Tag Archives: Thomas Jefferson

David Barton wins HNN poll (if “winning” is the correct term)

HNN’s poll to name the “least credible history book in print” has come to a close, and David Barton’s The Jefferson Lies came out on top, just barely beating Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.

What strikes me about the poll is that while all the nominated books are undeniably problematic, they’re problematic in very different ways.  Whereas The Jefferson Lies has become notorious for numerous errors of fact and interpretation, most of the HNN readers who left comments about A People’s History seemed to take issue with Zinn’s blatant partiality rather than with any specific claims in the book.  Gavin Menzies’s 1421: The Year China Discovered the World is almost in a class by itself, since its whole premise is open to question.

I also think it’s interesting that we had a string of high-profile accusations of plagiarism, fabrication of evidence, and other forms of scholarly malfeasance in the past several years, but none of the books involved in these scandals made the list of front-runners.

Anyway, they say any publicity is good as long as they spell your name right, so perhaps congratulations are in order.

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You may be shocked to hear this, but

…David Barton managed to get a lot of things wrong in his new Thomas Jefferson book.

My favorite quote: “But to claim, as Mr. Barton does, that Jefferson was ‘unpretentious, living and acting as the common person for whom he had sacrificed so much’ lays it on a little thick.”  That’s a masterpiece of understatement.  When it came to matters of personal expenditures, Jefferson’s profligacy knew no bounds.

And then there’s the whole religion thing:

Jefferson’s religious beliefs are central to Mr. Barton’s thesis, in the service of which straw men are consumed in bonfires. No Jefferson scholar to my knowledge has ever concluded that Jefferson was an “atheist,” as Mr. Barton suggests. That Jefferson might have been what we would think of as a deist or even a Unitarian, as many historians believe, Mr. Barton also disputes. Jefferson was “pro-Christian and pro-Jesus,” he says, although he concedes that the president did have a few qualms about “specific Christian doctrines.” The doctrines Jefferson rejected—the divinity of Christ, the Resurrection, the Trinity—are what place him in the camp of the deists and Unitarians in the first place. It was Jefferson’s difficulty with these doctrines that persuaded his close friends Benjamin Rush and Joseph Priestley that Jefferson’s skepticism went beyond anything even these latitudinarian believers could endorse.

In other words, the “specific Christian doctrines” Jefferson doubted were the very doctrines that were specifically Christian.

Hat tip: American Creation.

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Filed under American Revolution, History and Memory

Bogus quotes

They’re not just for Christian Nationalists anymore.

No doubt the entire Internet is waiting breathlessly to learn how my trip along the OVNHT went, so I’ll post some photos tonight or tomorrow.  Would’ve done it last night, but I was worn out.

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The legacy of the Declaration of Independence

…is the subject of this meditation from historian Gordon Wood, which is well worth reading.

Hat tip to The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

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Better living through willful ignorance

One of the things you didn’t do during the American Revolution was question George Washington’s integrity.  You could criticize his judgment, but not his character.

Once he assumed the presidency, of course, Washington’s character did become a target.  Serious differences about the direction the new nation should take emerged among the generation of men who made the Revolution, and these differences were the genesis of the first American political parties.  Despite Washington’s wish to appear above the fray, he ended up choosing a side, and that side was the one in favor of a stronger central government, a more modern financial system, and commercial relations with England.  Washington aligned himself with Hamilton and the other Federalists, and in so doing he opened himself to criticism from Jefferson, Madison, and their colleagues who thought this vision of America threatened the Revolution’s legacy.

Washington by Gilbert Stuart, via Wikimedia Commons

During the war Washington had been the embodiment of virtue, but to the Republicans it now seemed he was supporting men and measures that were undermining everything his generation worked to build.  Yet he was still George Washington. Perhaps this contradiction explains a conviction that appears in Jefferson’s writings from this period.  If you relied solely on Jefferson’s appraisal of Washington, you’d come away with the impression that the Father of his Country was basically a dupe.  For a time, Jefferson thought Washington supported Hamilton and the Federalists because he was being misled and deceived.  By relying on Hamilton to shape financial policy, Washington was supposedly letting himself be dragged along by a scoundrel, simply because he didn’t know enough about running the country to rely on his own judgment.

Washington was a shrewder customer than Jefferson gave him credit for.  How could somebody who worked with Washington misread him so badly?  I’ve started to suspect that part of the explanation is psychological.  During his second term, Washington became fair game for every sort of outlandish, slanderous charge imaginable—monarchism, Anglophilia, even treason during the war.  But other observers remembered Washington as America’s Cincinnatus while simultaneously seeing that he was taking the country down a path they believed to be wrong.  How to reconcile his virtue and his supposed lack of prudence?  The explanation had to be that Washington was in the dark, and therefore at the mercy of the unsavory characters who had his ear.

If this story sounds a little familiar, it should.  This was the same narrative Americans had been telling themselves a couple of decades before, except at that point it had been the King of England, rather than Washington, who was the dupe.  Americans believed that a plot was underway to enslave them, and they knew that English politicians and some of the king’s advisors were in on it.  But at first they were reluctant to implicate the king himself.  They assured themselves that his ministers were misleading him, and that if they could get the truth about America’s plight to the throne, then he would alleviate their situation.  Eventually they learned that he wasn’t as in the dark as they’d thought, and that in fact he wanted his subjects to submit to the same policies that they found oppressive. For many colonists this discovery was a profound disillusionment, and it was a crucial step in their eventual decision to break from England completely, a process Pauline Maier outlines in her study of the evolution of America’s protest movement.

It’s a richly ironic situation.  By psychologically preserving Washington’s integrity, Jefferson had to assume that he was fundamentally ignorant.  And in so doing, he recapitulated a pattern Americans had first applied to the same king against whom Washington led a revolution.

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Everything I need to know about American history, I learned from anti-Catholic conspiracy theories

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you THE TRUTH AT LAST!

Tobias Lear, personal secretary to George Washington, was an assassin in the employ of the nefarious Jesuit Order who poisoned the Father of our Country, and Thomas Jefferson was probably in on it!

As President, Jefferson used his office to promote Jesuit infiltration of the United States!

George III was a Jesuit puppet, and his invasion of the colonies to suppress the rebellion was in reality the result of a scheme to eradicate Protestantism!

Those countless hours I spent as a grad student, trying to learn what made the Revolution tick…and it was all for naught.  All for naught.

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Fly on the wall (2)

While we’re on the subject of credibility in historical films, there’s another scene from HBO’s John Adams that’s worth looking at, one which illustrates authenticity of a different kind—the authentic depiction of historical personalities

Before watching the scene, we’ll set the stage with a few descriptions of the characters involved.  Here’s David McCullough describing Jefferson and Adams in the book on which the series is based: “Where Adams stood foursquare to the world, shoulders back, Jefferson customarily stood with his arms folded tightly across his chest.  When taking his seat, it was as if he folded into a chair, all knees and elbows and abnormally large hands and feet” (p. 111).

Joseph Ellis describes Jefferson as “a listener and observer, distinctly uncomfortable in the spotlight, shy and nervous in a distracted manner that was sometimes mistaken for arrogance” (p. 32).

Finally, here’s Edmund S. Morgan on Benjamin Franklin: “[He] could not see anything without asking himself what it was, how it got that way, what made it tick.  He had that rare capacity for surprise that has made possible so many advances in human knowledge, the habit of not taking things for granted, the ability to look at some everyday occurrence and wonder why” (5).

Now here’s the scene, with Adams and Franklin critiquing Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence:

I’d say these guys did their homework. 

Good writing, good acting, and good direction can bring us as close as we’re likely to get to seeing historical figures in the flesh, and when it happens, it magic.

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