Barton Keeps Telling the Same Long-Debunked Lie

One of the lies that David Barton tells in his appropriately titled book The Jefferson Lies is that Jefferson wanted to free his slaves but couldn’t because Virginia law forbid what was called manumission. It’s been debunked many times, but Warren Throckmorton catches him telling the same lie twice in recent weeks.

In our book on Jefferson, Getting Jefferson Right, Michael Coulter and I demonstrated that slave owners were allowed to manumit (free) slaves after Virginia lawmakers passed the 1782 Law on Manumission. However, Barton keeps spreading the misinformation.

In February, Barton told Charis Bible College students George Mason was not allowed to free his slaves (at 1:38 into the video). Prior to 1782, slaves could only be freed by the Virginia legislature due to some meritorious service by the slave.  Mason died in 1791 so his window of opportunity to free his slaves came near the end of his life. However, despite his strong rhetoric against slavery, he did not manumit his slaves in life or at his death. Barton told the Bible college students Mason didn’t free his slaves “because in the state of Virginia, it was illegal to free your slaves.” Not so.

More recently, he told the pastor of Calvary Chapel Jack Hibbs that Virginia law didn’t allow manumission. It is beyond me why he keeps saying this when it is an easy to look up Virginia’s manumission law as well as the many deeds of manumission which were filed after 1782 (Utah State’s Michael Nicholls is the go to person on this). In prior posts, I have pointed out the amazing story of Robert Carter III who began a process of manumitting more than 450 slaves beginning in 1791.

I don’t know why this is beyond his ability to understand. The answer is quite simple: David Barton is a liar, one of the most shameless I’ve ever seen. He will tell any story, make any claim, no matter how blatantly false, as long as it supports the narrative he’s trying to sell to his audience.

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  • colnago80

    It is true, however, that Jefferson did free the the children he sired with Sally Hemmings in his will. He couldn’t free the rest of his slaves as they had to be sold to pay off his debts. Jefferson was a spendthrift who was utterly broke and in debt at the time of his death.

  • cptdoom

    @colnago80 #1 – Actually Jefferson only freed his younger two sons with Hemings (and interestingly did not free Hemings herself, although she lived basically as a free woman after his death). Their older two surviving children (son and daughter) left Monticello before his death, and he listed them as “runaways” in his slave register, although he appears to have given them money to start new lives passing as white people.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    colnago80 @ # 1: Jefferson was a spendthrift who was utterly broke and in debt at the time of his death.

    While mostly true, this overlooks at least two extenuating factors: many people contrived to invite themselves over to visit Monticello after TJ’s retirement from the presidency, and he felt obliged to provide them with high-level (and quite expensive) hospitality; and his crops were ruined by heavy flooding of the James River in the year of his death, which left his estate in particularly deep arrears.

  • Modusoperandi

    I used to have nocturnal manumissions. Freed a bunch of slaves. Still, it was embarassing. Especially when I fell asleep on the bus. Granted, that could’ve been because I was the driver.

  • colnago80

    Re cptdoom @ #2

    Sally was freed the year following Jefferson’s death by Jefferson’s daughter and went to live with one of her children in the District of Columbia.

  • Warren Throckmorton

    colnago – Remember that Barton’s claim is that the law did not allow Jefferson (and other slave owners) to free slaves. Jefferson had his difficulties both due to his own bad choices as well as to problems beyond his control. Those financial problems meant that he had to satisfy his debts first. However, VA law allowed him to free slaves during his lifetime as well. He freed two and could have freed more if he had made different choices. His circumstances do not change the fact that VA law allowed private manumissions.

  • colnago80

    Re Throckmorton @ #6

    I am not in any way, shape, form, or regard disputing your contention that Barton is full of shit. The fact that Jefferson freed 2 of his slaves in his will (the other surviving children, as Cptdoom said had already freed themselves) and that Jefferson’s daughter freed Sally Hemmings the following year give the lie to Barton’s claim.

  • skinnercitycyclist

    Language fascist here, Ed, the past tense of “forbid” is not “forbid,” it is “forbade” (maybe “forbad”).

  • billyeager

    Awesome triple-play there from Modus, winning the internet, again.

  • dingojack

    skinnercitycyclist — or you could rearrange the sentence to include the participle:

    “… Jefferson wanted to free his slaves but under Virginian law manumission was forbidden.”

    [/fellow pedant]