Friday, June 17, 2011

David Barton: The Right's Historical Propmaster

David Barton is not a historian.

I know he calls himself a historian.  I could call myself an astrophysicist, but I would have no right to expect anyone to take me seriously.

The problem is that while just about everyone knows that an astrophysicist needs specialized training, most people think that anyone can be a historian--you just need an interest in history, right?


When I came to Wofford ten years ago, my history department colleagues decided that we needed a course in historical methods which would be a requirement for all of our majors. History is a discipline, and it has methods.  There are specific skills the historian needs, and we decided we should teach them to our majors in a systematic fashion.

David Barton would fail that class.

When Barton appeared on "The Daily Show" last month, Jon Stewart helpfully pointed out that Barton is not an academic historian.  Barton replied: "No, I don’t have a doctorate in that, I’ve got all the documents."

Now, documents are important--they are the foundation of every good work of history. But this is the equivalent of claiming to be an architect because you have lumber.

The most important thing we teach our history majors about documents is that they must be interpreted responsibly. We do an exercise in which we present the students with an excerpt from a book, and then ten different examples of how that material might be interpreted. In at least one example, the original material is--technically--quoted accurately, but in such a way as to misrepresent its meaning.

This is Barton's specialty. When Stewart tried to challenge Barton's interpretation of a letter by John Adams, Barton replied: "I posted that online. How can I misquote him when I put the whole letter up?" The point is that one can misinterpret without misquoting.

When Stewart tried to make that point, Barton said: "Show me some documentations where it’s taken out of context. They’ve never done that."

I've done that. As I showed in my previous post, Barton's website accurately quotes Thomas Paine's speech, but the selective editing takes Paine entirely out of context, for the clear purpose of making an ideological point. In this case, he most explicitly did not post the entire speech (or even provide a link to the entire speech). I would not accept that from an undergraduate student.

Every historian knows that looking at one document in isolation can be dangerous and misleading. That's why I looked at other examples of Paine's writing on education to see what he thought about religious influence in the classroom. When I did, it threw an entirely different light on the excerpt singled out by Barton.

Regardless of what Barton says, history is not merely the accumulation of documents. "We have 100,000 documents from before 1812," he told Stewart, as if that alone proved something.  The important thing is what we do with the evidence.

Fortunately, Barton's slippery reading of documents was on full display in the Stewart interview. In arguing that the Constitution is a religiously based document, Barton says:

There are seven references in the Constitution to religion, whether it be Article Seven, and by the way, the Declaration is incorporated into the Constitution, Article Seven, so that’s four references to God.
Barton claims that there are seven references to religion in the Constitution. This is easy to check. The following words do not appear at all in the document: God, Creator, Christian. The word "religious" appears once ("no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States") as does religion ("Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof"). That's it.

So where does Barton get seven? He refers specifically to Article Seven. Here's the text of Article Seven:

The Ratification of the Conventions of nine States, shall be sufficient for the Establishment of this Constitution between the States so ratifying the same.

Confused? So was I. Then I kept reading.  After Article Seven, we find this final passage:

done in Convention by the Unanimous Consent of the States present the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven and of the Independance of the United States of America the Twelfth.

Still confused?  Barton counts the date language ("Year of our Lord") as the third reference to religion. The other four, he says, come from his view that "the Declaration is incorporated into the Constitution." Where does he get that?

Because the Constitution refers to the twelfth year of independence, he says, that "incorporated" all of the language of the Declaration into the Constitution. And since the Declaration has the words “Creator,” “Nature’s God,” “Supreme Judge of the World,” and “divine Providence,” that makes four references, for a total of seven in the Constitution.

You could not ask for a better example of a dishonest reading of a document. And that reading is in service of a pre-determined political position.

Fortunately, Barton himself inadvertently admitted that in the extended interview with Jon Stewart.  Bragging about his access to conservative politicians, Barton said: "They call me and they say 'Is there anything in history about bailouts and stimulus?'"

Barton is the go-to guy when political conservatives need the quick quotation, probably ripped out of context, to give some legitimacy to a political position that they have already decided upon, regardless of what the Founders would think. They are not concerned with what the Founders actually thought.  They want ammunition, not truth.

Barton is nothing more than the historical propmaster for political conservatives. Barton supplies what they need for their political theater. They use the prop, and when they are done, they lay it back on the prop table, awaiting the next performance.

Barton calls what he does "historical reclamation."  A true historical reclamation requires that real historians expose Barton for the fraud he is, and call out cynical politicians like Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann when they call on Barton to teach Congress about the Constitution, and Mike Huckabee when they try to tell us that Barton is "single best historian in America today."


  1. Have I said lately how much I learn from your posts? It has also simply shored up the mindset that just because some person on television with possible political aspirations, or who considers themselves an expert on politics cause they got a tv show, doesn't make it so.

  2. Thanks--it's always nice to know someone out there is reading!

  3. This is a good post. The point that Barton, et. al., assert, and the point on which there has not been sufficient push back, is that the reading they make off old documents establishes first principles for them from which to dictate the form and structure of government. Even if the reading they give to the documents is correct, things change. Even if all of the Founding Fathers were full-on, baptized-by-immersion, born-again Christians, that does not mean that we are locked into government that they proposed. Things change, and we are free to adapt the government in response to those changes.

    "We, the People, do ordain" is the simple sentence that starts the Constitution. Barton and his fellow travelers act like Bible numerologists, who count letters in words, words in verses, verses in chapters and seek to find the secret meanings from combinations of those numbers. They pay no mind to the fact that they are using an English translation of ancient texts. The thing that draws them is the idea that they, and they alone, are worthy of the secret knowledge that can be unlocked through this process. So it is with Barton and his ilk.

    Barton is a fraud and anyone who references Barton should be held in contempt.