Barton Review


David Barton's new book, The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You've Always Believed about Thomas Jefferson, is not as bad as it is being made out to be. It has very serious problems—special pleading, fundamental errors of omission, a willful misunderstanding and deliberate distortion of Jefferson's basic religious outlook, demonization of those who see Jefferson as a deist and freethinker, and the frequent use of the straw man fallacy. But Barton is right in one key respect: Thomas Jefferson was less thoroughly secular than some advocates of separation of church and state have claimed. He did not seek to remove all religious expression from the public square. Nor did he conceive the University of Virginia as an unambiguously secular institution of higher learning. For this reason, though Barton's book is not likely to win praise in any but conservative and evangelical circles, it does a service to our national conversation about the place of religion in American public life, and the debate it is generating may help to clarify both Jefferson's personal religious views and his talismanic phrase, "wall of separation between church and state."

The basic problem of Barton's book is that he approaches Jefferson not as a scholar or historian, but as an evangelical Christian propagandist and casuist with a preconceived result in mind. His life mission is to prove the Founding Fathers intended America to be a Christian nation. For many years he has combed through the lives and letters of America's founders to find whatever they wrote that appears to reinforce his fixed idea. As long as you don't have a scrupulous sense of scholarly fairness or integrity, this can be a fruitful business. Many of the founders were serious and pious Christians. Most of the Founders said things at one time or another that, taken out of the larger context of their works, appear to endorse Barton's thesis. Some of the Founding Fathers, Jefferson and John Adams, for example, wrestled with their religious sensibilities and belief systems, and though they found many things to fault in the Christianity they inherited as children of the Enlightenment, they never made a crisp break with the Christian tradition. He who wants to comb out of the founding era statements that appear to substantiate the idea that America was intended to be a Christian nation, or that the founders themselves were good Christians, will find plenty of fodder, providing his readers do not check his references or examine the larger body of material relating to this important subject.

I agree with theologian and historian of religion Martin Marty of the University of Chicago: "If you wanted to promote the idea of 'a Christian America,' one which would privilege one religion, a version of Christianity, and de-privilege all others, and if you want to get back to roots and origins, the last of the "founding fathers" on whom you'd concentrate would be Jefferson." Many of the founders were more or less traditional Christians. Jefferson was not. If your mission is to "prove" that the founders intended a Christian nation, why not turn to Patrick Henry, Alexander Hamilton, Manasseh Cutler, Benjamin Rush, or George Washington? Why try to twist a Christian Jefferson out of the large mass of anti-clerical, skeptical, deistic, anti-Trinitarian, and demystifying material that Jefferson wrote in the course of a lifetime?

Why take on a man who advised his nephew to "Question with boldness even the existence of a God," who said that the Bible should be read with the same scholarly detachment one uses with the works of Livy or Tacitus, who wrote in bemusement that "I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know"? In other words, why not let Jefferson be Jefferson? With the possible exception of Thomas Paine, Jefferson is the last of the founders one would want to try to twist into orthodox Christianity.

Jefferson's actual religious outlook is perfectly encapsulated by Eugene R. Sheridan in the monograph Jefferson and Religion he wrote for the Monticello Monograph Series in 1998. After concluding that Jefferson was "not a systematic religious thinker," in other words, that Jefferson did not develop a final, logically consistent, religious perspective that satisfactorily answered the many religious questions he wrestled with in the course of his long and otherwise busy life, Sheridan writes, "an analysis of the elements of his Christian faith reveals that there was both more to it than those who emphasize his rationalism have conceded and less than those who stress his religiousness have admitted." [64] Aside from his deliberate distortions and omissions, Barton stakes out the ground in Jefferson's writings and actions where there was "more to it [evidence of a spiritual life] than those who emphasize his rationalism have conceded." By concentrating on the writings and actions of Jefferson that can be seen as traditionally Christian in some sense of that term, to the exclusion of the mass of materials that contradict that notion, Barton, at least to his own satisfaction and that of the legion of evangelical hopefuls he writes to please, rescues "the Christian Jefferson" from the secular box into which he has been thrust by liberal academics who, he says, prefer ideology to truth. But historian Paul Conkin is emphatic, "Nothing in any of his writings suggest that he really believed that Jesus was the Messiah, or that God so intervened in human history as to appoint special agents to effect salvation, or that the Bible was inspired, or that Jesus rose from the dead." [34] This would seem to cut the ground out from under Barton's project. Even Joseph Priestley, the father of the Unitarian church, died doubting that Jefferson could be called a Christian, even by the bare-bones definition he had established.

Sheridan sees Jefferson as "demythologized Christian—as one, that is to say, who rejected all myth, all mystery, all miracles, and almost all supernaturalism in religion." [65] Here again, it is in the narrow zone left open by "almost all supernaturalism" that Barton stakes his evangelical tent. This would seem to be taking Jefferson out of context in an extreme way. The stakes are high. Barton is not really trying to make sense of Thomas Jefferson; he is attempting to undermine the authority of the greatest freethinker among the Founding Fathers, and he is using Jefferson to try to break down the wall of separation between church and state. The Jefferson Lies is an important contribution to the culture wars of our time, not because it represents a valid analysis of Jefferson's religious views, but because it makes claims that millions of Americans believe or want to believe. Even so, no one should mistake The Jefferson Lies for careful or thoughtful history.

A well-known letter to Benjamin Rush perfectly illustrates Barton's method. Jefferson wrote, "I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence, and believing he never claimed any other." When Barton reads this passage he fixates on the word "Christian." Jefferson tells a fellow signer of the Declaration of Independence that "I am a Christian." When any fair-minded reader sees this passage s/he focuses on the phrases, "attached to his doctrines," "every human excellence," and "never claiming any other." In other words, what Jefferson is actually saying to Rush is something like the following. "I'm more of a 'Christian' than the so-called 'Christians,' because I understand, as they don't, that Jesus was only a man, albeit a very great ethical teacher, and I subscribe to his teachings rather than the aura of divinity that has been imposed on him. Nor do I think Jesus himself believed himself the son of God or a member of the Trinity. Since this is what is truly meant by 'Christian,' I can more justly call myself a 'Christian' than the irrationalists who believe things that a rational being must reject." Barton regards Jefferson's letter to Rush as a confession of Christianity; but what Jefferson meant was that he was an admirer of Jesus the man and ethical reformer, and that he resented that so-called "Christians" had hijacked the man and his message. In a late letter Jefferson distinguished the kind of Christianity he wished to promote (rational, demystified, simple, natural) from the Platonized, encrusted thing he now called "nicknamed Christianity."

Jefferson's letter to Rush is more a political than a theological document. As Paul Conkin puts it, "In the charged political context of 1800, his 'conversion' to Unitarianism served a wonderful role. It allowed him to affirm his own allegiance to the earliest, purest, and simplest form of Christianity, and to dismiss his purportedly orthodox opponents as deceived purveyors of a corrupted, paganized, Platonized religion that they incorrectly identified with the teachings of Jesus." [30]

Jefferson made the same point with more candor in a letter to John Adams. There, he declared, "I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus, very different from the Platonists, who call me infidel, and themselves Christians and preachers of the gospel, while they draw all their characteristic dogmas from what it's Author never said or saw." Again, the real Christian is an admirer of the historical Jesus and his ministry; the misguided "Christians" are those who accept the mystical, irrational, and miraculous tradition of the Trinity, the virgin birth, the miracles, and the resurrection. Jefferson is attempting to distinguish the Christians, properly understood from the so-called Christians.

On another occasion, Jefferson wrote: "Our saviour did not come into the world to save metaphysicians only. His doctrines are leveled to the simplest understanding and it is only by banishing Hierophantic mysteries and Scholastic subtleties, which they have nick-named Christianity, and getting back to the plain and unsophisticated precepts of Christ, that we become real Christians." Barton does not cite this letter to Salma Hale, written on July 26, 1818.

Jefferson's religious views were never fixed in stone. His outlook changed and evolved in the course of his 83-year life. But there are a few constants in his thinking that would seem to make him the least likely Founding Father for Barton's evangelical purposes. Jefferson did not believe in the divinity of Christ. Jefferson rejected the Trinity as a non-Biblical resurgence of polytheism. Jefferson believed in God, but he rejected the portrait of God in all of the Old Testament and much of the New Testament. By the end of his college years, according to historian Paul Conkin, "he had rejected all of what he now saw as the mysterious and supernatural components of Christianity, or in brief, the whole Pauline scheme of salvation." [22] Jefferson was a deist. Jefferson rejected the New Testament until he found a way to "rescue" the historical Jesus and his authentic sayings from the mass of apocalyptical, miraculous, and mystical material in which the life and sayings of Jesus had been buried. Jefferson rejected the Pauline epistles outright. Jefferson dismissed the book of Revelation as "the ravings of a maniac." Jefferson rejected the resurrection of the body, including the resurrection of the body of Jesus. Jefferson had a huge anti-clerical streak, and wrote sharply critical statements about the ways in which institutional Christianity had enslaved mankind and intruded on the rights of man. In the first draft of his famous letter to the Danbury Baptists, Jefferson had called not just for "a wall of separation between church and state," but for "a wall of eternal separation between church and state."

Barton begins his book with a long—and fundamentally erroneous—roster of evangelical Christianity's secularist enemies: deconstructionists, poststructuralists, modernists, minimalists, and academic collectivists. This part of the book is actually just embarrassing. Barton reduces these important schools of social and literary criticism to the crudest caricatures. Historians Warren Throckmorton and Michael Coulter gently conclude that "Barton uses these terms in ways that are peculiar at best and generally misrepresent what the general practices employed in the academic study of history." Barton seems to think the basis of deconstruction is cultural destruction and modernism looking at everything from a presentist perspective. Barton's strategy seems to be to offend serious academics right from the start, so that he can claim later, in rebuttals and on media talk shows, that such serious intellectuals, in condemning his puerilities and deliberate distortions, are merely proving his point: that they are hostile to God and the Founders' vision of a Christian nation. It's a perfect straw man strategy. Anyone who criticizes Barton's book is one of these bogeymen, who fault his book not because it is historically inaccurate, but because they are, as usual, promoting their liberal progressive atheist and secularist agenda. Throughout his book Barton wages war against secularists who don't really exist, members of "all five groups of historical malpractice," mendacious men and women who practice the evils of peer review. He argues that the liberal academic community regards Jefferson as an atheist (not true), as a statesman who sought ruthlessly to cleanse the public square of religious expression (not true), a man who hated all pastors, ministers, and priests (decidedly not true), a bold and indecorous man who cheerfully edited the Bible (not true), a book which he "hated" (not true).

But wait. There are three serious books on Jefferson and religion. The first of these is Charles B. Sanford's The Religious Life of Thomas Jefferson (1984). So far from being a secularist-progressive study of Jefferson's religious life, Sanford emphasized those parts of Jefferson's achievement least antagonistic to traditional Christianity, and tried to normalize Jefferson's religious views perhaps more than the historical records supports. Edwin Scott Gaustad was the author of Sworn Upon the Altar of God: A Religious Biography of Thomas Jefferson (1994). Gaustad (1923-2011) was a professor of history at the University of California, Riverside. The author of several highly acclaimed books, Gaustad was also president of the American Society of Church History. Nobody ever called him a deconstructionist or an academic collectivist. Eugene Sheridan's Jefferson and Religion was published as part of the Monticello Monograph Series in 1998. Sheridan, a distinguished editor and historian, first published the essay as the introduction to Princeton University's Jefferson's Extracts from the Gospels: "The Philosophy of Jesus" and "The Life and Morals of Jesus." None of these extraordinary historians was a poststructuralist or minimalist, none a leftist or a determined secularist. Each of these books is a thoughtful study of Jefferson's religious life. None tries to argue that Jefferson was a traditional Christian. All agree that Jefferson was a deist who denied the divinity of Christ and argued that Jesus was a great moral leader and Jewish reformist. Since Barton makes no attempt to "place" his own book in the stream of Jefferson scholarship represented by these books, it must be that he either disagrees with the analyses of Sanford, Sheridan, and Gaustad, or that he regards them as vile secularists who are working to distort the truth about the religious lives and intentions of the Founding Fathers. And yet all three of these books are infinitely more reliable studies of Jefferson's religious views than The Jefferson Lies.

To prove that Jefferson was a traditional Christian, and certainly not antagonistic to traditional Christianity, Barton engages in a steady stream of distortions, misrepresentations, spurious claims, overstatements, over-simplifications, and wrenchings of material out of context. Here are a just a couple of examples.

Barton claims that Jefferson "personally helped finance the printing of one of America's groundbreaking editions of the Bible." [68] This is more than a little misleading. Like hundreds of others, Jefferson subscribed to [i.e., pre-ordered] that two-volume Bible, just as he subscribed to many other books in the course of his lifetime. Funding the publication of certain books by way of subscription was a common practice in the eighteenth century. For example, Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language (1755) was pre-ordered by subscription, as well as Meriwether Lewis's never completed multi-volume report on his 1804-1806 exploration of the American West.

Barton makes much of the fact that Jefferson owned a number of Bibles. The third president also owned a Koran, a fact never mentioned by Barton. That copy of the Koran, now in the collection of the Library of Congress, was recently used by Minnesota Congressman-elect Keith Ellison, a Muslim-American, when he took the oath of office in the United States Capitol. Of course Jefferson owned Bibles. He was fully aware that the Bible is one of the handful of foundation texts of western civilization, the source text for countless works of literature in all the languages he read, frequently invoked (then more than now) in books of every sort on every subject. Bibles were essential texts in the library of any intellectually awake individual. Owning multiple copies had more to do with the variety of translations and the Bible's publication in all the languages of the world, including in Algonquian and Nattick. The Bible was also the primary source of information about the person Jefferson regarded as the greatest man who ever lived, Jesus of Nazareth. It would have been more remarkable if Jefferson did not own multiple copies of the Bible. Owning Bibles did not make Jefferson a traditional Christian, any more than owning the Koran made him a Muslim.

It is not at all clear how Barton comes to the conclusion that "It is clear that none of Jefferson's personal writings from any period of his life reveal anything less than his strong conviction in a personal God Who answers prayers and intervenes in the affairs of mankind and before Whom every individual would stand to be judged." [191] The evidence actually points to Jefferson's rational belief in a clockmaker God who has a general providential plan for humanity, and who may possibly intervene in human affairs when mankind strays disastrously from principles of justice and fair play. If Jefferson's letters are an accurate indication, he sometimes prayed, though his statement to his closest friend James Madison that Patrick Henry was so obstructionist to the reformation of Virginia that "What we have to do I think is devoutly to pray for his death" would seem to be of a rhetorical nature, not a literal injunction.

For Barton to declare that "Jefferson also was definitely not a deist," is just nonsense. It might be accurately argued that while Jefferson was certainly a deist, he was at times an inconsistent one, who posited a God who might under certain circumstances judge mankind for his violations of natural rights. It is possible to find in Jefferson's voluminous writings echoes of the doctrines of Heaven and Hell and divine judgment, particularly when he wanted to call attention to evils so egregious as the continuation of slavery. But the general tenor of Jefferson's outlook is thoroughly deistic. Gaustad, Sanford, and Sheridan all unhesitatingly conclude that he was a deist, though Sanford makes room for a streak of theism in Jefferson's writings, too.

That Jefferson was a deist would seem to be irrefutable. I know of no serious scholar who doubts that proposition. To John Adams in 1823, Jefferson wrote what amounts to a quintessential articulation of deism:

"The movements of the heavenly bodies, so exactly held in their course by the balance of centrifugal and centripetal forces, the structure of the earth itself, with it's distribution of lands, waters, and atmosphere, animal and vegetable bodies, examined in all their minutest particles, insects mere atoms of life, yet as perfectly organised as man or mammoth, the mineral substances, their generation and uses, it is impossible, I say, for the human mind not to believe that there is, in all this, design, cause, and effect, up to an ultimate cause, a fabricator of all things from matter and motion. . . ."

If this isn't deism, what is? Jefferson's letter to Adams is so perfectly crafted that it is widely regarded as one of the best short descriptions of deism ever written. In another letter Jefferson wrote of "evident proofs of the necessity of a superintending power to maintain the universe in its course and order."

Nowhere in his book does Barton quote Jefferson's most famous and most controversial statement about religion. In Notes on the State of Virginia Jefferson unguardedly but candidly wrote, "But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg." As genuine scholars of Jefferson's religious life have shown, this statement, written ca. 1782 and first printed in 1785, came back to haunt Jefferson for the rest of his life, particularly when he stood for the presidency in 1800 and 1804. Just as his cousin John Marshall said "The morals of the author of the letter to Mazzei cannot be pure," so too Jefferson's critics believed that a man who could write so glibly about a matter not only of civic importance but salvation, too, was not fit to hold public office. It was not just the meaning of this famous sentence that offended Christian conservatives, in Jefferson's time and beyond. The irreverent and even cynical tone of the statement, its confidence and its unmistakable dismissiveness of theological questions that had wracked Christendom for almost two thousand years, appalled genuine believers.

It would seem obvious that no serious examination of Jefferson's religious life can ignore that pivotal statement in the book where Jefferson offered his freest expression of his core philosophy. And yet Barton never refers to the statement in any way. In the same chapter of Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson makes an equally provocative statement about orthodoxy and heresy: "Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined and imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity." Barton neither quotes the passage nor makes an attempt to absorb it into his argument that Jefferson was a traditional Christian.

The Jefferson Bible

Barton's analysis of "the Jefferson Bible" is fundamentally unsatisfactory. He is quite right that there are two key documents in question, The Philosophy of Jesus that President Jefferson compiled in 1804, and The Life and Morals of Jesus that Jefferson compiled late in his retirement at Monticello. Barton rightly emphasizes that neither was intended for publication. In fact, Jefferson was so private in his religious musings, and so frightened that these highly personal and potentially explosive documents might fall into the wrong hands, so worried that they would somehow find their way into print under his name, and bring the Tower of Siloam down upon his head, that he shared them with only a tiny handful of friends and cabinet members, and then only on the condition that these trusted correspondents return the manuscripts without copying them out or showing them to others. Even Jefferson's family members were unaware of these projects until will after his death in 1826.

What many scholars incorrectly call "The Jefferson Bible"—a title Jefferson never himself used, which wrongly gives these private projects a more authoritative and combative feel than they actually intended—amounts to little more than one man of the Enlightenment's search for the historical Jesus in the four gospels of the New Testament, and Jefferson's attempts to separate what he regarded as the authentic sayings of Jesus from spurious sayings wrongly attributed to Jesus. Barton is right to insist, "Neither was a 'Bible,' and Jefferson would have strenuously objected to that characterization." [70] As Gaustad says, "The retired president did not produce his small book to shock or offend a somnolent world; he composed it for himself, for his devotion, for his assurance, for a more restful sleep at nights and a more confident greeting of the mornings." [131]

As a young man, Jefferson found so much to object to in the Bible that he essentially rejected it altogether, along the lines laid down by Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke (1678-1751), whose writings Jefferson devoured, and excerpts of which came to dominate his Commonplace Book. Bolingbroke not only exposed all the irrationalities, vulgarisms, brutalities, miracles, and inconsistencies in the Bible (particularly the Old Testament), but wondered why the one true God would choose to introduce himself to mankind by way of a tiny, xenophobic, and inward-looking near eastern tribe. Jefferson's own skepticism, buttressed by Bolingbroke's severe criticism of the irrationalities of the Christian tradition, might have turned the future president away from the Christian tradition altogether and once and for all. As Paul Conkin puts it, "In a period stretching from the early 1790s until he time he became president, he discovered a minimalist, Unitarian version of Christianity, most of whose tenets he could affirm." [21] After meeting the English chemist and Unitarian Joseph in 1797 and reading Priestley's History of the Corruptions of Christianity a number of times, Jefferson returned to the Bible to see if he could save the book (and Christianity) for himself by removing from it the encrustations that had clouded its simple message. Sheridan writes, "the implied message of the 'Syllabus' [the letter that preceded the Bible project] was that Christianity could only be made acceptable to rational men by purging it of its corruptions and restoring the doctrines of Jesus to their pristine simplicity." In pressing for a demystified biography of Jesus, Jefferson, in a letter to Francis Adrian Van der Kemp, spoke of the need for a "mortal biography of Jesus."

Like his friend Joseph Priestley, Jefferson rejected what he regarded as the corruptions of Christianity. He believed that the simple teachings of Jesus had been buried in doctrine, dogma, liturgy, ritual, church hierarchies, and deliberate distortions at the hands of men like Paul and the church fathers. In his own compilation, Jefferson rejected the "immaculate conception of Jesus, his deification, the creation of the world by him [Jesus], his miraculous powers, his resurrection and visible ascension, his corporeal presence in the Eucharist, the Trinity, original sin, atonement, regeneration, election, orders of hierarchy, &c." These, Jefferson said, were "artificial systems, invented by Ultra-Christian sects, unauthorised by any single word ever uttered by [Jesus]." Says Sheridan, "he was firmly convinced that they had been deliberately fabricated by the clergy to render lay people dependent upon them and thereby increase their wealth and power." [68]

So far so good. Barton's attempt to correct this conventional understanding of "the Jefferson Bible" requires him to argue that the books were not as severely secular and demystified as they have been universally said to be. Barton insists that Jefferson included in his New Testament scrapbooks many passages that contain "acts of a miraculous or supernatural character," that "the Jefferson Bible" contains passages on the "resurrection of the dead," and "mentions of the Divine, the miraculous, Heaven, Hell, and other supernatural elements." [80] There are three things to say about this. First, though the clear purpose of "the Jefferson Bible" was to extract from the New Testament a non-divine biography of Jesus and a collection of his parables and ethical sayings rather than those that point to questions of apocalypse, judgment, atonement, resurrection, and metaphysics, Jefferson did not engage in a perfectly consistent or ruthless cleansing of the gospels. As Gaustad suggests, if Thomas Paine's mission in his controversial book The Age of Reason had been "to see how much [in the bible] he could destroy; Jefferson wanted to see how much he could preserve." [131] If only to insure that the resulting account had Aristotelian integrity—a intelligible biographical narrative with logical continuity and a beginning, middle, and end—Jefferson retained a number of passages that might be questioned by a pure rationalist or pure secularist. The result was on the whole successful even though a few non-rational passages were retained. Gaustad concludes, "Even when this took some rather careful cutting with scissors or razor, Jefferson managed to maintain Jesus' role as a great moral teacher, not as a shaman or faith healer." [129]

Second, Jefferson retained a few passages in which Jesus pronounces that he was the divine Son of God, not because Jefferson believed them, but because he believed that it was quite likely that Jesus believed them, at least in the last days of his ministry. In some moods over the course of his lifetime, Jefferson insisted that Jesus never claimed divinity, and in others he acknowledged that Jesus might have deluded himself (to use Jefferson's actual term) into believing in his divinity as he became a kind of Jesus Christ superstar in the days before his fatal journey into Jerusalem. Statements can be extracted from Jefferson's letters that articulate both views. The important thing to remember is that Jefferson himself never once wrote anything that suggested that believed in the divinity of Jesus. For Jefferson, Jesus was the greatest man who ever lived. In keeping several of Jesus' sayings that indicated that the Jewish rabbi had come to think of himself as the Son of God, Jefferson was preserving the historical biography of Jesus to the best of his abilities, fascinated perhaps by the workings of charisma, the dynamics of Jesus speaking to rapt mass audiences, and those masses in turn feeding his sense of his unique powers.

Third, Jefferson was not an unwavering rationalist. There was a strong sentimentalist and romantic streak in Jefferson, brilliantly analyzed in Andrew Burstein's important book The Inner Jefferson: Portrait of a Grieving Rationalist (1996). Perhaps because he had buried his favorite sister, his best friend, his beloved wife Martha, four (eventually five) of his six children, Jefferson retained in his Jesus biographies four healings, in Charles Stanford's words, "all acts of healing that showed Jesus' compassion and could be explained by natural causes." [112] The consensus of all previous Jefferson scholars has been that while Jefferson broke his own secularist paradigm by including these four instances of healing, the Sage of Monticello may perhaps be forgiven for retaining these lesser "miracles" as a way of soothing his own sense of loss. As he wrote to Maria Cosway in 1787, "I am born to lose everything I love." In his Bible projects Jefferson's heart triumphed over his head, as it not infrequently did in the course of his long life. Conkin concludes, "He was a creature of mood and sentiment much more than a rigorous thinker." [35] For Barton to seize upon these and a few other not-strictly-secular passages and then to conclude that Jefferson was a Christian after all, is a deliberate perversion of the truth and an invasion of Jefferson's deepest private space merely for the purposes of religious propaganda. Barton's thesis—that Jefferson is at the very least not so secular in his Bible project as he has been made to seem—is effectively refuted by the way in which "the Jefferson Bible" ends. Barton makes much of what can be seen to have been retained, but Gaustad is surely more accurate in saying, "the omissions [are] even more revealing than the inclusions." [124] As Sanford says, "Jefferson included a full account of the trial and crucifixion of Christ but ended with the burial and omitted all of the resurrection and ascension accounts." [114] This would appear to be irrefutable. Without the resurrection and transfiguration, in what sense can Jesus of Nazareth be said to be the Christ?

Barton makes much of the fact that Jefferson's "Bible" is not 100% free of divinity, and implies that this makes Jefferson a Christian. But Eugene Sheridan has a more accurate explanation. According to Sheridan, Jefferson divided New Testament verses into three categories: first, passages he rejected as fanatical, superstitious, or vulgar.. Second, sayings of Jesus that he regarded as useful and textually unobjectionable. Third, verses "not free from objection, which we may with probability ascribe to Jesus himself." These are passages in which Jesus declared or intimated that he was acting under divine inspiration. Although Jefferson himself did not believe this to be true—in earlier years he spoke of Jesus as a teacher who in his last months deluded himself into believing he was God's inspired agent—he included these passages because he believed that they reflected Jesus' actual view of his ministry. In other words, says Sheridan, "Jefferson nevertheless included these on the ground that they accurately reflected the beliefs of a man who could not be expected to have been completely liberated from the superstitions of his people." [64]

Conkin's summary of "the Jefferson Bible" is outstanding:

"What he retained was a completely demystified Jesus. He included nonmiraculous biographical details, drawing more heavily on Luke than Matthew. He excluded all references to miracles or to a Holy Spirit, all ascriptions to Jesus of any special authority, and ended the biography with Jesus's death (no resurrection). For the teachings of Jesus he concentrated on his milder admonitions (the Sermon on the Mount) and his most memorable parables. What resulted is a reasonably coherent, but at places oddly truncated, biography. If necessary to exclude the miraculous, Jefferson would cut the text even in mid-verse." [40]

In other words, Barton is technically correct in insisting that "the Jefferson Bible" is not perfectly secular, that it is, in fact, not as consistently secularist as some Jefferson scholars have suggested, but his implied conclusion—that Jefferson was less hostile to the divine elements in Jesus' life and ministry than atheist scholars have argued, is an emphatic, and I think deliberate, misinterpretation. Sanford is much closer to the truth with his statement that Jefferson "emphasized the moral teachings of Jesus and avoided the incidents and declarations in the New Testament which suggest Jesus' divinity, which was the avowed intention in making his edition." [104] One could pile up refutations of Barton's wild claims from Jefferson's own pen ad nauseum.

To his protégé William Short, Jefferson wrote that one should read the four New Testament biographies of Jesus with the same skepticism and critical eye "granted in reading every other historian, such as Livy or Siculus." Jefferson specifically rejected, "e.g., The immaculate conception of Jesus, His deification, the creation of the world by him, His miraculous powers, His resurrection and visible ascension, His corporeal presence in the Eucharist, the Trinity, original sin, atonement, regeneration, election, orders of Hierarchy, etc." What could be more clear and emphatic than this? Needless to say, Barton does not cite this passage in his book.

Jefferson was not a Christian, if by Christian one means that Jesus was the son of God, a member of the Trinity, sent by God to redeem mankind, born in the womb of a virgin, a human-divine being who suspended the laws of nature at will, raised the dead, died on the cross but rose bodily to heaven on the third day. Jefferson could not subscribe to any one of these mystic propositions. In a letter to John Adams, Jefferson wrote, unreservedly, "The day will come, when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the Supreme Being as His Father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the Generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter." Needless to say, Barton does not quote this passage in his book.


One of the principal errors of Barton's book is his attempt to prove that Jefferson's anti-clericism was nothing more than a distaste for the Federalist clergy who said and wrote nasty things about him during the politically stressful years between 1790 and 1809. It is certainly true, as Barton takes pains to point out, that the New England clergy said and wrote appalling things about Jefferson, and that he complained bitterly about their hostility and their lies about his character. Gaustad speaks a little too emphatically about "the depth of an anticlericism that can be laid directly at the door of the campaign of 1800." [93] Although Jefferson had been much more mildly anti-clerical before the intense partisanship and character assassinations of the period in question, he had nevertheless always argued that from the very beginning of Christianity the "priestcraft" had perverted the pure and simple ministry of Jesus in its ignoble pursuit of power and profit. In other words, his anti-clericism ran much deeper than the politics of his own time. Conkin dates his "vehement clerical opposition" at least to the late 1770s, when the still-young Jefferson drafted his Virginia Statute for Religious Liberty. Barton's claim that, "With these types of reprehensible charges coming from Federalist clergy, it should not be surprising that the comments Jefferson made about these specific Federalist ministers might indeed seem anti-clergy," [149] seriously misrepresents the truth. The election of 1800 merely deepened Jefferson's anti-clericism. "Never again after this wounding campaign would Jefferson relax regarding those clergy who lusted after preferment and power or those who would cramp or shut down the minds of humankind," Gaustad writes. [93]

To sustain his thesis, Barton is forced to overlook dozens of anti-clerical statements made by Jefferson in the course of his life. In 1816, for example, in encouraging the Dutch Unitarian Francis Adrian Van der Kemp to publish a chastened life and teachings of Jesus, Jefferson wrote, "the world will see, after the fogs shall be dispelled, in which for 14. Centuries he has been inveloped by Jeglers to make money of him, when the genuine character shall be exhibited, which they have dressed up in the rags of an Imposter, the world, I say, will at length see the immortal merit of this first of human Sages." Since the Federalists and their attendant clergy had existed for less than a quarter of a century, the Jeglers Jefferson has in mind here would appear to be something other than his immediate detractors. Needless to say, Barton does not quote this passage in his book.

In a letter that he never actually sent, Jefferson wrote, "but a short time elapsed after the death of the great reformer of the Jewish religion before his principles were departed from by those who professed to be his special servants, and perverted into an engine for enslaving mankind, and aggrandizing their oppressors in church and state." Again, those whose deliberate mission was "for enslaving mankind," were not the Federalist clergy of Jefferson's own lifetime. Barton does not cite this passage in his book.

In the same letter Jefferson called the clergy "the greatest obstacles to the advancement of the real doctrines of Jesus, and [they] do in fact constitute the real anti-Christ." It's no wonder Jefferson did not send this letter; it does not exhibit his customary civility. Barton does not quote this passage.

Jefferson said the clergy "made of Christianity a slaughter-house, through so many ages [presumably before the birth of the Federalist Party] and at this day divide it into castes of inextinguishable hatred to one another." Barton does not quote this passage in his book.

Of Jesus, Jefferson wrote, "I place Him among the greatest reformers of morals and scourges of priest-craft that have ever existed. They never rested until they had silenced Him by death. His teaching prevailed of Judaism in the long run, but the priests have rebuilt upon them the temple which He destroyed, as splendid, as profitable, and as imposing as that of before to make instruments of wealth, power, and pre-eminence to themselves." Barton does not quote this passage in his book.

Indeed, the last letter that Thomas Jefferson ever wrote included a bitter expression of anticlericalism. Writing to Roger C. Weightman to decline his invitation to attend a fiftieth anniversary celebration of the Declaration of Independence in the nation's capital, Jefferson spoke "of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves." This letter, written on June 24, 1826, just ten days before his death, was Jefferson's final testament to what on another occasions he called the "illimitable freedom of the human mind." Gaustad concludes, "With that phrase, Jefferson fired a final shot at all repressive religion." [209]

Barton's secondary argument, that the fact that Jefferson had many friends who were pastors, ministers, theologians, preachers, and priests proves that he was not anti-clerical, is equally flawed. Jefferson was not alone in advocating a less severe or literalist Christianity. Many of his closest friends were enlightened clerics in France, England, and the United States who were engaged in the same struggle to retain what they could of the Christian inheritance and yet be true to their commitment to reason, skepticism, and science. In other words, Jefferson's clerical friends belonged to what he called the Republic of Letters—an informal worldwide association of like-minded reformers and savants. He did not always agree with the religious views of his friends—such as Benjamin Rush and Joseph Priestley—or they with his, but Jefferson chose not to pursue friendships with ministers who were doctrinaire or righteous about their piety. He did not judge others according to their religious views so long as those men were civil about their convictions and tolerant of others' views. Many of the friendships Barton points to were based not on religious questions, but rather science, love of books, a commitment to republican values, love of learning, love of America, and much more. Jefferson had friends who were Federalists, monarchists, aristocrats, bankers, severely pro-slavery and adamantly abolitionist. In relation to such men, as a natural harmony-obsessive, Jefferson's watchword was, "you and I differ; but we differ as rational friends." To conclude, as Barton apparently does, that he could only be called anti-clerical if he hated all clerics is to misunderstand Jefferson entirely. Moreover, Jefferson preferred to base his friendships on virtually any subject other than religion, where he was private, cautious, and universally respectful of others, even when he fundamentally disagreed with their views.

The Trinity

Barton also tries to convince his readers, and perhaps himself, that Jefferson did not reject the concept of the Trinity until he was well into his retirement. And though he does not say so in plain English, Barton implies that the elderly Jefferson became susceptible to Unitarian fads that were sweeping Virginia between 1812 and 1826. In other words, Barton tries to convince us that Jefferson was not susceptible to anti-Trinitarian views until he was an old man no longer fully in control of his mental faculties. This idea is as absurd and demonstrably erroneous as it is morally repugnant to suggest that the elderly Jefferson was a stooge to ideas he would have rejected as a younger man. Conkin refutes this notion in a handful of words. "In his last years," he writes, "Jefferson changed none of his core religious beliefs. They had been amazingly constant from youth." [41]

The fact is that of all the disagreements Jefferson had with traditional Christianity, his rejection of the Trinity was the most consistent and emphatic. Gaustad rightly acknowledges that "his own language of condemnation [of the Trinity] grew ever stronger" over time. In a letter to P.P. Derieux on July 25, 1788, Jefferson explained that the doctrine of the Trinity had troubled him "from a very early part of my life." [139] Eugene Sheridan writes unambiguously, "The cornerstone of Jefferson's religion was an unswerving commitment to monotheism." [65] "There was one thing about the godhead of which Jefferson was certain," Sheridan wrote, "the one true God that man was obliged to worship and adore was not the triune deity of orthodox Christianity. Jefferson had nothing but scorn for the traditional doctrine of three persons in one God." [65] In fact Jefferson, who was generally not prone to sarcasm and ridicule, openly scoffed at the notion that the "unintelligible proposition of Platonic mysticisms that three are one, and one is three; and yet one is not three, and the three are not one." He called the trinity a "hocus-pocus phantasm of a god like another Cerberus with one body and three heads." In 1816, during the period which Barton regards as his dotage, Jefferson called Trinity "the mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves priests of Jesus."

Jefferson believed that the doctrine of the Trinity had actually been a setback from the primary religious contribution of Judaism--monotheism. "The metaphysical insanities of Athanasius, of Loyola, and of Calvin, are to my understanding, mere relapses into polytheism, differing in paganism only by being more unintelligible," he wrote.

University of Virginia

Barton attempts to prove that capstone achievement of Jefferson's life, the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, was not the first truly secular institution of higher education in the United States, but what he prefers to call "America's first transdenominational school—a school not affiliated with one specific denomination but rather one that would train students from all denominations." [44]. Not quite. What Jefferson established was a state-sponsored secular university that welcomed religious seminaries to spring up in its periphery. Jefferson was not opposed to religious training for young men; he just didn't want that to be one of the functions of the university he designed in his retirement. In fact, Jefferson made no provision at UVA for professors of divinity or even a chaplain. The seventeen buildings he painstakingly designed did not include a chapel.

After the appointment of the Unitarian Thomas Cooper to the professorship in chemistry caused a controversy so pronounced that it jeopardized the very existence of the university, Jefferson and the Board of Visitors voted to allow "the different religious sects to establish, each for itself, a professorship of their own tenets, on the confines of the university." Students attending these religious academies would be permitted to use the UVA library, attend university lectures (free), and use UVA facilities. The Board insisted, however, that it was bent on "preserving . . . their independence of us and each other." Jefferson "let it be known," writes the eminent Jefferson scholar Garry Wills, "that religious bodies could hold student services of their own, so long as none was sponsored by the university itself." [25-26]

Jefferson quietly hoped that by mingling all of the religious sects in the same vicinity, under the overarching umbrella of his secular university, that "we shall soften their asperities, liberalize and neutralize their prejudices." Jefferson even dreamed that this free mingling would inspire students to move away from the peculiarities of their religious denominations towards a more natural, more Unitarian religious outlook.

Earlier in his career, Jefferson had managed to abolish the two professorships of divinity at the College of William and Mary, his alma mater, where he was now a member of the board of visitors, replacing one of them with a professorship of law and another of science.

Wall of Separation between Church and State

Barton's most successful argument in The Jefferson Lies is that Jefferson was not as strict in his time about the "wall of separation between church and state" as the ACLU, the American judicial establishment, and "Jeffersonians" are in our time. On this score, Barton makes a very important point. I believe he seriously (and deliberately) overstates his case, but there are enough verifiable breaches of the wall of separation in Jefferson's life to prove that he was not a doctrinaire absolutist in the public arena.

Here are some of Barton's claims: as a young legislator Jefferson proposed a day of fasting and prayer in Virginia; in revising the law code of Virginia, Jefferson retained several laws enforcing religious observance; in his revision of the law code, Jefferson retained references to God in oaths taken by office holders; Jefferson's motto was "Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God"; both as vice president and president of the United States, Jefferson permitted Christian religious observances in federal buildings; President Jefferson permitted the Marine Corps band to play at religious services in the Capitol; Jefferson instructed the secretary of war to provide federal funds to a religious school established for the Cherokee Indians of Tennessee; Jefferson used federal funds to pay Christian ministers to civilize Indians in the south and west; Jefferson closed a number of presidential documents with the phrase "In the year of our Lord Christ." Etc. To which Barton adds, "There are many additional examples, and they all clearly demonstrate that Jefferson has no record of attempting to secularize the public square." [137]

Some of these claims have a kernel of truth in them, or what the comedian and political commentator Stephen Colbert calls "truthiness." Others are just nonsense. There is not much to be made of the fact that certain printed government forms contained the words "In the year of our Lord Christ." This was bureaucratic boilerplate, certainly not written by Jefferson himself, contrary to his theological viewpoint. One may as well argue that if Jefferson wrote that he rode his horse in 1803 A.D. [anno domini] that he was acknowledging his Christianity. Barton seems not to understand the role of convention and established tradition in American life in the early national period. The president permitted ecumenical religious services to take place in the Capitol because it was one of the few places in the new national capital large enough to accommodate a congregation. The services were officiated in turn by each of the religious groups in the district, and Jefferson often was in attendance. As a pragmatist, he probably lost little sleep over such technical violations of the separation doctrine. Gaustad's analysis seems right. "Jefferson could not altogether avoid the priestly role that presidential powers thrust upon him, but he did reject the more intrusive elements which that 'bully pulpit' afforded." [98]

Barton argues that President Jefferson's only reason for declining to name a national day of thanksgiving and prayer was his conviction that such things were the sovereign province of the states, not the national government. Not so. It is true that Jefferson took the Tenth Amendment seriously, and sought always to limit the national government's footprint in American life. But the whole tenor of his civic thought insists that one's religious life is private and morally and legally distinct from the proper sphere of government. He was roundly criticized in some circles for refusing to use the national government to declare days of national religious observance. In no instance did he argue that individual states should make such declarations and proclamations. Barton is simply wrong to argue that Jefferson's primary concern was the preservation of states rights. On the contrary, his primary concern was to keep the government (any government) from intruding into what he regarded as private space—the conscience and religious outlook of the individual. Jefferson regarded freedom of conscience as an inalienable right—that is, a right never to be entrusted to government, a right that could not legitimately be entrusted to government, a right to be jealousy guarded against any invasion by any government, state, local, or national.

It is true that as a young Virginia legislator Jefferson proposed a public day of fasting and prayer in response to England's retaliatory Boston Port Bill. He was using a well-worn political tool in 1774, when he was still feeling his way into serious statesmanship. Jefferson was just 31 years old at the time, still a little timid, just beginning to find his revolutionary stride. Such tactics do not square with his more mature thinking on the separation of church and state. That Jefferson was later embarrassed that he and his fellow revolutionaries had employed a somewhat demagogic tactic in the Boston port crisis is shown in the language he used to describe the event in his fragmentary autobiography, in 1821: "We cooked up a resolution." Gaustad says that Jefferson "casting about for some acceptable means of awakening public opinion in a lethargic Virginia, chose a time-honored technique that would meet with universal approbation. Was it a propaganda ploy? Yes." [103]

It is also true that the Jefferson administration continued the efforts of his predecessors to fund Christian missions among Indian tribes. Like everyone else, Gaustad wonders what to make of this apparent breach of the wall of separation. His conclusion is that the purpose of these funds was not to convert or proselytize Indians but to civilize them, and that Christian missions, begun under the auspices of previous administrations, had proved quite successful in bringing certain Indian tribes into the American orbit. In other words, "The purpose was not religious but political," Gaustad writes, "to stabilize the relationship between the government and the Indians by means other than war and to mitigate their hostility toward the United States." [101] In continuing to fund these missions Jefferson was merely taking "advantage of the most readily available means . . . for achieving" his civilizing purposes. This is an instance of Jefferson's pragmatism, which occasionally could tend towards opportunism. In other words, Jefferson was not interested in converting Indians to Christianity, but he did not strenuously object to the use of a much-simplified Christian template as a civilizing tool.

James Madison actually warned Jefferson that his apparent endorsement of Christian missions to Indian tribes might lead some to conclude that Jefferson was not in earnest about his wall of separation. Jefferson replied with characteristic pragmatism: the missions were accomplishing his goal—of acculturation at low cost to the public. The tribes in question lived far from the centers of American power and government. Jefferson understood that spirituality was one of the Indians' principal lenses on the universe. The president saw no reason to discontinue a modest but successfully program just to maintain a principle that was more rigorously enforced in American population centers.

It is worth noting that in his instructions to Meriwether Lewis in June 1803, Jefferson made no reference to Christianity or to missionary activity of any sort. Lewis and Clark were to carry a number of important messages to the fifty-plus Indian tribes they met—mostly having to do with trade and the advantages of peaceful coexistence with other Indians—but a religious message was definitely not included in the instructions. Lewis and Clark carried a small reference library with them into the wilderness—all the way to the Pacific Ocean and back again. Among the eleven or so books was no copy of the Bible or the Book of Common Prayer. When Charles Floyd died on August 20, 1804, his funeral service derived from the military manual of Baron von Steuben rather than the Bible.

Still, if a fair observer adds up the specific instances of President Jefferson's flexibility on the question of separation of church and state, it seems clear (to me at least) that Jefferson was less strict than he has been made to seem by some modern biographers. Barton is right to insist that these Jeffersonian inconsistencies—at least one of which disturbed the ever-vigilant Madison—indicate that Jefferson's practical policies as president suggest (at least for that time and place) a more porous wall of separation between church and state than is dictated by state and federal court rulings in the post World War II period. It is quite possible that the courts (and nonprofit organizations such as the ACLU) have made more of the wall of separation than Jefferson (in his own lifetime) intended, or at least dared to enforce. Instead of suggesting that Jefferson was a traditional Christian, or trying to reclaim "the Jefferson Bible" as a Christian document, Barton would have been better served in arguing that Jefferson's phrase "wall of separation" has become far more powerful than it ought to have, perhaps more powerful than Jefferson intended. As Gaustad suggests, "By a quirk of memory or rhetoric, Jefferson's 'wall of separation' phrase, to be found nowhere in the Constitution, came to grow more familiar than the constitutional language itself." [99]

Towards the end of his book, Barton writes categorically, "Were Jefferson alive today, he would undoubtedly be one of the loudest voices against a secularized public square." [195] We have no way of knowing this of course. If Jefferson were alive today, aside from being 269 years old, it is not clear how his thinking would have evolved. Jefferson was tenaciously committed to his core set of ideas, but he famously said that "forty years of experience in government is worth a century of book reading." The Jefferson who actually lived between 1743 and 1826 may be characterized as a halfway Christian and a quasi atheist. His rationality, skepticism, and distaste for metaphysics led him to question all the counter-rational aspects of received Christianity, including the godhead and resurrection of Jesus. He was too respectful a man to declare himself an atheist and to jettison the Christian tradition altogether, though he toyed with that idea in his young adulthood when he was most under the influence of Bolingbroke. Jefferson could never really let go of the idea that the world was created by God, a clockmaker Newtonian physicist and planet spinner, and he could not finally abandon the idea that God played some kind of providential role in the affairs of humankind, particularly the American experiment. He did not decisively reject the idea of an afterlife, though he knocked on the door of that notion, and he did not fully reject the idea that God would somehow sit in judgment of human actions, including the actions of nations.

Still, if Jefferson were alive today it seems likely that he would be a more thoroughgoing secularist than he was in his time, for several reasons. First, his principal allegiance was to science. Jefferson lived on the other side of the Freudian and Darwinian divide. He did not understand evolution, though Darwin's grandfather Erasmus Darwin was teasing the edges of the theory in Birmingham, England, as the principal member of the Lunar Society, of which Jefferson's mentor William Small was for a time a member. The revolutionary breakthroughs in astronomy, neurology, quantum mechanics, genetic theory, psychology, medicine, geology, and other hard sciences since 1826 have explained the world in a way that would have been unthinkable in Jefferson's era. If the French philosophe Baron d'Holbach (1723-1789) could speak of man as a machine in the eighteenth century, when all the sciences were in their infancy, the staggering advances in every science in the two hundred years since Jefferson's death would merely have confirmed Jefferson's materialism and his conviction that the world is knowable to those who have eyes and measuring devices to observe it. One need only imagine Jefferson's reaction to the unlocking of the genetic code, or to the images beamed back by the Hubble Telescope, or to radioactive dating techniques in geology, to see that in our time he would almost certainly be more allied with the outlook of Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins than with obscurantists like David Barton.

Furthermore, if Jefferson advocated a wall of separation between church and state in 1802, when the population of the United States, at about six million, was overwhelmingly, almost unanimously "Christians" in some sense of that term, he would almost certainly be for a higher and wider wall now, in a pluralistic nation with a population of 330 million, in which four million Americans identify themselves as Jews, 1.6 million Muslims, 1.6 million Buddhists, more than a million Hindus, and 433,000 who identify themselves as Wiccan/Pagan/Druid. Although a full 76% of the American people now regard themselves as Christian, almost a third of all Americans now identify themselves as not-Christian, including 39 million who regard themselves as non-religious or secular. Those who argue that the Founding Fathers envisioned a Christian nation confuse demographics with political intention. The great majority of the American people in1776 or 1801 were Christians, but the Constitution they wrote and ratified was surprisingly even startlingly secular. In the ongoing historical debate about church and state, the single most important fact of the founding of the United States was that it occurred during the high water mark of the American Enlightenment. It is hard to imagine a constitution as rigorously secular in language or intent if the country had been founded one generation sooner or one generation later than it was. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, All honor to men like Jefferson and Madison—to the men who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into our national charters, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.

Jefferson's flexibility on separation of church and state is truly remarkable and, as Gaustad indicates, sometimes puzzling. It troubles some Jeffersonians who wish their secularist hero had been more punctilious about the wall of separation. Jefferson was not a doctrinaire ideologue.

Straw Man Fallacy

A straw man is a bogey who doesn't really exist, set up by a disputant merely for the sake of knocking him down. David Barton has adopted the extraordinary strategy of creating a whole legion of straw men and women. Although he limits his ad hominem attacks to deconstructionists, poststructuralists, modernists, minimalists, and academic collectivists, the larger tribe of his secularist enemies includes everyone who is engaged in what Barton calls the "incestuous system of peer review," in other words, the entire academic establishment. Barton boldly claims that he alone has returned to the "original documents as the standard for truth." The academics, he explains, merely quote from each other, without bothering to do the hard work, which he has undertaken, of consulting primary source documents. This is offensive nonsense.

Barton pretends that secular scholars are ashamed of Jefferson's intensive interest in ethics and moral principles. "In today's shallow academic climate of Minimalism and Modernism, Jefferson's preoccupation with the study of morals seems eccentric and out of the ordinary," Barton writes. "It is usually dismissed as nothing more than what critics consider to be a thinly veiled subterfuge masking his true hatred of the Bible." [74-75] This is literal nonsense. Jefferson was deeply interested in the moral underpinnings of human action, in part because he wanted to disestablish state churches in America. Jefferson understood that many thoughtful men believed that religion was essential to an orderly society. Take away Christianity and what holds American civilization together? Jefferson was acutely interested in that question, partly because he envisioned a republic characterized by harmony, severely limited government, mutual respect, and a minimum of formal law, and partly because he was determined to separate freedom of conscience from any government control.

Jefferson found his solution in the idea of the moral sense, which he borrowed from the writings of the Scottish Enlightenment. According to Lord Kames (Henry Home), Francis Hutcheson, and Thomas Reid, man is born with an innate moral sense that guides us inerrantly through life. Jefferson wrote about the workings of the moral sense throughout his life. He gave the concept his most interesting articulation in a letter he wrote in 1787 to his nephew Peter Carr:

"He who made us would have been a pitiful bungler, if he had made the rules of our moral conduct a matter of science. For one man of science, there are thousands who are not. What would have become of them? Man was destined for society. His morality, therefore, was to be formed to this object. He was endowed with a sense of right and wrong merely relative to this. This sense is as much a part of his nature, as the sense of hearing, seeing, feeling; it is the true foundation of morality... The moral sense, or conscience, is as much a part of man as his leg or arm. It is given to all human beings in a stronger or weaker degree, as force of members is given them in a greater or less degree. It may be strengthened by exercise, as may any particular limb of the body. This sense is submitted indeed in some degree to the guidance of reason; but it is a small stock which is required for this: even a less one than what we call Common sense. State a moral case to a ploughman and a professor. The former will decide it as well, and often better than the latter, because he has not been led astray by artificial rules."

Thus Jefferson believed that a society in which religion had been detached from the workings of the state, where individuals were free to worship one god or twenty or none at all, would not descend into pandemonium and a Hobbesian jungle. On the contrary, so long as public education focused on the strengthening and clarification of the moral sense, people would thrive in a society in which church and state had been thoroughly separated. At no point did Jefferson minimize the importance of ethical training and moral reasoning in his dream of America. Conkin writes, "he knew that the type of self-discipline, and at times the courage to do right, to follow the dictates of conscience, was the pressing practical moral problem for himself and for others." In fact, Jefferson clung to the idea of an afterlife and some form of divine judgment of human actions, in direct opposition to his scientific skepticism and thorough materialism, because he understood that "people needed the authority, or the inspiration, to live up to basic moral imperatives shared by all people, whatever their cultural differences." [Conkin 24] So far as I know, no serious Jefferson scholar has ever tried to minimize his commitment to these social values.

Sally Hemings

Even though Barton is, in my opinion, demonstrably wrong in his chapters on Jefferson's religious views, sometimes more and sometimes less, the religious material in his book is much superior to the two chapters on slavery and race. The first of the "lies" Barton seeks to expose is the now widely held view that Jefferson had a decades-long sexual relationship with one of his slaves Sally Hemings, and fathered a child or children by her.

Barton's argument goes something like this. The DNA tests conducted in 1998 were not as conclusive as most people believe. They only indicate that some male member of the Jefferson family fathered one of Sally Hemings's children. (The other children's lines of descent were not tested). There is no way of knowing, from the DNA tests that were conducted, precisely which Jefferson was the father of Eston Hemings. From a purely scientific point of view, the father may have been Jefferson's brother Randolph, who was known to frequent the slave quarters at Monticello, or Randolph's sons, or Jefferson's uncle Field Jefferson, or a number of others. Since there is no way of proving (from the DNA tests that have so far been conducted) that the father of Eston Hemings was our Jefferson, the Thomas Jefferson, it is clear, says Barton, that it was not Thomas Jefferson. This is the quality of his historical argumentation.

Barton gets sidetracked by suggesting that the Jefferson-Hemings DNA announcement in 1998 was co-opted, including by Pulitzer Prize winning historian Joseph Ellis, as a "defense" of the sitting president, William Jefferson Clinton, who was, at the time of the announcement, weathering a humiliating national scandal resulting from his dalliances with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. If it could be shown that even Thomas Jefferson had sexual skeletons in his closet—"they all do it"—then president Clinton's misbehavior had some very distinguished company, from JFK through FDR all the way back to the founding father Jefferson. The Jefferson DNA revelations, Barton argues, had a softening effect on the glare of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. True though this may be, it has nothing to do with the truth or falsehood of the DNA tests.

Barton makes much of the fact that the initial reports of the DNA test overstated the results. The title of the original article in Nature (November 5, 1998) was "Jefferson Fathered Slave's Last Child." Eight weeks later, a little sheepishly, Nature printed what Barton calls a "retraction," though in fact it was actually more in the nature of a clarification. The correction rightly pointed out that a Jefferson or some Jefferson fathered Eston Hemings, but that the DNA study could not verify that the father was Thomas Jefferson. Barton does not bother to concede that the "retraction" in no way rules Jefferson out as the father of Sally Hemings' fifth child Eston. Instead, with sweeping and baseless confidence, he concludes, "this category of evidence is now discredited." This is not true at all. Without further studies, based on samples of Jefferson's own DNA, there is no scientific way to determine whether the father of Eston Hemings was our Jefferson or some other male member of the Jefferson line. Given the state of our current genetic knowledge Jefferson would probably be exonerated in a court of law. But in the court of careful historical analysis his innocence is far less certainly established.

Barton makes no effort to analyze the large amount of circumstantial evidence that points to Jefferson as the father of at least some of Sally Hemings' children, much of it gathered and carefully analyzed in Annette Gordon-Reed's remarkable book, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. Barton is content to hang his hat on the reasonable doubt left by the DNA tests of 1998, and the fact that the originator of the Sally Hemings story, James Callender (1758-1803), was a rogue and a scoundrel who made a number of factual mistakes in the series of character assassinations he printed about Jefferson in a Richmond, Virginia, newspaper. Needless to say, Callender's character flaws do not necessarily mean that his basic allegation—that Hemings' was Jefferson's "concubine"—is false. Nor does Barton acknowledge that Jefferson's cash contributions to Callender between 1796 and 1800, $50 here and $50 there, were intended to encourage the British scandalmonger to write newspaper articles and pamphlets sharply critical of John Adams and the Adams administration. For those irresponsible partisan attacks, Callender expected to be rewarded by Jefferson when he became president in 1801, preferably as the postmaster of Richmond. When no sinecure was proffered him, Callender turned on his former patron and "broke" the Sally Hemings story in September 1802, as well as the allegation that Jefferson had attempted to seduce his neighbor John Walker's wife. All of this led Abigail Adams—bitter over the unscrupulous political tactics Jefferson had used against her husband—to write, with venomous accuracy, "The serpent [Callender] you cherished and warmed, bit the hand that nourished him, and gave you sufficient Specimens of his talents, his gratitude, his justice, and his truth." Jefferson's attempt to convince Mrs. Adams that his cash payments to Callender were grocery money did not convince the sharp-minded and sharp-tongued former First Lady.

Nor does Barton bother to try to make sense of the testimony of Sally Hemings' son Madison Hemings in Ohio in 1873. There, living as a free man, 47 years after the death of Jefferson and 38 years after the death of his mother, Madison Hemings told the Pike County Republican that his mother had informed him that Thomas Jefferson was his father and that she had returned from France in 1789 pregnant with Jefferson's child. It used to be common for Jefferson biographers to dismiss Madison Hemings' recollections as sensational, factually imprecise, or unreliable, but more recent scholars have been trying to make sense of the memoir, which would seem to have some claim to authenticity coming from the child of the woman in question long after she and Thomas Jefferson were dead. Madison's account of the relationship between his mother and Jefferson is a fascinating document. Among other things Madison Hemings said that his mother realized that under French law she need not return to the United States with Jefferson in 1789. Madison Hemings says flatly, "she refused to return with him." Jefferson coaxed her into returning to Monticello with the promise that she would have "extraordinary privileges," and that he "made a solemn pledge that her children should be freed at the age of twenty-one years." Jefferson did free all of Hemings children when they reached their maturity.

At the end of his problematic chapter on the Hemings controversy, Barton concludes: "In summery, there exists no evidence, either modern or ancient, that Thomas Jefferson fathered even one child with Sally Hemings, much less five." [30] This is demonstrably untrue, unless by "evidence" Barton means evidence that he would find persuasive.

My own view, for what little it is worth, is that the Sally Hemings allegations are more likely true than not true, that the circumstantial evidence points pretty clearly towards Jefferson, and the DNA tests certainly don't rule him out. But the DNA tests do not establish paternity with certainty. For the moment, therefore, it is certainly a respectable historical position to conclude that Jefferson ought to be given the benefit of the doubt, until such time as conclusive proof is offered of his sexual relationship with Hemings. As Jefferson scholar Andrew Burstein concludes, "As to actual evidence in the matter of Sally Hemings, nothing fully satisfies." [230]

At the end of his book, Barton returns to the Hemings controversy to write, "There is absolutely no historical, factual, or scientific evidence to tarnish the sexual morality of Jefferson." [193] Actually, this, too, is demonstrably wrong. Jefferson himself admitted (in 1805) to having tried to seduce Betsy Walker, the wife of his friend and neighbor John Walker, when "young and single." That would seem to tarnish his "sexual morality," as would the affair he conducted with a married woman, Maria Cosway, in France in 1786 and 1787. It is not clear that Jefferson's relationship with the Anglo-Italian painter and coquette was consummated, but it was undeniably adulterous. Although these escapades in no way determine the validity of the Sally Hemings story, they show what a poor historian David Barton is.

Race and Slavery

Barton (lie #4) attempts to refute the view that Jefferson was a racist who opposed equality for Black Americans. As with most of the fundamental issues in Jefferson's life and achievement, this one is a paradox. On the one hand, Jefferson knew that slavery was wrong, acknowledged that in denying black people their equal rights he and other Americans were convicting themselves of being not only oppressors but base hypocrites. On the other hand, after making a few serious attempts to create a legal and social climate of emancipation in the years 1774-1787, Jefferson settled into a long period of hand-wringing and temporizing, punctuated from time to time by the penning of slightly hysterical spasms of guilt and moral indignation, always reserved for private correspondence. Jefferson never doubted that slavery was wrong, but he bought and sold slaves all of his life, parried the puzzled queries of his abolitionist friends with his characteristic pose of pained helplessness, and somehow slept soundly at night. In short, for all of his rhetorical brilliance and seeming candor, Thomas Jefferson learned to live with slavery.

It is certainly true that Jefferson never directly defended slavery. It is equally true that a Jefferson apologist can string together an impressive set of initiatives put forward by Jefferson to free American slaves—immediately or over time--and to restrain the odious slave trade. As virtually every Jefferson scholar knows, one of his first legislative actions was to co-sponsor a bill in the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1769 that would have would have permitted manumission of slaves under carefully controlled circumstances. That bill was overwhelmingly defeated, Jefferson reported, and the well-respected co-sponsor Richard Bland was "denounced as an enemy of his country." Jefferson also included in the Declaration of Independence a shrill indictment of George III of England for perpetuating the slave trade, thus waging "cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people which never offended him." That paragraph, the longest single paragraph in the Declaration, was expunged from the final version of the document "in complaisance to South Carolina and Georgia, who had never attempted to restrain the importation of slaves, and who, on the contrary, still wished to continue it."

Barton compiles the usual list of enlightened statements and actions undertaken by Jefferson. It is a very impressive list, and it is important to remember that Jefferson was taking considerable political risks in condemning slavery so passionately and advocating immediate or gradual emancipation. He was also, of course, exposing himself to the charge of gross hyprocrisy since he only managed to free eight of his several hundred slaves, three during the course of his life, and five at the time of his death in 1826. He hunted down free slaves with some zeal, offering rewards for their return, and causing the recalcitrant to be punished either by flogging or by being sold to less "humane" slaveholders. He told the British visitor Augustus John Foster in 1807, that Negroes "were born to carry burdens," and the underlying but never candidly stated argument of his literary masterpiece Notes on the State of Virginia was that black Africans were what Aristotle called "natural slaves," i.e., beings who were apparently incapable of living lives of true self-reliance and therefore fitted by the natural economy of things for life on benevolent slave plantations. Barton mentions none of this evidence in his defense of Jefferson.

It is true that in Notes on the State of Virginia Jefferson wrote a furious denunciation of slavery, culminating in the melodramatic passage, "And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis—a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? . . . Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever." Jefferson did indeed write that in the case of a slave rebellion, "the Almighty has not attribute which can take side with us [white masters] in such a contest." He was never comfortable with his status as a slaveholder, but he never seriously attempted to extricate himself from what he called an "execrable practice."

Strong stuff. On the other hand, the plain truth is that Jefferson could just about come to terms with the general emancipation of American slaves (he once called the economic disaster that would follow a "mere bagatelle."), but he could never envision a biracial republic in which free whites lived side by side with freed blacks. Chiseled on the wall of the magnificent Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., dedicated in 1943, is the lovely sentiment that "Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that people are to be free." But the designers of the memorial left off the rest of the sentiment. The full passage reads as follows:

"Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free. Nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government. Nature, habit, opinion has drawn indelible lines of distinction between them. It is still in our power to direct the process of emancipation and deportation peaceably and in such slow degree as that the evil will wear off insensibly, and their place be pari passu filled up by free white laborers."

Jefferson was, in fact, an apartheidist. He spent countless hours trying to figure out how slaves could be freed and then immediately repatriated in their native Africa. He was an early subscriber to the repatriation societies in Liberia (the place of the freed) and Sierra Leon. He once tried to calculate how many ships it would take to deport all of the black people of the United States to Africa or perhaps an island in the Caribbean, carefully making allowances for the high birth rate among American slaves. What he discovered was discouraging: the black population was already too large ever to be successfully deported. This does not sound like the social equality that Barton believes characterized Jefferson's thinking about race. All this is sobering and disheartening, coming from a man who has until recently been called the American "apostle of liberty," but the actual historical record is much worse. Although Barton quite rightly quotes liberally from the countless emancipationist statements made by Jefferson over a lifetime, he entirely omits the second disquisition of race and slavery in Notes on Virginia, wherein Jefferson attempts to provide a scientific explanation of the differences between the white and black races. (I hate even to copy these words, because they are so appalling).

Negroes, said Jefferson, are less highly evolved because they cannot blush; the "eternal monotony" and "immoveable veil of black" indicate a more primitive status on the chain of being. Just as orangutans mate with human women whenever possible, so black men prefer to mate with white women. Why? Races like to breed up. Negroes have a peculiar odor, perhaps because "they secrete less by the kidnies, and more by the glands of the skin, which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odor." They require less sleep than their white counterparts, as evidenced by their willingness to stay up half the night dancing after spending dawn to dusk laboring for their white masters in the fields. When idle they tend merely to sleep rather than engage in the arts of self-improvement. The males are "more ardent after their female" than their white counterparts. They are "much inferior" in thinking and reasoning, "as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid [i.e., basic geometry]."

And on and on. Jefferson concludes all of this trash with the statement, quoted by Barton, "I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments of both body and mind." This is loathsome stuff, the more loathsome because Jefferson cast his race prejudices in the form of serious biological science. As Gaustad charitably concludes, in his disquisitions on race, "Here, Enlightenment optimism faltered, with national consequences that were tragic." [76]

Barton makes much of Jefferson's reluctance to declare blacks inferior: "I advance it therefore as a suspicion only. . . ." Indeed Jefferson was reluctant, but of course his pose as a scrupulous and sympathetic anthropologist wringing his hands but compelled by the body of evidence before him to pronounce blacks "inferior to the whites in the endowments of both body and mind," has the ironic effect of making things even worse. Barton's conclusion that Jefferson "lightly questioned whether blacks might be inferior," does not, in my view, do justice to Jefferson's statement. [97]

I take no joy in challenging Barton's agreeable mythology about Jefferson, race, and slavery. I agree with Barton when he says that had Jefferson been born in New York or Pennsylvania, where slavery was rare and already well on the road to extinction, had he owned no slaves, "he would be universally hailed today as a bold civil rights leader." The tragedy of Thomas Jefferson is that he was born in Virginia. His whole life was convoluted by the fact of southern slavery. His whole achievement must now be seen as inextricably interwoven with the fact of his complicity—however reluctant, however much the better angels of his existence knew better-- Monticello was largely built by slave laborers. The University of Virginia was built by gangs of slaves. Jefferson's White House staff consisted of eleven slaves he brought to the national capital from Monticello. The desk on which he wrote the Declaration of Independence was crafted by a slave carpenter.

At the end of his chapter on race and slavery, Barton concludes, "Modern writers [those nasty deconstructionists] now refuse to recognize what previous generations openly acknowledged: Jefferson was a bold, staunch, and consistent advocate and defender of emancipation and civil rights." Bold yes, consistent no, and advocate of equal civil rights for black Americans, not at all. Modern writers refuse to recognize what previous generations openly acknowledged for a very good reason; previous generations gave Jefferson far too much benefit of the doubt on this front, and today's scholars have rightly corrected the imbalance—some of them, it is true, to excess.

Miscellaneous Errors

Barton makes a large number of factual errors in the course of his book. It would be interesting to enumerate all of them, but it would be a tedious and thankless task, and the book is not sufficiently important in Jefferson studies to merit the scores of hours it would take to correct all of them. A few will suffice to show the level of historiography in The Jefferson Lies. Almost all historians make mistakes. The problem with Barton's errors is that many of them seem to be deliberate distortions.

1. David Hume. Barton argues that Jefferson was attracted to Hume's cosmopolitan essays as a young man, but came to regret the influence the outspoken atheist Hume had had on him. He quotes Jefferson as saying, "research and reflection . . . were necessary to eradicate the poison it [Hume's writing] had instilled into my mind." Jefferson's quarrel with Hume had nothing to do with religion. Jefferson was fully aware of Hume's genius. What he came to detest in Hume was the Scottish philosophe's Tory history of Great Britain, not his religious views. When James Madison was beginning to do research for his labors at the Constitutional Convention, he asked Jefferson to send him books on law and constitutions. Jefferson sent his best friend the complete works of Hume, as well as many other books that Barton would regard as irreligious.

2. Thomas Francois Raynal (the Abbe Raynal). Barton argues that Jefferson found fault with Raynal for his anti-clerical perspectives and freethinking writings. Not so. Jefferson's quarrel with Raynal was not about religion. He detested Raynal's prejudicial statements about the flora, fauna, and aboriginal peoples of the New World, which Raynal argued were degenerate with respect to their old world counterparts. Jefferson's famous quarrel with Raynal, the Comte de Buffon and the degeneracy theory are well known. In fact, Jefferson had a moose carcass sent to him from New Hampshire by Governor John Sullivan to present to Buffon as the "ocular proof" that the animals of the western hemisphere were not inferior to those of Europe. It was Raynal's negative statements about the fecundity and climate of the New World that led Jefferson to write that his works contained "a mass of errors and misconceptions from beginning to end." It is true that Jefferson called Raynal a "mere shrimp." But the context for that little specimen of Jeffersonian humor was that Dr. Franklin had, at a dinner party in France, disproved the degeneracy theory by asking the Americans to stand up side-by-side with the skeptical Frenchmen. The Americans towered over the diminutive French guests at the dinner, one of whom was the "mere shrimp" Raynal. Barton suggests that Jefferson's insult was meant to be a characterization of Raynal's moral stature. In fact, it was about his physiognomy—and only then because of the degeneracy debate.

3. Francis Bacon. Barton calls the eminent British jurist, philosopher, scientist, and essayist, "This outspoken and famous Christian writer." Bacon was a Christian in some sense of the term, but to characterize him as a "famous Christian writer" effectively misrepresents his great achievements in epistemology, international law, science, and the principle of induction.

4. Dr. John Witherspoon. Barton argues that Jefferson's request that Witherspoon provide him one of his students as a teacher in a Virginia grammar school in 1783 shows that Jefferson was seeking a young man with a strong Christian character and education. "What would Jefferson expect from students trained by the Reverend Dr. Witherspoon?" Barton asks. Barton is apparently unaware that Dr. Witherspoon was a man of the Enlightenment (though a pious Christian), a lover of natural science, and a member of the international Republic of Letters. It was for this reason, not for the religious training of the College of New Jersey (today's Princeton) that Jefferson contacted him on behalf of the grammar school. Among Witherspoon's famous students were James Madison, like Jefferson a staunch advocate of separation of church and state, and Aaron Burr.

5. Religious Observance at the University of Virginia. In a set of protocols written by the Board of Visitors for the University of Virginia, Jefferson, on behalf of his fellow Visitors, wrote, "Should the religious sects of this State, or any of them, according to the invitation held out to them, establish within, or adjacent to, the precincts of the University, schools for instruction in the religion of their sect, the students of the University will be free, and expected to attend religious worship at the establishment of their respective sects." Barton misunderstands Jefferson's use of the term expected. What he means is that if a student wished to attend chapel, the expectation was that he would attend the chapel appropriate for his religious affiliation. In other words, Jefferson is not saying students were required to attend chapel, but that it would be natural for each to attend the chapel that resonated with his religious background and outlook.

6. Jefferson's languages. Barton has Jefferson knowing Greek, Latin, French, Italian, Spanish, German, and English, when in fact Jefferson knew almost no German. In fact, knew three ancient and four modern languages. The third of his ancient languages was Anglo Saxon. He was so passionate about the need for liberty-loving Americans to learn the early English that enshrined the English-speaking peoples' first experiments with democracy that Jefferson actually wrote an Anglo-Saxon grammar.

7. Authorship of the Constitution. Barton says that "many of today's writers and scholars" [117] wrongly believe that Jefferson participated in the writing of the U.S. Constitution. In my travels I have found that many average Americans wrongly believe that Jefferson played a hand in the writing of the Constitution, but I know of no historian or biographer who makes that claim.


David Barton's The Jefferson Lies is a dangerous book. Although some of the arguments Barton develops might have served as a corrective to the somewhat over-secularized portrait of Jefferson that has emerged in recent years, he greatly overstates his case, omits whatever does not fit his preconceived notions about Jefferson, distorts the truth, takes Jefferson's pronouncements out of context, and lines up a series of straw men to cast down on behalf of his irresponsible claims.

It is unfortunate that Barton has written such a problematic book. Jefferson deserves better, as does the American public. As Paul Conkin has written, "Religious issues were so pervasive and so important in his life that ignorance of them precludes any holistic or undistorted understanding of either his character of his thought." [19] In other words, Jefferson, as one of the principal articulators of American ideals, deserves a serious exploration of all that he wrote and did in the course of a long live that spanned the founding of the American republic. The last thing we need is a book that muddies rather than clarifies the debate about Jefferson's religious views and the place of organized religion in the constitutional settlement of the United States.

No reputable scholar can call Thomas Jefferson an atheist. Although he was one of the most freethinking Americans of his time, Jefferson never broke with Christianity altogether. Barton is so certain that irresponsible academics are teaching our children that Jefferson was an atheist that he seems not to have explored the requisite literature—high school and college textbooks, Jefferson biographies by such individuals as Merrill Peterson, Dumas Malone, Joseph Ellis, Alf Mapp, jr., Fawn Brodie (etc.), or the handful of serious studies of Jefferson and religion (see above).

If Barton had written a careful and respectful book that attempted to show that Jefferson was less eager to clear the public square of religious activity than many jurists and scholars of our time believe, he would have made an important contribution to the national debate over the wall of separation of church and state. And that, really, is the core mission of men and women who share Barton's views. They share former President Ronald Reagan's "outrage" that we have "expelled God from the classroom," and they despise court decisions that force crèches off courthouse lawns, the Ten Commandments off of the walls of classrooms and judges, and prayer out of baccalaureate ceremonies. Barton [128-129] makes a list of what he considers outrageous applications of the separation doctrine in our time.

Barton's best chance to influence the debate would have been to provide a thoughtful analysis of Jefferson's flexibility on questions of church and state. Still, because The Jefferson Lies has received a great deal of national attention, it has forced serious Jefferson scholars to step forward to correct Barton's distortions of the historical record. The national debate touched off by The Jefferson Lies is one that American needs to undertake in a thoughtful, factual, nuanced, and mutually respectful way. The precise meaning of the First Amendment continues to elude philosophers, historians, theologians, and jurists. Barton's basic premise is not contemptible: that the Founding Fathers probably did not intend as secular a nation as we have become, and that it would be legitimate to conclude from the life and achievements of Thomas Jefferson that his troubling phrase "wall of separation between church and state" has in recent decades been read much more rigorously than he seems to have intended it, surely in a way more rigorous than his practical application of the principle in the course of his presidency.

Barton also lost the opportunity to find fault with the general shallowness of Jefferson's religious thinking. Jefferson's attempt to distinguish the wheat from the chaff in the New Testament reveals more about Jefferson than it does about Jesus. The "Jefferson Bible" is the outline of what Conkin calls Jefferson's "Jesus religion," but it cannot be regarded as a systematic or fair encapsulation of Jesus' ministry. Jefferson leaves out what might be called the righteous or dark side of Jesus (the withering of the fig tree, pronouncing vindictive justice on individuals or towns who did not welcome Jesus and his disciples). Jefferson never bothered to work out an integrated or even consistent theology. He was almost wholly immune to the spirituality of the Christian religion. His secular "Jesus religion" may have been useful to his own secularist spirit, but it did not account for the profound and deeply personal influence Christianity has had on countless generations of serious women and men. In other words, it would perhaps have been more intelligent for Barton to write a critique of Jefferson's religious amateurism than to try to prove that he was a traditional Christian who was not a secularist. It might have been a better strategy to wonder why Jefferson's intensely personal religious views are still regarded as worthy of respect, rather than to twist them into a quasi-orthodoxy that they clearly do not embrace. Barton is just the last of a long line of people who are smitten with Jefferson and either celebrate his animadversions on traditional Christianity or feel the need to explain them away. The most intelligent strategy is simply to let Jefferson be Jefferson and to relegate his religious views to a particular moment in the Enlightenment, the work of a man of a particularly impoverished spiritual outlook.

Although Jefferson would certainly feel humiliated to be at the center of a controversy about his private religious views of two centuries ago, and though he would feel nothing but contempt for David Barton, whom he might class with the evangelical "cuttlefish" and "insects" he decried through the course of his long life, Jefferson would be the first to defend Barton's right to publish any nonsense he pleases. In the preamble to the Virginia Statute for Religious Liberty, Jefferson wrote,

"Truth is great, and will prevail if left to herself, that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict, unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons free argument and debate, errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them."

In Jefferson's free marketplace of ideas, David Barton's wild and erroneous claims are unlikely to convince anyone except those who cling tenaciously to the notion that the Founding Fathers intended the United States to be an overtly Christian nation. It may be that they are beyond reason. Their numbers are growing. Books like The Jefferson Lies merely strengthen their cocksure mythology about American life, and deepen their paranoia about the "agenda" of the "academic collectivists." But Jefferson never despaired of the capacity of truth to defeat error, fact superstition, and good sense nonsense as long as it remains possible to engage in a fair contest of ideas. As Jefferson put it to his favorite Grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph,

"When I hear another express an opinion which is not mine, I say to myself, He has a right to his opinion, as I to mine; why should I question it? His error does me no injury, and shall I become a Don Quixote, to bring all men by force of argument to one opinion? If a fact be misstated, it is probable he is gratified by a belief of it, and I have no right to deprive him of the gratification. If he wants information, he will ask it, and then I will give it in measured terms; but if he still believes his own story, and shows a desire to dispute the fact with me, I hear him and say nothing. It is his affair, not mine, if he prefers error."

These words were written on November 24, 1808.

Needless to say, they are not cited by David Barton.

Clay S. Jenkinson


June 3, 2012