Sep 23 2012

Book Excerpt: Barton’s Lie About Jefferson and Scottish Common Sense

In his book The Jefferson Lies, David Barton relies very heavily on two particular tactics — straw men and anachronisms. In this excerpt from the first installment of my debunking of Barton’s book I expose one of his big anachronisms — that Thomas Jefferson was taught Scottish Common Sense philosophy as part of his own education. Why is this important? Because many of Barton’s subsequent lies in his Jefferson book hinge on him having been taught this philosophy (or, more accurately, what Barton claims this philosophy was). But Jefferson couldn’t have been taught this philosophy (either the real philosophy or Barton’s religified version of it) for the simple reason that this philosophy did not yet exist at the time he was a student.

From my book (now available in paperbackKindle, and Nook versions):


The One About Jefferson and Scottish Common Sense

BARTON’S LIE: Barton claims that Jefferson and the other founders were taught Scottish Common Sense philosophy when they were students, and that Scottish Common Sense was a very religious philosophy that influenced Jefferson greatly.

THE TRUTH: The Scottish Common Sense philosophy didn’t even exist yet at the time that Jefferson and virtually all of the other founders were students, so they couldn’t possibly have been taught it. This philosophy wasn’t published in Scotland until 1764. It was a popular philosophy in American schools in the 1800s, not the 1700s when the founders were students. It also wasn’t the religious philosophy that Barton makes it out to be.

Here’s how Barton skillfully constructs his Scottish Common Sense philosophy lie. He begins by simply mentioning that Dr. William Small, the professor at William and Mary whom Jefferson credited with turning his life around, was Scottish. Barton writes:

Scottish instructor Dr. William Small, the son of a Presbyterian minister, was Jefferson’s favorite instructor. Jefferson later acknowledged: “It was my great good fortune, and what probably fixed the destinies of my life, that Dr. William Small of Scotland, was then professor.”

Barton also subtly implies that there was something religious about Dr. Small by saying that his father was a minister, and by pointing out that William and Mary was a “religious school affiliated with the Anglican Church.” But, although Dr. Small’s father was a minister, Dr. Small himself was not. In fact, he was the only professor at William and Mary at the time that Jefferson was a student there who wasn’t a minister, and that’s who Jefferson immediately latched onto.

Barton has now planted the first seed of his lie – emphasizing the fact that Dr. Small was Scottish. He then continues:

Interestingly, many of the best instructors in early America were Scottish clergymen. As noted historian George Marsden affirmed, “[I]t is not much of an exaggeration to say that outside of New England, the Scots were the educators of eighteenth-century America.”

Okay, let’s stop here for a minute and take a look at Barton’s quote from George Marsden, who is, in fact, a noted historian who has written a number of books on religion in America. What Marsden says in his book about the Scottish influence on American education is absolutely true. Marsden, like Barton, doesn’t think there’s enough religion in education, but, unlike Barton, Marsden is a real historian who presents history accurately and doesn’t lie to advance an agenda. What Barton does is to take a fragment of a sentence from Marsden’s book out of context to fit his lie.

Here’s the whole sentence from Marsden’s book (emphasis mine):

So extensive was the Presbyterian educational program that it is not much of an exaggeration to say that, outside of New England, the Scots were the educators of eighteenth-century America.5

See how Barton omitted the beginning of Marsden’s sentence? That’s because Marsden was talking about the Presbyterian educational program. This is the wrong denomination for Barton’s story. The official church in Virginia at the time that the founders were students was, of course, the Anglican Church. Barton has just said that William and Mary was a “religious school affiliated with the Anglican Church” where “Jefferson’s daily routine … included morning and evening prayers from the Book of Common Prayer with lengthy Scripture readings” (which, of course, says absolutely nothing about whether or not Jefferson wanted to participate in these mandatory religious exercises). For Barton’s story to work, that pesky Presbyterian part of Marsden’s sentence has to go, so he just chops it off.

After misquoting Marsden, Barton continues:

These Scottish instructors regularly tutored students in what was known as the Scottish Common Sense philosophy – a method under which not only Jefferson but also other notable Virginia founding fathers were trained, including George Washington, James Madison, George Mason, Peyton Randolph, Richard Henry Lee, and Thomas Nelson.

Really? All of these founding fathers were trained in the Scottish Common Sense philosophy by their Scottish instructors? Did they have a time machine? Because that’s the only way that Barton’s claim could possibly be true. The Scottish Common Sense philosophy wasn’t even published until 1764. With the possible exception of James Madison, who was quite a bit younger than the other founders listed by Barton, none of these founders could have been taught this philosophy in school for the simple reason that it didn’t exist yet when they were in school.

In 1764, when this philosophy was first published in Scotland, Peyton Randolph was forty-three years old; George Mason was thirty-nine; George Washington and Richard Henry Lee were both thirty-two; and Thomas Nelson was twenty-six. Obviously, all five of these founders, claimed by Barton to have been taught this philosophy by their Scottish teachers, were well beyond school age by the time this philosophy was published.

So, what about Thomas Jefferson? He was twenty-one in 1764. This makes him much too old to have been trained in this philosophy by his Scottish boyhood teachers, but could he have been taught it in college by his Scottish professor William Small? Well, no. Jefferson graduated from William and Mary in 1762, two years before it was published. David Barton is either hopelessly chronologically challenged here or he’s lying. I’m going with the latter.

Before going any further into the intricate web of Barton’s Scottish Common Sense lie – a lie on which many of his further lies hinge – a little understanding of who a few of the Scottish Enlightenment philosophers were might be helpful, so let’s get that out of the way.

Francis Hutcheson is considered the father of the Scottish Enlightenment, which began in the mid-1700s. Hutcheson’s first publications came out in the late 1720s, with his major works coming out in the 1740s and 1750s. Hutcheson was a Presbyterian, but differed theologically from Presbyterians like Princeton University president John Witherspoon in that Hutcheson was a moderate (or non-evangelical) Presbyterian. As Greg Marsden explained in that same book that Barton quoted out of context earlier,Witherspoon didn’t think he had to agree with Hutcheson’s theology in order to accept his philosophy. Witherspoon viewed moral philosophy as a science, and, unlike most of the New England Congregationalist clergy, did not see a conflict between the science of moral philosophy and his religion.

David Hume was a secularist, whose religious beliefs would probably best be described as agnostic. He was born in 1711, and published his first work in 1739. Hume’s religious beliefs (or lack thereof) caused him to be denied the Chair of Moral Philosophy at Edinburgh, although he had the support of some moderate Presbyterians. But in spite of that setback he started to become very widely read and influential in the 1740s and 1750s.

Thomas Reid, the author of the Scottish Common Sense philosophy, was a Presbyterian minister, but like Hutcheson, was a moderate Presbyterian. Although Reid was born in 1710, making him almost the same age as David Hume, he was much older when he published his work. While Hume began publishing in 1739 at the age of twenty-eight, Reid didn’t publish his Enquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense until 1764, when he was fifty-four.

What needs to be kept in mind here as you read about this whole Scottish Common Sense thing is that this series of lies is really just part of Barton laying the groundwork for the whopper that he’s building up to – that Thomas Jefferson rejected all of the secular Enlightenment writers, and only embraced the Christian ones. But first he needs to throw in a few more smaller lies.

For a little more reinforcement of the ‘all-the-founders-were-educated-the-same-by-Scottish-clergymen-teachers’ component of his story, Barton next presents an out-of-context and heavily edited quote from historian Gaillard Hunt:

One reason why the ruling class in Virginia acted with such unanimity [during the Revolution] … was that a large proportion of them had received the same kind of education. This usually came first from clergymen.

What Barton is (mis)quoting here is from Hunt’s The Life of James Madison. Barton is using this quote to bolster his contention that all of the founders had the same kind of education, even though the point that Hunt was actually making was that Madison didn’t have the same kind of education as the other prominent founders from Virginia. Madison’s early education was not from a clergyman, and he didn’t go to William and Mary. As Hunt wrote, Madison’s “rudimentary schooling came from a Scotchman who was not a divine.”6 But the main point that Hunt was making about the similarity of the education of these prominent founders wasn’t even that it “usually first came from clergymen,” which Barton presents as if it were not just the main point – but the only point. Hunt’s point was just that so many of the prominent founders from Virginia attended William and Mary, but that Madison was the oddball who didn’t. Here’s the beginning of the paragraph as Hunt actually wrote it:

One reason why the ruling class in Virginia acted with such unanimity in the Convention of 1776 and other crises of the Revolution was that a large proportion of them had received the same kind of education. This usually came first from clergymen of the established church, who added to the scanty subsistence of their livings by teaching. Happily, these were the better class of parsons, the others not having the industry or stability necessary for the task. From this schooling the regular course was to go to “Their Majesties’ Royal College of William and Mary,” which was one of the four chief colleges of the colonies, the other three being Harvard, Yale and Princeton. To call the names of notable Virginians in the Revolution is almost to call a roll of graduates of William and Mary.7

Once he’s sufficiently established in his readers’ minds (with one anachronism, one deceptive implication, and two misrepresented quotes) that Jefferson and the other founders were all taught this Scottish Common Sense philosophy by their clergymen teachers, Barton presents his definition of what this philosophy was. According to Barton:

The Scottish Common Sense approach was developed by the Rev. Thomas Reid (1710-1796) to counter the skepticism of stridently secular European writers and philosophers such as Hume, Rousseau, Voltaire, and Malby. Reid’s approach argued that common sense should shape philosophy rather than philosophy shaping common sense. He asserted that normal, everyday language could express philosophical principles in a way that could be understood by ordinary individuals rather than just so-called elite thinkers and philosophers.

The principle tenets of Scottish Common Sense philosophy were straightforward:

1. There is a God

2. God placed into every individual a conscience – a moral sense written on his or her heart (cf. Jeremiah 31:33; Romans 2:14-15; Hebrews 8:10; 10:16; etc.)

3. God established “first principles” in areas such as law, government, education, politics, and economics, and these first principles could be discovered by the use of common sense

4. There is no conflict between reason and revelation. Both come directly from God, and revelation fortifies and clarifies reason

Where on earth Barton got these hyper-religious “principle tenets of Scottish Common Sense philosophy” from is anyone’s guess, but it’s obvious what he’s trying to do. He needs to make the differing schools of philosophical thought a simple matter of religion vs. atheism. (Keep in mind that this is all leading up to Barton’s bigger lie that Jefferson rejected all of the secular Enlightenment philosophers and only embraced the religious ones.)

Yes, the Scottish Common Sense philosophy was developed by a Christian minister, but it wasn’t a religious philosophy. It was just a philosophy that didn’t conflict with religion. This philosophy was also known as Common Sense Realism. It was known as realism because it countered idealism. Idealism says that reality only exists as our minds perceive it. So, if our minds perceive something differently, then the thing itself is different. It’s easy to see how this could conflict with religion. It would mean that if one’s perception of god changes, then god himself changes, which would be unacceptable to someone who believes that god is unchangeable. Realism, on the other hand, says that things exist independently of the mind’s perception of them. So, realism doesn’t conflict with the Christian belief of an unchanging god. Problem solved for the Christians who wanted to get all philosophical.

To Thomas Reid, all of the idealist philosophies led to skepticism. The reason Reid thought the idealist philosophies led to skepticism was that they asserted that some human knowledge is impossible, therefore all knowledge should be doubted. Reid’s Common Sense Realism counters this by saying that there are absolutes, or “first principles,” that are always true and not dependent on anything else, a concept that goes all the way back to Aristotle.

Reid’s 1764 work introducing his philosophy, An Inquiry Into the Human Mind, on the Principles of Common Sense, really didn’t have anything to do with religion, other than that he had developed a philosophy that didn’t conflict with his religious beliefs or pose any danger of leading to skepticism. The bulk of Reid’s 1764 work was about the way in which our five senses perceive things, how our minds process the information acquired through our senses, and that this is the same for every person with all five senses intact (hence, “common” sense). The chapters of his work were titled “Of Smelling,” “Of Hearing,” etc.8

Now, we need to go back for a minute to the anachronism part of Barton’s Scottish Common Sense lie. Immediately after presenting his completely religified list of what he claims were the “principle tenets” of this philosophy, Barton writes:

This is the philosophy under which Jefferson was educated at William and Mary.

Barton is now reminding his readers that Jefferson’s favorite professor at William and Mary, Dr. Small, was Scottish. But remember that book by historian George Marsden that Barton misquoted earlier? Well, Marsden actually says right there in that book that the philosophy taught by Dr. Small was that of Francis Hutcheson. Did Barton somehow just not see that Marsden very clearly said that the philosophy taught by Dr. Small was Hutcheson’s while he was plucking his misquote from the same one-page long section of Marsden’s book where Marsden said this?

Here’s what Marsden wrote, and Barton ignored:

Small, the only layman at the school, was professor of mathematics but also taught the moral philosophy of Francis Hutcheson. Jefferson attributed to Small his own intellectual awakening to modern science and learning.9

Now, as I already mentioned, Francis Hutcheson, whose philosophy Jefferson actually was taught by Dr. Small, was a moderate Presbyterian like Thomas Reid. But Hutcheson was also a great influence on the secularists David Hume and Adam Smith (best known as the author of The Wealth of Nations). Smith rejected Christianity and became a deist, even going as far as saying that theism might eventually disappear altogether.

But wait! John Witherspoon – the prominent Presbyterian minister and signer of the Declaration of Independence who Barton constantly holds up as the big theological influence on all the founders who went to Princeton – also taught the philosophy of Hutcheson, even though he disagreed with the theology of the moderate Presbyterians. Either David Barton is wrong that the differing Enlightenment philosophies were a simple matter of religion vs. atheism and secularism or the Rev. John Witherspoon was teaching a philosophy that spawned secularists and deists like Hume and Smith! I’m gonna go with David Barton being wrong.


5. George M. Marsden, The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 59.
6. Gaillard Hunt, The Life of James Madison, (New York: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1902), 14
7. Ibid., 13.
8. Thomas Reid, D.D., An Inquiry Into the Human Mind, on the Principles of Common Sense, (London: Printer for T. Cadell, et. al., 1769).
9. George M. Marsden, The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 60.



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  1. 1

    Thank you, Chris, for writing this and “Liars for Jesus.” I’m going away now to read and learn! Looking forward to the next installment.

  2. 2

    Thank you for this break down. I look forward to reading the book.
    Back in the day, Republicans used to wail and moan about the “atheist secular gov’ment”. But the concept didn’t align with their extreme patriotism. Now they spin history to show that the government is christian and has been from the beginning. This way the right wingers can have their extreme religious views and the super patriotism (love it or leave it) all it one package.

  3. 3

    Realism, on the other hand, says that things exist independently of the mind’s perception of them. So, realism doesn’t conflict with the Christian belief of an unchanging god. Problem solved for the Christians who wanted to get all philosophical.

    Right up until the moment that the observed nature of reality conflicted with the narrative of the Bible or the existence of God. Pernicious thing, that skepticism. ;)

    Great post, Chris.

  4. 4

    I’ve now read a bit of this and it is definitely worth the price. Very readable.

  5. 5

    Excellent post; I will be sure to get your book.

    I very much like your description of Common Sense philosophy. For readers who want a nice introduction to Thomas Reid and the context in which he was writing, I recommend the following podcast:


  6. 6
    Nick Gotts

    It’s interesting that the three “Scottish Enlightenment” thinkers whose work had most subsequent influence were all non-Christians: the agnostic or atheist David Hume, and the deists Adam Smith and James Hutton.

  7. 7

    Chris wrote Where on earth Barton got these hyper-religious “principle tenets of Scottish Common Sense philosophy” from is anyone’s guess?

    Biblical inerrancy espoused by Hutcheson, Reid, and Witherspoon, is no mystery. The fundamentals of Christian Theology is not religious the way secular society understands it.

  8. 8

    Personally I have a problem that your footnotes are not from historical documents. You are relying on another writers opinion?
    Just remember, any time you read anything, you have to do your own research. Don’t rely on some book or blog, to discredit a writer, just because it fits into your agenda. The intelligent person always desires more information.( Even if it changes your mind or makes you look at things differently)

  9. 9
    Chris Rodda

    @ douronresch … Huh? How am I relying on another writer’s opinion? My footnotes for the books by Marsden and Hunt are the sources that Barton misquoted in his book and I put back in context in my book. They’re exactly the same footnotes that Barton used in his book when he misquoted these two authors!

    And my footnote to Thomas Reid is to the edition of his book from 1769. Barton made up a bogus version of what Reid’s philosophy was and had NO footnote for it. I said what Reid’s philosophy actually was and have a footnote from the 1769 edition of his book. How is that not an original source?

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