This post is part of a continuing series on David Barton’s recent book, The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson. For earlier posts in the series, click here.
The fourth “ism” that David Barton believes is negatively affecting our understanding of Thomas Jefferson is “Minimalism.”
According to Barton, “Minimalism” is the process of “reducing everything to monolithic causes and linear effects.” (Once again, Barton includes no footnote to tell us the source of his definition). In other words, “Minimalism” is taking complicated and complex problems or issues and reducing them to simplistic formulations. (I would probably call this reductionism). Frankly, I am thrilled to see that Barton has finally acknowledged that history is complex. He is right about the complexity of Thomas Jefferson.
He claims that “Minimalists” fail to examine Jefferson in all his fullness, opting instead to tag him as a “racist, atheist, secularist, or whatever else they believe will help their agenda.”
Two things strike me about this brief, undocumented section on “Minimalism” in The Jefferson Lies.
First, I think Barton is attacking a straw man here. Who are these people who portray Jefferson in this way? I know of no historian worth his or her salt who says that Jefferson was an atheist. There may be some atheist groups who want to claim him, but these groups are hardly in the mainstream of American life.
Second, Barton says that “Minimalist” writers (and they all seem to be either on the Left or in academia) try to recast Jefferson into a founding father who will fit their present-day political agendas. Wow! Hasn’t Barton and Wallbuilders been doing the exact same thing for years? Isn’t Barton guilty of the same kind of “Minimalism” that he decries? Isn’t Wallbuilders an organization built upon a foundation of this kind of “Minimalism”?
This is why I have long said that David Barton and left-wing writers like Howard Zinn belong in the same camp. Neither of them are historians. They just want to use and manipulate the past to serve their own political or ideological agendas in the present. This, to put it bluntly, is bad history.
The Jefferson Lies is “Minimalism” at its best (or should I say at its worst).
For another treatment of Jefferson and the role of religion in the founding see Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction. I heard that it’s pretty good 🙂