Barton Should Not Be Copied, Only Scorned

Barton Should Not Be Copied, Only Scorned August 5, 2012

Oi. Here’s another example of secularists behaving very much like the Christian Nation crowd, passing on fake and out of context quotes from the founding fathers to support our side rather than the other side. It should highlight the importance of never just blindly accepting quotes from the founders that seem to so perfectly support our cause; do some research first.

Unfortunately, once this was put on Facebook it spread like wildfire. So let’s look at those quotes one at a time. Did John Adams say that this would be the best of all possible worlds if there were no religion in it? Yes, but if you read the context it is clear that he is actually saying the exact opposite. Here’s the full quote, which comes from a letter he wrote to Jefferson:

“Twenty times in the course of my late reading have I been on the point of breaking out, ‘This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it!!!’ But in this exclamation I would have been as fanatical as Bryant or Cleverly. Without religion this world would be something not fit to be mentioned in polite company, I mean hell.”

He clearly intended the exact opposite of what that out of context quote implies.

Now, to the second quote, from Jefferson. This is a bad paraphrase of something Jefferson wrote to his friend Joseph Priestley, the man who brought unitarianism to America. Here’s the full quote:

“Those who live by mystery and charlatanerie, fearing you would render them useless by simplifying the Christian philosophy — the most sublime & benevolent, but most perverted system that ever shone on man — endeavored to crush your well-earnt and well-deserved fame.”

It was Priestley, among others, who convinced Jefferson that much of what appears in the gospels about Jesus was false, that his followers distorted his beliefs by putting false statements in his mouth after his death. This is why he referred to the four gospel writers as a “band of dupes and imposters” and called Paul the first great corruptor of the doctrines of Jesus. He believed Jesus’ ethical teachings to be, as he says above, “the most sublime and benevolent” ever taught, but that the gospel writers and Paul had corrupted those teachings by claiming that Jesus was divine (and had claimed to be, which Jefferson did not believe), that he’s been resurrected, born of a virgin, and so forth. So again, the context changes the meaning considerably.

The 3rd quote, from Ben Franklin, is highly suspect. I’ve searched in vain for a source for it and never found one. It appears on lots and lots of lists of quotations, but never with a citation to an actual letter or document written by Franklin. The closest I’ve seen was to a book written a few years ago by someone else, again without a source. This is exactly the sort of thing Barton is famous for doing.

The 4th quote is accurate, though slightly out of date. The treaty with Tripoli was negotiated under Washington but signed by Adams and ratified by the Senate after he took office. But that’s mere nitpicking. The other three are important. As I said, this is exactly the way David Barton does “history,” through isolated, out of context and often simply made up quotes. We should not be engaging in the same thing ourselves.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • carolw

    Also, “Our country are not Christian”? Is country plural now? The whole thing is fail.

  • The top of the image is clipped. The original says “Our Founding Fathers and Our Country”. While the quotes are faulty, the grammar is okay.

  • It infuriates me when Our Side does something like this. Who is responsible for this? We need to flood FB with objections/disclaimers.

  • I appreciate that our historical heritage is important. Hell, my undergrad degree is in History, and I love it whether it’s good, bad, boring or exciting. But it should be accurate. It’s pointless to study it, then extrapolate it to the present time, unless we accurately understand it. False or misleading quotations are not the way to go.

    That being said, sometimes I think we inure far too much gravity to one line statements of the Founding Fathers. I’ve said lots of things that, at that moment, made sense and were important, but in the long run I would not want to be remembered by. I doubt that personal letters between friends which are often simply reactions to previous communications were intended to be revered as the wisdom of sages.

    They should be remembered more for what they did (create the first modern secular government in history) than for what they said in a quick, or even a reflective, moment. Actions speak louder than words, we say. I think the Founding Fathers would rather be remembered for what they did than what they said. If they said it, and it ended up in a historical document meant to be followed (The DoI, The Constitution, the Bill of Rights, etc.) then by all means, those are words to be followed. The rest, much less so.

  • Aliasalpha

    Why not go one better, if we take individual letters out of context, we can make all the american founding fathers make specific ad hominem attacks on Barton himself. You know, as long as it’s in the spirit of what they would have said about the lying sack of shit (incidently, that insult was a quote from jefferson)

  • KG

    I think we inure far too much gravity to one line statements of the Founding Fathers. – Spanish Inquisitor

    “Inure” means to result; to take effect; to be of use, benefit, or advantage to an individual. I think you meant impute.

    More fundamentally, the American habit of basing arguments on what the “Founding Fathers” did, said or believed (most common on the religious right, but sadly prevalent elsewhere as well) is just daft. Most of them died more than two centuries ago. Anyone in Europe, Canada or Australia trying to use arguments based on what politicians living before the industrial revolution did, thought or said, in relation to current issues, would rightly be laughed at.

  • jimmiraybob

    There’s a longer version of the Franklin “quote” floating around:

    I have found Christian dogma unintelligible. Early in life I absented myself from Christian assemblies.

    Perhaps is is a bad paraphrase from his autobiography (pp. 80-81)(1)

    “I had been religiously educated as a Presbyterian; and tho’ some of the dogmas of that persuasion, such as the eternal decrees of God, election, reprobation, etc., appeared to me unintelligible, others doubtful, and I early absented myself from the public assemblies of the sect, Sunday being my studying day, I never was without some religious principles. I never doubted, for instance, the existence of the Deity; that he made the world, and govern’d it by his Providence; that the most acceptable service of God was the doing good to man; that our souls are immortal; and that all crime will be punished, and virtue rewarded, either here or hereafter. These I esteem’d the essentials of every religion; and, being to be found in all the religions we had in our country, I respected them all, tho’ with different degrees of respect, as I found them more or less mix’d with other articles, which, without any tendency to inspire, promote, or confirm morality, serv’d principally to divide us, and make us unfriendly to one another. This respect to all, with an opinion that the worst had some good effects, induc’d me to avoid all discourse that might tend to lessen the good opinion another might have of his own religion; and as our province increas’d in people, and new places of worship were continually wanted, and generally erected by voluntary contributions, my mite for such purpose, whatever might be the sect, was never refused.”

    And, I think the next paragraph is amusing, and telling.

    “Tho’ I seldom attended any public worship, I had still an opinion of its propriety, and of its utility when rightly conducted, and I regularly paid my annual subscription for the support of the only Presbyterian minister or meeting we had in Philadelphia. He us’d to visit me sometimes as a friend, and admonish me to attend his administrations, and I was now and then prevail’d on to do so, once for five Sundays successively. Had he been in my opinion a good preacher, perhaps I might have continued, notwithstanding the occasion I had for the Sunday’s leisure in my course of study; but his discourses were chiefly either polemic arguments, or explications of the peculiar doctrines of our sect, and were all to me very dry, uninteresting, and unedifying, since not a single moral principle was inculcated or enforc’d, their aim seeming to be rather to make us Presbyterians than good citizens.”


  • “Inure” means to result; to take effect; to be of use, benefit, or advantage to an individual. I think you meant impute.

    Yes. Sunday mornings are not my best time for the firing of brain synapses…I believe it comes from too many Sunday mornings lulled into a soporific state, in church, lo these many years ago. Thanks. 😉

  • preston

    I love the whole words-stuck-on-pictures thing. For example, I had no idea Albert Einstein was a word salad spouting Deepak Chopra clone.

    I’m thinking about attributing some Thomas Paine to a Glitter Pony and see how far that goes.

  • ehmm

    2 points:

    1. I have to admit that I’ve fallen for this stuff myself from time to time.

    2. This stuff is so unnecessary. These guys (the founders) were not prophets, folks. It’s largely irrelevant what their personal religious beliefs were. Jefferson (denying the resurrection and divinity of Christ) and Adams (a Unitarian) would either barely be considered Christan or would even be branded as heretics by most mainstream denominations.

    The question is: what sort of republic, through consensus, were they trying to create? The arguments supporting the ‘Christan Nation’ idea typically rely on scattered quotations like these. “So-and-So wrote in a letter blah, blah, blah.” I would argue that Christianity, particularly the more evangelical strains; one thing it definitely isn’t, is subtle. The lack of plentiful, significant and deliberate references to Christ, Yahweh, God of Abraham, etc. in the Declaration,the Constitution, federalist papers, etc. should be a big clue. The many references to Pagan Greece and Rome are also problematic.

    Finally, Article 11 of the Treaty of Tripoli settles it for me. These were the very founders people talk about. The text of the treaty is fairly short, so you can’t argue that this was some obscure provision buried in a 3000 page bill. from the Wikipedia page:

    Official records show that after President John Adams sent the treaty to the Senate for ratification in May 1797, the entire treaty was read aloud on the Senate floor, and copies were printed for every Senator. A committee considered the treaty and recommended ratification. Twenty-three of the thirty-two sitting Senators were present for the June 7 vote which unanimously approved the ratification recommendation.[13]

    The Wikipedia page documents a objections related to the translation (from Barton). These are irrelevant because the english translation is what was voted on.

  • godlesspanther

    This stuff pisses me off. I was willing to embrace (personally) the new atheism, because I am an atheist, but more to it than that. It is a movement that I believe to be concerned about accuracy, honesty, and integrity. This, as I see it, is what we have going for us. We don’t have to exaggerate, fabricate, or distort anything to make our case against the shit that the religious right is spewing.

    Truth is hard work — nobody will just hand you the truth in neat little file folders, numerical, alphabetical, and color-coded. You have to do the research and the thinking to get it.

    Anyone who thinks that we have to sink to the level of David Barton in order to state a case may as well join David Barton and them as far as I’m concerned.

  • =8)-DX

    But, but… surely as good atheists they should have sent this to the Full Truth Board™ (FTB) for review? How could they have been so lax, surely every New Atheist™ knows the correct approval process!

    Misquoting the FF sux, especially seeing all the good and proper things they actually did say.

  • david

    Joseph Priestley, besides having a low opinion of Christianity, also discovered oxygen. A far more important contribution to humanity.