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David Barton: Logical Fallacy Machine

David Barton is responding to some of the critics of his new and aptly-named book The Jefferson Lies and, true to form, his response is little more than a laundry list of logical fallacies with almost no substantive argument whatsoever. His most common form of argument is what I often call the argumentum ad labelum, or argument by label.

And just as they have done with the Constitution, academic elitists have also tried to make themselves the sole caretakers of historical knowledge, holding that history is too complicated, with too many intricacies for the average person to understand. They even become intolerant of those who try to break through these false barriers and open history to the average citizen. I personally know this to be true, for I often find myself the object of their attacks.

I speak the truth and those evil “academic elitists” are trying to silence me! But this label is completely irrelevant; either his critics have strong substantive arguments or they don’t, a subject Barton tries hard to avoid. And then there’s the argumentum ad populum:

I have penned numerous best-selling history works, and characteristic of each is a heavy reliance on primary-source documentation. Across the past twenty years, I have amassed a collection of some 100,000 originals (or certified copies of originals) predating 1812, including hand-written documents and works of those who framed and signed the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Not many individuals in America have read more original works (or fewer modern ones) than I have; and the general public has responded enthusiastically to this history based on original documentation.

In fact, notice how these types of history books regularly appear on the New York Times bestseller list. Whether it is David McCullough’s John Adams, Glenn Beck’s Being George Washington, Newt Gingrich’s Valley Forge, or my own The Jefferson Lies, people are willing to pay good money to learn the simple uncomplicated history that used to be taught in school.

Conversely, typical history works by modern elitist professors generally sell very poorly; and seeing their own influence wane, they often lash out and condescendingly criticize the more popular documentary works.

Again, this has nothing at all to do with any substantive criticisms made of his book. Absolutely nothing. Of course people love to buy books that tell them what they want to hear; that does not make what is in those books true.

And then he claims to be a historian, contradicting his own words in the past:

After The Jefferson Lies, rose to a New York Times best-seller, similar attacks were launched against it from academic elitists. I will address three of these attacks below, but first, I must tackle their oft-repeated talking-point that I am not a qualified historian – a claim they make to cast a shadow of doubt over all the facts I present. However, this charge, like their others, is completely false. After all, I am:

  • Recognized as an historical expert by both state and federal courts;
  • Called to testify as an historical expert by both the federal and state legislatures;
  • Selected as an historical expert by State Boards of Education across the nation to assist in writing history and social studies standards for those states;
  • Consulted as an historical expert by public school textbook publishers, helping write best-selling history texts used in public schools and universities across the nation.

And here he is less than one year ago:

I probably know more about history than most folks. I’ve probably read more history books than most folks, I’ve read thousands and literally tens of thousands. But I don’t consider myself a historian; I just happen to know some things about it.

From “I’m not a historian” to “how dare they say I’m not a historian” in less than a year. This is positively Romneyesque.

Then he makes an even more bizarre response to Warren Throckmorton and William Coulter, who wrote the book Getting Jefferson Right to respond to Barton’s book:

A common mantra for today’s academics is “Publish or die.” Believing that if they are not publishing something new that their academic career is regressing, they therefore regularly “discover” something they believe to be a new revelation on some obscure micropoint of history, and then, as if having received an earth-shattering revelation, write an article or book giving their personal opinions about it. Significantly, however, the public does not respond well to these works, for publishers claim that with few exceptions most academic scholars’ books sell only two hundred or so copies a year.

Reflecting that trend, the work penned against The Jefferson Lies by professors Warren Throckmorton and Michael Coulter was picked up by no publisher; the two simply placed their critique into electronic reader format to be purchased and downloaded, just as any high-schooler can do with his own research paper.

WTF does the “publish or die” thing have to do with any of this? That refers, of course, to academic journals, not to popular works. And funny how he begins by attacking “academic elitists” and then criticizes these two for publishing something that bypasses the academic world and just makes it available to everyone cheaply (the very thing he claims is so good when it comes to his books). And by the way, those two teach at Grove City College, which, as they point out, places very little emphasis on publishing academic papers — so even if this argument was relevant to anything, his premise is absolutely false.

They begin by candidly admitting that they are critiquing “Barton and religious conservatives in general,” 2 thereby openly confessing their hostility toward me and my personal religious beliefs. As they acknowledge up front, and as will be evident below, their real problem with The Jefferson Lies is much more about its worldview than its historical content.

So many falsehoods in one paragraph. First, Throckmorton and Coulter are evangelical Christians. Second, even if they weren’t, so what? Are their criticisms valid or not? That is all that matters. And third, Barton is simply lying about what they said in their book, which is this:

Why focus on claims made by those who offer arguments for the Christian commitments and practices of Jefferson? This question raises the general issue of Christians and scholarship. The authors of this book are both Christians who believe Christian ethics and Christian theology inform our scholarly pursuits. In that sense, we are speaking to audiences which are familiar to us. Thus, our aim is not to diminish the value of conservative religious traditions. Although we believe this book will be interesting to anyone who wants to get Jefferson right, we hope to make a contribution to our own communities.

That’s pretty much the exact opposite of what Barton claims they said.

Now on to what little substance there is in Barton’s response. On the subject of the Thompson hot-press Bible, Barton always claims that, because a few of the founding fathers purchased a copy of this Bible they therefore “helped finance” the project. In those days, books were sometimes purchased by subscription — that is, people paid in advance for a book and once they had enough people who agreed to purchase the book, it would be printed. That is how the Thompson Bible was sold.

Barton uses that fact to claim that “Jefferson personally helped finance the printing of one of America’s groundbreaking editions of the Bible.” But all this means is that he bought a Bible, which is hardly evidence of anything other than that Jefferson owned a copy of the Bible. We knew that already, of course, because Jefferson actually cut and pasted what little he thought was valid in it (primarily the ethical ideas of Jesus) and cut out all the key elements of Christianity (the virgin birth, the claims of divinity, the healings and miracles, the atonement and the resurrection, etc). As Throckmorton points out:

Being a subscriber to a Bible you are purchasing means you want to buy the item. Skeptics own Bibles and people buy books they disagree with in order to critique them. Buying something is often an indication of intent, but not always. Jefferson was a noted skeptic and critic of the Bible, but he appreciated fine art, and the hot-pressed Bible when bound was a beautiful item. Jefferson did have many Bibles and he also cut up a few.

In any case, Barton’s description makes it sound like a small group of founders financed the project. That is not what happened which we detail in the book. By Barton’s description of financing, I personally helped finance McDonalds this morning when I bought some breakfast. Barton says we miss the broader point. I say we believe there is a difference between financing something and buying something. In any case, Jefferson didn’t finish paying for the Bible until after it was complete. Odd way to personally finance a project.

And here’s another substantive distortion:

Similarly, I state that “Other presidential actions of Jefferson include . . . closing presidential documents with the appellation, ‘In the year of our Lord Christ’.” 8 I then include in the book a picture of such a signed document. But Throckmorton and Coulter dismiss that document with the statement that “we know of no other document signed by Jefferson with the phrase ‘in the year of our Lord Christ’ printed on the form.” 9 So apparently, since they personally know of no other similar documents, then the one I showed apparently means nothing (at least to them). Significantly, however, we personally own other such Jefferson documents; and literally scores, if not hundreds, of similar Jefferson documents are contained in other libraries and archives. But because these professors don’t personally know about them, then they apparently don’t exist! Clearly, so strong are their own personal predilections about Jefferson that they won’t even allow what they see with their own eyes to alter their predetermined conclusions.

But that isn’t what Throckmorton and Coulter say at all. Drawing on Chris Rodda’s research on the matter, they point out that the documents that Barton refers to are sea letters, which were preprinted forms required by law.

Both documents, the 1804 one that Barton shows a corner of in his presentation, and the 1807 one now posted on his website are the same thing. They’re ship’s papers. These documents, carried by all American ships leaving the United States, were a fill-in-the-blanks form with columns translated into several languages. Each president signed hundreds of these forms, leaving all the other information blank, and then the blank signed forms were sent in bulk to the customs officials at all the ports, where they were filled out as needed for departing ships…

The primary purpose of a ship’s papers, sometimes called sea letters or passports, was to provide proof of the nationality of the ship’s owner if the ship was stopped by a foreign power. This became enormously important in 1793 when George Washington proclaimed the neutrality of the United States in the war between France and England, as I’ll explain in a minute when I get to who really chose the language of this form.

Now, Barton claims in his description of the form on his website that “this is the explicitly Christian language that President Thomas Jefferson chose to use in official public presidential documents,” and said on Glenn Beck that “Jefferson added in the year of our lord Christ.” This is a flat out lie. Actually, it’s two lies. Jefferson absolutely did not choose the language on this form, and he was not the only president who signed these forms that were dated that way. So did Washington and Adams before him, and Madison and Monroe after him. While the ship’s papers form remained virtually the same from 1793 until well into the late 1800s, the name Christ was eventually dropped from the date on it, but that didn’t happen until somewhere in the 1820s or 1830s…

So, if it wasn’t Jefferson, who actually did choose the language of these ship’s papers? Well, that would be the High and Mighty Lords of the States-General of the United Netherlands. The language to be used on ships’ papers was annexed to the 1782 Treaty of Amity and Commerce with the Netherlands, and the twenty-fifth article of the treaty itself stipulated that this was the wording that would be used. At the time this treaty was made, the Netherlands was still the Republic of the United Netherlands, which was a Christian republic where every public official had to be a member of the Dutch Reformed Church, and their official documents were full of religious language.

So Barton, again, ignores the actual substance of the argument and offers a red herring instead. What else does he have?


  1. slc1 says

    Jefferson also owned a Quran so I guess, according to the logic of Barton, that makes him a Muslim. Considering that his view of Yeshua of Nazareth was much closer to the Islamic view then the Christian view, such logic might not be considered entirely off the wall.

  2. cjcolucci says

    To be fairer than Barton deserves, cranks often do happen to know a lot more factual information about whatever they are cranks about than non-specialists. But that doesn’t mean that when virtually the entire mainstream of specialists calls someone out as a crank we non-specialists must sit out the question because the crank knows a great deal more than we do.
    For example, suppose some crank published a book arguing that, contrary to popular — and mainstream expert — belief, George Washington was not actually President of the United States in 1794 and that Timothy Pickering was. It is almost certain that the crank will have read an enormous number of documents, and will have an impressive command of raw and often obscure information about late-18th-century US history — like who the f**k Timothy Pickering was. We non-experts would be overwhelmed in minutes by the crank’s blizzard of data. But even though the crank knows far more than we do, we are entirely justified in dismissing him as a crank because of what would have to be true if the crank was right and everyone else who knows anything about the subject is wrong. (Analogies to various scientific “controversies” may suggest themselves here.) We might leave an obscure corner of our minds open to the possibility that the crank is right and everyone else is wrong, since mainstream experts in many fields are often wrong, though that is usually discovered not by cranks but by mainstream experts themselves. But we rightly don’t spend any mental energy on the possibility of President Pickering

  3. oranje says

    Ugh. This charlatan needs to be very publicly found out. And of course his ilk are the only popular historians out there. I must have imagined those Simon Schama books on my bookshelf.

  4. says

    “argumentum ad labelum” I think that seems to be arguing about basins or lips and usually has three ‘l’s.
    If you want to be swanky try something like ‘argumentum ad sittyba’.
    IIRR that was a label for a book.

  5. tubi says

    Whether it is David McCullough’s John Adams, Glenn Beck’s Being George Washington, Newt Gingrich’s Valley Forge, or my own The Jefferson Lies

    Is it just me, or is one of these things not like the others?

  6. Pierce R. Butler says

    Barton: Not many individuals in America have read more original works (or fewer modern ones) than I have; …

    Note how he carefully qualifies that parenthesized clause, so that he avoids gotchas from the Shrubs and Palins out there.

    But at least he’s found a metric in which he clearly surpasses Chris Rodda…

  7. cjtotalbro says

    Pretty clear proof that prayer does not work is the fact that David Barton hasnt been hit by a car.


  8. John Horstman says

    It still tickles me pink that he went with that title. The only thing I can imagine is that it’s a wink-and-nod indicating that Barton doesn’t actually believe anything he says, but it doing it for the money. Is amoral better than stupid? I’m not sure if I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt or not…

    @2: Is that an actual book outlining a conspiracy theory people actually believe? Because if not, you had a fake-life conspiracy theory that’s nearly identical: that Adam Weishaupt replaced (or always was) George Washington.

  9. says

    David McCullough’s John Adams is not “simple uncomplicated history” and her certainly doesn’t belong on a list with David Barton, Glen Beck and Newt Gingrich.

  10. janeymack says

    Uh, yeah…McCullough’s “John Adams” is about 650 pages long, with another 100 pages of source notes, bibliography, and index. It is neither “simple” nor “uncomplicated.” (It is, however, fascinating.) David McCullough himself is a multiple-award winning author and meticulous researcher. I am horrified to see him listed with Beck, Gingrich, and Barton–hacks all–as if he is on the same sloppy, deceitful level as they. It’s the literary equivalent of lumping the food from a 4-star restaurant in with the offerings from McDonald’s, Taco Bell, and Burger King and calling it all “cuisine.”

  11. Michael Heath says

    Ace of Sevens writes:

    David McCullough’s John Adams is not “simple uncomplicated history” and [he] certainly doesn’t belong on a list with David Barton, Glen Beck and Newt Gingrich.

    Since I read Ed’s blog post this morning when it was first published, I forgot the moron who made the idiotic conflation between Mr. McCullough and these yahoos. I’m glad to see it’s not a regular in this forum.

  12. slc1 says

    Re Michael Heath @ #11

    I would point out that McCullough’s biographies of Harry Truman and John Adams both won Pulitzer Prizes.

  13. cjcolucci says

    @2: Is that an actual book outlining a conspiracy theory people actually believe? Because if not, you had a fake-life conspiracy theory that’s nearly identical: that Adam Weishaupt replaced (or always was) George Washington.

    I made up what I thought was a safely implausible example to illustrate my point. I should have known better. I used to write satire for my college paper, but reality outran my ability to lampoon it.

  14. Hercules Grytpype-Thynne says


    Yeah, most of the time <English word> + <-um ending> ≠ <Latin word>

    Argumentum ad titulum would work.

  15. martinc says

    To be fair, Barton can genuinely claim unique expertise re ‘primary source documentation’. While many of his history-writing competitors may have FOUND as many samples of this as he has, few can match his apparent experience at actually authoring them.

  16. martinc says

    re Herc G-T @ 14 and the ‘Argumentum ad titulum’ family … I invented one of those:

    argumentum ad altrotum: A desperate attempt to offset an enormous glaring un-addressed negative in an argument by pointing out some trivial or dubious positive. From the acronym for At Least Trains Ran On Time Under Mussolini.

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