May 02 2012

“Revisionism: A Willing Accomplice” — The Remarkable Hypocrisy of David Barton (Part 1)

(Originally posted on Talk2Action.org, April 29, 2007)


Because the portrayal of history so affects current policy, some groups have found it advantageous to their political agenda to distort historical facts intentionally. Those particularly adept at this are termed “revisionists.”

Who wrote these words? David Barton, in the foreword to his book Original Intent. And, Barton has certainly proved this statement to be true. No group has found it more advantageous to their political agenda to have “revisionists” as adept as himself on their side than the religious right.

In Chapter 16 of Original Intent, entitled “Revisionism: A Willing Accomplice,” Barton, after defining “historical revisionism” as “a process by which historical fact is intentionally ignored, distorted, or misportrayed in order to maneuver public opinion toward a specific political agenda or philosophy,” goes on to present and provide examples of nine methods employed by those who he accuses of being the “revisionists.”

1. The Use of Patent Untruths
2. The Use of Overly Broad Generalizations
3. The Use of Omission
4. The Use of Insinuations and Innuendos
5. Impugning Morality
6. The Use of “Faction”
7. The Use of “Psychohistory” and “Psychobabble”
8. A Failure to Account for Etymology
9. A Lack of Primary Source References

But, in order to create his examples of the use of these methods by secularists, Barton, as he does throughout his book, uses most of them himself. For his examples of “The Use of Patent Untruths,” he uses three of them — “A Lack of Primary Source References,” “The Use of Omission,” and…well…”The Use of Patent Untruths.”

From “Revisionism: A Willing Accomplice,” Chapter 16 of Original Intent:

1. The Use of Patent Untruths

The use of untruths was one of the earliest tools effectively employed by revisionists. For example, Robert Ingersoll, a well known political lecturer of the 1880s and 1890s, falsely declared:

[O]ur forefathers retired God from politics….The Declaration of Independence announces the sublime truth that all power comes from the people. This was a denial, and the first denial of a nation, of the infamous dogma that God confers the right upon one man to govern others….Our fathers founded the first secular government that was ever founded in this world.

Barton’s Ingersoll “quote” is created by starting with the opening statement of Ingersoll’s Centennial Oration, a speech about the Declaration of Independence, delivered in Peoria, Illinois on July 4, 1876:

One hundred years ago, our fathers retired the gods from politics..(1)

Then taking this sentence from a lecture on Individuality, presented by Ingersoll in 1873, three years before his Centennial Oration:

The Declaration of Independence announces the sublime truth, that all power comes from the people. This was a denial, and the first denial of a nation, of the infamous dogma that God confers the right upon one man to govern others. It was the first grand assertion of the dignity of the human race. It declared the governed to be the source of power, and in fact denied the authority of any and all gods. Through the ages of slavery — through the weary centuries of the lash and chain, God was the acknowledged ruler of the world. To enthrone man, was to dethrone God.(2)

And, finally, going back to the 1876 Centennial Oration for the last sentence:

Our fathers founded the first secular government that was ever founded in this world. Recollect that. The first secular government; the first government that said every church has exactly the same rights, and no more; every religion has the same rights, and no more. In other words, our fathers were the first men who had the sense, who had the genius, to know that no church should be allowed to have a sword; that it should be allowed only to exert its moral influence.(3)

And what was it that Ingersoll, according to Barton, “falsely declared” in the sections of his writings from which the words are plucked to create the misquote in Original Intent? That the founders of the United States denied the “divine right of kings” by creating a government “by the people and for the people,” and a country in which there was religious freedom. Ingersoll’s statement that “our fathers retired the gods from politics,” (misquoted in Barton’s version as “[O]ur forefathers retired God from politics”), referred to the words “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence, which gave the political power to the people rather than the aristocracy, the clergy, or a monarch.

Barton, using the 9th method of revisionism on his list, “A Lack of Primary Source References,” does not provide a primary source for his Ingersoll misquote. Barton’s source is “Ingersollia: Gems of Thought,” a collection of Ingersoll quotes arranged by topic and numbered — a book that Ingersoll himself said was unauthorized and inaccurate. The following letter to the editor of a newspaper, written by Ingersoll just a few months before his death in 1899, appears on the title page of the “Dresden Edition” of Ingersoll’s writings, the twelve volume edition published by Clinton P. Farrell, Ingersoll’s brother-in-law, and the only authorized publisher of his writings.

I see that you advertise in your paper “Ingersoll’s 44 Lectures–cloth” also “Ingersollia, or Gems of Thought.” I write this to let you know that the 44 Lectures are a fraud. They were made up from newspaper reports, filled with blunders and things I never said. The same is true of “Ingersollia” also of “Great Political Speeches.” The publishers are pirates. They wrong me, and deceive and defraud the public. The only correct, complete, and authorized editions of my writings are published by Mr. C.P. Farrell. I hope that you will refuse to deal in these frauds.(4)

Barton not only uses a non-primary source for the phrases in his misquote, but pulls the pieces from quotes on three different pages, one from page 49, one from page 52, and one from page 54. This explains why his misquote contains sentences from two completely different writings. Apparently, Barton, whose footnote for his misquote does say “pp. 49-54,” doesn’t think his audience will wonder how the short paragraph he presents as a single quote could possibly span five pages in the book Ingersollia.

After the Ingersoll misquote, Barton continues with his next example of The Use of Patent Untruths:

W.E. Woodward, a revisionist active in the 1920s, also employed the use of patent untruths, asserting:

The name of Jesus Christ is not mentioned even once in the vast collection of Washington’s published letters.

And yet, on June 12, 1779, to the Delaware Indian Chiefs, Washington declared:

You do well to wish to learn our arts and ways of life, and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ. These will make you a greater and happier people than you are. Congress will do every thing they can to assist you in this wise intention.

W.E. Woodward was not lying when he wrote that Jesus Christ was not mentioned even once in the vast collection of Washington’s published letters. This was absolutely true in 1926 when Woodward wrote it. The address that Barton quotes as evidence that Woodward was lying had not been published as of 1926. The first collection of Washington’s writings to include this address wasn’t published until 1936, ten years after Woodward made his statement.

The collections of Washington’s writings published before 1926 were The Writings of George Washington, edited by Jared Sparks (12 volumes, 1833-37), and The Writings of George Washington, edited by Worthington C. Ford (14 volumes, 1889-93). Neither of these collections contained Washington’s May 12, 1779 address to the Delaware chiefs. Washington’s May 14, 1779 letter to Congress, with which a copy of the speech was enclosed, was added in the Ford edition, but the address itself was not. The first collection to contain the address was The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799, edited by John C. Fitzpatrick (39 volumes, 1931-44). It appears in Volume 15 of this collection, which was released in 1936.

Apparently, Barton, who promotes himself as an expert on the writings of the founders, either doesn’t know that the first edition of Washington’s writings that was even close to being a complete collection wasn’t published until the 1930s, didn’t bother to check the earlier editions for this address before accusing Woodward of lying, or did know that the address hadn’t been published as of 1926 and decided to make his accusation anyway.

The reason for Washington’s mention of Jesus Christ in the address to the Delaware quoted by Barton, the only such mention to appear in any of Washington’s writings, brings us to Barton’s next use of one of the methods on his list — “The Use of Omission.” Barton omits the fact that Washington’s address was a point by point response to the petition he was given by the Delaware chiefs, in which they used the name Jesus Christ in their request for Congress to provide aid for the work of David Ziesberger, a Moravian missionary at one of their settlements.

The entire story of the relationship between the Moravians and this group of Delaware Indians is too complicated to explain here, but what is necessary to understand is that the Delaware chiefs who were trying to keep their people from joining the war on the side of the British knew that the influence of the Moravians and the conversion of the Delawares at their settlements to Christianity was what had kept them out of the war.

By the end of 1778, the relationship between the United States and the Delaware was deteriorating. In September of that year, the Delaware had signed a treaty with the United States. Congress, however, had not fulfilled the promises made in this treaty. The United States was to make sure the Delaware were able to obtain clothing, tools, and weapons. These were items that the Delaware usually got by trading with the British — trade which would end if they signed the treaty with the United States. Then, in November 1778, Captain White Eyes, the Delaware chief who was largely responsible for keeping the Delaware nation from siding with the British, was killed while serving as a guide in the American army. The absence of this influential chief made the already shaky relationship with the Delaware even shakier.

Congress had also failed to carry out the following 1776 resolution.

APRIL 10, 1776

The committee to whom the report on Indian Affairs in the middle department, and the petition of Captain White Eyes, were referred, brought in their report, which being taken into consideration:

Resolved, That the commissioners for Indian affairs in the middle department, or any one of them, be desired to employ, for reasonable salaries, a minister of the gospel, to reside among the Delaware Indians, and instruct them in the Christian religion; a school master to teach their youth reading, writing, and arithmetic; and also, a blacksmith to do the work of the Indians in the middle department.(5)

As a last ditch effort to maintain peace, Indian commissioner George Morgan invited a delegation of Delaware chiefs to a meeting at his Princeton home, which took place on January 5, 1779. Morgan helped the chiefs write the memorial that they would present to George Washington and Congress in May. He also suggested that the son of Captain White Eyes and the son and younger brother of Killbuck, another chief who was then serving in the American army, be brought to Princeton to be educated.

Washington was taken by surprise when these Delaware chiefs showed up at his camp on May 12, 1779. The chiefs, who were on their way to present their memorial to Congress and deliver the three boys who were to be educated in Princeton, decided to stop at the camp first. As Washington put it, he was “a little at a loss” as to what to do when this memorial, which was addressed to both himself and Congress, was presented to him. He had to give some kind of answer, but had no authority to promise anything. Playing it safe, he had his aide, Robert Hanson Harrison, write a speech for him that simply reiterated and expressed general approval of the points made by the chiefs, two of which repeated the requests made by Captain White Eyes in 1776. The fourth was a request for school teachers, and the fifth was the following.

5th. That the said Delaware Nation have established a Town where numbers of them have embraced Christianity under the Instruction of the Reverend and worthy Mr David Ziesberger whose honest zealous Labours & good Examples have Induced many of them to listen to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which has been a means of introducing considerable order, Regularity and love of Peace into the Minds of the whole Nation — the[y] therefore hope Congress will countenance & promote the Mission of this Gentleman, so far away as they may deem expedient; and they may rely that the Delaware Nation will afford every encouragement thereto in their power.(6)

This is the paragraph from Washington’s address containing the quote used by Barton:

Brothers: I am glad you have brought three of the Children of your principal Chiefs to be educated with us. I am sure Congress will open the Arms of love to them, and will look upon them as their own Children, and will have them educated accordingly. This is a great mark of your confidence and of your desire to preserve the friendship between the Two Nations to the end of time, and to become One people with your Brethren of the United States. My ears hear with pleasure the other matters you mention. Congress will be glad to hear them too. You do well to wish to learn our arts and ways of life, and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ. These will make you a greater and happier people than you are. Congress will do every thing they can to assist you in this wise intention; and to tie the knot of friendship and union so fast, that nothing shall ever be able to loose it.(7)

After delivering the address, Washington quickly sent a copy of it to Congress, accompanied by the following letter.

The deputies from the Delaware Nation arrived at Head Quarters two days ago. They presented me with a long memorial on various points, which they intend to present also to Congress. I was a little at a loss what answer to give and could have wished they had made their first application there. But as an answer could not be avoided, I thought it safest to couch it in general but friendly terms and refer them to Congress for a more particular one. Though there is reason to believe, they have not adhered very scrupulously to their pretended friendship, it appeared to me to be our present policy at least to conciliate; and in this spirit my answer was conceived. I hope I may not have deviated from the views of Congress.(8)

In order to give the impression that this address to the Delaware chiefs was just one of many documents in which Washington mentioned Jesus Christ, Barton, employing “The Use of Patent Untruths,” follows that quote with what he claims to be another example.

Furthermore, in one single document (a well-worn, handwritten prayer book found among Washington’s personal writings after his death), the name ‘Jesus Christ’ was used directly sixteen times; it also appeared numerous additional times in varied forms (e.g., ‘Jesus,’ ‘Lord Jesus,’ etc.).

The prayer book referred to by Barton is mentioned or quoted from in a number of other religious right American history books, and appears on countless websites. Tim LaHaye, in his book Faith of Our Founding Fathers, includes several pages of prayers from it, introduced by this statement.

That President George Washington was a devout believer in Jesus Christ and had accepted Him as His Lord and Savior is easily demonstrated by a reading of his personal prayer book (written in his own handwriting), which was discovered in 1891 among a collection of his papers. To date no historian has questioned its authenticity. It consists of twenty-four pages of his morning and evening prayers, revealing many of his theological beliefs about God, Jesus Christ, sin, salvation, eternal life, and himself as a humble servant of Christ.

William Federer, in his book America’s God and Country: Encyclopedia of Quotations, also includes the prayers, introducing them with the following:

In 1752, George Washington created a personal prayer book, consisting of 24 pages in his field notebook, in his own handwriting…

Barton, like LaHaye and Federer, simply ignores the fact that the Washington prayer book was long ago determined to be a fake. LaHaye’s claim that no historian to date has questioned its authenticity is ridiculous. Historians began questioning its authenticity as soon as its discovery was reported.

The prayer book, first published in 1891, was found by Stan V. Henkel in a trunk owned at that time by Lawrence Washington. Henkel, a Philadelphia auctioneer, was preparing for a sale of Washington artifacts that had been passed down to Lawrence Washington and three other Washington family descendants. Lawrence Washington told Henkel that the contents of the trunk had already been rejected by the Smithsonian Institution, but Henkel wanted to examine them anyway. Henkel looked at the prayer book, and, in spite of its rejection by the Smithsonian, claimed that it was in the handwriting of George Washington at twenty years old. A facsimile of the book was published by Henkel under the title Fac-Simile of Manuscript Prayer-Book by George Washington, and the original manuscript was sold to a New York collector for $1,250.

Among the historians to question the prayer book’s authenticity was Rupert Hughes. In his 1926 book George Washington: The Human Being and the Hero, the first volume of his three volume biography of Washington, Hughes presented side by side images of the handwriting from the prayer book and examples from authentic Washington documents from the period in which the prayer book was allegedly written. It doesn’t take a handwriting expert to see that they weren’t written by the same person. But, the handwriting samples used by Rupert Hughes for his comparison were from 1748 (age sixteen) and 1757 (age twenty-five), allowing his critics to assert that there was a possibility that Washington’s handwriting at age twenty differed from these samples, and might still match the prayer book. A number of other historians, however, including Worthington C. Ford, the editor of the second major collection of Washington’s writings, also determined that the book was not in Washington’s handwriting. A more recent handwriting comparison can be found in the 2005 book The Ways of Providence: Religion & George Washington, by Frank E. Grizzard, Jr. of the University of Virginia. Grizzard uses a sample of Washington’s handwriting at exactly age twenty, which, of course, is no closer to that in the prayer book than the slightly earlier and later samples used by Hughes.

1. Political Speeches of Robert G. Ingersoll, (New York: C.P. Farrell, 1914), 63.
2. The Works of Robert G. Ingersoll, vol. 1, (New York: C.P. Farrell, 1900), 200-201.
3. Political Speeches of Robert G. Ingersoll, (New York: C.P. Farrell, 1914), 74.
4. ibid., title page.
5. Worthington C. Ford, ed., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, vol. 4, (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1906), 266-267.
6. Speech of Delawares to Washington and Congress, May 10th, 1779, Collections of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, vol. 23, (Madison, WI: The Society, 1915), 319-320.
7. Speech to the Delaware Chiefs, May 12, 1779, John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799, vol. 15, (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1936), 55.
8. George Washington to Congress, May 14, 1779, ibid., 78-79.

Other Parts of this Series:

Part 2
Part 3



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  1. 1
    Lord Elmo Bringer Of Death

    Did you see Barton on The Daily Show on Tuesday? I was extremely disappointed in Stewart. He seemed utterly unaware of the extent of Barton’s revisionism.

  2. 2
    John Horstman

    Does David Barton simply lack all self-awareness (his latest book title has to be the most hilariously and unintentionally ironic title ever), have super-human powers for maintaining cognitive dissonance, or is he simply knowingly lying his ass off, constantly? I can’t think of any other possibilities.

  3. 3
    Lou Doench

    @Lord Elmo, Barton is a master of the gish gallop, and Stewart is not a great interviewer when it comes to people who are intentionally trying to deceive him.

  4. 4
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    I just took the time to re-read part one before reading parts two and three. Time well spent, I think. Chris, you are as good at history as Barton is awful, so thanks for taking the time to fact-check his propaganda.

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