Some Thoughts on David Barton’s "The Jefferson Lies"–Part Five

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 🙂

3 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on David Barton’s "The Jefferson Lies"–Part Five

  1. David Barton has a B.A. in Religious Education.

    Howard Zinn earned a PhD in History – his doctoral dissertation, published by Cornell (not exactly a slouch of a university) was nominated for an AHA award.

    Yes, he was a political activist.

    But the tenet of his books was that history is always biased in a particular view, most decidedly by the TPTP, overriding interests of justice and the “little people”, who are given the shaft in history.

    Unlike Barton, he never proclaimed his history was the *complete* truth, and he always advocated his great work as a *beginning*, and urged readers to explore further from.

    To equate Barton with Zinn is an egregious slur.

    And I believe you foolishly conflate *objectivity* with *neutrality*. One can adopt a NPOV and still be plagued with falsehoods, errors of omission, etc.… One can be *objective* and still adopt a political viewpoint, but be honest in assessing the facts and historical record.

    Big false equivalency, and your refusal to acknowledge this causes me to question your “historian” credentials.


  2. Sorry, please don't categorize Howard Zinn with David Barton…

    …you might not agree politically with Howard Zinn, but he possesses a Ph.D. in HIstory from Columbia University. I'd say that's just as prestigious as Stony Brook U. 😉

    And Zinn, unlike Barton, never asserted that he offered up a “complete” history, and urged readers to explore his bibliography.

    He just recognized that even historians attempting to be “objective” cannot be “neutral on a moving train” and that by default, swayed with TPTB.


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