Chris Rodda: No, Mr. Beck, Jefferson Did Not Date His Documents 'In the Year of Our Lord Christ'
[is the Senior Research Director for the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), and the author of Liars For Jesus: The Religious Right's Alternate Version of American History.]
For the third installment of my little series debunking the American history lies being told on Glenn Beck's show, I'm going to take on another of pseudo-historian David Barton's favorite lies: that Thomas Jefferson dated his presidential documents not just "in the year of our Lord," but that he went even further than any of our other early presidents, dating his documents "in the year of our Lord Christ.' Barton told this lie twice on Glenn Beck's show, first when he was on in March with the other speakers who were going to be appearing with Beck on his American Revival Tour, and then again when Beck had him back on for a whole show.
Barton has been using this lie for a very long time. In a 10-year-old article on his WallBuilders website, he wrote: "While President, Jefferson closed his presidential documents with the phrase, 'In the year of our Lord Christ; by the President; Thomas Jefferson.'" In that article, Barton's footnote for this claim is: "For example, his presidential act of October 18, 1804, from an original document in our possession." A typical revisionist tactic, which Barton used in this footnote, is to take their claim, which isn't even true in the first place, and word it in a way that makes it sound like something happened multiple times or was the regular practice of whoever they're lying about. In his footnote, Barton does this by beginning with the words "for example." On Beck's show, he kept referring to Jefferson's documents (plural), as if the document he was showing was just one example of many.
A few years later after Barton started using this lie about Jefferson, the late D. James Kennedy, in his 2003 book What If America Were a Christian Nation Again?, repeated the lie, writing: "I have a photocopy of the conclusion of one of the many documents that he signed as president, and it says, 'In the year of our Lord Christ 1804.' He was the first president, and to my knowledge, the only president who did that. Jefferson, the anti-Christian, the irreligious infidel, said that it is Christ who is our Lord, and no one else."
At the time that I was working on my book, which I started writing around the same time that D. James Kennedy's book came out, I had no idea what this mystery document that Barton claimed to possess might be. I knew it had to be some kind of document that already had the date on it, and was simply signed by Jefferson, because the claim that Jefferson personally dated any of his documents "In the year of our Lord," let alone "In the year of our Lord Christ," was just too ridiculous. In fact, Jefferson sometimes went out of his way to make it clear to everybody that he wasn't just overlooking using the phrase "In the year of our Lord," but was deliberately omitting it, particularly in documents that he was writing to abolish something religious, using phrases like "in the Christian computation," and "of the Christian epoch." Anyway, my best guess at the time as to what Barton's mystery document might be was a pardon, since there was, in fact, a pardon signed by Jefferson that would have coincided with the date cited by Barton in his footnote. It didn't occur to me at the time that it might just be a routine preprinted form, which, as I'll explain in a minute, is exactly what this document is. So, I might have been off when I took a stab at guessing what Barton's mystery document might be, but, as I had suspected, it is not a document that Jefferson personally wrote and dated, but an already written document that he merely signed.
When I made my first YouTube videos in March of last year (in response to Barton bashing me on his radio show), I still didn't know what the document was, even though he had showed a corner of it on the video screen during his presentation that I had attended a few months earlier. But, about a week after I put my videos up on YouTube, Barton suddenly posted the document on his website -- well, sort of. The document that Barton posted was not dated October 18, 1804, as the footnote in his earlier website article stated, but September 24, 1807. But, this doesn't really matter. Both documents, the 1804 one that Barton shows a corner of in his presentation, and the 1807 one now posted on his website are the same thing. They're ship's papers. These documents, carried by all American ships leaving the United States, were a fill-in-the-blanks form with columns translated into several languages. Each president signed hundreds of these forms, leaving all the other information blank, and then the blank signed forms were sent in bulk to the customs officials at all the ports, where they were filled out as needed for departing ships.
Not to digress from the story too much, but I did wonder why Barton didn't just post an image of the 1804 ship's papers that he had been claiming for a decade to have in his possession. The only reason I could think of is that he never did actually have the original 1804 document that he claimed to have. The image of it that he showed on video screen could be a photocopy and nobody would know the difference since he never pulls out and waves around the original document like he does with other documents he's showing on the screen. He probably just looked for an original after the fact, and bought the 1807 one. If this is the case, Mr. Barton should know that there is currently one up for auction that's only one day off from the date of that 1804 one he claims to own. He could buy that one and easily get away with claiming that he just had a typo in the date in his old article. But, like I said, it really doesn't matter whether it was an 1804 or 1807 ship's papers. They're exactly the same because they were a preprinted form. So, let's get back to the story.
The primary purpose of a ship's papers, sometimes called sea letters or passports, was to provide proof of the nationality of the ship's owner if the ship was stopped by a foreign power. This became enormously important in 1793 when George Washington proclaimed the neutrality of the United States in the war between France and England, as I'll explain in a minute when I get to who really chose the language of this form.
Now, Barton claims in his description of the form on his website that "this is the explicitly Christian language that President Thomas Jefferson chose to use in official public presidential documents," and said on Glenn Beck that "Jefferson added in the year of our lord Christ." This is a flat out lie. Actually, it's two lies. Jefferson absolutely did not choose the language on this form, and he was not the only president who signed these forms that were dated that way. So did Washington and Adams before him, and Madison and Monroe after him. While the ship's papers form remained virtually the same from 1793 until well into the late 1800s, the name Christ was eventually dropped from the date on it, but that didn't happen until somewhere in the 1820s or 1830s.
The reason Barton lies about Jefferson being the only president to sign these documents is pretty obvious. As he claims in his presentations, other early presidents only dated things "in the year of our Lord," but Jefferson -- the least religious of them all -- the man who coined the phrase "separation between church and state" -- well, he went even further and added the name Christ! And his audience, of course, believes him.
So, if it wasn't Jefferson, who actually did choose the language of these ship's papers? Well, that would be the High and Mighty Lords of the States-General of the United Netherlands. The language to be used on ships' papers was annexed to the 1782 Treaty of Amity and Commerce with the Netherlands, and the twenty-fifth article of the treaty itself stipulated that this was the wording that would be used. At the time this treaty was made, the Netherlands was still the Republic of the United Netherlands, which was a Christian republic where every public official had to be a member of the Dutch Reformed Church, and their official documents were full of religious language. Now, John Adams did sign this treaty and agree to this wording, but as the foreign minister of a country that hadn't even officially gained its independence yet, who was having a hell of a time even getting the powers of Europe to recognize the United States and make treaties with this brand new country, he would hardly have been in a position to argue with the eight High and Mighty Lords negotiating the treaty over the way they dated their ships' papers, and an inconsequential detail like this would obviously have been the furthest thing from his mind anyway.
Now, between 1782 and 1793, the United States wasn't really all that diligent about keeping to the precise ship's papers wording from the 1782 Netherlands treaty, or even making sure that all ships were carrying papers. In fact, some of the ships' papers from George Washington's first term were even dated A.D. instead of "in the year of our Lord Christ." But this changed when Washington proclaimed the neutrality of the United States in the war between France and England. Now the identification of ships was a high priority matter of national security. American merchants needed to be able to prove to the ships and officials of the "belligerent powers," as they were called, that they were from a neutral country, and the United States government needed to prevent foreign ships from fraudulently obtaining American papers. So, in a May 1793 Treasury Department circular to all the customs officials, Alexander Hamilton made it clear that everything was immediately going to start being done by the book.
Enclosed with each of Hamilton's circulars were copies of latest version of the Dutch and English translations, with instructions on exactly how they were to be filled out, specifying that "the following instruction to fill the Dutch copy is to be precisely followed." The language of this new version was word for word from the 1782 treaty with the Netherlands, which was suddenly important because Holland was one of the belligerent powers. The new ships' papers being printed had translations of the Netherlands treaty wording in three languages -- Dutch, French, and English. Treaties with France and England also required that ships carry papers, but only the Netherlands treaty stipulated that the specific wording had to be used. A few years later, there was a treaty with Spain that also required American ships to carry papers, so a fourth column with the Spanish translation was added. What Barton has is a piece of one of these four language ship's papers, showing two of the columns.
But here's the most interesting part of the story. Every president and secretary of state, whose signature was also required on these forms, was falsely swearing an oath when they signed them! Why? Because the "in the year of our Lord Christ" line was actually part of the oath section of the form. What the presidents and secretaries of state were actually signing was an oath that they were witness to the administering of the oath taken by the captain of the ship, where the captain was swearing that the ship was American owned. They were also swearing that they had signed the document and affixed the Seal of the United States to it on the date that that was filled in on it by the customs official. Now, since the president and secretary of state were just signing hundreds of these forms ahead of time to be sent to all the ports, they never witnessed the ship captains taking their oaths, and obviously weren't signing the forms on the date that they were swearing they had signed them on. I even found one dated in July 1794 that was signed by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. What's wrong with that? Well, Jefferson had resigned as secretary of state seven months earlier in 1793. And there's another by James Madison that's actually signed the day before his inauguration, so Madison signed them before he was sworn in and sent them ahead of time to the ports and they started using them before Madison was actually inaugurated. So, apparently, none of our early presidents or secretaries of state had any problem whatsoever falsely swearing they had witnessed something they didn't witness and swearing they had signed a document on a date that they didn't really sign it on, even when that document was dated "in the year of our lord Christ."
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