A Bad Day for David Barton, But a Good Day for History

Word came earlier today that David Barton’s publisher has pulled his most recent book on Thomas Jefferson.  Barton is best known as the evangelical Christian, who has built a career on uncovering or reclaiming the truth about America’s founding and Founding Fathers from the community of secular and liberal historians.  Barton claims to be a historian.  Over the past few years he has amassed a growing following who embrace his interpretation of the role of Christianity in the lives of individual Founders and in the establishment of this nation.  Barton enjoys support from a wide range of public figures and is now the official court historian for Glenn Beck.  So what happened?

First, it is important to note that Barton’s published works have been scrutinized from the beginning by professional historians, but to little avail.  What made the difference in recent days is the growing resistance from fellow conservative Christian historians and scholars, who are actually trained in the field.  It’s a growing list, but I would start here and for a critique of Barton’s book, Jefferson’s Lies, I recommend John Fea’s 4-part series.

On the one hand it is unfortunate that it took fellow conservative Christian historians to finally bring about the removal of this book from stores since their religious and political views have nothing to do with the strength of their arguments.  Their arguments stand or fall based on how they read the relevant evidence cited by Barton as well as the strength of his interpretation.  Barton is not being attacked because of his personal beliefs, but on his skill or lack thereof as a historian.  Anyone who spends enough time reading these rejoinders will conclude that there are serious flaws with Barton’s work.  In the end Barton claimed to be offering the general public a corrective to those evil secular/liberal historians without taking the essential step of engaging the relevant historiography.  While Barton may not understand this his publisher certainly does.

So, what does this have to do with the Civil War?  First, Barton and Beck recently tried their hand at doing some Civil War history and as you might imagine the results were pretty abysmal.  More on point, however, it is important to keep in mind that we have plenty of David Barton-types in our own community.  Check out any number of titles from Pelican Press, for example, and you will find the same flawed approach to doing history.  Authors rail against what they see as a liberal/secular bias among professional Civil War historians and other writers, but when it comes to actually engaging their arguments they are silent.  Either they are unfamiliar with their publications or they are simply incapable of engaging the arguments.

Let’s face it, the study of history has become so incredibly politicized that we’ve forgotten that the discipline involves the mastery of certain skills that can be learned in any number of places.  Without getting into another tired discussion of who is and who is not a historian, we can at least say that one’s claim to the title stands or falls on the quality of the work produced.  What we now can say with confidence is that Barton is no historian.

Today was a good day for the discipline of history.

24 responses... add one

(Applause)

Nice commentary. For some reason a vast number people are under the impression that history is a soft subject where all opinions are equal. Often the argument is presented that historians need to see “both sides” of the issue. Which side? Mostly the side that disagrees (whether right or wrong). I find that those that invest in this political/emotion/heritage approach to history lack the humility to accept any fact that disagrees with their preconceived opinions. One of the hardest things to do is admit when you are wrong. It appears David Barton and others cannot overcome this hardship.

the study of history has become so incredibly politicized that we’ve forgotten that the discipline involves the mastery of certain skills that can be learned in any number of places.

Who’s “we”?

Some people do treat history tactically, using contextual understanding when it helps them, and plain-text misreadings when that works better. Competing interpretations are nothing new, and not unique to one side or the other, but “originalism” is mostly a habit on the right.

Barton’s core audience are theologically inclined to believe proof-texting, to prefer “the Word” unvarnished by anything except their preconceptions.

Some people do treat history tactically, using contextual understanding when it helps them, and plain-text misreadings when that works better.

No doubt. No one is completely objective or immune from cutting corners, but most of us at least aspire to apply the skills of the historian to the best of our ability.

For example, no conscientious historian, whatever his politics or world view, would simply make up “quotations” and pass them off as real. After he was caught doing just that, Barton claimed that he knew the Founding Fathers well enough to know what they’d say in a given situation, so occasionally he just went ahead and said it for them. This reminds me of the time Thomas Jefferson said “Sure, I founded UVa, but when it comes to football I’m a Hokie fan all the way.”

Ken,

I think your comment proves my point and the position of his critics. Barton is not a historian and doesn’t seem to know the first thing about methodology.

The thing is, he was caught using his dozen spurious quotations, and issued his apology/defense in response, twelve years ago, well before his rise to prominence. It didn’t matter. Now we have public TV executives in my state being fired or forced to resign because they won’t run his programs on the air.

Now, now, we ALL know that Jefferson really pulled for the W&M Tribe. In fact, he told fellow university founder Ole Ben Franklin that “you Quakers ain’t got nothing on our Griffin.” If you doubt the veracity of that quotation, just check David Barton’s forthcoming book, “The Football Founders: Christianity, the Constitution, and the Right to Tailgate.” :-)

You’re admirably polite when it comes to this guy. Barton is a liar. Plain and simple. He gets paid handsomely to lie by a subculture that traffics in factual relativism. Great post nonetheless.

I have no evidence that he is a liar so why would I make such a claim? He may, in fact, be influenced by the community you reference, but that is of little interest to me. What I find important is that he has finally been exposed for masquerading as a historian.

Really? From NPR, “We looked up every citation Barton said was from the Bible, but not one of them checked out.” You don’t think he’s deliberately writing falsehoods? As you said, he’s “influenced by the community you reference,” and they lie about history to push a political agenda.

Moreover, according to the link you provided, the book Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims about Our Third President says, argues that quote, “Barton ‘is guilty of taking statements and actions out of context and simplifying historical circumstances.’” Deliberately taking statements out of context would seem to constitute lying.

You don’t think he’s deliberately writing falsehoods?

I don’t need to answer that question in order to justify what I wrote in the post.

Does anyone else find it ironic that the US Supreme Court recently ruled that lying is protected by the First Amendment?

I actually think that’s an important case because determing what the truth is should not necessarily be the government’s job because the question then would be should our government be the one to tell us what the truth is?

However, when people fail to take the time to actually learn the truth we have a severe problem on our hands. As historians our community should (my opinion here) deal with those who deliberately deal in the falsification of the historical record as severely as we can. Actually, that’s one of the reasons both the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians as well as many others exist.

I like to point out to others that folks like Barton don’t belong to professional historical associations. To belong to one would mean they would have to be accountable and that’s one thing Barton, Beck, and others like him avoid at all costs.

Truly a victory (especially for those of us who have been blogging about Barton’s shtick for the last year or so). And hats off to Thomas Nelson for finally seeing the light and responding accordingly. Maybe Barton’s associates (like Glenn Beck) will take note and cease from spinning their own brand of political propaganda disguised as history.

Michael-You’re such an optimist. I don’t believe that’s going to happen. Beck has his little corner of the market that requires being fed what it wants to hear. He’s gone too far to have any hope of working his way to any kind of respectability so, if he tried to do an about face, they’ll eat him alive and he knows it.

There is no chance of getting Beck to stop supporting Barton. Beck and others of that ilk make their money by catering to a specific audience. I sometimes question whether they even believe what they say. Their audience wants to hear the garbage they spew out on those programs and the sad thing is those people think it’s the truth. They don’t get information from other sources unless those sources say the same things. They don’t care about the facts. They only want to hear what they believe in. So people like Beck are more than happy to give it to them and they make a fortune in the process. The ironic part is they call other people sheep.

You are probably right about that, but there are just as many other people who may steer clear of Barton because of this and that is a victory.

“Let’s face it, the study of history has become so incredibly politicized that we’ve forgotten that the discipline involves the mastery of certain skills that can be learned in any number of places.  Without getting into another tired discussion of who is and who is not a historian, we can at least say that one’s claim to the title stands or falls on the quality of the work produced.  What we now can say with confidence is that Barton is no historian.”

Too bad. I like the guy.

S. Thomas Summers
Author of Private Hercules McGraw: Poems of the American Civil War

With respect to the photograph of Mr. Barton, I’d long thought that it was considered a mark of disrespect to turn the U.S. flag into a mere fashion statement. But perhaps times change.

Mike,

I wouldn’t worry about that. I am sure Barton can find a passage in Washington’s personal correspondence that provides the necessary justification. :-)

I add that history isn’t so much politicized as commoditized – history for sale. You can find the narrative that suits your needs, be they political, religious, economic, regional, etc. Barton clearly aimed his book at the evangelical Christian market. Though withdrawn by his publisher, it may yet pop up again from another source like Michael Bellisles’ Arming America. Fortunately, his book attracted sufficient negative attention to raise awareness of the selling of bad or questionable history. We should remain vigilant.

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