David Barton Uses Jefferson Quote He Says is Unconfirmed

I had a hard time deciding what part of this story should go first.

In an email to supporters yesterday titled, “Addressing Mass Murder and Violent Crime,” David Barton quoted several founders on religion and public morality. The subtitle was “Sandy Hook and Public Policy” so it was clear from the beginning that Barton wanted readers to draw some lesson from the Sandy Hook atrocity. Barton began by claiming that calls for gun control are “misdirected.”

His basic message?

The lessons of Scriptures and history are clear that the key is controlling what is in one’s heart, not what is in one’s hand. As the great Daniel Webster reminded a crowd at the U. S. Capitol:

[T]he cultivation of the religious sentiment represses licentiousness . . . inspires respect for law and order, and gives strength to the whole social fabric. Whatever makes men good Christians, makes them good citizens.

Barton’s practical solutions are:

  1. Get a Bible course in public schools around you
  2. Start a Good News Club in a nearby public school
  3. Get your legislature to pass a law authorizing an elective course on the Bible, such as those already passed in TexasTennesseeArizona, and other states.

It is not surprising that Barton would use this tragedy to recommend that the state privilege Christianity (would he want a course in the Buddhists’ Eight-Fold Path?).  What was surprising was his use of a quote from Jefferson which he once included on his list of “Unconfirmed Quotes.” In his email yesterday, he quotes Jefferson as saying:

I have always said, and always will say, that the studious perusal of the Sacred Volume will make better citizens, better fathers, and better husbands. Thomas Jefferson, President, Signer of the Declaration

However this quote cannot be found in any of Jefferson’s writings or speeches. Barton acknowledged this on his list “unconfirmed quotes” which was at one time on the Wallbuilders’ website. I have a link to it via the Internet Archive. The quote from yesterday’s newsletter is #12 on the “unconfirmed” list.

12. I have always said and always will say that the studious perusal of the Sacred Volume will make us better citizens. — Thomas Jefferson (unconfirmed)

This quote can be found attributed to Thomas Jefferson in an 1869 work by Samuel W. Bailey, but as yet we have not found it in a primary source.

I could not find this list on his website yesterday so perhaps he is making changes to it. However, it was there at one time. About the quotes on the list, Barton said, “we recommend that you refrain from using them until such time that an original primary source may be found…”

According to the Monticello Foundation, the Daniel Webster claimed Jefferson said this in a conversation. Webster later reported the conversation in a letter many years later. However, for a variety of good reasons, the quote cannot be verified. Given his writings elsewhere, I doubt he said it in that way. The Monticello Foundation has the story with source material; see their website for the rest of the story.

I think this may be the first time I was able to debunk Barton by using Barton.

The broader issue Barton raises would require more of a response but suffice to  say that I think he and other evangelicals are being simplistic to call for more Bible and prayer in schools. We have to do something about the role of mental illness and the availability of assault weapons to disturbed people. I don’t have a Jefferson quote, made up or otherwise, to support my view, but I don’t need one. Jefferson is not here.



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  • Teresa

    Warren said:

    We have to do something about the role of mental illness and the availability of assault weapons to disturbed people.

    Please remove this comment if this is going to take this Post too far afield.

    I agree with this, Warren. However, I’m not sure that isn’t just airbrushing what’s really happening in the culture, at large. It’s a well documented fact, that after each of these tragic incidents, gun sales skyrocket.

    Are we to consider persons as not mentally ill who loathe are government, and are egged on by certain media, to stockpile weapons (of every type) and ammo for the day of insurrection? Are we to consider ourselves as not mentally ill, when we as a society glorify violence in our TV shows, movies, books, music, computer games; and, in our multi-year national mantra of “perpetual war, for perpetual peace”.

    I am very much in favor of gun ownership; but, I can’t but think we’ve gone beyond the fix-it stage. I take as my own, G.K. Chesterton’s submission to an essay contest on: What Is Wrong With The World.

    I AM

    G. K. Chesterton

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/warrenthrockmorton Warren

    If we could just make it harder for people with psychosis to get guns, we could prevent many of these events. I am not calling for tighter definitions of mental illness just restrictions on who can own guns using existing criteria.

  • Dave

    With the Connecticut situation .. He had psychosis but his mom did not .. And his mom was the one with the guns. So I am not sure what the restrictions you propose would do to help a situation like this one.


  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/warrenthrockmorton Warren

    Dave – I don’t either in that case. However, in other such shootings the perpetrators were ill, had been identified, and were somehow allowed to buy assault weapons. I don’t think there is a way to prevent all tragedies, but some would be nice.

  • Eric

    David Barton’s suggestion that Evanglicals start Good News Clubs as a response to the Sandy Hook massacre is macabre. The Good News Club–and there are already over 3500 of them in America’s public schools–teaches children that they “deserve to die” (their exact words) for their sins. See http://www.goodnewsclubs.info. With over 5000 references to sin and thousands more to (dis)obedience, punishment, and death, the Good News Club curriculum promotes a religious form of traumatic bonding and psychological abuse.

  • Chris Rodda

    I actually traced this quote to the Webster letter back in 2007 when I was going through the NCBCPS curriculum, and, in my opinion, the most important thing about Webster’s letter has nothing to do with the quote. The most important thing is Webster’s recollection of Jefferson saying that Sunday schools were “the only legitimate means, under the constitution” for teaching religion, and Webster’s failure to disagree with this opinion, making this letter, whether the other quotes in it were accurately recalled by Webster or not, a much better argument AGAINST the public school Bible curriculum than for it.

    Here’s a link to my 2007 post on Talk2Action:


  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/warrenthrockmorton Warren

    Chris – Thanks for providing that link and the rest of the story. The context of the letter makes it more likely that Jefferson could have said something about the teachings of Jesus making people better. He had a low view of the entire Bible but had a high view of the teachings he thought came directly from Jesus.

    In addition to what you related in your excellent post, there is Jefferson’s statement that

    Instead therefore of putting the Bible and Testament into the hands of the children at an age when their judgments are not sufficiently matured for religious enquiries, their memories may here be stored with the most useful facts from Grecian, Roman, European, and American history.

    Instead of Bible clubs, he preferred history.

  • Chris Rodda

    If I remember correctly, Franklin had a similar thing about using history to teach moral lessons in his 1749 plan for public schools in Pennsylvania.

  • Ron

    Jon, the unconfirmed quote seems pretty unlikely given the confirmed letter that Jefferson wrote to his nephew and ward, Peter Carr. In that one, he instructed young Peter to weigh all claims of scripture by the same standard of reason and critical questioning. “Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear…. But those facts in the Bible which contradict the laws of nature, must be examined with more care, and under a variety of faces. Here you must recur to the pretensions of the writer to inspiration from God. Examine upon what evidence his pretensions are founded, and whether that evidence is so strong, as that its falsehood would be more improbable than a change in the laws of nature, in the case he relates…. The pretension is entitled to your inquiry, because millions believe it. On the other hand, you are astronomer enough to know how contrary it is to the law of nature that a body revolving on its axis, as the earth does, should have stopped, should not, by that sudden stoppage, have prostrated animals, trees, buildings, and should after a certain time gave resumed its revolution, & that without a second general prostration. Is this arrest of the earth’s motion, or the evidence which affirms it, most within the law of probabilities? You will next read the New Testament. It is the history of a personage called Jesus. Keep in your eye the opposite pretensions: 1, of those who say he was begotten by God, born of a virgin, suspended & reversed the laws of nature at will, & ascended bodily into heaven; and 2, of those who say he was a man of illegitimate birth, of a benevolent heart, enthusiastic mind, who set out without pretensions to divinity, ended in believing them, and was punished capitally for sedition, by being gibbeted, according to the Roman law, which punished the first commission of that offence by whipping, & the second by exile, or death in fureâ… Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of its consequences. If it ends in a belief that there is no God, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in its exercise, and the love of others which it will procure you. If you find reason to believe there is a God, a consciousness that you are acting under his eye, & that he approves you, will be a vast additional incitement; if that there be a future state, the hope of a happy existence in that increases the appetite to deserve it; if that Jesus was also a God, you will be comforted by a belief of his aid and love. In fine, I repeat, you must lay aside all prejudice on both sides, and neither believe nor reject anything, because any other persons, or description of persons, have rejected or believed it. Your own reason is the only oracle given you by heaven, and you are answerable, not for the rightness, but uprightness of the decision….” http://www.stephenjaygould.org/ctrl/jefferson_carr.html

    [Indeed, such disciplined treatment of scriptural authoritarianism might indeed lead people to be better citizens, but I seriously doubt that Jefferson would have recommended anything less. — Ron]

  • sbh

    David Barton’s unconfirmed quotations list is not a good source by any standards; some of his “unconfirmed” quotations are perfectly legitimate quotations obscured by sloppy research, minor inaccuracies or the like (the Samuel Adams, John Quincy Adams, and (probably) the Noah Webster are examples); others are out-and-out fakes (both Madison quotations and one of the Patrick Henry quotations are examples), and others, like the Jefferson quotation under consideration here, are attributions by others made long after the supposed date of the saying. Further, as I’ve commented elsewhere, there are a number of quotations (like Jefferson saying that religion is deemed incompatible with good government in other countries) that ought to have been on his list of bad quotations, but weren’t.

    Daniel Webster’s letter, dated 1852, first appeared in print in the 1850s to combat the notions of Jefferson’s “atheism”. The National Magazine of August 1858, for example, observed of it

    Some there have been who have labored hard to prove that the sage of Monticello was an infidel, and that he ignored all religion but that of nature, and lived in the atmosphere of a blank and cheerless atheism. The testimony above given by so eminent a witness must be received as conclusive on this point.

    The letter, in other words, was specifically selected for a purpose, and we have no way of knowing how accurate or complete the transcript is. (All subsequent reprintings of the letter that I’ve seen go back to the 1850s printed version.) If the 1858 editor chose to alter or omit anything, we have no way of knowing what it was. Such alterations were not uncommon in even scholarly 19th century publications; popular periodicals were even less likely to be scrupulous in printing a document.

    Even supposing that what we have is a complete and accurate transcript, it should be kept in mind that Daniel Webster was not trying to write a full and accurate account of a day spent with Thomas Jefferson many years before, but rather he was writing “Professor Pease” (possibly Calvin Pease (1813-1863)) about the importance of the “sabbath-school” movement, and throwing in something he remembered Jefferson saying on the subject. He was, in other words, cherry-picking from his memories. Quite possibly Jefferson had more to say on the subject than Webster chooses to recall; we have no way of knowing.

    Here’s a link to my piece on the subject some years ago: http://fakehistory.wordpress.com/2009/07/05/questionable-quotes-jefferson-and-the-sacred-volume/

  • oft

    TJ wrote religion was left to the States, meaning the majority could establish and teach Christianity any way they wanted. The focus on this one man is regrettable; especially a man in comparison not as important as the others, who had nothing to do with the Constitution and only wrote down principles in the DOI already hackneyed out in Congress.