Debunking David Barton's Jefferson Lies

tags: David Barton



Chris Rodda 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.


Over the last couple of weeks, I've seen a number of articles about pseudo-historian David Barton's "comeback." My first thought upon seeing these articles was "what comeback?" You have to go away to have a comeback, and Barton has never gone away. His popularity and influence were not at all diminished when his book The Jefferson Lies was pulled last year by Christian publisher Thomas Nelson. His recovery was almost immediate. With the help of his pal Glenn Beck, an aggrieved Barton quickly had his followers convinced that he was being silenced for telling the truth! If anything, he became even more popular.

One recent article on Politico proclaims that "to his critics’ astonishment, Barton has bounced back." Well, I'm one Barton critic who isn't a bit astonished. I said on the day that his book was pulled by Thomas Nelson that he'd find a way to wiggle out of what would be a career-ender for any real historian, and he did. Only a month after his book was pulled, Barton was not only representing his state at the Republican National Convention as if nothing had happened, but was one of the key players in drafting the 2012 Republican Party platform!

The Jefferson Lies being pulled by Thomas Nelson did not make this book go away any more than it made Barton himself go away. Barton is still selling off the thousands of copies he bought back from Thomas Nelson, and, although his claim that the book has been picked up by Simon & Schuster is certainly just another one of his lies, I have no doubt it will be republished by somebody when the supply of Thomas Nelson leftovers runs out. Therefore, I've continued my debunking of Barton's little masterpiece of historical revisionism.

Last year, I released what was the first of what will be a seven-volume series, one volume for each of the seven chapters of Barton's book. The first volume debunked the many, many lies about Jefferson and education found in the chapter Barton calls "Lie #2: Thomas Jefferson Founded a Secular University." Last week, I released the second volume of the series. This volume debunks the chapter Barton calls "Lie #5: Thomas Jefferson Advocated a Secular Public Square through the Separation of Church and State."

What follows is an excerpt from my latest volume, Debunking David Barton's Jefferson Lies: #5 - Jefferson Advocated a Secular Public Square. This excerpt debunks the lies that Barton uses to set up his fictional story about why the Danbury Baptists wrote to Thomas Jefferson.

(Shameless plug: My book is now available for Kindle, Nook, and, of course, in good old ink on paper.)

* * * * *

Excerpt from “The One About Jefferson and the Danbury Baptists”

Barton begins the section of his chapter about Jefferson’s famous “wall of separation” letter with a little bit of stage setting. His claim is going to be that the Connecticut Baptists who wrote to Jefferson were worried that the First Amendment could open the door to interference with religion by the federal government, so he starts off with a paragraph about how the Baptists in America had been persecuted, writing:

When Jefferson, the head of the Anti-Federalists, became president in 1801, his election was particularly well received by the Baptists. This political disposition was understandable, for from the early settlement of Rhode Island in the 1630s to the time of the writing of the federal Constitution in 1787, the Baptists had often found their free exercise limited by state-established government power. Baptist ministers had often been beaten, imprisoned, and even faced death from the government church, so it was not surprising that they strongly opposed centralized government power. For this reason the predominantly Baptist state of Rhode Island refused to send delegates to the Constitutional Convention; and the Baptists were the only denomination in which a majority of its clergy across the nation voted against ratification of the Constitution.

Yes, it is absolutely true that the Baptists had been persecuted. They had been and continued to be discriminated against by the theocratic Congregationalist government in Connecticut, and Baptist ministers had been beaten and jailed under the established Anglican Church in Virginia. But that is the only part of Barton’s paragraph that is true. This persecution was not the reason that Rhode Island opposed a strong central government and refused to send delegates to the Constitutional Convention, and the reason that the majority of Baptist ministers who were delegates to their state’s ratifying conventions voted against ratification had much more to do with geography than with their religion.

Let’s start with Barton’s claim that religious persecution was the reason that Rhode Island opposed a strong central government and refused to send delegates to the Constitutional Convention. This is completely untrue. The reason that Rhode Island opposed a strong central government and refused to send delegates to the Constitutional Convention was that the state had turned into a haven for smugglers and criminals run by a completely corrupt legislature that didn’t want a strong central government. Such a strong central government would put a stop to the legislature’s money scams and the other illegal activities going on in the state. Rhode Island in 1787 was not at all the same Rhode Island that Roger Williams had founded in the 1630s as a haven for religious dissenters. In addition to its utterly corrupt legislature, Rhode Island had become a haven for criminals of all sorts. It had become a national joke that if you were trying to find someone who was wanted by the law, the place to start was Rhode Island.

To explain how Rhode Island became so out of sync with the rest of the states that it refused to send delegates to the Constitutional Convention, we have to start in 1781.

The story begins with the impost of 1781, proposed when the Continental Congress desperately needed money to pay the public debt from the Revolutionary War. Under the Articles of Confederation, the Continental Congress had the power to borrow money, but had no power to levy taxes to pay that money back. The voluntary contributions, known as requisitions, that the states were supposed to be making were not enough, and often weren’t paid at all. The Congress didn’t even have the money to pay the interest on America’s debts to France and Holland, let alone pay these debts off. So, in 1781, an amendment to the Articles of Confederation was proposed to allow the Congress to levy a five percent duty on imports until the war debt was paid off.

An amendment to the Articles of Confederation required the consent of all thirteen states. By the middle of 1782, all of the states had granted their consent to the impost except for Georgia and Rhode Island. Georgia was thought likely to consent, but had not formally done so yet. Rhode Island, on the other hand, had made it abundantly clear that there was no way in hell that it was going to consent. In October 1782, the Congress passed a resolution demanding an definite answer from Georgia and Rhode Island. Georgia gave assurances that it was going to consent even though it hadn’t done so yet, but Rhode Island, as expected, flat out refused. Rhode Island’s refusal caused several other states to revoke their consent after having initially granted it. Maryland’s act granting its consent, for example, contained a proviso that the impost would not go into effect unless all of the other states concurred, so Rhode Island’s refusal meant that Maryland was out, too.

The failure of the 1781 impost was the beginning of what would become the utter economic chaos of the 1780s. The states were imposing taxes on imports from the other states to protect their own economic interests, and once trade was restored with Britain after the war, the states were levying their own import duties on goods coming from Britain both as a protective measure against the flood of imported goods that were cheaper than domestically manufactured goods and also to pay off their own states’ war debts. When Connecticut and Massachusetts doubled their import duties on British goods and Rhode Island tripled theirs, the British just started coming into ports in the other states and distributing their goods from those states. The Continental Congress was powerless to do anything about any of this because, under the Articles of Confederation, it had no power to regulate interstate commerce. The devaluation of the paper money that had been issued by both the Continental Congress and the individual states, which eventually got to the point of barely being worth the paper it was printed on, led to inflation and widespread foreclosures on property because farmers couldn’t pay their property taxes. America had won the war, but was an economic mess. And it was because the country was such a mess that people began to see the need for a stronger federal government that had powers beyond those that had been granted to the Continental Congress under the Articles of Confederation. This, of course, brings us up to the Constitutional Convention -- and Barton’s claim that the convention was boycotted by Rhode Island because the Baptists were afraid that a strong federal government might infringe upon their religious freedom.

Barton’s claim is a complete load of bull. Religion was the furthest thing from the minds of the members of the Rhode Island legislature when they refused to send delegates to the convention.

Rhode Island had essentially become a state run by criminals that, in addition to passing legislation that was actually a scam for debtors to legally pay off their debts with paper money that was virtually worthless, had become more of a haven for smugglers and other criminals than a haven for religious dissenters. By 1787, Rhode Island was so corrupt and so reviled by the other states that it had been nicknamed “Rogues’ Island.”

How corrupt was Rhode Island at this time? Just take a look at what was being said about it by people from the other states.

The following quotes are all from letters written by some of the prominent founding fathers in the months leading up to the Constitutional Convention and while the convention was taking place.

Francis Hopkinson to Thomas Jefferson:

Rhode Island is at present govern’d by Miscreants void of even the external appearances of Honour or Justice. 53

Edward Carrington to Thomas Jefferson:

All the States have elected representatives except Rhode Island, whose apostasy from every moral, as well as political, obligation, has placed her perfectly without the views of her confederates ... 54

James Madison to Colonel James Madison:

Rhode Island alone has refused her concurrence. A majority of more than twenty in the Legislature of that State has refused to follow the general example. Being conscious of the wickedness of the measures they are pursuing, they are afraid of everything that may become a controul on them. 55

James Madison to Edmund Randolph:

Rhode Island has negatived a motion for appointing deputies to the Convention, by a majority of twenty-two votes. Nothing can exceed the wickedness and folly which continue to reign there. All sense of character as well as of right is obliterated. Paper-money is still their idol, though it is debased to eight for one. 56

George Washington to David Stuart:

Rhode Island, from our last accts still perservere in that impolitic – unjust – and one might add without impropriety scandalous conduct, which seems to have marked all her public Councils of late; – Consequently, no Representation is yet here from thence. 57

The newspapers in the other states were full of Rhode Island bashing. The following item from a Philadelphia newspaper, quoting a letter printed in a Massachusetts newspaper, was typical of what was seen in papers throughout the states once people found out that Rhode Island hadn’t sent any delegates to the Constitutional Convention:

Rhode-Island seems to have run the gauntlet of contempt through all the states; her conduct has been severely reprobated, and the most reproachful epithets bestowed on her, even by her neighbours of Massachusetts – ‘From her anti-federal disposition,’ say they, ‘Nothing better could have been expected. To that state it is owing, that the continental impost did not take place. To her may be charged the poverty of the soldiers of the late army, the heavy taxes of our citizens, and the embarrassed state of the public finances. It is, however, sincerely hoped and wished, that her dissent will never more be permitted to defeat any federal measure. Rather let her be dropped out of the union, or apportioned to the different states that surround her. Nor will the American constellation lose one gem thereby. – The state of Vermont shines with far superior lustre, and would more than compensate for the loss. 58

The paper money and “wickedness of the measures” of Rhode Island’s legislature in the quotes from the letters of the founders were all references to the same thing – a series of laws passed by the corrupt Rhode Island legislature in 1786.

While other states had their share of problems because of the economic crisis -- most famously Shays’ Rebellion in Massachusetts, where the raising of property taxes to pay the state’s war debt had led to an armed uprising by farmers who were losing their farms because they couldn’t pay the taxes -- Rhode Island went completely off the rails.

The members of Rhode Island’s legislature who, in 1785, had opposed the printing of what would be nearly worthless paper money as a solution to the debt crisis were voted out of office and replaced by a group of men who were debtors themselves and wanted an easy way out of their own debts. These new members of the legislature formed a majority that in May 1786 proceeded to approve what can best be described as a scam -- the printing of a hundred thousand pounds in paper money, most of which would be put into circulation by loaning it, at four percent interest, to unsuspecting farmers on a mortgage of their land, with the mortgage being twice what the land was worth. These corrupt legislators knew that this new currency would depreciate almost instantly, but their law required that it must be accepted by all creditors and merchants at face value. The issuing of this new currency was never intended to benefit the small farmers and merchants who were in desperate need of money to pay their debts.

As opponents of the scheme described it:

Notwithstanding the specious pretences under which this bill has been introduced, as if it was intended thereby to RELIEVE THE DISTRESSED, we conceive it to be calculated only to accommodate certain persons, who being deeply in debt for real estates and other property, purchased under contracts to be paid for in solid coin, and who have now promoted this measure to serve their own private purposes. 59

When the farmers who had mortgaged their land for the loans from the legislature tried to spend the new currency, they found out how little it was really worth. In response to having to accept this money at its face value despite its almost instant depreciation, the merchants in the cities had drastically raised their prices. The farmers blamed the merchants for the outrageous prices, although the merchants had actually been opposed to the printing of the money. In the summer of 1786, most of the merchants just closed up shop. In retaliation, the farmers decided to starve the merchants, refusing to send any food from their farms to the cities. Within months of the legislature’s issuing the new paper money, there was chaos on the streets of the cities, where one of the only types of businesses that had remained open was the bars, and farmers were being threatened by armed city dwellers.

All over the state, creditors were doing anything they could to evade the people who owed them money. The creditors did not want to accept the devalued paper money, but if a debtor caught up to them and offered the money to them they had to accept it. But the legislature had obviously anticipated that this would happen, and had provided for an alternate way to force the creditors to take the money. All a debtor had to do was go to a judge’s house and deposit the money with the judge. The judge was then required to publish a notice in all the newspapers in the state for three consecutive weeks informing the creditor that the debtor had deposited the money with them and that their debt was considered paid in full. The judges became known as “Know Ye men” from the notices that filled the newspapers, all published using the fill-in-the-blanks language prescribed by the legislature that began with the words “Know Ye.”

State of Rhode-Island, &c.

TO ALL WHOM IT MAY CONCERN.

KNOW YE, That Joseph Smith, of Barrington, Merchant, on the 12th Day of March, 1787, at my Dwelling-House at Barrington, lodged with me the Sum of One Hundred and Seventy-five Pounds Five Shillings, Lawful Money, being in full of the Principal and Interest of a Sum of Money, due from the said Joseph Smith to John Brown, of Providence, Esq; on a Note of Hand: that the said Joseph Smith hath in all Respects complied with the Law Respecting the Paper Currency; and that the said John Brown hath been legally and duly notified thereof.

Witness, Elkanah Humphrey, J.C.P.

Barrington, March 30, 1787. 60

A second law that had gone into effect in June 1786 imposed a heavy fine on anyone who refused to accept the paper money at its face value. (Ironically, this fine could be paid with the funny money.) Another law passed in August 1786 added a further punishment, making compliance with the law a test for political eligibility by barring anyone who committed a second offense from holding political office or being an elector.

The August 1786 law also did something else; it deprived those accused of refusing to accept the paper money of a trial by jury. The legislature created a new kind of court for paper money cases. These courts were required to convene three days after a complaint was made just to hear that case, and had no jury. The cases were to be decided by the judges alone.

In September 1786, a cabinetmaker named John Trevett decided to take his case to one of these paper money courts. Trevett had attempted to buy some meat from a butcher named John Weeden and pay for it with the paper money. Weeden refused to accept the money. Weeden was acquitted because the judges decided that the act of the legislature that created this special court was unconstitutional because it did not provide for a trial by jury.

The judges who had declared the law unconstitutional were summoned to appear before the legislature to explain their conduct, and although not removed from the bench immediately, were replaced when their terms were up the following spring.

This case made national news, and was even brought up by James Madison at the Constitutional Convention in a debate on whether or not the federal government should be able to nullify a state law if it violated the federal Constitution or a treaty made by the federal government. Some of the delegates did not think it necessary to explicitly state this, with Roger Sherman arguing that “the Courts of the States would not consider as valid any law contravening the Authority of the Union.” 61 Madison disagreed, using Rhode Island as one of his examples, saying: “In R. Island the Judges who refused to execute an unconstitutional law were displaced, and others substituted, by the Legislature who would be willing instruments of the wicked & arbitrary plans of their masters.” 62

The following poem is an excerpt from The Anarchiad, an epic satirical political poem written by the “Hartford Wits,” 63 published in installments in the New-Haven Gazette and Connecticut Magazine during 1786 and 1787. In the months following its publication in the December 28, 1786 issue of the New-Haven Gazette, this excerpt about Rhode Island was reprinted in all the states, including Rhode Island, where it was published in the Providence Gazette -- on the very same page on which ten “Know Ye” notices appeared:

Hail, realm of rogues, renown’d for fraud and guile,


All hail, ye knav’ries of yon little isle;
There prowls the rascal cloth’d with legal power,
To snare the orphan, and the poor devour;
The crafty knave his creditor besets,
And advertising paper pays his debts;
Bankrupts their creditors with rage pursue.
No stop – no mercy from the debtor crew.
Arm’d with new tests, the licens’d villain bold
Presents his bills and robs them of their gold;
Their ears though rogues and counterfeiters lose,
No legal robber fears the gallows-noose.
“Look through the State, th’ unhallow’d ground appears
A den of dragons, and a cave for bears;
A nest of vipers mix’d with adders foul,
The screaching night-bird, and the greater owl:
For now unrighteousness, a deluge wide,
Pours round the land an overwhelming tide;
And dark injustice, wrapped in paper sheets,
Rolls a dread torrent thro’ the wasted streets.
While net of law the unwary fry draw in
To damning deeds, and scarce they know they sin:
New paper struck, new tests, new tenders made,
Insult mankind, and help the thriving trade.
Each weekly print new list of cheats proclaims,
Proud to enroll their knav’ries and their names;
The wiser race, the snares of law to shun,
Like Lot from Sodom, from R--- I--- run. 64

Now, knowing the real story of why Rhode Island’s legislature refused to send delegates to the Constitutional Convention, let’s go back and look at Barton’s claim again:

... from the early settlement of Rhode Island in the 1630s to the time of the writing of the federal Constitution in 1787, the Baptists had often found their free exercise limited by state-established government power. Baptist ministers had often been beaten, imprisoned, and even faced death from the government church, so it was not surprising that they strongly opposed centralized government power. For this reason the predominantly Baptist state of Rhode Island refused to send delegates to the Constitutional Convention ...

Yep, in Barton’s version of history, it was because they were Baptists and feared that their free exercise of religion might be hampered by a strong federal government.

So, what about the other part of Barton’s Baptist claim?

... and the Baptists were the only denomination in which a majority of its clergy across the nation voted against ratification of the Constitution.

Barton also attributes this to a fear among the Baptists that their free exercise of religion might be hampered by a strong federal government. Well, this claim isn’t true either. It is true that of the thirteen Baptist ministers who were delegates to their states’ ratifying conventions, eight voted against ratification, but the reason wasn’t a fear that a federal government might infringe on their free exercise of religion. Their reasons were primarily geographical, just like the reasons of numerous other delegates who weren’t ministers who voted against ratification.

Barton’s source for this claim is another revisionist historian, John Eidsmoe. In his 1987 book Christianity and the Constitution, Eidsmoe misrepresents what religious historian James H. Smylie said in his 1958 doctoral dissertation, “American Clergymen and the Constitution of the United States of America, 1780-1796.” Eidsmoe presents two charts from Smylie’s dissertation, 65 but omits a third one -- the one that would make his claims, which are essentially the same as the ones used by Barton, seem obviously questionable.

The first of the two charts included by Eidsmoe in his book shows the total number of all clergymen in each state (regardless of denomination) and how many voted for and how many against ratification. The second chart shows the number of clergymen by denomination (regardless of state) and how many voted for and how many against ratification. What’s missing? The chart in Smylie’s dissertation that shows how many of each denomination were in each state.

With even just a quick glance at this other chart, one thing immediately jumps out -- of the total of thirteen Baptist clergymen in all the states, six were in a single state, North Carolina, and five of those six voted against ratification. 66 So, the Baptists from just this one single state accounted for five out of the eight of all Baptist votes against ratification. And Smylie gives an explanation for this voting pattern among the Baptist ministers in North Carolina. They voted just like the delegates in their state who weren’t ministers, with the ones who represented the anti-federalist-leaning rural districts typically voting against ratification, and the ones who represented the more federalist-leaning commercial districts typically voting for ratification. 67 Of the six Baptist ministers at North Carolina’s convention, five represented rural districts and voted against ratification and the one who represented a commercial district voted for it. It had nothing to do with their religion or a fear that a strong federal government might infringe upon their religious freedom.

Smylie also points out that “the oldest and most conservative of the Baptists, calling themselves the Philadelphia Association” sent a message to all the churches in their association in support of ratification, urging the people of those congregations to “lay hold on this favourable opportunity offered to establish an efficient government, which, we hope, may, under God, secure our invaluable rights, both civil and religious.” That certainly doesn’t sound like that Association of Baptists, who were in the central states, were afraid that a strong federal government was going to infringe on their religious freedom, does it? 68

But what about in the states known for their persecution of Baptists? Well, Smylie addresses one of those states on the next page of his dissertation, quoting the statement of the General Committee of Baptists in Virginia. They weren’t as favorable towards the Constitution as the Baptists in the central states, writing that they didn’t think it had “made sufficient provisions for the secure enjoyment of religious liberty.” 69 In other words, the Baptists in Virginia wanted a bill of rights. They weren’t afraid that having a religious freedom amendment would open the door for the federal government to one day restrict their religion freedom, which, as we’ll see in a minute, is what Barton is about to claim the Danbury Baptists were afraid of. The Baptists of Virginia, who had faced some of the worst persecution of any Baptists in America, wanted a religious freedom amendment because it would protect their religious freedom.

Footnotes

53. Francis Hopkinson to Thomas Jefferson, July 8, 1787. Julian Boyd, ed., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 11, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1955), 561.

54. Edward Carrington to Thomas Jefferson, June 9, 1787. Ibid., 407.

55. James Madison to Colonel James Madison, April 1, 1787. Letters and Other Writings of James Madison, vol. 1, (New York: R. Worthington, 1884), 286.

56. James Madison to Edmund Randolph, April 2, 1787. Henry D. Gilpin, ed., Debates in the Congress of the Confederation, from February 19, 1787 to April 25, 1787, vol. 2, (Washington, D.C.: Langtree & O’Sullivan, 1840), 630.

57. George Washington to David Stuart, July 14, 1787. Max Farrand, ed., The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, vol. 3, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1911), 51.

58. The Pennsylvania Packet, Philadelphia, PA, July 17, 1787, 2.

The state of Vermont, referenced in the last sentence of this article, was not yet a state in 1787, but was expected to become one soon. Vermont had separated from Great Britain in 1777, written its own constitution, and fought in the Revolutionary War, but was still a separate republic, primarily due to an unresolved border dispute with New York. Once the federal Constitution was ratified and the border dispute with New York resolved, Vermont was admitted to the union according to the process layed out in the Constitution, becoming the 14th state in 1791.

59. Providence Gazette, Providence, RI, May 13, 1786, 3.

60. Ibid., April 14, 1787, 4.

61. Max Farrand, ed., The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, vol. 2, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1911), 27.

62. Ibid., 28.

63. The “Hartford Wits” began as a literary society at Yale College in the 1770s, writing satires about subjects like the school’s outdated curriculum. Some of its members continued writing together long after leaving Yale. The Anarchiad was the work of four members of the Hartford Wits – Lemuel Hopkins, John Trumbull (cousin of the painter of the same name), Joel Barlow (whose name may be familiar to some as the author of the 1797 Treaty with Tripoli containing the often discussed line “the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion”), and David Humphreys (who at the time of the writing of The Anarchiad was a member of the Connecticut legislature, and later, as Commissioner Plenipotentiary in Lisbon, was the official who approved Barlow’s translation of the 1797 Treaty with Tripoli and submitted it for ratification).

64. Providence Gazette, Providence, RI, April 14, 1787, 4.

65. John Eidsmoe, Christianity and the Constitution, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1987), 353.

66. James H. Smylie, “American Clergymen and the Constitution of the United States of America, 1780-1796,” Th.D. dissertation, Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton, NJ, 1954, 179.

67. Ibid., 183.

68. Ibid., 169.

69. Ibid., 170.


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