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 :-)