Review: Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims About Our Third President by Warren Throckmorton with Michael Coulter (2012 book)

This book, by two conservative Christian professors, is a rebuttal to The Jefferson Lies by David Barton, a writer whose books and talks about American history are unfortunately popular with a large segment of the religious right.

Some of Barton’s critics have pointed out that he lacks credentials as a historian, having only a bachelor’s in Christian education from Oral Roberts University, but in fact plenty of others without strings of letters after their names have produced excellent histories and biographies. The legitimate objection to Barton is that he gets history wrong, often spectacularly wrong, in service to his ideology.

In The Jefferson Lies, a best-seller with a foreword by Glenn Beck, Barton contends that historians and biographers have been wrong about Thomas Jefferson’s religious views, and that rather than having been a Deist, Jefferson was very much a conventional Christian. (I should note that I’ve read only bits and pieces of The Jefferson Lies, but enough to verify that this is indeed the main thrust of the book.)

Throckmorton and Coulter write in their introduction, “The authors of this book are both Christians who believe Christian ethics and Christian theology inform our scholarly pursuits.” And, “The duty of Christians as scholars is first to get the facts correct.” They examine the evidence Barton offers in support of his claims and end up very thoroughly debunking it, much of the time simply by quoting extensively from Jefferson’s own writings, especially his private correspondence, to show that Jefferson over and over again explicitly contradicted what Barton says about his views.

As you’re already aware if you’ve read much by or about Jefferson, he consistently called himself a Deist, though he was also favorable toward Unitarianism. He greatly admired Jesus as a philosopher, writing that while he was in disagreement with Jesus on some more abstract matters, he thought the ethics of Jesus superior to any other. Jefferson was convinced that the Gospels were full full of nonsense and that some statements they attributed to Jesus were false, but that one could pick out the true sayings of Jesus as easily as separating “diamonds from a dunghill.” In fact, Jefferson on two occasions made cut-and-paste compendiums of what he considered the true teachings of Jesus. Barton acknowledges this but offers an alternative explanation for it that Throckmorton and Coulter convincingly disprove.

Jefferson considered himself a Christian only in the sense of admiring many of the teachings of Jesus. He rejected the doctrine of the Trinity as incoherent, the notion that Jesus was the son of God as myth, and the idea that Jesus was a man on a divine mission (the view of contemporary Unitarians) as very doubtful.

Barton brings up various bits of historical trivia that supposedly demonstrate that Jefferson was a conventional Christian after all. For example, as president, Jefferson signed a sort of passport used by ships and, claims Barton, chose to date them “in the year of our Lord Christ.” As Throckmorton and Coulter point out, however, those words were pre-printed on the forms, and the wording was dictated by an international treaty.

Barton also asserts that as president Jefferson signed a bill whose title included the phrase “for propagating the Gospel among the Heathen,” and that this shows both that the federal government supported Christian missionaries and that Jefferson approved of this. But as Throckmorton and Coulter point out, the bill in question was to provide funding for an organization whose name was the Society of the United Brethren for Promoting the Gospel Among the Heathen (hence that phrase in the bill’s title). Moreover, the funding in question was not for missionary work at all but rather for administering a grant of land to a group of American Indians who were already Christians.

Behind this grant lies a troubling history: A number of the Christian Indian families attempting to harvest their crop in what is now eastern Ohio were been rounded up by militiamen from Fort Pitt who voted to put them to death. The Indians were allowed to pray and sing hymns overnight before the 28 men, 29 women, and 39 children were killed. As a form of reparation for the atrocity, the federal government made a grant of land in the area to Indians of the larger community, but these Indians, who lived elsewhere and were threatened by whites with another massacre should they move to the granted land, declined to to do so.

Many of Barton’s assertions look persuasive on their face, at least to those not already familiar with Jefferson, but they quickly fall apart under scrutiny. Some of Barton’s claims may be honest mistakes, but others appear to be bald inventions, and some are directly contradicted by the very sources Barton cites.

Unfortunately, Getting Jefferson Right is as far as I know available only as an e-book from Amazon and Barnes & Noble. It also suffers from a lack of copy-editing, its authors being prone among other things to dumping in unnecessary commas. But it’s relatively inexpensive ($4.99), and if you’re interested in a lot of information on Jefferson’s religious views I think you’ll find it worth reading.

(Slightly revised 2015 November 16 for clarity and readability.)

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