Exposing the Myths You've Always Believed about Thomas Jefferson

What kind of criticism would prompt a major publisher to withdraw from circulation a New York Times bestseller by a recognized scholar?  One would think the objections would have to be weighty and the critics unquestioned experts in the particular field.  In the case of The Jefferson Lies, one would be mistaken to make those assumptions.

In 2012, David Barton's popular analysis of Thomas Jefferson was pulled by the book's publisher, Thomas Nelson, based on what appears to have been an academic putsch designed to protect the now popular view of the third president as a secular deist and hypocritical slave-holding philanderer.  This uprising was led by a motley intellectual crew who, for the most part, had little or no expertise in the subject matter at issue.

The re-release of The Jefferson Lies by WND Books begins with an extended preface in which the author discusses the largely picayune objections raised against his original work – primarily by a psychology professor from Grove City College, Warren Throckmorton.  These somewhat arcane refutations should have been placed at the end of the work – allowing Barton's clear and convincing evidence to speak first for itself.  That evidence primarily concerns "lies" about Jefferson's relationship with his slave, Sally Hemings, "lies" about Jefferson's supposed hypocrisy vis-à-vis slavery, "lies" about the ex-president's position concerning the separation of church and state, and "lies" related to Jefferson's religious beliefs.   

Barton's most startling revelation concerns the brazenly dishonest claim that DNA evidence proved that Jefferson fathered one of Sally Hemings's children.  This blockbuster story in Nature magazine (November 5, 1998) was splashed with gusto all over the national media.  The retraction of this "proof" came eight weeks later – with all the impact of an obscure page 16 correction.  Equally significant was the political end to which the initial DNA lie was employed, coming as it did in the midst of the Clinton-Lewinsky impeachment imbroglio.  To cap it all off, that headline story in Nature was written by a Clinton supporter, historian Joseph Ellis, who, as it turns out, was as much a liar as the president he supported.  Barton provides an amusing list of Ellis fabrications that extend from the sublime (serving on General Westmoreland's staff during the Vietnam War) to the ridiculous (scoring the winning touchdown in the last football game his senior year in high school).

In point of fact, as Barton makes clear, the DNA evidence actually excludes Jefferson as the father of Hemings's son, Thomas, the child typically said to be Jefferson's.  Moreover, the other Hemings child who could possibly have been Jefferson's, Eston, was most likely sired by Jefferson's younger brother, Randolph, and not by the sixty-five-year-old former president.  Indeed, Eston was a Randolph family name, and the child's conception coincided with a possibly extended visit by Jefferson's brother to Monticello.  Moreover, Randolph, unlike Thomas, often fraternized with slaves, a fact noted in the memoir of Isaac Jefferson, a Monticello slave who observed that Randolph "used to come out among black people, play the fiddle and dance half the night."

Ask anyone nowadays if DNA evidence has proven that Jefferson was the father of one or more of Sally Hemings's children, and chances are that the answer, if any, will be "yes."  Thus, as with Oliver Stone's rewrite of JFK's assassination, the mainstream media, corrupt academicians, and a sensation-seeking pop culture have again conspired to manipulate history for their own ends.

The Jefferson Lies also marshals an abundance of evidence from letters, laws, and public declarations to show that Jefferson was certainly not a deist as that term is now understood.  Nor did he possess any view of the "separation between Church and State" that mirrors the modern transmogrification of those words by the courts.  Indeed, Jefferson himself regularly attended church services that were held in the Capitol building and approved various laws that involved missionary work among Indian tribes.  What Jefferson clearly opposed were established churches supported directly by state governments like Virginia and Massachusetts.  Indeed, it was the infringement of their religious liberty by the state of Connecticut that the Danbury Baptists most feared – the group to whom Jefferson penned the letter containing the now infamous "separation" phrase.

In short, the Jefferson who emerges from the evidence presented by Barton is a man who provided financial support for the publication of bibles, embraced a non-denominational piety, had numerous friends (and numerous enemies) among the clergy, clearly expressed the idea that God acts in history (often using the term "providence" that was commonly employed even by evangelical Christians), and honestly desired to free his slaves but was unable to do so because of the numerous Virginia laws that made emancipation, for Jefferson, a financial impossibility.  That Jefferson expressed uncertainty about the de facto, rather than the de jure, equality of the races is hardly surprising, given his historical circumstances.  But this historical "given" is regularly ignored by folks who delight in disparaging America's past in order to enlarge their already exaggerated self-esteem.

The most disappointing chapter in Barton's work concerns the "lie" that Jefferson was an atheist and anti-Christian.  What is off-putting here is not Barton's general argument, but his regular insertion of judgments about various Christian groups' orthodoxy – judgments that obviously correspond with the author's preference for traditional Trinitarian Christianity.  These unnecessary observations about "unfortunate" religious movements lend a parochial odor to an otherwise scholarly work.

So who should read The Jefferson Lies?  Anyone who thinks Thomas Jefferson and William Jefferson Clinton have a lot in common, anyone who thinks Thomas Jefferson supported the modern notion of "separation of church and state," anyone who thinks Jefferson was a hypocritical racist, and anyone who thinks academia and the publishing world aren't partisan cesspools. 

Richard Kirk is a freelance writer living in Southern California.  Opinion columnist for the North County Times (1996-2012); online reviews: http://spectator.org/people/richard-kirk/all; blog: http://musingwithahammerkirk.blogspot.com.