David Barton Claims Professional Historians Don’t Use Original Documents and That’s Why They Attack His Work

I have just about run out of headlines to describe the errors in David Barton’s description of why The Jefferson Lies was pulled from publication in 2012. He and World Net Daily continue to promote the idea that the book’s critics were liberals and that Thomas Nelson pulled the book due to political correctness. I’ve debunked these false claims more than once.

Now he is advancing another theory about why historians have been critical of The Jefferson Lies. In an article (another whitewash of Jefferson’s actions relating to slavery) at World Net Daily, Barton claims professional historians refuse to use “original documents.” From the WND article:

Barton blames the ignorance surrounding Jefferson on the refusal of professional historians to review original documents instead of second-hand sources.

Barton said: “Nobody knows anything unless they quote from another PhD. No, go back to the original documents. When you go back to the original documents you get things right. And so what they do, when you go back to the books, they all quote each other in a circular fashion. And because I went back to the originals instead of quoting PhDs, the PhDs said, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about.’”

Barton suggested his use of original sources is one of the reasons many historians are so hostile to “The Jefferson Lies.”

“That’s what gives them heartburn, because now they have to admit that what they’ve been taught may be wrong, their philosophy may be wrong, they’ve taken a position that no longer comports with history, and they’ve been saying that this is what history teaches,” Barton said. “So it really puts them in a hard spot.”

Barton must mean primary sources when he says “original documents.” He himself doesn’t use original documents for most of the claims he makes. For instance, he cites Jefferson’s letters which he takes from books and internet sources. Here are just a few relevant footnotes from The Jefferson Lies:

Thomas Jefferson, “The Thomas Jefferson Papers,” Library of Congress, to Robert Brent on August 14, 1805 (at: http:// hdl.loc.gov/ loc.mss/ mtj.mtjbib015028).

Thomas Jefferson, “Report of the Commissioners for the University of Virginia,” The University of Virginia, August 4, 1818 (at: http:// nersp.osg.ufl.edu/ ~ lombardi/ edudocs/ jefferson_uva_1818. html).

Thomas Jefferson, Memoir, Correspondence, and Miscellanies, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, editor (Charlottesville: F. Carr, and Co., 1829), Vol. IV, 23, to Mrs. John Adams on July 22, 1804, Vol. IV, 228, to John Adams on October 28, 1813, and Vol. II, 48– 50, to Mrs. Cosway on October 12, 1786; Thomas Jefferson, The Works of Thomas Jefferson, Paul Leicester Ford, editor (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904), Vol. II, 253– 254, “Notes on Religion,” October 1776, Thomas Jefferson, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (Washington, DC: The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1904), Vol. XIV, 71– 73, to John Adams on January 24, 1814; etc.

Barton, David (2015-12-22). The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson, WND Books. Kindle Edition.

As others do, Barton uses what are more accurately called primary sources to cite Jefferson’s words. One can find them on the web or in edited collections of his letters. I have yet to come across a footnote in Barton’s new edition which cites an original document only available to Barton. In the first edition, Barton cited a sea letter signed by Jefferson which he apparently has in his library. However, in the new edition, that letter is not cited. As an aside, Barton used that letter to claim Jefferson signed presidential documents with the phrase, “In the year of our Lord Christ.” We demonstrated in Getting Jefferson Right that Jefferson did not choose to write that phrase in his own handwriting on a shipping letter and apparently in response (I can’t find it in the new edition) Barton removed the claim from the new edition (for more on this claim check here and here).

Historians are taught to use primary sources. It is a foundation of the discipline. For instance, check out this article on using primary sources to teach history from the American Historical Association website:

Strategies and Resources for Teaching with Primary Sources

Free and open access to the raw materials of history is not enough for K–12 classroom teachers. They also need the strategies and resources for effective, relevant, and rigorous primary source instruction. All TPS professional development offerings for history teachers convey the same message: teaching with primary sources helps students ask meaningful questions, develop critical thinking skills, and acquire new knowledge. Whether students are learning about the Civil War, the dust bowl migration, or the civil rights movement, working with primary sources models the investigative process used by historians, and encourages active student engagement at all stages of the learning process. For example, a lesson on the Declaration of Independence in which students compare Thomas Jefferson’s handwritten “original Rough draught” with the final version adopted by Congress on July 4, 1776, illustrates differences in word choice and intent, and hence demands greater scrutiny of Jefferson’s language and the meaning he attached to his words. Also available at the library’s web site is an online interactive program that assists students in sourcing the documents that Jefferson drew upon for ideas and phrases (http://myloc.gov/Exhibitions/creatingtheus/Pages/Interactives.aspx).

Barton must know he is misleading people here. Perhaps he could give an example of an historian using secondary sources inappropriately but that doesn’t mean that a majority do it. Furthermore, his critics rely on primary sources. We certainly do and since he says he has read Getting Jefferson Right, he knows we do.

Another problem with Barton’s claim is that he uses secondary sources.

For instance, in the first edition of The Jefferson Lies, Barton claimed that Thomas Jefferson invited preacher James O’Kelly to the White House to preach. Barton wrote in the 2012 edition:

Jefferson also arranged for other ministers to preach at the Capitol, including the Reverend James O’Kelly, another of his strong supporters. Originally a Methodist, O’Kelly later founded a movement known as the “Republican Methodists” because of the common beliefs they shared with Jefferson’s political movement. He twice visited Jefferson at the White House, and Jefferson twice arranged for him to preach in the church at the Capitol. 31 Following one of those occasions, a newspaper editor reported that after O’Kelly’s sermon, “Mr. Jefferson arose with tears in his eyes and said that while he was no preacher, in his opinion James O’Kelly was one of the greatest preachers living.” 32

Barton, David (2013-02-15). The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson (Kindle Locations 3024-3030). WallBuilder Press. Kindle Edition.

Checking footnotes 31 and 32, one finds:

31 Wilbur E. MacClenny, “James O’Kelly: A Champion of Christian Freedom,” in The Centennial of Religious Journalism, ed. John Pressley Barrett (Dayton: Christian Publishing Association, 1908), 265.

32 Dr. J. P. Barrett, editor of the Herald of Gospel Liberty, Dayton, Ohio, quoted in Wilburn E. MacClenny, The Life of Rev. James O’Kelly and the Early History of the Christian Church in the South (Suffolk: Edwards & Broughton Printing Company, 1910), 171– 173.

Barton, David (2013-02-15). The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson (Kindle Locations 5926-5932). WallBuilder Press. Kindle Edition.

MacClenny wrote in 1908 and 1910 (click the link for the 1910 book). MacClenny provides one source for his information regarding O’Kelly and Jefferson, J.P. Barrett. Barrett was the editor of a church newsletter, Herald of Gospel Liberty. While I don’t know Barrett’s entire tenure at the newsletter, he was editor in the early 1900s and not during the early 1800s. He did not witness Jefferson calling O’Kelly one of the “greatest preachers living” because he wasn’t alive.

In this case, Barton not only used a secondary source (MacClenny), but he used one (Barrett) another step removed from Jefferson’s time and the event in question. Barton did just what he accused professional historians of doing. Furthermore, professional historians would find such a source laughable.

What about in the new edition? Did Barton keep the O’Kelly stories?

While Barton removed the story of Jefferson calling O’Kelly one of the greatest living preachers, he still relies on MacClenny to claim O’Kelly was Jefferson’s great friend and preached twice at Jefferson’s request.

Jefferson personally arranged for other Christian ministers to preach at the Capitol, including the Reverend James O’Kelly, another of his strong supporters. Originally a Methodist, O’Kelly later founded a movement known as the “Republican Methodists” because of the common beliefs they shared with Jefferson’s political movement. He twice visited Jefferson at the White House, and Jefferson twice arranged for him to preach in the church at the Capitol. 36

Barton, David (2015-12-22). The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson (Kindle Locations 3620-3624). WND Books. Kindle Edition.

The footnote still points to MacClenny:

36 Wilbur E. MacClenny, The Centennial of Religious Journalism, John Pressley Barrett, editor (Dayton: Christian Publishing Association, 1908), 250 and 265, “James O’Kelly: A Champion of Christian Freedom.”

Barton, David (2015-12-22). The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson (Kindle Locations 6873-6875). WND Books. Kindle Edition.

In fact, there is no primary or contemporary source for the claims about O’Kelly. Barton relied on a secondary source (MacClenny) which in turn used a secondary source (Barrett) to spread questionable information about these events. Both secondary sources were 100 years removed from the events in question. In fact, there is no primary source evidence that O’Kelly ever preached at Jefferson’s request or even met him.

In preparation to write Getting Jefferson Right, I read James O’Kelly’s papers which are housed at Elon University. In them, there is no mention of a friendship with Jefferson or of preaching in the Congress. The only reference to Jefferson is correspondence between Senator Harry Byrd and the Library of Congress. Sen. Byrd asked the Library of Congress if O’Kelly ever preached in Congress. Frederick Scott, acting chief of the Library of Congress’ Government and General Research Division replied in 1971 that no records could be found to substantiate the story.  I also asked Anna Berke at the library at Monticello if Jefferson ever corresponded with O’Kelly. After a search of all of Jefferson’s papers, she informed me that there is no letter to, from, or about James O’Kelly.

The short summary of this matter is that Barton did what he accuses others of doing. Those who are enamored with Barton’s extensive footnotes should check them out.

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Eric Metaxas: I Just Love David Barton and His Work

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