I hate when the front page of FTB shows two “Sunday Funnies” posts in a row under the banner for my blog because that means I haven’t posted anything else all week. There’s always a good reason that I haven’t had time to post — either something big is blowing up at MRFF or I’m so busy writing something else that I ignore my blog. In this case, it’s been the latter — I’ve been busy finishing up the next volume of my debunking of David Barton’s The Jefferson Lies, which I’ve had to put aside way too many times because of stuff blowing up at MRFF.
This next volume, which I’m now in the final stages of getting out there, debunks all the lies in the chapter of Barton’s book titled ” Lie #5: Thomas Jefferson Advocated a Secular Public Square through the Separation of Church and State.” As you can probably guess from that title, this chapter is jam packed with lies about Jefferson promoting religion throughout his four decade political career.
So, since my book is just about finished, and also because I really hate when the FTB front page shows two “Sunday Funnies” posts in a row from me, I’m posting a preview of my book. (I have not yet done the final edits or made the corrections to this section from my proofreaders, so ignore any typos or other flaws. They’ll all be fixed in the book.)
The One About
Jefferson’s 1774 Prayer Day Proclamation
BARTON’S LIE: It was Jefferson who introduced the measure in the Virginia legislature calling for a day of fasting and prayer in 1774.
THE TRUTH: Jefferson was just one of a number of the younger members of the Virginia legislature who formed an impromptu committee that, as he put it, “cooked up” a proclamation for a fast day. And, it wasn’t Jefferson who introduced the fast day in the legislature. Why? Because the committee members were concerned that the suggestion of a fast day might not pass if it came from them. They knew that nobody was going to buy that these young radicals, not even the quite religious Patrick Henry, were proposing this fast day out of genuine religious devotion. It would be obvious that they were merely using a fast day as a way of jolting the people of Virginia into an awareness of the seriousness of what was going on in Massachusetts. So, they got an older member of the legislature to introduce it, one who Jefferson described as having a “grave and religious character” that was “more in unison” with the tone of the proclamation that he and the younger members of the legislature had cooked up.
Referring to the Trade Act of 1774, also known as the Boston Port Act, under which the British were about to shut down the Port of Boston in response to the Boston Tea Party, Barton writes:
The blockade was to take effect on June 1, 1774. Upon hearing of this Jefferson introduced a measure in the Virginia legislature calling for a day of fasting and prayer to be observed on that same day “devoutly to implore the Divine interposition in behalf of an injured and oppressed people.” He also recommended that legislators “Proceed with the Speaker and the Mace to the Church … and that the Reverend Mr. Price be appointed to read prayers, and the Reverend Mr. Gwatkin to preach a sermon suitable to the occasion.” Additionally, Jefferson went home to his local church community in Monticello urging them also to arrange a special day of prayer and worship at “the new church on Hardware River” – a service which Jefferson attended.
Barton, of course, makes this all about Jefferson. In his version of the story, this fast day proclamation was solely Jefferson’s idea, with Jefferson writing it, and Jefferson introducing it in the Virginia legislature. He also has Jefferson urging “his local church community in Monticello” (whatever he means by that) to hold a fast day, as if this were something separate or in addition to the fast day proclaimed by the legislature.
Not surprisingly, Jefferson’s own account of how this fast day came about is quite a bit different from Barton’s version.
When the Boston Port Act was passed by the British Parliament in 1774, the Virginia legislature needed to make the people of Virginia understand that the actions of the British against the distant colony of Massachusetts affected all of the colonies, not just Massachusetts.
Jefferson and six or seven other members of the legislature got together and decided that proclaiming a fast day would be the best way to wake the people up and get their attention. The reason that proclaiming a fast day would be so effective was that it would be so unusual. There would be Virginians who were then adults who wouldn’t even have been born yet or would have been too young to remember the last time it was done. Jefferson himself had only been about twelve years old. While proclamations of fast days and thanksgiving days were a common tradition in New England, they were a rare occurrence in the south. The last time it had been done in Virginia was the French and Indian War, when the legislature needed to get the word out that the war had started even though it hadn’t officially been declared yet. Jefferson and his fellow committee members knew that if the Virginia legislature called for a fast day – something it hadn’t done in two decades – the people would know that something really big was happening.
As Jefferson described it in his autobiography:
The next event which excited our sympathies for Massachusetts, was the Boston port bill, by which that port was to be shut up on the 1st of June, 1774. This arrived while we were in session in the spring of that year. The lead in the House, on these subjects, being no longer left to the old members, Mr. Henry, R. H. Lee, Fr. L. Lee, three or four other members, whom I do not recollect, and myself, agreeing that we must boldly take an unequivocal stand in the line with Massachusetts, determined to meet and consult on the proper measures, in the council chamber, for the benefit of the library in that room. We were under conviction of the necessity of arousing our people from the lethargy into which they had fallen, as to passing events; and thought that the appointment of a day of general fasting and prayer would be most likely to call up and alarm their attention. No example of such a solemnity had existed since the days of our distresses in the war of ’55, since which a new generation had grown up. With the help, therefore, of Rushworth, whom we rummaged over for the revolutionary precedents and forms of the Puritans of that day, preserved by him, we cooked up a resolution, somewhat modernizing their phrases, for appointing the 1st day of June, on which the port-bill was to commence, for a day of fasting, humiliation and prayer, to implore heaven to avert from us the evils of civil war, to inspire us with firmness in support of our rights, and to turn the hearts of the King and Parliament to moderation and justice.(1)
Barton, in his attempt to make this entire fast day thing solely about Jefferson, claims that it was Jefferson who introduced the measure, but according to Jefferson it was introduced by Robert Carter Nicholas, for the reasons already explained:
To give greater emphasis to our proposition, we agreed to wait the next morning on Mr. Nicholas, whose grave and religious character was more in unison with the tone of our resolution, and to solicit him to move it. We accordingly went to him in the morning. He moved it the same day; the 1st of June was proposed; and it passed without opposition.(2)
The royal governor, Lord Dunmore, certainly saw this fast day proclamation for what it was, as is clear from his letters to the Earl of Dartmouth. The Earl of Dartmouth, William Legge, was Britain’s Secretary of State for the Colonies, a position created in 1768 specifically to deal with the increasingly problematic American colonists. As Dunmore wrote to Legge, the fast day proclamation was, more than anything, a declaration of support for the rebellious colonists of Massachusetts, and it being “intended by the solemnity of a public fasting and praying” was:
… to prepare the minds of the people to receive other resolutions of the house, the purport of which I am not informed of, but from such a beginning may be naturally concluded could tend only to inflame the whole country, and instigate the people to acts that might rouse the indignation of the mother country against them …(3)
Was Lord Dunmore right? Was the real purpose of this fast day to gain support for the more radical resolutions that Jefferson and the other young members of the House of Burgesses were trying to gain support for? Well, it certainly seems so from the actions of Jefferson and John Walker, the other member of the House of Burgesses from Albemarle County, once the fast day proclamation was issued. We’ll get to that in a minute, but first, there is something else in Dunmore’s letter to Legge that supports what Jefferson wrote about getting an older, more conservative and religious member of the legislature to introduce the fast day idea out of concern that it would pass if it came from one of the younger radicals. Dunmore told Legge that many of the members of the legislature told him that “the hasty manner the measure was proposed and agreed to, did not advert to the whole force of the terms” of the proclamation, and “if it had, it is believed a strong opposition would have been made to it, and probably that it might have met a different fate.”(4)
Starting to get the picture? This fast day proclamation was not an act of religious devotion on the part of Jefferson or anyone else who was in on the scheme. It was a purely political move, and one that even required a bit of trickery to get it passed by the House of Burgesses. It was a strategy to get the people of Virginia riled up in order to gain support for the drastic measures that Jefferson and his fellow radicals wanted to take. In addition to getting an older, more conservative member of the House, who had a “grave and religious character,” to introduce it, it had to be done so fast that those who might vote against it didn’t really have time to think too much about what they were actually voting for.
Lord Dunmore was absolutely right when he speculated that the real goal of the fast day was “to prepare the minds of the people to receive other resolutions of the house.” So, in order to stop the kind of resolutions that he feared the fast day was designed to “prepare the minds of the people” for – such as revolutions to cut off trade with Britain in retaliation against the closing of the Port of Boston and the other Intolerable Acts – Lord Dunmore immediately dissolved the House of Burgesses. The House, however, had no intention of ceasing to meet, which brings us up to the part of Barton’s version of the story where Jefferson “went home to his local church community in Monticello urging them also to arrange a special day of prayer and worship at ‘the new church on Hardware River.’”
Barton’s version of the story makes it sound as if this day of prayer in Jefferson’s home county was something separate from and in addition to the fast day called for by the House of Burgesses. It wasn’t. What Barton is quoting is the notice that Jefferson and John Walker put out to their constituents telling them where and when the fast day called for by the House of Burgesses would be observed in their county, just as the representatives from all of the counties did in their home counties.
As Jefferson wrote in his autobiography:
We returned home, and in our several counties invited the clergy to meet assemblies of the people on the 1st of June, to perform the ceremonies of the day, and to address to them discourses suited to the occasion. The people met generally, with anxiety and alarm in their countenance, and the effect of the day thro’ the whole colony was like a shock of electricity, arousing every man and placing him erect and solidly on his centre. They chose, universally, delegates for the convention. Being elected one for my county, I prepared a drought of instructions to be given to the delegates whom we should send to the Congress, which I meant to propose at our meeting.(5)
Although Jefferson gives the date of June 1 in his autobiography, the fast day was observed in the various counties on different days through June and July. Jefferson and John Walker chose Saturday, July 23 for their county. Why a date so long after June 1? Because the county election was July 26. That’s why, as you’ll notice in what he wrote, Jefferson jumps right from describing the effect of the fast day to his being elected as one of the delegates for the convention as if they were a cause and effect. They were. That was the plan.
When Lord Dunmore dissolved the House of Burgesses for declaring its support for the rebellious colonists of Massachusetts via its fast day proclamation, the members of the House decided to reconvene on August 1 at the Raleigh Tavern in Williamsburg for the first of what would end up being five conventions that were held over the next two years. Jefferson and Walker not only had to be chosen to represent their county at this convention, but needed the county freeholders to agree to their radical agenda. Unlike today, representatives back then took the obligation to act according to the wishes of the people who elected them very seriously. The goal was to get the freeholders of their county to be all fired up by Charles Clay’s “sermon suited to the occasion” – “to prepare the minds of the people to receive other resolutions of the house,” as Lord Dunmore put it. The only thing that changed was that, with the House of Burgesses dissolved by Dunmore, these resolutions were going to come from the August 1 convention.
The plan worked like a charm. On July 26, three days after the observation of the fast day, the freeholders of Albemarle County passed their own resolutions (drafted by Jefferson), which included stopping imports from Great Britain until the act closing the port of Boston and all of the other objectionable acts of Parliament were repealed. In addition to the specific resolutions, the freeholders agreed to “concur in these or any other measures which such convention or such congress shall adopt as most expedient for the American good.”(6) And, naturally, Jefferson and Walker were chosen to represent their county at the convention.
Now, knowing the real story of this 1774 call for a day of fasting, let’s take another look at Barton’s version to see how many things he distorts in his one short paragraph about it.
He turns Jefferson into the sole person behind writing and introducing the fast day, although Jefferson clearly states in his autobiography that he was only one of a group of six or seven who “cooked up” the fast day resolution, and that it was Robert Carter Nicholas who introduced it. The only reason he gives for Jefferson wanting to hold the fast day was “devoutly to implore the Divine interposition in behalf of an injured and oppressed people,” although the writings of both Jefferson and Lord Dunmore make it quite clear that the real motivation behind the fast day was political and not religious. He implies that the observation of the fast day in Jefferson’s home county was an unrelated, additional fast day called for by Jefferson, although the notice put out by Jefferson and Walker makes it clear that this was just that county’s observance of the fast day called for by the House of Burgesses, with that notice beginning: “The members of the late house of Burgesses having taken into their consideration the dangers impending over British America from the hostile invasion of a sister colony, thought proper that it should be recommended to the several parishes in this colony …” He implies that Jefferson was a devout member of his local church by saying that Jefferson “went home to local church community in Monticello,” although there was no church community in Monticello. The “new church on Hardware River” was the Forge Church, about ten miles away from Monticello, and the reason stated by Jefferson and Walker for choosing this church was because it was “thought the most centrical to the parishioners in General.”(7) Barton doesn’t quote that part of the sentence, although it immediately follows the only words he does quote from that part of the notice – “the new church on Hardware River.” Now, why would Barton make a specific point of quoting only these completely insignificant words? Well, because putting this unnecessary fact in quotation marks lets him stick an endnote number next to it, which helps keep up the impression that everything he’s saying is coming from original sources. See how easily Barton changes an entire story in just a single paragraph?
Now, the two sources I’ve mentioned and cited that make it completely obvious that this 1774 fast day was a political strategy had nothing to do with religious devotion are the letters written by Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia, when the House of Burgesses issued the fast day resolution, and Thomas Jefferson’s autobiography. Is it possible that Barton is just unaware of these sources and is just making an honest mistake? The answer to that question in an unequivocal no.
In his endnotes, Barton cites The Papers of Thomas Jefferson published by Princeton University Press as the edition of Jefferson’s writings that he used for the snippets he quotes from the notice about the fast day in Jefferson’s county – like “the new church on Hardware River” and “devoutly to implore the Divine interposition in behalf of an injured and oppressed people.” He also cites the same edition for what he quotes from the resolution of the House of Burgesses. This is the same edition of Jefferson’s writings as I’m using.
As anyone familiar with this edition of Jefferson’s writings knows, it is full of lengthy notes that not only cite but often quote the other documents related to the document you’re looking at. In other words, you can’t miss that these other documents explain in detail the document you’re looking at. For example, at the end of the notice that Jefferson and John Walker put out about the date and place of the fast day observation in their county contains the following:
TJ’s Autobiography gives this general account of the proceedings in the counties:
“We returned home, and in our several counties invited the clergy to meet assemblies of the people on the 1st of June [actually at various times in June and July], to perform the ceremonies of the day, and to address to them discourses suited to the occasion. The people met generally, with anxiety and alarm in their countenances, and the effect of the day thro’ the whole colony was like a shock of electricity, arousing every man and placing him erect and solidly on his centre.”
Though the document is conjecturally dated in June by Ford, the Albemarle fast day was evidently fixed by TJ and Walker for 23 July, which was a Saturday. The delay was probably more expedient than necessary, for though TJ did not return to Albemarle very promptly after the Williamsburg proceedings, the fixing of the fast on 23 July was very likely owing to a desire to make a strong impression on the popular mind just before the county election on the 26th.(8)
So, as you can see, Barton was looking right at the quote from Jefferson’s autobiography that clearly says the fast day in his county was the same one called for by the House of Burgesses, and yet he words his version of the story to turn it into Jefferson calling for a separate, additional fast day. As you can also see, this note gives an explanation for Jefferson and Walker delaying their county’s observation of the fast day until July 23, which is also ignored by Barton because it doesn’t fit the story he wants to tell. So, Barton quotes only a completely insignificant phrase from the notice – “the new church on Hardware River” – and another snippet about devoutly imploring Divine interposition, inserting endnote numbers after each of these out of context quotes.
In addition to the two selectively quoted snippets from the notice about the fast day observation in Jefferson’s county, Barton includes a third quote, also accompanied by an endnote number. Here is that sentence from Barton’s paragraph so you don’t have to flip back and find it:
He also recommended that legislators “Proceed with the Speaker and the Mace to the Church … and that the Reverend Mr. Price be appointed to read prayers, and the Reverend Mr. Gwatkin to preach a sermon suitable to the occasion.”
What Barton is quoting from here is the resolution of the House of Burgesses calling for the fast day. Again, he cites The Papers of Thomas Jefferson as his source, and again there is a lengthy note on the page in The Papers of Thomas Jefferson following the document that he completely ignores because it doesn’t fit his version of the story. That note is where you’ll find the source for the letters written by Lord Dunmore that I’ve been quoting throughout this section. Those letters, as you have seen, concur with what Jefferson himself wrote, and provide even more information about the real motivation behind the fast day. Barton could not be unaware of this source because it’s right there on the same page of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson that he would have been looking at to quote the snippet from that page that he selectively quotes.
For anyone who tries to claim that Barton’s factual inaccuracies are not deliberate, intentional lies, but merely innocent mistakes, this is the kind of evidence that proves that they are absolutely not merely innocent mistakes. In writing just this one short paragraph of his book, he not once but twice ignored quotes and information that he had to have seen because they are right there on the very same pages of the book that he is quoting and citing as his source.
Now, getting back to the actual history of this fast day, the reason that The Papers of Thomas Jefferson quotes a letter written by Lord Dunmore in its notes on the House of Burgesses resolution for the fast day was to note that the Reverend Mr. Gwatkin, the minister whom the House of Burgesses said in its resolution was to preach a “sermon suitable to the occasion” on the fast day, refused to preach the sermon. Dunmore, of course, applauded Reverend Gwatkin for his refusal to support the rebellious colonists, writing to William Legge:
… I think it necessary to let your lordship know, that [Gwatkin’s] name was made use of entirely without his knowledge, and that he civilly but with firmness declined being employed for such a purpose, and which proved no little mortification to the party who dictated the measure.(9)
The reason I bring up Lord Dunmore’s letter about the refusal of Rev. Gwatkin to preach a sermon on the fast day is not only to point out that Barton ignores what Dunmore wrote about the fast day resolution, but because it’s important to note that Gwatkin wasn’t the only loyalist minister in Virginia who declined to preach on this fast day.
As we’ll get to in the section on the laws of Virginia, it was the problem of loyalist ministers like Rev. Gwatkin that, in 1777, led Jefferson to do something very un-Jefferson-like – drafting a bill requiring all ministers in Virginia to deliver a sermon suited to the occasion an any day of prayer proclaimed by the legislature or the governor. As you can imagine, Barton has a bit of a different take on Jefferson’s reason for drafting that bill than what was the reality.
1. H.A. Washington, ed., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 1, (Washington, D.C.: Taylor & Maury, 1853), 6-7.
2. Ibid., 7.
3. Lord Dunmore to William Legge, Earl of Dartmouth, May 29, 1774. The Parliamentary History of England, from the Earliest Period to the Year 1803, vol. 18, (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme & Brown, et.al., 1813), 136.
4. Ibid., 136-137.
5. H.A. Washington, ed., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 1, (Washington, D.C.: Taylor & Maury, 1853), 7-8.
6. Julian P. Boyd, ed, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 1, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1950), 177-118.
7. Ibid., 116.
8. Ibid., 117.
9. Lord Dunmore to William Legge, Earl of Dartmouth, June 6, 1774. The Parliamentary History of England, from the Earliest Period to the Year 1803, vol. 18, (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme & Brown, et.al., 1813), 138.