One might think David Barton would reconsider some of his claims in light of his problems with his book on Jefferson, The Jefferson Lies. The book was voted “least credible history book in print” by readers of the History News Network, the subject of multiple negative reviews in major publications (e.g., Wall Street Journal), and then pulled from publication by Christian publisher Thomas Nelson. Some authors might allow such negative reactions to generate some reflection and moves to correct obvious errors.
Not so with Mr. Barton. On his Wallbuilders website, Barton features links to claims about Jefferson that have been thoroughly debunked. First, Barton is promoting the claim that Jefferson used the phrase “in the year of our Lord Christ” to close his presidential documents. Barton has a partial image of a sea letter and says the reference to Christ “is the explicitly Christian language that President Thomas Jefferson chose to use in official public presidential documents.”
The problem is that Jefferson did not choose to construct the form of the sea letters he signed. As Jefferson once said, “sea-letters are the creatures of treaties.” The treaties with Holland and other European countries specified the exact language to be used in the sea letter. If Barton knows this, he ignores it to make his claim about Jefferson and his signatures. To date, Barton has produced no other Jefferson document with a closing using the word Christ. For more on this claim, see this post.
The second claim demonstrates where Barton derived some of the material for The Jefferson Lies. In a 2009 article co-authored with Mark Beliles, Barton claims that Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia to be a “trans-denominational” college. Barton constructs a narrative which does violence to the chronology of events leading up to the opening of Virginia’s public university. Barton makes much of the fact that the UVA Board of Visitors offered to allow denominations to form theological schools in the vicinity of UVA but he fails to mention that UVA and theological schools created would be independent of each other.
In a letter dated November 2, 1822, Jefferson described the plan to Thomas Cooper.
In our university you know there is no Professorship of Divinity. A handle has been made of this, to disseminate an idea that this is an institution, not merely of no religion, but against all religion. Occasion was taken at the last meeting of the Visitors, to bring forward an idea that might silence this calumny, which weighed on the minds of some honest friends to the institution. In our annual report to the legislature, after stating the constitutional reasons against a public establishment of any religious instruction, we suggest the expediency of encouraging the different religious sects to establish, each for itself, a professorship of their own tenets, on the confines of the university, so near as that their students may attend the lectures there, and have the free use of our library, and every other accommodation we can give them; preserving, however, their independence of us and of each other. This fills the chasm objected to ours, as a defect in an institution professing to give instruction in all useful sciences. I think the invitation will be accepted, by some sects from candid intentions, and by others from jealousy and rivalship. And by bringing the sects together, and mixing them with the mass of other students, we shall soften their asperities, liberalize and neutralize their prejudices, and make the general religion a religion of peace, reason, and morality.[i]
Note the order of events. The decision was made to have no professor of divinity, then observers criticized the decision, and then the idea for allowing denominations to establish schools, independent of UVA, was hatched. Barton’s article makes it seem as though the decision to have no divinity professors was a result of the plan to make UVA “trans-denominational.” In fact, Jefferson was prodded into accepting the idea of religious schools in order to preserve support and funding. Even with this accommodation, no denominations took advantage of the offer and no theological schools were established there.
Barton also says the reason chaplains were not appointed in the beginning few years of the university was to solidify the reputation of UVA as a trans-denominational school. This is Barton’s invented reason. Although Jefferson did not want to prevent religious worship, he had nothing to do with the eventual policies regarding chaplains. There is nothing in his correspondence or reports which cite any of the reasons Barton gives. Madison, also on the board of visitors, said he hoped that students and parents would take care of religious worship. Note also, that the school did not have a chapel until the late 1800s. Building a college with no chapel seems like an odd way to begin a trans-denominational school.
We cover this and other claims about UVA in Getting Jefferson Right.
[i] The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, 10:242.