Getting Jefferson Right
By: Guest Authors
With Drs. Warren Throckmorton and Michael Coulter
Editor’s Note: The “V&V Q&A” is an e-publication from The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. In this latest edition, we interview the co-authors of ”Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims About Our Third President.” Dr. Warren Throckmorton is professor of psychology at Grove City College and fellow for psychology and public policy with the Center. Dr. Michael Coulter is a professor of humanities and political science at Grove City College and a contributor to the Center. Although this Q&A may seem controversial in that many of our readers have followed David Barton’s work, such as “The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson,” our professors have carefully researched Jefferson and uncovered historical information that is relevant to the discussion about Mr. Barton’s claims regarding Jefferson.
V&V: Why did you write this book?
Dr. Warren Throckmorton: While researching and writing about the First Amendment last year, I saw some of David Barton’s statements about Thomas Jefferson and John Adams that didn’t seem right. When I investigated the primary sources, I found that the claims were quite misleading or completely false. Some of those initial investigations ended up as posts on my personal blog and as articles at Crosswalk.com. When I heard that Barton was putting his claims in a book about Jefferson, I thought it would be timely to collect and expand those posts in a book. In the process, I approached a colleague, Michael Coulter, about collaborating on the project.
In addition, American history is inherently interesting to me, so it has not been difficult to dig deeply into these claims. While it may seem odd for a psychology professor like me to write a book like this, it wasn’t as much of a stretch as one might think. My dissertation included a review of the history of mental health financing, and teaching classes at Grove City College, I review material about the historical context of the various theorists we cover. I don’t think you can fully comprehend the tenets of psychological theorists unless you understand the social and cultural conditions of their era. After writing awhile, I approached Michael to join me. One of his many interests is the history of political ideas which is an appropriate fit for this book.
One benefit, I believe, of my training as a psychologist is that I accept the proposition that all people are subject to various biases (e.g., group-serving bias, confirmation bias) which renders them vulnerable to distorting events in the service of the bias.
Dr. Michael Coulter: In the past few years, students have come to me with claims made by Barton, many of which seemed wrong, but since Barton’s work wasn’t discussed by those in the academy, I had heard little about him. As there were more and more students and others who were reading Barton, it seemed that his claims needed to be taken seriously and examined. What sealed the deal for wanting to offer a lengthy critique of Barton was reading him. Reading “The Jefferson Lies” and finding so many errors and distortions convinced me that an extended critique was needed. Moreover, a work claiming to be a work of Christian scholarship, but one which is greatly flawed, harms the general reputation of Christians as scholars.
V&V: What was your role and Coulter’s role?
Throckmorton: Michael wrote the introduction and provided lots of help with the sections on the University of Virginia and Jefferson’s views of slavery. I took the section on Jefferson’s views of religion, church and state, and the Bible. We jointly proofed all sections and brought in some outside reviewers as well.
V&V: Many readers find value in Barton’s work. What, exactly, in your view, did Barton get wrong in this book?
Authors: As many reviewers before have pointed out, Barton does what he accuses others of doing. He says modern historians take the past out of context and do not use primary sources and original documents. However, we found evidence that he does exactly the same thing. For instance, in “The Jefferson Lies,” Barton says that Jefferson was unable to free his slaves due to restrictions in Virginia law. However, when one reviews Virginia law from that era, one finds a completely different picture than painted by Barton. In his book he quotes the 1782 law on manumission (emancipation of slaves) as follows: “[T]hose persons who are disposed to emancipate their slaves may be empowered so to do, and … it shall hereafter be lawful for any person, by his or her last will and testament … to emancipate and set free, his or her slaves.”
Note the ellipses. The second ellipsis is the one of consequence. Now, here is the entire first section of the 1782 law on manumission. Look at what he left out in bold print below:
[T]hose persons who are disposed to emancipate their slaves may be empowered so to do, and the same hath been judged expedient under certain restrictions: Be it therefore enacted, That it shall hereafter be lawful for any person, by his or her last will and testament, or by any other instrument in writing, under his or her hand and seal, attested and proved in the county court by two witnesses, or acknowledged by the party in the court of the county where he or she resides to emancipate and set free, his or her slaves, or any of them, who shall thereupon be entirely and fully discharged from the performance of any contract entered into during servitude, and enjoy as full freedom as if they had been particularly named and freed by this act.
The very words he left out are those which render his claim false. Barton says the 1782 law allowed slave owners to free slaves only at death and then points to George Washington who emancipated his slaves in 1799, in accord with Barton’s selective citation of Virginia law. However, Barton’s presentation is false. After 1782, Virginia law allowed slave owners to free their slaves while they were alive. Jefferson even freed two of his over 200 slaves—one in 1794 and the other in 1796—long before his death, directly contradicting Barton’s claims.
This is not the only instance of this kind. We could have written about many more claims but felt we needed to stick to the key claims.
V&V: To what do you attribute these mistakes? Bad research? Lack of context?
Authors: It is hard to say. Barton boasts of having the largest private collection of historical documents before 1812. He also boasts of using copious endnotes to back up his claims. And since he cites parts of the sources, he apparently has read them. Selective citation is often done by advocates, but not competent social scientists.
V&V: What could he have done to avoid some of these errors, which, for the record, he disputes? A review process?
Authors: Basic fact checking would help. Although as in the case of the Virginia law on manumission, he simply left out the part that contradicted his position. In that case, he had the facts, but he didn’t use them. It is hard to know how to comment on that.
V&V: How have you tried to prevent bias from creeping in to your analysis?
Authors: First, we really have no particular need to portray Jefferson in a particular manner. Second, we use material from primary sources and provide lengthy quotes from those sources so the reader can evaluate the evidence. Third, our belief is that Christian scholars should strive for factual accuracy. We examine the claims, review the evidence given for the claims by Mr. Barton, and then look through Jefferson’s work for any relevant information and present it. We were blessed with assistance from the Monticello research library and reviews by history colleagues here at Grove City College and by Christian historians elsewhere.
V&V: What did you find most surprising in your investigation of Jefferson?
Authors: We were surprised that Jefferson’s talk about slavery was so much different than his walk. He did inherit some slaves but he acquired many throughout his life and even paid bounty hunters to recover some of his runaway slaves. One bright spot was identifying some forgotten heroes. While looking at slave-owning in Virginia at that time, we learned of some courageous and principled individuals, such as Robert Carter, who freed nearly all of his slaves after a religious conversion.
V&V: What kind of reviews have you received?
Authors: The only negative comments thus far have come from Mr. Barton and those who have not read our book. The reviews of historians have been very favorable with one calling it “an excellent example of the art of historical contextualization” and “for these reasons, the book should become a standard reference.”
V&V: Overall, as a professor, what grade would you give Barton’s book?
Coulter: I’m not sure I could give it a grade. I’d have to send it back for revision and improvement.
Throckmorton: It wouldn’t earn a passing grade here at GCC. I think Michael’s answer is a good one.