he accuses his opponents of committing. He writes in the Introduction that:

Our modern culture insists on easy answers, but the life of Jefferson does not accommodate that demand. He was an extremely complicated individual, not a man to be flippantly stereotyped or compartmentalized. In fact, he was probably much more complex than most other historic individuals from the same era. But many who write about him today try to conform him to a preshaped, preconceived, simplistic mold into which he does not fit. The image of Thomas Jefferson as presented by one modern writer will therefore often completely contradict the image presented by another, because each writer attempted to squeeze Jefferson into his or her own Minimalistic perception. (p. xxi-xxii)
However, Barton then proceeds for the next 200+ pages to make this very error. The book is full of overly broad categorical statements such as “While Jefferson truly was a complex person, he was not confusing, obfuscating, or disingenuous. He was straightforward and truthful on the topics he addressed.” (p. 166), “Jefferson was not only unassuming and humble but he was also good-natured, and his manners never deserted him—even to those who opposed him” (p. 211), and “Jefferson’s record of including, advocating, and promoting religious activities and expressions in public is strong, clear, and consistent” (p. 139).

Barton is right that Jefferson was complicated. But that complexity must be taken into account in his defense, rather than simply brushed away. Jefferson’s actions and ideals did not always act in harmony. Jefferson in particular had a significant blind spot in this area, which meant he thought he was being consistent when he wasn’t. (He does, however, appear to have taken in Barton.) Jefferson could engage in vicious political attacks while simultaneously calling for civility and trying to appear above the fray; he could call for using the navy against the Barbary pirates while simultaneously disapproving the building of said navy because of his fears of a standing army; and most notably, he could decry the evils of slavery while personally owning slaves. (Contrary to Barton’s assertion, Virginia law did not prohibit the freeing of slaves and Barton used cleverly placed ellipses to imply that it did.) As a result, it is easy to cherry-pick from Jefferson’s character, writings, or actions. But determining what Jefferson really thought about any given topic therefore involves much more than simply finding a quote or anecdote to support a claim. It involves a thorough examination of Jefferson’s life and works, as well as evidence of Jefferson's contrary thoughts or actions. I know Barton would agree with this—he said as much. Unfortunately, as with his hero, there is a significant disconnect between Barton’s rhetoric and his actions.

In sum, The Jefferson Lies is a very aptly named book. Just not for the reasons the author intended.
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