Last Friday, I wrote a post about the controversy over Thomas Nelson ceasing publication of David Barton’s latest book, The Jefferson Lies. My aim was to offer a balanced perspective: I appreciate Barton’s ultimate goal of restoring the knowledge of our nation’s Biblical heritage, yet I take issue with him over trying to force someone like Jefferson into the Christian mold. From my own study of the Founding era and of Jefferson himself, I cannot subscribe to the view that Jefferson was an orthodox Christian.
Barton has written a response at his Wallbuilders site to some of the critiques that others have leveled at him. I read his response, and I now have a response to that. Without going into all the details he presents, I will focus on two of his points.
First, Barton takes aim at academic elites who think they are the absolute experts with respect to historical knowledge and proper understanding of primary documents. I have a lot of sympathy with this critique, but a few qualms as well. After successfully navigating through a doctoral program myself, I can say with complete confidence that having letters such as “p,” “h,” and “d” after one’s name does not confer omniscience. There also is a great temptation to believe you are now in a select fraternity of the privileged; there’s almost a gnostic “special knowledge” quality to this temptation. And yes, there are some professional historians with an agenda who want to rip out all the vast evidence of the Biblical underpinnings of American society and government. But one must be careful not to paint all those with history doctorates with that broad stroke.
After what I wrote on Friday, some may view me as part of that fraternity. Well, that would be almost laughable. I’ve spent most of my post-doctoral existence critiquing that very fraternity as a close-knit group of thinkers and writers who think with and write to one another. Very few of them write a book that the general public is aware of. My desire has always been to provide well-documented, scholarly writing that is geared more toward a general audience. When I penned my doctoral dissertation on Noah Webster, for instance, I determined to break from dissertationese and write in a fashion that could be understood and appreciated by a wider audience than merely my dissertation committee.
So, yes, I agree with Barton that a fraternity of the elite does exist; however, many of his critics do not belong to that fraternity, so to lump everyone together into an amorphous academic elite does not effectively answer the criticisms of his book.
Another part of his defense that I found weak was his assertion that Jefferson only wandered off the Christian path toward the end of his life. I think it is pretty obvious Jefferson was a good Anglican in his younger days only as an external convention; it was how he was raised and what was expected of him. I doubt he ever made any kind of real commitment to orthodox Christian faith. Even when Barton writes of Jefferson’s deviations from some points of doctrine, he does not emphasize that Jefferson denied the deity of Christ. No one who denies the deity of Christ can be a Christian. And this deviation didn’t wait until his later years; his time in France in the mid-1780s marks a decided turn in his views. Jefferson loved French society with its permissiveness in both thought and action. It was this very permissiveness and decadence that turned the stomach of John Adams when he went to France.
I think Barton has chosen the wrong person to try to redeem historically. In my view, Jefferson doesn’t rank very high in a list of Founders who deserve our admiration. Yes, he wrote the Declaration of Independence, but even he later noted he didn’t contribute anything original to the document; he was simply putting into words the general consensus of the time. Yes, he attended church services in the Capitol, but he did so primarily because he thought it important that the chief executive give his approval to religion. He saw religion as beneficial to society with respect to its morals, but he never submitted his life to the One who set the moral standard.
I also defend Jefferson as the author of the “separation of church and state” letter. That letter was not a declaration of complete separation of faith from public office, but only an affirmation to Baptists that the federal government was not going to set up an official church. Further, I use some Jefferson quotes that are quite pithy with respect to federalism and taxes. He is very quotable, and sometimes says exactly what I wish to communicate to my students. So I don’t despise Jefferson, but I do have a critique of his character and worldview throughout his long tenure in public office.
Before we put Jefferson on a pedestal, consider the following:
- There has been much controversy over his relationship with Sally Hemings, a slave on his plantation. It is not conclusive that Jefferson fathered children with Hemings; it could have been his younger brother Randolph. Yet I personally believe it is more probable that the elder Jefferson is the father. Honest people can disagree on this point, but Jefferson’s close relationship with Maria Cosway [a married woman] while he was in France and his general acceptance of lax French morality lend themselves to that probability. Jefferson also freed Hemings’s children at the end of his life. He didn’t do that for any of his other slaves.
- In the 1790s and beyond, Jefferson was enamored of the French Revolution, which, at one point, carried out a policy of dechristianization. He never came to grips with the violent nature of that revolution and supported it completely.
- As George Washington’s Secretary of State, Jefferson continually worked behind the scenes to undermine Washington’s policy toward France, which was neutrality. He even sponsored a newspaper that was set up for the express purpose of lambasting the Washington administration and Washington personally. Jefferson harbored the belief that Washington was trying to set himself up as a king. Early in his second term, Washington lost patience with the disloyal Jefferson and would have sacked him had Jefferson not resigned his position.
- John Adams was elected president in 1796. In a quirk that was later corrected by a constitutional amendment, Jefferson became his vice president even though he was in the opposing party. Adams, to his credit, reached out a hand of friendship to Jefferson and sought to bring him aboard as an active colleague in his administration. Jefferson rejected the hand of friendship and worked to replace Adams with himself in the next election. He placed his own personal political interest ahead of the nation’s well-being.
- As president, Jefferson, in tandem with a Congress dominated by his party, placed an embargo on all American goods in an attempt to keep American shipping out of the Napoleonic wars. This relegated an entire section of the nation, New England, to potential poverty. It also just happened to be the section that was the most anti-Jefferson politically. The embargo was a major disaster for American commerce and prosperity, it had to be repealed as one of the final acts of the Jefferson administration, and Jefferson left office a defeated man. His presidency was looked upon as a failure due to this.
- Although fiscally prudent as president, Jefferson was profligate in his personal finances. He continually spent more money than he had. At one point, he sold his entire library to try to pay his debts. It became the foundation of the Library of Congress. However, he fell back into debt again, and at his death his home, Monticello, along with all his slaves, had to be sold to cover his obligations.
Jefferson’s contributions to the American Founding were mixed. His positives were either balanced by his negatives or his negatives outweighed his positives. That’s a judgment call. However, I would advise Barton and others not to spend so much time resuscitating Jefferson’s reputation. There are other Founders who deserve more attention. To Barton’s credit, he has not ignored other Founders who have a Christian foundation, and when he focuses on them, he can continue to perform a valuable service. But it’s time to stop attempting to defend the indefensible.