Alan Pell Crawford, author of the book Twilight at Monticello: The Final Years of Thomas Jefferson, writes a review of David Barton’s appropriately titled book The Jefferson Lies in the Wall Street Journal. Beyond the obvious falsehoods, he nails Barton’s use of what I call the “golly gee whiz” form of history, where all the heroes are pure and virtuous.
Mr. Barton is keen to defend Jefferson against other charges as well. Most are only tangentially related to the Hemings controversy, except insofar as guilt in that matter would suggest that Jefferson was not as pious and clean-living as Mr. Barton, one of Time magazine’s 25 “most influential evangelicals,” would have us believe.
He asserts, for example, that there is “absolutely no historical, factual or scientific evidence to tarnish the sexual morality of Jefferson.” But Jefferson himself admitted that in 1768, when he was in his mid-20s and unmarried, he tried to seduce Elizabeth Walker, who was not only married but the wife of a close friend who had asked Jefferson to look after her and their children in his absence. Twenty years later, in Paris, he met, befriended and traveled with Maria Cosway. His love letters to her have since been published. Jefferson was a widower, but Maria Cosway was married.
One need not regard Jefferson as a cad to accept these facts, nor must they make us question, as Mr. Barton writes, that “generations of Americans—especially God-loving Americans—have benefitted from the blessings he helped secure for this nation.” 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. Such a description would have surprised Jefferson’s purchasing agents, through whom he ordered hundreds bottles of French and Italian wine annually, on credit.
And on Jefferson’s religious views:
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.
A commitment to the notion that Jefferson promoted Christian orthodoxy leads Mr. Barton to misinterpret the early history of the University of Virginia. It was precisely because American colleges were created to produce clergymen that Jefferson established an institution where, he declared, “a professorship of theology should have no place.” While eventually Jefferson relented—allowing denominations to hire their own professors and offer classes on the property—he did so only to ensure political support for the college with the Virginia legislature. Clergymen who opposed Jefferson’s attempt to hire freethinkers as faculty members he dismissed as “satellites of religious inquisition.”
Mr. Barton seems not know these facts, and he virtually ignores the cultural and theological world of the young Jefferson’s time and place—what it meant to grow up a scion of the Virginia gentry, a classically educated Anglican, and an intellectual whose attitudes toward church and state were informed by a knowledge of the religious wars that had scarred Europe little more than a century before.
And those appear to be about the nicest things one could say about the book.