Publisher pulls the plug on revisionist Jefferson history

Publisher pulls the plug on  revisionist Jefferson history

Thomas Nelson Publishing has decided to cease publication of David Barton’s controversial book, “The Jefferson Lies.”

Barton has long been a fixture in far-right politics in Texas and served as vice chairman of the Texas Republican Party from 1997 to 2006. Barton also served as an “expert” reviewer during the Texas State Board of Education’s controversial revision of social studies curriculum standards in 2010. More recently, he has been embraced by influential political figures like Michele Bachmann, Mike Huckabee and Glenn Beck.

Barton is head of a political advocacy group called WallBuilders, and coauthor of an American history textbook “Drive Thru America.” Various Texas school districts have also reported using materials published by WallBuilders, including the “American Government and Bible” video. In April, the Jefferson County District Attorney was asked to investigate State Board of Education member David Bradley after Barton appeared at two fundraisers for Bradley’s reelection campaign. The non-partisan Texas Freedom Network (TFN) said the actions of Barton on Bradley’s behalf violated a provision of the Education Code that says “a person engaged in manufacturing, shipping, selling or advertising instructional materials commits an offense if the person makes or authorizes a political contribution to or takes part in, directly or indirectly, the campaign of any person seeking election to or serving on the board.”

At the time, TFN President Kathy Miller said, “We shouldn’t have people who are involved in creating and selling instructional materials also raising money for candidates for a state board that decides which materials will be sold to schools.”

Also in April 2012, Thomas Nelson Publishing released Barton’s “The Jefferson Lies.” Steven Green, director of the Center for Religion, Law and Democracy at Willamette University, says in a review, “The basic theme of ‘The Jefferson Lies’ is that modern Americans have formed an incorrect impression of Thomas Jefferson, one that has been perpetrated by liberal academics and the media. The prevailing view of Jefferson, according to Barton, is one of a conflicted and tragic hero: a political leader and philosopher of the Founding through his authorship of the Declaration of Independence, but also disreputable character who was a racist and an atheist. Jefferson fathered children by his slave mistress and embraced a radical form of Enlightenment secularism; he despised religion and sought to impose a strict separation of church and state. Barton seeks to correct this ‘standard’ history and dispel such ‘lies’ about one of the nation’s leading Founders. Rather than being a religious heretic and a racist libertine, the Jefferson who emerges in Barton’s account is religiously devout just short of being an evangelical Christian and an early advocate for the rights of African-Americans. Jefferson ‘was pro-Christian and pro-Jesus in his beliefs, demeanor, and public endeavors.’ This ‘Jefferson’ did not intend to perpetrate a secular public square through the separation of church and state but to promote religion by protecting churches and people of faith from the overreaching of government. By Barton’s account, Jefferson would likely feel comfortable at a modern Tea-Party rally.”

One urgent motive for Barton and others seeking to alter Jefferson’s reputation is his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association which makes the First Amendment assertion that Congress shall “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” means there is “a wall of separation between Church & State” — the first known appearance of that now-familiar phrase.

The review by Green found that Barton’s book on Jefferson includes many of the same problems as his previous works, reinforcing widespread criticism that Barton distorts history in the service of an ideological argument. Brian Hampton, a senior vice president and publisher for Thomas Nelson, told CNN that a lengthy review found Barton had included “historical details that were not adequately supported.”

Lamar University history professor Dr. Jeff Forret said it’s simply an issue of academic integrity.

“It’s pretty clear that (Barton) is rather ideologically driven,” he said. “This is not a liberal issue or a conservative issue … it’s about upholding professional standards.”

Forret recounted another example of an attempt by an author to misconstrue historical facts. In 2000, a professor at Emory University in Georgia, Michael A Bellesiles, published “Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture.” The central theme of the book is that America’s gun culture arose after the Civil War and that, contrary to myth, it did not have its roots in America’s colonial and frontier eras. Bellesiles holds that guns were uncommon during peacetime in America during the colonial, early national, and antebellum periods, when guns were little used and the average American’s proficiency in use of firearms was poor. The book won the Bancroft Prize, which is awarded each year by the trustees of Columbia University for books about diplomacy or the history of the Americas.  

“As it turns out there, was some pretty sloppy research in there and some information that was apparently just straight up fabricated,” Forret said. “Bellesile’s Bancroft Prize was taken away and he had to resign from his position.”

 “Barton is certainly not alone,” Forret said. “This is the latest in a number of similar cases. You have to get your history from professionally trained scholars who are less ideologically driven.”

Forret said history by its very nature is useful to people, but how you write it and how you interpret it is certainly subject to personal influence.

Dr. Lloyd Daigrepont, an English professor specializing in American Literature at Lamar University, said the problem with this book is that Barton is trying a revisionist approach in “The Jefferson Lies” to undo what historians have long concluded.

“Jefferson was a product of the Age of Reason or the Enlightenment. While many of the founding fathers had a Christian tradition, many of them transitioned over to Enlightenment ideals,” he said. “They accepted reason as primary — reason over faith. They were deists, and I think if you read Jefferson … you just don’t see much indication that he is a Christian in the most conservative sense. Certainly his values are derived from a Christian background, but if you look at most of the thinkers of the Enlightenment, they tend to be more rationalists than devout believers.”

Daigrepont said many revisionists, like Barton, are trying to rewrite history by saying that founding fathers such as Jefferson thought our government ought to be a Christian government.

“The Constitution doesn’t say our government ought to be a Christian government,” he said. “It’s supposed to be government in and of itself or, bad word, ‘secular’ government. What I always tell my students is, ‘Don’t take my word for it. Go ahead and read the books yourself.’”

Daigrepont suggests reading “The Portable Thomas Jefferson” by Viking publishers. It consists of a vast collection of Jefferson’s works, including “Notes on the State of Virginia,” a report by Jefferson that includes politics, the economy, topography, populations, flora and fauna.

Forret said he is considering holding a history class specializing on Thomas Jefferson.

James Shannon contributed to this report. Kevin King can be reached at (409) 832-1400, ext. 225, or by e-mail at kevin [at] theexaminer [dot] com.