Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Some Thoughts on David Barton's "The Jefferson Lies"--Part Two

This post is part of a continuing series on David Barton's recent book, The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You've Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson.  For earlier posts in the series, click here.

David Barton believes that Thomas Jefferson's legacy "has been impugned" by five "methods" popular among academic historians.  The first is "Deconstructionism."

Barton describes deconstructionism as a "steady flow of  belittling and negative portrayals of Western heroes, beliefs, values, and institutions."  He asserts that deconstructionists do not tell the entire story when they write historical narratives.

In other words, those who deconstruct American history tend to focus too much on what is wrong with America.  They seldom write about the things that have made the United States a great country.

Deconstructionists, for example, stress the fact that the founders owned slaves and do not talk enough about the many founders who opposed slavery.  They suggest that the Puritans who founded New England were "intolerant" because they burned witches.

According to Barton, any historian who chooses to focus on the flaws of our founders is engaging in deconstructionism.  Barton has no place for historical inquiry that does not glorify the founders, the Puritans, or any other historical character who contributed to the founding or settling of the nation.

To put it differently, Barton is not interested in seeing historical actors as flawed human beings.  Instead, the founders seem to occupy some kind of exalted position.  They are not quite angels, but they are not quite ordinary human beings either.  They have been somehow immune to sin, which the last time I checked was an important part of the Christian understanding of what it means to be a human being.

I am sure that many theorists and scholars would balk at Barton's limited understanding of deconstructionism, but even if we take his definition seriously (as his readers will), it fails to take into account the moral complexity of the human experience.  The Puritans were intolerant.  Some of the founders did own slaves.  It is up to historians--especially Christian historians--to call attention to this in a way that reminds us not to put our faith primarily in human beings because, in the end, they will usually let us down.

I do not know of any school or college textbooks that do not discuss the role of Thomas Jefferson in writing the Declaration of Independence, or his defense of freedom, his purchase of Louisiana, or his championing of religious liberty.  Wouldn't Barton say that these were positive things?  But any good textbook would also discuss his ownership of slaves, his diplomatic errors, or his critique of orthodox Christianity.  Historians tell the whole story. Barton does not.

Finally, I find Barton's critique of deconstructionism a bit odd because, in essence, his entire book The Jefferson Lies is an act of deconstructionism.  Barton is attempting to deconstruct the way that so-called "academic liberals" have presented Thomas Jefferson.  To use his own definition, he is trying to make a "continuous critique" of what he believes to be the prevailing wisdom about Jefferson and "lay low" these arguments. 

David Barton is a deconstructionist.  But is he a good deconstructionist?

For another treatment of Jefferson and the role of religion in the founding see Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction.  I heard that it's pretty good :-)


Tim Schoettle said...

Interesting post. It seems that Barton has missed the spirit of deconstruction. Its point is not to criticize an author's oversights and acts of blindness but (more importantly) to show how a certain self-blindness is sometimes essential to an authors best insights. Deconstruction is thus in the spirit of Emily Dickinson who says

Tell all the truth but tell it slant,
Success in circuit lies,
Too bright for our infirm delight
The truth's superb surprise;

As lightning to the children eased
With explanation kind,
The truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind.

To give a deconstructive reading is to show the fruitfulness and purposefulness of certain sorts self-blindness. A careful deconstruction of Jefferson's thought might be interesting, but it would not take him to task for his flaws. On the contrary it would show how, certain specific oversights helped to make possible what is good in his thought. Deconstruction is a search for meaning (together with a recognition that our search is always only partial since each deconstructive reading can itself be deconstructed). If deconstructionists have been critical of the founding fathers then this is merely a historical accident of no lasting significance as far as I can see.

jimlefferts said...

"Finally, I find Barton's critique of deconstructionism a bit odd because, in essence, his entire book The Jefferson Lies is an act of deconstructionism."

I do not find it 'odd' at all.
It is the essence of how he operates. Absolutely everything that Barton has ever uttered or written demonstrates his unwavering ability to thrust upon others an accusation of using some kind of fallacious rhetorical device(s) to: 'advance their agenda'; and while in his actual act of condemning them, he uses the selfsame or other deceitful ploys himself. It is foundation for his work.

The wonder of it all is, how he can possibly live with himself?

Hrafnkell Haraldsson said...

Thank you for continuing to speak up on this subject - to continually see Barton called not only a historian but an "expert" historian - and then to see his supporters claim actual, genuine historians support his crazy thesis is just too much. Speaking as a guy who at least has a BA in history, we need more public statements from historians.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Historians tell the whole story. Barton does not.

Do Barton's critics acknowledge what he gets right? In my experience, they do not: they are advocates just as he is, give one side just as he does.

Present company excepted of course. I am still struggling with the concept of the "Christian" historian, however. Is that anything like a black mathematician?

jimlefferts said...


re: "Do Barton's critics acknowledge what he gets right?"

As a relatively newcomer to the discussions of Barton overall, I have found few who would come to his defense. I would be interested in seeing an expansion of your thought that you raise here. What does he get right?

John Fea said...

Tom: If you figure out what a "Christian historian" is, let me know. It is used in the following ways:

1. A historian who also happens to be a Christian (and whose Christian faith has no bearing on how he or she thinks about history).

2. A historian who also happens to be a Christian who tries to integrate theological convictions into his or her work.

Things get complicated under #2 because there are all kinds of different ways to do this--from those who practice "providential" history to those who approach the historical task with certain Christian presuppositions about the nature of human beings and the world to those who believe that the study of history teaches certain virtues that are compatible with Christian faith to those who want to critique the past from a moral position defined by Christian moral codes.

A lot of how one integrates faith and history is defined by the specific brand of Christian theology from which one approaches the past.

So, for example, a Calvinist might look at the task of relating faith to historical thinking different than a Lutheran or a Catholic.

For a nice overview I would take a look at our *Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian's Vocation* (Notre Dame UP, 2010).

John Fea said...

Jim and Tom: The question of "what does Barton get right" is a good one and a fair one. If you read my *Was America Founded..." carefully, you will notice that I suggest he gets the following things right:

1. Barton is right to call our attention to the important role that religions played in the founding.

2. Barton is correct when he says that most of the state Constitutions (at the time of the founding) were informed by Christian oaths of office and denominational establishments.

3. In the Jefferson book, I think it is fair to make the argument that the evidence that Jefferson fathered a child with Sally Hemings is not conclusive. (I hope to do a post on this soon).

4. Barton is correct when he says that Jefferson thought religion was important to the republic.

5. Barton is correct when he suggests that the Supreme Court and other federal courts have thought of America as a "Christian nation."

But all of these assertions must be understood in the context of how Barton uses them to promote a particular political agenda.